Jarama Series: Killing Time
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.
Jarama Series #13 Killing Time – Life, Leisure, and Death in the trenches
There was a good, long stretch of idleness after Pingarrón hill, and when next I visited the Jarama River front in the latter part of May it was to find the Americans playing ping-pong, baseball, and soccer just to pass the time away. They had dug in strongly on the crest of a hill in what had been an olive grove, and some of the dugouts were gems of comfort. Every now and then someone would get hit by the incessant dropping of stray shots, among which were a fair sprinkling of explosive bullets, not to mention a trench mortar shell now and then. But on the whole it was a quiet time, and I found them all healthy and reasonably happy, with plenty of zest left for fighting. – Herbert Mathews, Two Wars and More to Come [i]
Life for the Lincolns on the frontline during their trench vigil from February into June 1937, could be dangerous and still boring. In February and March torrential rains caused flooding in the trenches. In early April the rain ceased and it warmed up. The discomfort of oppressive heat and windblown dust coating every surface soon replaced the pleasure of drying out. The Lincolns’ daily routine revolved around standing watch and conducting patrols into no-man’s-land. During their off hours, the men had little to do and little to amuse themselves which manifested into ample cause and time to gripe.
The food in Spain was an issue of serious concern to the Lincolns. The Spanish diet did not sit well with most of the North American volunteers. The monotonous diet of unfamiliar foods wreaked havoc on their digestive systems. Until their bodies adjusted, many volunteers were stricken by painful rounds of diarrhea blamed on the “olive-oil-soaked” fare made with “raw, crude, unrefined, [and] frequently rancid” olive oil. [ii]
Food was cooked behind the lines and more often than not was cold by the time it reached the troops in the trenches. Breakfast was normally ersatz coffee served with rolls and marmalade. This meager meal was often interrupted by Nationalist bombardments. Lunch consisted of garbanzo beans cooked in olive oil accompanied by bread. Garbanzos with an occasional bit of meat and salad served as the dinner fare. Protein was most frequently served n the form of burro and horse meat. Few Americans ever became accustomed to it. Burro especially had a noxious texture. One volunteer described the sensation of chewing it: “The more you’d chew it, the bigger it would get, until your mouth felt it was full of rubber bands.” [iii]
In the aftermath of the February attack on Pingarrón the Lincoln Battalion’s commissar and supply staff worked hard to improve morale. The bottomless coffee pot was one of its most successful projects. The Commissars made it a practice to keep a pot of coffee going at all hours in the cookhouse behind the lines. Troops coming off watch could make their way back behind the lines for hot coffee, tea, cognac and later cold lemonade.[iv]
Jack Shirai became the most popular man in the battalion when Commissar Steve Nelson convinced him to assume the reins of the kitchen. Shirai, a Japanese immigrant, was an experienced cook who had been in charge of the kitchen for the first few weeks at Jarama. He quit the post in disgust stating that the men assigned to work for him were “Lazy. Lots of hard work in kitchen, they don’t want to work.” Insisting that he came to Spain to fight, not cook Shirai, transferred to a machine gun squad.[v] Nelson appealed to “Shirai’s pride.” [vi] In his memoir, The Volunteers, Nelson recalled that he made it known that he was “. . . making a complete clean-up of the kitchen. It won’t be a punishment place any more. We’ll put the best comrades we got down by there; it’ll be an honor.”[vii] Shirai finally agreed and the food became more palatable. Despite this minor success, Shirai continued to insist that he be allowed to fight in the line when the battalion went back into action. Nelson honored Shirai’s request and he died in action at Brunete.
