Jarama Series: Spanish Battalions
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 #14 Spanish Battalions
Historians often overlook the Spanish soldiers serving in the XVth International Brigade (IB) despite their playing an increasingly larger role in the formations as the war progressed. Regardless of their crucial role, very little is written about the Spaniards whose risk was compounded by serving in the IB. Captured international volunteers were routinely executed and this policy often spilled over to Spaniards serving in International formations. This article is an initial step to bridging this gap in the history.
The IB maintained strength through heavy losses and declining international recruitment by integrating Spanish soldiers. The XV BDE became one of the pioneers of this integration when it added Spanish Companies in late March 1937.[i] The Lincoln Battalion used the new Spanish reinforcements to establish a second infantry company. In April, the Second Company consisted of 4 officers, 26 Sous officers, and 93 other ranks. [ii]
In addition to the Spanish reinforcements the Brigade also added two Spanish Battalions of the newly formed Republican Popular Army. The 24th Battalion under command of Lieutenant Martinez joined the Brigade on March 3, 1937. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, the 21st Battalion under the command of Felipe Martin Crespo Powys arrived. [iii]
The Internationals greeted the Spaniards warmly. In a March 25, 1937, an article in Notre Combat welcomed the two battalions and the two Spanish battalions offered salutations in return. The Political Commissars of the 21st and 24th battalions expressed appreciation for, and a desire to learn from, the Internationals.
Very little is known regarding the formation of the two battalions. They were likely formed from a mix of volunteers and conscripted soldiers.[iv] The 24th Battalion was the larger of the two with a total of 545 effectives while the 21st possessed 417 effectives.[v] Both were larger than any of the International Battalions at that time.
The 24th Battalion had a long career serving alongside the Internationals through every campaign in which the Brigade participated. The Battalion’s initial Political Commissar Jose Maria Varela rose to command the Brigade during the Ebro Offensive. In contrast, the 21st Battalion quickly fell out of favor with the Brigade Command. Vladimir Copic, the XV BDE Commander noted in his diary on March 5, 1937, that the 21st Battalion:
. . . se comportta muy mal. El Batallón abandonó algunas veces las posiciones. Se dan casos en el Batallón de mutilación voluntaria. Los oficiales de Batallón no estan al nivel de los hechos para cumplir sus misiones. El Comandante del Batallón está conforma, hasta muy satisfecho, de que se liquide el Batallón y se reparta entre los demás..[vi]
On March 17, 1937, Lieutenant Colonel Claus, Chief of Staff for the Estado Mayor of the XV Brigade, signed Order of the Day #8 ordering the disbandment of the battalion and distribution of its effectives across the Brigade (See Figure 1).[vii] A handwritten note on a list of XV Brigade unit strengths dated March 20, 1937 states “21st Bon Español dissolved”.[viii]
|International Battalion||Battalion 21 “Orihuela” Company|
|Dimitrov Battalion||Battalion 21, Company 3 and part of Plana Mayor|
|6th of February Battalion||Battalion 21, Company 1 and part of Plana Mayor|
|English Battalion||Battalion 21, Company 4 and part of Plana Mayor|
|Lincoln Battalion||Battalion 21, Company 2 and part of Plana Mayor|
|24th Battalion||Battalion 21, MG Company[ix]|
Figure 1. Disposition of the companies from the 21st Battalion “Orihuela”[x]
The Lincoln Battalion despite the addition of the Spanish recruits and soldiers from the 21st BN was significantly understrength. (see Figure 2). In April the Lincoln’s Company 2 counted only two officers and 94 other ranks.[xi] It appears that drafts were pulled from the Lincoln’s Company 2 to reinforce other units including the Brigade’s Fortification Company.[xii]
After the merger of the Lincoln and Washington Battalions during the Brunete campaign, the Lincoln Battalion Spanish Company Two became Company 3. Later, numerous Cuban and other Spanish-speaking internationals served within Company Three. Only one non-commissioned officer and thirty privates from the 21st Battalion remained with the Lincoln-Washington Battalion at the end of July 1937.[xiv] When the Lincoln-Washington Battalion was reformed after the Retreats in March and April 1938, Spanish soldiers outnumbered the internationals and were fully integrated across all formations.
|Headquarters officers, and staff (including Co. 1’s officers)||17|
|Company 1 (less officers)||140|
|Kitchen and other||24|
Figure 2. Effectives in the Lincoln Battalion from Payroll Records April 1937.[xiii]
Matthews, James, Reluctant Warriors, Republican Popular Army and Nationalist Army Conscripts in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) ((Российский государственный архив социально-политической истории (РГАСПИ)); Records of the International Brigades (Comintern Archives, Fond 545).
[i] The source of these initial volunteers is unclear. They may have originated from the disbanded 21st Battalion, though it appears that they were already established in the Lincoln Battalion prior to the date of the order disbanding them. Deeper research into Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) may eventually provide an answer.
