The Volunteer Founded by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Tue, 24 Feb 2015 20:10:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Blast from the Past: Deyo and John Jacobs Tue, 24 Feb 2015 16:36:21 +0000

Edward Dayo Jacobs, Photographs VALB/ALBA; Artists’ Union Rally, l. to r. Edward ‘Deyo’ Jacobs, Winifred Milius, and Hugh Miller, ca. 1935 / Irving Marantz, photographer. Gerald Monroe research material on WPA, American Artists’ Congress, and Artists’ Union, [ca. 1930-1971]. Archives of American Art.

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. With the following two articles, we remember the brothers Edward Deyo and John Jacobs. Deyo was a talented, politically-engaged young artist when he ventured to Spain. John, who has recently passed away, later told his brother’s story in the book “The Stranger in the Attic” which traces Deyo’s political and artistic growth through his letters and sketches. We also include some of Deyo’s artwork which accompanied Art Landis‘ original piece. 


Deyo Jacobs – March 1938; A Delayed Obit
Art Landis

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 2, Number 3, 1979.]


It is said that Pablo Picasso once looked at a faded newsprint aerial-pic—and painted Guernica!

The one book which most Lincoln vets brought home from Spain was The Book of the 15th Brigade. Though the English edition, as edited by the much loved Frank Ryan, was admirable, it still, however, had one flaw. The submissions of Deyo Jacobs, a young Jewish artist from New York, and a veteran of Jarama, were overlooked.

The French made no such error. Their editor, the respected 15th Brigade Commissar, Jean Barthel, seized them instantly for his own. Thus while the English edition has no artwork at all, the pages of ‘Le Livre de la 15eme Brigade’ display with pride a photo of Deyo himself, and the paintings and sketches that so reflected his own humanity and his deep understanding of the Spanish struggle. Deyo is shown (see pic), cigarette dangling and beret at a cocky angle, as a bonafide, rive gauche poilu;[1] this, while he holds the cover he designed and which was finally used for the Book of the 15th Brigade —in all its editions.

I remember Deyo well. Attached to the HQ Co., Mac-Pap battalion staff, he and I, with Doug Taylor, Al Cohen, John Miltenberger and Clyde Taylor, were Observers, Mappers, Billeting mostly with the snipers, we became quite close as combat cadres usually do. Our gab sessions became everything; at the Tarazona base; in the aftermath of the melee of blasted tanks and wasted lives at Fuentes; during the autumnal days of rest—the fighting at Argente; Celades; and the frozen inferno of Teruel…

I was forever fascinated by the stories of Deyo, Doug and Clyde Taylor (the latter from Antioch; not related); especially the wild tales of O’Henry’s New York, and particularly the “Village” … They seemed to me as left-socialists of a sort, drawn to Spain like most Lincoln men, by the strength of their own convictions. Indeed, theirs were more a reflection of the straight-form-the-shoulder honesty of Debs and Jack London; of that grass-roots golden age of American socialist-populism, and of Big Bill Haywood and his 250,000 member wholly American, I.W.W…. My background was California. Steinbeck country. Riding freights at fifteen. Picking fruit. Panning gold along the Kern.

As a nineteen-year-old, gung-ho YCL type with a penchant for things military, I was also, as Deyo put it, a “contradiction.” For I possessed “a sense of the ridiculous” which he swore would, in the long run, preserve my free-thinking spirit and assure me the eventual humility that all those who propose to speak for others must somehow achieve.

D4Indeed, on the strength of this analysis, it was Deyo who campaigned for me to become the only elected headquarters Company commissar the Mac-Paps ever had. Our promise: To keep bullshit to a minimum, stay the hell out of the way, and above all to see to it that newspapers and mail arrived on time, plus cigarettes; and that would get our share—no more, no less—of whatever goodies the Intendencia had to offer.

Deyo was not mechanically inclined. A rifle bolt, or the lock of a Maxim, was to him but an uninteresting jig-saw puzzle. He had little patience with such; not that he couldn’t fire them. He could—and did! His maps, however, were fantastic; his panoramic sketches, beautiful.