The kitchen requested a road from the cook house to the secondary lines to speed the delivery of hot food to the troops.[viii] Dr. William Pike, Battalion Surgeon, put patients to work building the road. “Pike’s Turnpike” eventually extended more than a mile beginning at the rear area medical evacuation point, past the cookhouse, and into the secondary trenches. Pike employed shell-shocked soldiers as a form of work therapy. The road made a significant, positive impact on morale in the trenches as hot food consistently reached the men in the lines.[ix]
Lincoln volunteers constructed elaborate dugouts. These shelters, which were typically dug into the sides of the trenches, provided shelter from the weather and protection against incoming artillery. The volunteers spent a lot of time scrounging materials to improve their humble abodes. They utilized duck boards and metal to shore up the walls and provide a reasonably dry floor. The trenches sprouted mock street signs boasting names like “Tim Buck Boulevard.” They incorporated humorous and homey elements as well. Along a trench built within a vineyard, one volunteer put up signs at intervals stating “Care for the grapes! … They suffer when you hit them.”[x]
The Lincolns were less interested in improving their trenches. Most of the trench digging was done by men assigned to the penal platoon. Because digging was regarded as a punishment, most volunteers were loath to shovel any more than was necessary to keep erosion from filling in their trenches. This attitude changed when Steve Nelson became the commissar. Nelson worked to educate the men on the importance of improving the trenches. He felt they would dig “if they understood why digging trenches was necessary for winning the war.”[xi] Digging helped keep the men engaged and gave them something in which they could take pride. By Herbert Matthews’s May visit, the trenches were “very well built.” He commented that they were “even deep enough for my height.”[xii]
Men spent their off-duty time reading, playing cards, writing letters and, as the weather improved, playing sports. One dugout was turned into a Library with books, magazines and papers. When the demand for reading materials exceeded the supply, the Commissars erected wall newspapers. Cobbled together from “two iron posts with a canvas shelter stretched between them,” the initial wall newspaper was nicknamed The Daily Mañana. [xiii] Volunteers could post items of interest from newspapers, and their own poetry and art. The battalion also initiated a daily mimeographed news sheet, Our Fight.[xiv]
Once the rains ended, men “took advantage of a sharp dip in the ridge behind their trenches” and used the cover to erect a ping-pong table and a small baseball field.[xv] Friends and supporting organizations in the States supplemented the leisure material with chess and checker boards, additional sports equipment and reading materials. In June, the rear area rang out with cries of “kill the umpire” as the battalion leadership organized intramural games.
The men also yearned for radio in order to hear music, programs and news. Some volunteers pooled funds and bought radios and loudspeakers[xvi] The battalion also brought in propaganda trucks though the music they played was often deafening.
The volunteers also wrote large numbers of letters home. Some were party line propaganda others intimate thoughts (or as intimate as men who knew their letters were being read by censors could be). Almost all requested letters from home and many asked that they enclose a few cigarettes.[xvii]
Tobacco, or more accurately the shortage of tobacco, was a perennial topic of conversation. Americans never became accustomed to the strong European and Spanish cigarettes. They knew that cigarettes were sent from the United States; however, they rarely reached the Americans in the front lines. Volunteers at the front often smoked Spanish brands they nicknamed “pillow slips” and “anti-tanks,” that they often had to re-roll or use in their pipes. When even these less than optimal choices were not available, the volunteers “soaked the leaves of hazelnut trees in the vile war-cognac of the country, dried the leaves in the sun and rolled them.”[xviii]
Dangers in trench life
Even in a fairly quiet sector, there are dangers in trench warfare. Snipers took a small but disturbing toll on both sides. Charlie Regan who adopted the nickname “Charlie the Sniper” gave Steve Nelson a primer on sniping. Regan told him how he prepared his position, carefully selecting his site, sprinkling water to keep from kicking up a cloud of dust and placing sandbags behind his viewing site to ensure that enemy snipers would not be able to tell when he was observing the enemy lines.[xix]
The men learned that an accurate sighting could be made of the incoming direction of a bullet by setting up a box. When the box was hit by a bullet you could establish the firing position by taking a siting through the holes.[xx]
Most men took these lessons to heart and learned how to make themselves inconspicuous. Some men ignored the warnings. Dave Smith recounted what he regarded as a foolish death. During his watch another volunteer coming on duty “would perch on his clay seat behind the sandbag parapet, place his rifle in a groove on top of the sandbags and fire a few rounds.” Despite warnings from Smith and others over several days that a sniper could identify his firing position “the comrade always shrugged us off. One evening his two shots rang out, and one bullet came back in return – clean through his head.”[xxi]
Casualties were also caused by artillery and mortar barrages, and fire fights. Mortars often took a greater toll as there was no warning before the first rounds landed. Fire fights could erupt that involved the entire line or in small night-time patrols who bumped into the enemy in no man’s land. Serious wounds were rare but did cause a steady exodus from the front.
