William Bertram Titus
Notes from the Biographical Dictionary Project. Saul Freidberg provided several short biographical sketches on fellow veterans. The sketches provide insight into Friedberg as well.
While over the years I have always felt that my relations with Bill Titus were very important to me, my memories of him lack any real specificity, so that these notes will be necessarily limited to the few incidents I remember.
Bill must have been sent to Officer Training School at Pozorubio[i] and I must have known and spent much time with him there. I also knew and spent time with him in Tarazona. While I eventually was assigned to the MacPaps, Bill remained with the Lincoln Battalion. I always considered him to be a poet by way of major occupation, so he must have told me he was. The same is true about my belief that he came from Vermont, and my memory that his upper chest bore scars of severe burns accidentally acquired.
I remember spending a whole night in Tarazona[ii] walking in the streets and talking, to my memory about the anomalous situation of the non-proletarian intelligentsia attached to the proletarian revolutionary movement. While Lenin and many other leaders of the Communist movement met that description, it seems to me that neither Bill nor I thought of himself in such terms. We were square pegs in round holes, although that did not weaken our devotion or passion for the movement.
At Teruel, Bill was in command of a company of the Lincoln Battalion; he had headquarters in a viaduct beneath the railroad tracks that ran parallel to and just behind our front. The Lincolns were closer to Teruel than were the MacPaps so that when walking from the MacPap sector into the city of Teruel, which I did frequently, one would pass through the Lincoln sector of the line, and pass Bill Titus’ headquarters. Thus I saw him at Teruel with fair frequency, but I have no significant memories of those encounters.
After Teruel came Seguro de los Baños, where Bill was killed. I did not see Bill there, but at some later time the manner of his death was told to me by a comrade who was his aide at the time he got killed, and I will repeat the account as best I can.
Our command decided, after we were taken out of the line at Teruel, that we would be used to attack a fascist position at Seguro de los Baños in the hope at most of cutting off the salient above Teruel (a la the future operations at Stalingrad) and at least to relieve pressure at Teruel.
The fascist position consisted of a series of heavily fortified hills which had seen no action for many months, which we were to attack and take simultaneously and by surprise. The first hill was to be surrounded, attacked and taken by the MacPaps, and the second by the Lincolns. We were taken by truck to the jumping off position and then we walked almost single file, the MacPaps first with the Lincolns behind, through the night. We were to reach the fascist hills before dawn. The MacPaps arrived where they were supposed to be well on time and dropped out of the line of march and with utmost quiet surrounded the hill we were to attack at its base, so that at the given command we were to rush up the hill, cut the heavy wire defenses surrounding it, continue to rush up and overwhelm the defenders before they knew what was happening.
According to the plan, after the MacPaps dropped out of the line of march, to surround the hill assigned to them, the Lincolns were to continue until they reached the hill assigned to them. They were then quietly to surround their hill at its base so that at the given command they too were to rush up their hill at dawn, while we, the MacPaps, did the same at ours, cut the barbed wire, and continue to rush up until they overwhelmed the defenders, hopefully by surprise.
The MacPaps carried out the plan perfectly. At dawn we were at the base of our hill, surrounding it, and the fascists were still sleeping at the top.[iii] At the given command, we rushed up the hill, and, reaching the barbed wire, crawled under its bottom strand on our backs, cutting the wire with the tools we had been given. While we were doing that, the fascists awoke and started to throw hand grenades down the hill and to fire wildly in our direction.
It became very noisy and we could taste the exploding gunpowder, and we had a few casualties, but we managed without too much trouble to make the top of the hill. There the fascists busily surrendered except for one officer determined to sell his life dearly for capitalism; Sauly Wellman, as I recall, shot him.[iv]
Then we relaxed comfortably sitting on the parapets of the beautifully constructed and reinforced fortifications, eating the Granadaisa sardines, rich with olive oil, which we discovered in great quantities in the fascist stores. While so occupied, I looked down and saw my shoe was filled with blood; I was one of the casualties, with a very minor hand grenade sliver in my left shin, which was enough to earn me a few days in a military hospital in far northern Catalonia, where there was still enough food around so the local bakery could come up with some delicious pastries and coffee sometime about four in the afternoon. When I returned from that short sojourn, the battalion was withdrawn from Seguro de los Baños and resting in some fortifications on the Valencia-Teruel highway, from which we went into the Aragon retreats.
Now to get back to the Lincolns and Bill Titus. The Lincolns were late in reaching their hill, so that by the time they had it surrounded there was no more surprise; the fascist troops on its top were wide awake, alerted by the battle at our hill, and were actively firing and throwing grenades down the slope. And here the story becomes what Bill Titus’ comrade and aide (whose name may have been Edwards, which I will here call him) told me, during the next week or so, and which I repeat from memory.
On observing the situation, Bill called upon Edwards, saying: “Lets reconnoiter the circumference of the hill to see if there is any way of attacking from an unexpected position.” They then started to walk around the base of the hill. They came to a spot at its back where there was an opening in the barbed wire, left to permit the defenders to get down to a spring at the bottom of the hill to replenish their water. Bill said to Edwards: “I will go up the hill through that hole in the wire, and when I get to the summit I will start throwing grenades and firing. The fascists will think we are attacking there in force and will rush to defend that spot, leaving the balance of the circumference lightly defended. You go back to battalion headquarters now and tell them what I am doing; tell them when they hear the uproar made by my grenades and the fascist response that they should consider that the fascist defenders are diverted and that the battalion should then quickly charge up the hill.” Edwards then left Titus to do as he was told, seeing him for the last time getting ready to carry out his plan to single-handedly charge up the hill.
That was the last time, said Edwards, that anyone saw Titus. The battalion charged up the hill when the ruckus started by Titus began, and they readily captured the hill and captured or killed its fascist defenders. However, no IB’er ever again saw Titus. His body was not found when the hill was captured, and it is not known what finally happened to him.[v]
I am sure the battle of Seguro de los Baños served some good purpose; it certainly didn’t change the capitalist-determined outcome of the Spanish war.
As for my friend and comrade Bill Titus, I have often speculated, I am sure for purely subjective reasons, that Bill Titus decided to solve the dilemma he and I talked about that night on the streets of Tarazona by going out in a blaze of revolutionary glory.
A very romantic account of Titus is quoted by Rolfe in The Lincoln Battalion at pages 178-180.
Saul Friedberg, 5/2/96
[i] Pozo Rubio was the site of the XV BDE officer’s training school.
[ii] Tarazona de la Mancha was the XV BDE training Base.
[iii] Cecil-Smith was able to position his heavy machine-guns on a neighboring un-occupied hill. The guns provided suppressive fire that enabled the Mac-Paps to sweep the objective.
[iv] The officer’s death would have occurred during the course of the battle.
[v] This is at odds with other sources discussing Titus’ death.