He was also uncoordinated, so that for him any march would quickly become a thing of pain and agony. We’d carry his gear, his pack and his rifle; do what we could … Stories of Deyo are myriad. Example: The Tarazona scandal, wherein he and Doug and Clyde, much too practical to look for nonexistent paint thinner while making posters, used urine instead. The result, a beautiful but oddly colored job.  Commissar J. Dallet was furious. The Mac-Paps laughed all the way to Aragon. At Teruel I took him, at his own request on a night patrol, to skirt the fascist wire. (I’d also been given the nebulous title of “chief of scouts,” except there weren’t any, only men and whoever I could whistle up.) Needless to say, with Deyo by my side it was like doing the job in broad daylight; the less said, the better. A measure, too, of Deyo’s intensity was that in conversation you’d quite often find him standing on your feet while he made his pint—eyeball to eyeball!

How, indeed, could one not love him?

The peaceful, Christmas day of ’37 were spent in Mas de las Matas, awaiting the call to Teruel. I still have the list of donated pesetas and donors for a toy and candy fund for the village children. Deyo helped collect it. On the final day, save one, we both jawboned the last bottle of cognac from the Intendencia to celebrate the birth of a son to Jack Penrod, one of the snipers. A letter from his wife had just arrived.

Toward the end of the cauldron of Teruel, the Mac-Paps, depleted, worn out by the deep snows and bitter fighting, still held their “post of honor” before the city. In the final days of the great fascist counter-offensive, Deyo and I were sent to a post to the front and west of our 3rd Co. Shells from enemy guns – over a hundred and fifty lined up hub-to-hub before Concud—ranged all our positions.  Within minutes our phone was useless. We saw then, through the great clouds of cordite, dirt and chalk dust, such a panorama of war as is seldom given for men to witness and survive. To the east was our own 3rd Co. Beyond them three hills held by Spanish Marineros.[2] Much further along was the escarpment of El Muleton, held by the Thaaelmanns[3]… And over all the plain above the valley of the Turia and the Alfambra were the advancing brigades of Franco’s Corps of Galicia. Through the long hours of the morning we watched as the Thaelmanns were destroyed; likewise the Marineros. Our 3rd Co. then retook one of the hills—and the British came down the face of the cliff of Santa Barbara to form a last thin line of bayonets across the valley’s mouth at the 3rd Co.’s right flank.

D2It was like some monstrous, living mural. All the afternoon they came on in waves and columns, banners flying, driven by their officers. They died before the heavily reinforced 3rd Co. front and the British line. And then they ran – and came on again; and were slaughtered again, and yet again… Cut off as we were, we never expected to survive, Deyo and I. Still we kept up a steady fire into the flank of those hitting our 3rd Co. front. Time passed, and at one point I turned to see Deyo, covered as I was with dirt and chalk-dust. His map case had replaced his rifle. He was sketching what he saw, methodically, deliberately: “While there’s still some light,” as he put it. The shelling, of course, had never ceased, nor the searching bullets from enemy machineguns.

Dusk came finally. We had held and they had lost. And Deyo and I, in shock and a little high on it all, made it D6back to the railroad cut, and then to Battalion HQ.

On the following day I was sent by Major Smith as liaison to the new British positions. The enemy action was repeated, and still we held. I was hit, however, in the early hours. I never saw Deyo Jacobs again, nor did I return to the battalion.

Almost a year later at Ripoll, awaiting the train to take us to France, I saw Jack Penrod. He told me that in the retreats he had found Deyo and Doug Taylor beneath a tree somewhere south of Hijar; that Deyo; in bad shape, could no longer walk at all. Doug had decided to stay with him. At that very moment fascist tanks were on all the roads; enemy cavalry swarmed over all the hills and valleys. No one saw them alive again and it is presumed that like so many tens of others, they were taken finally, and summarily executed.

These few paragraphs, plus the accompanying artwork falls far short of being the story of Deyo Jacobs. His background data, the milieu from which he came, is missing. Still one can conclude a point: To read of the uniqueness and humanity of Deyo is to also touch upon and recognize, perhaps, the full measure of our loss in those sixteen hundred Lincoln dead for whom there was no obits; and who, indeed, are but names today; forgotten, except by the few who knew them.