Sickness was another constant source of losses from the front lines. Poor shelter, weather extremes, inadequate food and lack of field sanitation were all contributing factors. Lice, the bane of soldiers, also made an appearance. Dr. William Pike paid “personal attention to the water supply, kitchens, trenches, latrines and dugouts.”[xxii] He imposed and strictly enforced hygiene rules. Pike established formal latrines, and trash pits. He encouraged regular shaving and worked to bring in field showers. His efforts, especially in field sanitation, significantly reduced the number of volunteers absent from their duties due to illness.
Pike also treated individual soldiers who reported for sick call. He dispensed drugs from his meager supply, granted light duty for minor cases, and sent more serious cases to hospitals in the rear. Dave Smith recalled one occasion when he had a “blinding” headache in the afternoon and aspirin failed to relieve the pain. Dr. Pike provided a stronger drug. The following day he woke up in his dugout long after he was due to stand watch. He was greeted with “all sorts of vilification” because not only was he late for duty, but also slept through a night long firefight. The drug left Smith in a sleep so deep “that when the crew member yelled into my dugout, as was done when men were needed, it was not enough to wake me. Not until Dr. Pike verified my explanation was I again in good grace of the crew.”[xxiii]
Very few volunteers received any type of leave. Only a few select officers appear to have had permission to leave the front. In a surprise move at the end of April, the battalion was informed that it would be leaving the front for leave. Trucks took the men to the town of Alcala de Henares. As soon as the troops got off the trucks they spread out over the town in search of alcohol. The troops blew off steam with the tacit consent of their officers who established themselves in a house. The following day the men, many suffering from severe hangovers, were formed up and marched in a May Day parade. By the following day they were back in their old trenches at Jarama ostensibly to help repel a rumored Nationalist attack. The Lincolns remained in their trenches until June 17, 1937. After completing a 120-day period at the front, the Lincolns departed the Jarama to prepare for the Brunete Offensive.
Acier, Marcel, ed. From Spanish Trenches, (Modern Age Books, New York, 1937), 153
Carroll, Peter N. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994.
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.
Matthews, Herbert. Two Wars and More to Come, New York: Carrick and Evans, Inc.1938.
Nelson, Steve, The Volunteers, New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1953.
Rolfe, Edwin. The Lincoln Battalion, New York: Stratford Press, 1939.
Rosenstone, Robert A., Crusade of the Left, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, New York: Pegasus, 1969.
Tisa, John. Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War; Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985.
Smith, Dave, “Memories of Spain,” in The Volunteer, Volume 15, No. 2, Fall 1993.
[i] Herbert Matthews, Two Wars and More to Come, (Carrick and Evans, Inc., New York, 1938), 225-26.
[ii] Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, (Stratford Press, New York, 1939), 66.
[iii] Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2007), 110.
[iv] Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 67.
[v] Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, (Masses and Mainstream, New York, 1953), 109-110.
[vi] Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1994), 131.
[vii] Nelson, The Volunteers, 109.
[viii] Nelson, The Volunteers, 110.
[ix] Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 122.
[x] Matthews, Two Wars and More to Come, 226.
[xi] Nelson, The Volunteers, 111.
[xii] Matthews, Two Wars and More to Come, 226.
[xiii] Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, 161.
[xiv] Robert A. Rosenstone, Crusade of the Left, The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, (Pegasus New York, 1969), 152.
[xv] Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 64.
[xvi] Letter from Ed Erick to Louise, April 26, 1937 in Marcel Acier, ed. From Spanish Trenches, (Modern Age Books, New York, 1937), 153.
[xvii] Eby, Comrades and Commissars, 108-109.
[xviii] Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, 65-66.
[xix] Nelson, The Volunteers,
[xx] Dave Smith, “Memories of Spain,” in The Volunteer, Volume 15, No. 2, Fall 1993.
[xxi] Smith, “Memories of Spain,”
[xxii] Arthur Landis, The Lincoln Brigade, (Citadel, New York, 1968), 164.
[xxiii] Smith, “Memories of Spain”,