Jarama Series: Dead Mule Trench
In the Jarama Series, The Volunteer Blog will present a series of articles examining the experiences of volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from its formation to the Brunete Offensive in July 1937. Articles will focus both on the battalion’s formation as well as on the individuals who served. These articles are intended to provide the reader with a better appreciation of the men and women who made up the first American combat formation in Spain.
Dead Mule Trench
On March 14, 1937, Nationalist forces launched an attack along the sector of the Jarama Front held by the XV International Brigade. Moorish Troops backed by Fiat tanks struck the trenches of the La Pasionaria Battalion adjacent to the XV BDE’s lines. The Passionaria Battalion, composed primarily of quintos (conscripts), broke and fell back in panic.[i] Elements of the British Battalion of the XV BDE closest to the attack retreated.[ii] The Republican forces were faced with a serious crisis as the Nationalists were on the brink of a break-through. Quick action by Lincoln volunteers and the appearance of Soviet T-26 tanks averted a potential rupture of the lines.
When the attack occurred, most of the Lincoln Battalion leadership was in the rear for a Brigade officer’s call. It was the NCOs who organized the men and directed fire against the flanks of the second wave of Moors advancing across no-man’s land. Even Lincolns serving sentences in the punitive labor coy dropped their shovels, picked up rifles, and joined the firing line. While the Lincolns engaged the advancing Moorish infantry, the T-26 tanks fired their 45mm cannon at the Fiats. The intervention of Soviet armor was decisive and caused the machine-gun-armed Italian armor to break off the attack and retreat hastily. Without tank support the follow-on wave of Moorish infantry also retreated. This left the first wave of Moorish infantry, who successfully broke into the Republican lines, isolated without support.
The Lincoln officers rushed back to the trenches and organized bombing parties to launch a counter attack. Armed with grenades, the bombing parties moved along the trenches. The trenches were dug in a zig-zag configuration to ensure that an enemy could not enfilade the line if they occupied a section. As the bombing parties reached each angle of the occupied trench line. One soldier would throw a grenade around the corner while riflemen covered him. This caused the Moorish troops to either retreat or climb out of the trenches. Those who climbed out of the trenches were cut down by waiting sharpshooters.[iii]
The Lincoln’s bombing parties, accompanied by several British officers, successfully pushed the Moors out of much of the trench system. At a point marked by the skeleton of a mule, the counter attack ran out of steam. British Battalion Commander Jock Cunningham was shot down after climbing over the lip of the trench to obtain a better shot.[iv] As his party carried Cunningham to the rear, they passed soldiers from the rallied Passionaria Battalion constructing a blocking position to pinch off the Nationalist salient.[v]
At the end of the day, the Nationalist forces still held 150 meter section of the front-line trench.[vi] While the action was small in scale casualties included key leaders Liam Tumlinson and Robert Wolk. Tumlinson, an Irish volunteer, commanded the Lincoln Machine Gun Company, and was killed by a sniper while he was attempting to find a favorable position to place his guns. Robert Wolk the Adjutant Commander of the Infantry Company was wounded while taking part in a bombing party. Despite being evacuated to hospital he died on March 23 in the hospital in Murcia.[vii] Robert Raven and Max Krauthamer are the only enlisted casualties documented.[viii] Raven was severely wounded by grenade fragments that peppered his legs and destroyed his eye sight. After recovering from his leg wounds he was sent back to the United States, promoted to Lieutenant and became one of the most effective fundraisers for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB).
From left to right: Francis J. Gorman, President of the United Textile Workers of America; Lieut. Robert Raven, wounded and blinded in Spain; and Commander Paul Burns in Washington, D.C., Feb 12, 1938 for the First National Conference of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Wikipedia Commons.
By Rex Pitkin
Among Friends, v.1, n.1, Winter 1938, pp. 16, 21-22.
High words these, but they don’t begin to tell the story. Words are cold, stereotyped, and inadequate when you begin to describe Robert Raven.
He is blind and unable to walk. He is a young man who has made the greatest personal sacrifice.
Robert Raven wanted to become a doctor. He worked twelve hours a day as male attendant at the Montefiore Hospital while a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
From seven each evening to seven each morning. Bob scrubbed floors, hauled oxygen tanks, cared for the needs of patient. He’d bolt his breakfast, change his clothes, and rush for his classes. From nine to two every day, he’d sit in class absorbing the knowledge which would make him eligible for medical school. Then he’d rush home for a few hours’ sleep before reporting to the hospital.
In 1933, Raven’s family like millions of others, suffered from the depression. With his family dependent upon him for support he had to quit school. Unable to find a job in Pittsburgh, Bob left for Chicago, where he worked at odd jobs for a while. He went back to Pittsburgh, but his family had broken up. He came to New York.
“In New York he had no illusions,” says Israel Soyer, with whom Bob lived. “He had known the hovels of Pittsburgh miners, the slums of Chicago, and here was the Bowery.” Two of his brothers were without work for years. A brother of grade school age developed tuberculosis. His mother’s health collapsed and she was taken to a hospital where she remains to this day. His lovely young sister died.