Deyo Jacobs – A Reply

[The Volunteer, Volume 2, Number 4 (cover incorrectly indicates 2), 1979.]


Dear Mr. Landis,


About the most moving thing that has ever happened to me was to received your beautiful piece, “Deyo Jacobs – March 1938; A Delayed Obit.”  I had been in correspondence with Carl Geiser of Smithtown, New York, and he very kindly forwarded it to me.

Deyo Jacobs was my brother and this was the first time our family had any clear intimation of how he died. The great pity is that our parents never knew. Just recently I made copies of Deyo’s letters from Spain and my parent’s desperate attempts to find out what had happened to him. It was a nightmare time for all of us. At the end of your piece you observe that his background, the milieu from which he came is missing. Perhaps I can supply some of that.

His full name was Edward Deyo Jacobs and we called him “Eddie.” He grew up on a farm near New Paltz, New York, where his mother’s family (the Deyo family) settled somewhat prior to 1690. His father came from further upstate, Delhi, New York, where his father was a lawyer and Congressman and had fought long and hard in the Civil War as a cavalry officer, ending up as a brigadier general. As a boy, Eddie was as intense as you suggest and was really at war – sort of a holy war – with the conservative, rural community where he grew up.

He drew from an early age. You mention his maps. One of the first things he drew were marvelous maps of lost treasure islands which were aged by crumpling coats of shellac. Like his parents he was a thoroughgoing romantic. His parents supported him both in his art and his political commitments.

The great transformation came when he went to New York and discovered that there were other people pretty much like him. He went to the Art Students League, studied with Benton and George Grosz, and discovered radical politics. As you observe he was very much in the tradition of John Reed and populist radicalism.

Recently, while reading his letters from this period and from Spain, my sister and I wept to realize how little we had known him. He seemed so wise and loving in his letters, whereas we, being 3 and 5 years younger than he, were both somewhat frightened by his tempestuous feelings and sorely pained by his conflicts and suffering.

It has seemed to me that this period, say 1936 to the outbreak of World War II, was crucial to the character and development of America and I would like to do an exhibition (exhibitions are my business at the moment) that would use my brother as a focal point. It would be a biography in terms of the time and experience he lived through. I have a great many of his drawings and paintings and they are very powerful stuff, if sometimes not fully realized.

I don’t have any clear idea yet of exactly what the scenario for this exhibition would be – how much would be personal and how much the larger scene. But I do have – or think I have – an idea of what it would mean to an audience who is largely unaware of what the war in Spain meant.

Perhaps the point is that truth without passion or commitment is a socially and politically meaningless.

At one point in his letters, Eddie questions whether being a revolutionary artist, rather than a revolutionary activist bearing the brunt of the battle, is not some sort of cop out. He says that being a revolutionary artist is like having a wet dream – an orgasm without physical contact. (His phraseology is better but that’s the idea.)

In any case, although I have limited time and energy beyond my job at this time, I hope to start doing some thinking and research about this exhibit idea. I want to do it for personal reasons, but I also think it would make a timely and useful statement for this time.

However that may be, this is written to express my profound gratitude and indebtedness to you for your lovely evocation of the brother I loved and suffered with and my admiration for your ability to evoke a time and an experience in a manner quite worthy, in my admittedly subjective view, of Leo Tolstoy.

Just beautiful. Thank you.

John Jacobs


[1] Literal translation is an “awkward hairy Soldier” but Landis uses it as a compliment implying that Deyo exhibited a sense of bohemianism and creativity.

[2] Spanish Naval Infantry.

[3] XI IB, as well as one of its battalion’s was known as the Thaelmann.


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Blast from the Past: Memories Tue, 17 Feb 2015 16:59:51 +0000 Smorodin

Abraham Smorodin, Mackenzie-Papineau, August 1938. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0232. Tamiment Library

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by ChrisThis week we pause over Abe Smorodin‘s recollection of some of the men with whom he shared his volunteer experience. 

