The Brigade Command in Action at the Ebro Front by A. C. B. (Alvah Cecil Bessie)

June 29, 2019
By
Jose Antonio Valledor, Commander, XVth International Brigade May 1938; Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Films and Photographs; ALBA PHOTO 011-1308 (B634);Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012, New York University

Jose Antonio Valledor, Commander, XVth International Brigade May 1938; Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Films and Photographs; ALBA PHOTO 011-1308 (B634); Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012, New York University

Originally published in The Volunteer for Liberty, V2, No. 33, October 6, 1938

Deep in a natural cave at the head of a baranco is the command post of our Brigade. Here, at one time, peasants had utilized the natural shelter, filled its mouth with masonry and constructed a home. The cavern is partitioned into many large rooms, and each room is crowded with men. From each room there rises a hum of sound, the droning of conversation in a low tone, the rattle of typewriters, the buzzing of the central, the separate voice of one or another of the jefes on the telephone. For this cavern in the rocks in the central the nerve center of our Brigade; from it there runs a network, a spider-web of wires, down the mountain-side, over the barancos, to the separate command-posts of our four Battalions, deployed in front of the enemy lines—the Mac-Paps, the Lincolns, the British and the 59th. Over the wires strung precariously form hill to hill, goes the information that coordinates our activities, that binds us together and permits us to function as an integral corps. And at the man who holds all the wires in his hands, whose will and intelligence is felt at the extremities of the lines. He is a small man, as stature goes; he does not offer the stereotyped picture of the military man. But you would not need to read a record of his achievements as a commander since this war began, to feel that he knows what he is doing and that his adjutants have confidence in him. This small “unimpressive” man is Major José Antonio Valledor. Commander of the 15th International Brigade…

MIDNIGHT

Candlelight has a way of distorting shadows; they wave and flutter over the stone ceiling, augmenting the atmosphere of unreality. You cannot overcome this sense of unreality, of walking and climbing through the quiet Spanish country-side, mounting the terraces, skirting the olive trees, and then, entering a cave to find activity that should only rightly have its place (or so it seems) in some large meeting hall in some large city…

“Pongame con el cincuenta y ocho…” says the voice. Then, “Wolff… four hundred zapadores are coming up there; use them as you see fit. Hello. Oiga, oiga! Central, you estaba hablando con el Cincuenta y ocho…”

In the distance there is a machine-gun speaking; it has a sharp, authoritative voice in the silence of the night. There is a moon behind mottled clouds, moving in and out of the, and the night is alternately bright and then, suddenly, the light fades out of the sky. The huge black hill that the enemy is holding is afire, a creeping line of flame, like a glow worm, crawls across its face… Inside again, Valledor is standing near the doorway; he wears a short leather jacket that hangs open; his hands are in its pockets; he wears no hat. In the course of the night, that seems interminable, that is filled with mechanical and human voices. You notice that he is never alone—he is always talking to the soldiers, to his officers; he always has time to talk to his men, and there is no difference in his demeanor, whether he is talking to the Divisional Commander or to a soldier posted as a guard by the door. He is always cheerful; he gives the appearance of possessing a boundless fund of good humor; he laughs frequently, talking in a manner that is entirely characteristic of the man—short, staccato sentences…

“Digame.” Says the voice. “Quien? el capitan Dunbar? Un momento.”

The enemy is putting pressure on our lines to the south of X… In the past few days we have seen their black vultures in droves; we have heard the avion signal from the observers on the hill, and we have lain quiet in the shadow of the olives, the olives that will remain forever in our memories of Spain, and watched them soar overhead, bank and turn. Then we have heard the whistling, seen the “eggs” falling, felt the earth tremble under us with indignation as the roar swelled, rolled and died away. “Where are our planes,” we think. And then they come. And then one day, after many days in reserve, the word came. It came at one o’clock that afternoon; “Prepare to move when the order is given.” And two hours later, “Form on the highway and proceed toward the cross roads; there will be trucks to pick you up.” The short, swift ride over the highway that was under fire. If the enemy artillery… the swift march to get under cover… we march to get under cover… we were needed again to reinforce the lines, to resist, to prepare to attack.

“Where is Valledor?” says a voice, but he is not there. The Lincolns are effecting a shift of their lines, and he has gone off to be on the spot, to aid and criticize, to see that the new position utilizes the best aspects of the broken terrain. The soldier has a worm eye’s view; he rarely gets to see his Brigade Commander. But the Commander is there; this particular Commander is as likely as not to turn up, unobtrusively, beside a sentry at night, in the puesto de mando of a Battalion within the sector of a company under fire. That too is characteristic of the man, just as it is a fact that this is a different sort of army. Our commanders are not likely to be found kilometers behind the lines, drinking champagne, strutting in polished cavalry boots. Do you remember Merriman? Do you remember Doran?

TWO AM

There are men stretched in their blankets against the rock walls of the cavern transmissions men, guards, runners resting temporarily from their endless rounds of the battalions; they lie in grotesque postures, like the dead, the heavy sleep of exhaustion upon them for them for the moment. But the hum of the central never ceases; the 59th is reporting on fortification work, the British, in reserve positions, are getting ready to move into the lines… “Digame,” says the voice, “aqui las quince. De parte de quien?” “Damn it all,” says another voice, “Goddard was there to show them where to place that anti-tank. Get busy on it.” “Póngame,” says the voice, “con el Batallón Sesenta … Oiga, oiga,” The candles flicker in the draft through the open doorway, where the guard stands, wrapped in a blanket; there is a hum of conversation from a point on the dirt floor where Valledor and Gates are talking…

They are huddled close together; Gate’s voice low, indistinct, Valledor’s sharp, accented. These two, years apart, continents distant in culture and training are here together in a cave in the hills of Spain, talking together in a manner characteristic of old friends who have never parted since they met, years before. Gates gets up to go; he is visiting the lines before he turns in for an hour’s sleep.

There is something in the night air; there is tension to be felt in both the silence and the still persistent hum of conversation; in the sound of feet coming and going. It had been felt the the day before when the enemy artillery was active, when the shells dropped in the dooryard of the command-post, when the vals of the cavern trembled under the load of air bombs, when the fascist observation plane was wheeling overhead like a broad winged vulture. Now it is felt again in the silence of this night, a silence broken only occasionally by a heavy gun in the near distance, by the rattle of our tanks moving on the main road below, the authoritative voice of the distant machine gun.

Valledor and Dunbar, chief of staff, examine maps on which the hills are numbered. Goddard speaks in his slow, precise voice. Brigade scouts and observers are listening. “That point is under observation in the daytime” one says. The heads draw closer together over the map, the voices are lower, and just because the voices are lower, the tension seems to mount. The central buzzes continuously. And Valledor bends over the phone at his side; he consults the map.

Outside the moon is uncovered and there are mules moving up the baranco; the patient, tireless beasts are bringing up endless cases of munitions. They pass over the crest of the hill on their way to the Battalions.

You think of the men, sleeping now under the moon, men who will be in battle when the sun stands in the moon’s place again; men who will suffer the agony and the beauty of combat. For there is strength and beauty in our fight. Otherwise war would be a limitless horror, a ceaseless waste of life and energy.

 

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