Bob finally found work in New York as a social worker for the Catholic charities. In his off hours he plunged into the seamen’s strike on the New York waterfront. Braving the guns and steel knuckles of hired strike-breakers and the goon squads of the reactionary union officials, who have now been superseded by progressive officials – partly through activities of men like Raven.
He wanted to travel, to learn, to continue above all his study of medicine. Yet stronger than all these currents was his hatred of barbarism. Stronger still was his love of peace.
“I was a pacifist,” he explains, “I never thought that I could kill another man. I resolved I’d rather go to jail than fight.”
Then why did Robert Raven, pacifist, enlist in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade? “I hate fascism with every fibre of my being, and I believe in living what I preach. I went to fight with the Spanish people because I know that the only way to guarantee lasting peace is to wipe fascism off the face of the globe. I volunteered because I saw clearly what was happening in the world,” he says. “I saw fascism creeping all over the face of the globe. I saw it in Italy and Germany. I saw it in the minor central European states. I saw the fascists hard at work in the United States, I’ve returned to the United States, fascism has secured its strangle-hold in Brazil—right here in the Americas.
“I knew that if the monsters who had burned books in Germany, and kept the Italian peasants in subjection, succeeded in Spain, they would march through all Europe, and then reach for the greatest prize of all—the United States.”
For a month he stood with his back to Madrid, and with the Lincoln Battalion defended the road between Madrid and Valencia, which for more than a year has been beleaguered by the fascists. For a month he miraculously escaped the bullets and bombs which were directed against the defenders of Madrid.
But his luck ran out on February 12, when an explosive shell landed nearby, and they picked three shell fragments out of his back. But Bob refused to go to a hospital, insisting that he be treated at a first-aid station, and be allowed to return to the lines.
Two weeks later, a bullet left a crease along his right temple. A fortnight on his back in a hospital near Morata, and Bob became restless. He asked for permission to return to the trenches. The doctors refused. One morning he leaned from a window, and saw the truck which had hauled food to the front standing at the side of the hospital. Quickly he dressed, deserted from the hospital, climbed onto the back of the truck which was loaded with potatoes, and in a few hours he was back in the lines. That was March 15 [actually the 14th].
He landed in a sector occupied by untrained rookies receiving their baptism under fire. Noon of that day, Italian tanks advanced against the rookies, and they armed only with rifles of ancient vintage were forced to flee before the murderous fire of the fascists.
Raven saw immediately that it was essential to stem the retreat, for nearby were 400 members of the Lincoln Battalion, and if the fascists routed the rookies, then they would be able to mow down the Americans.
He began to rally those whom he could. He had only three anti-tank bullets in his rifle. He fired them to good effect. Then he saw the enemy setting up a machine gun. Left without ammunition, he crawled on his stomach back along the zigzag trenches, until he found a rookie with a grenade from which the pin had been pulled. The rookie was too far from the machinegun nest to use the grenade, so Raven grabbed it out his hand. Holding the lever down he crawled back toward the machine gun nest. As he raised his hand to throw it, a grenade thrown by the fascists exploded in his face.
He fell to the ground. He felt his face on fire. Not losing consciousness he realized that his own grenade would explode in a few seconds. He buried his face in his hands and tried to crawl back. An explosion and he felt his legs break.
Eight months Bob lay on his back in a hospital in Spain. Now he is home. “I have come back,” he said “because I feel that I can serve the fight against fascism best by spreading the truth here in America.”
Ryan, Frank, ed. Book of the XVth Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian, and Irish volunteers in the XV International Brigade, Commissariat of War, XV Brigade, Madrid, 1938.
Eby, Cecil. Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, University of Pennsylvania: University Park, Pennsylvania: 2007.
Landis, Arthur. The Lincoln Brigade, New York: Citadel, 1968.
Merriman, Marion and Warren Letrude, American Commander in Spain, Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, University of Nevada Press: Reno, Nevada, 1986.
Tisa, John. Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985.
[i] John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; (Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985), 57. Tisa notes that John Simon (Doc Simon) and the medical staff halted the retreating Spanish soldiers.
[ii] Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 94.
[iii] Eby, Comrades and Commissars, 95; and “Jock Cunningham is Wounded,” in Frank Ryan, ed. Book of the XVth Brigade: Records of British, American, Canadian, and Irish volunteers in the XV International Brigade, (Madrid: Commissariat of War, XV Brigade, 1938), 92.
[iv] Eby, Comrades and Commissars, 95.
[v] Eby, Comrades and Commissars, 96.
[vi] Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, 58.
[vii] Merriman Diaries, Unpublished Manuscript, March 22 entry; Marion Merriman and Warren Letrude. American Commander in Spain, Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press, 1986), 121. The diaries indicate that James Harris spoke at Wolk’s memorial.
[viii] Arthur Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, (New York: Citadel, 1968), 121