[ii] Supplementary Report to Secretary Etat Major, March 21, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 501, ll. 106-107.
[iii] Vladimir Copic Diary; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 467, ll. 1 and 14.
[iv] James Matthews, Reluctant Warriors, Republican Popular Army and Nationalist Army Conscripts in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 26-27.
[v] EFFECTIFS OF THE XV BRIGADE, To Etat Major XV B. Effectifs: March 20, 1937. RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 454, ll 12.
The document lists the effectives as follows:
Etat Major Base 190
24th BN 545
Etat Major 15th B. 45
English BN 440
Atelier Reparation (Madrid) 5
[vi] Vladamir Copic Diary; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 467, ll 15. Copic’s entry in Spanish was translated using Google. The original Spanish is listed below:
. . .comported itself very badly. The battalion left positions. Sometimes cases of voluntary mutilation occurred in the Battalion. Battalion officers lack the ability to accomplish their missions. The battalion commander is shaped, [I am] to very satisfied, the Battalion is subsequently liquidated and distributed among others
[vii] Order of the Day March 17, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 425, ll. 63 (in Spanish), 64 (French); NOTA DE LOS BATALLONES QUE COMPONENE LA XV BRIGADA ACTUALMENTE, April 11, 1937; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 454, ll. 12.
[viii] EFFECTIFS OF THE XV BRIGADE, To Etat Major XV B. Effectifs: March 20, 1937. RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 454, ll 12.
[ix] z. de G. 4 de Junio de 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 426, ll. 13. The 21st Battalion’s MG Company was transferred from the 24th Battalion to the Dimitrov Battalion on June 4, 1937 by order of the Brigade Estado Mayor.
[x] NOTA DE LOS BATALLONES QUE COMPONENE LA XV BRIGADA ACTUALMENTE, April 11, 1937; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 454, ll. 9.
[xi] Lincoln Battalion Payroll, April 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 504, ll. 1-16.
[xii] Lincoln Battalion Payroll, May 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 504, ll. 27–28. Two soldiers are noted as “Fortifications.”
[xiii] Lincoln Battalion Payroll, April 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 3, Delo 504, ll. 1-16.
[xiv] Spanish from 21st Bataillon (Bat Americain), Payroll sheet, July 1 through July 31, 1937; RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 504, ll. 89. Several of the soldiers listed also appear on the Lincoln’s April payroll list in Company 2.
Notre Combat, March 25, 1937
We Send our Greetings to the Battalions 21 and 24
Antifascists of the 15th International Brigade welcome the arrival among us Battalions 21 and 24 of the EPR.
Since February 13 we have faced international fascist forces. We lost in the fighting comrades who can be cited as examples of proletarian heroism and self-denial. We have suffered many calamities, but we have always resisted, and our slogan has been that of the heroic people of Spain: No Passaran!
Our valor complemented by our voluntarily accepted discipline, are what has allowed our brigade deserve the title: “The Brigade who never retreats.” This discipline has allowed us to renew in Spain the heroic example of the French in 1789 and 1793.
We are now confident that with the arrival of the 21 and 24 battalions of the Republican Popular Army we are on the path of victory. These quotas represent for us the results obtained with a relentless work, despite the enormous difficulties – now overdue – and that the only control has allowed this result in the Anti-Fascist People’s Army organization.
With you, comrades, we will be able to obtain this cohesion and this union so necessary between our International Brigade and the Popular Army. In the fraternity of fighting, together side by side, workers and antifascist peasants of our International Brigade and the Republican Popular Army, we shall crush the bestial fascism, which wants to impose war, hunger and slavery and secure in the world for all entry workers the bread, Peace and Freedom, repeating the words uttered by a Spanish leader: “We are married to victory and we do not ever get divorced.”[xiii]
Salut, comrades of the XVéme Brigade
Salud, anti-fascist Brothers
We, the Spanish Volunteers of the XXI and XXIV Battalions who have the honor of jointing the International Brigade, greet you who have left your homes, your countries, and your jobs to come to Spain to fight against International Fascism. Our experience of warfare is very small, but you have plenty. This has clearly been demonstrated during the course of the past battles.
We, the Spanish Volunteers, ask you to help us acquire this science and experience, because we want to be worthy of the International Brigades.
By learning from your experience and courage, we will be able to fight together, shoulder to shoulder, as antifascist brothers. We will fight to the death if need be, in order to smash International Fascism, which is attempting to enslave the Spanish People.
LONG LIVE THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADE
LONG LIVE WORKERS SOLIDARITY
LONG LIVE THE SPANISH DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC
JOSE M. VARELA
Political Commissar of the 24th Battalion
Political Commissar of the 21st Battalion[xiii]