A Hall of Memories
Abe Smorodin

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 9, No. 2, May 1987]

There is a particular hour each year, an hour of sadness and joy, of animated conversation and quiet rumination. It is the hour preceding our dinners when the Vets and our families and friends gather to renew old ties or occasionally forge new ones. The talk is now more medical than political. As the great hall fills with familiar faces we are assailed with the memories that have withstood a half century of wars, McCarthyite harassments and other pestilences.

There is Lou Gordon, who delighted the passengers aboard ship on the way to Spain when he banged out all four movements of the Beethoven Fifth on the ship piano – with one finger.  His brashness and self-confidence helped quell the uncertainty in one’s belly as we headed into the unknown. Today he picks away at the piano still with one finger preparing for the performance to come.

There is Jesse Wallach with whom in the rush of greeting new arrivals, I exchanged too few words. We pooled our blankets to keep alive in the chill of an Aragon winter. Jesse, who as we ate our usual garbanzos rations claimed that he dreamt nightly of neon-lit diner signs flashing that marvelous three letter word EAT.

There is Herb Freeman, who has spent uncounted hours reconstructing for his children a portrait of their Uncle Jack. So he persists in interviewing people with knowledge of Jack’s life and death.  How does one paint an adequate picture of a bunch of YCLERs on a warm summer night in a Williamsburg park listening to Jack reading from one of the funniest novels ever written – “The Little Golden Calf.”[1] How this Soviet satire on rampant bureaucracy delighted young radicals. Does anybody remember? And then on a quiet day behind the lines as we prepared to cross the Ebro, a fascist bullet ricocheted into that clever intelligent brain.

There is Saul Wellman with whom I had a swapping arrangement – my cigarette rations for his chocolates or on a real good day, a month old New Masses. Saul, another guy from my Williamsburg boyhood, who following Spain, participated in the Battle of Bastogne, was seriously wounded and took part in the route of our old enemy fascism.  Memories.

[1] The Little Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov was published in 1931 and translated into English a year later.


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Blast from the Past: Democracy in the Regiment de Tren? Tue, 10 Feb 2015 15:05:13 +0000 Ned Golumb

Ned Golumb in Spain, RA Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 900.

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. As momentous electoral changes crop up across the globe today, we post Don MacLeod‘s brief article detailing a transfer of power in the Regiment de Tren.


Democracy in the Regiment de Tren?
Don MacLeod

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 4, Number 1, 1982]

About a month before the Brunete offensive, tensions arose between the men and officers of the squadron, which culminated in a political meeting. After all beefs, justified and otherwise, were expressed, a motion was made and carried, to remove all present officers and elect all new ones!

The deposed officers were much upset and of course they raised the interesting question of whether they could be so arbitrarily fired. Somewhere they had heard that the democratic process was suspended in time of war.

The Estado Mayor of the 5th Army Corps must have been astonished to learn that their transportation division had just thrown out their officers and elected all new ones. No word of challenge came from any source on high and so the will of the squadron, democratically expressed became a fact.

Looking back after so many years, I cannot say whether the newly elected officers proved to be better than the old one would have been, because the old officers turned out to be pretty good guys too.

Probably Quentin Durward Clark would have inevitably risen to leadership whether elected that night of the meeting or not, because he was a natural leader. I can say with sincerity that there is no man of the squadron alive today who would not be overjoyed to know what happened to that wonderful guy. He survived the war, but disappeared afterwards.

I think our guys resented some of the officers who were appointed in the states. A young leader of a college peace strike, for example, could emerge in Spain as a 1st lieutenant. But this was indeed a dubious credential for a military leadership, even perhaps, a negative one, and it is understandable that the ordinary soldado would feel uncomfortable with such a leader.



Cracker Barrel (letters to the Editor of The Volunteer)

[The Volunteer, Volume 4, number 2, 1982]

Dear Ben,

. . .

Thoroughly enjoyed reading DonMcLeod’s account of the Regiment de Tren inasmuch as I was one of the “lesser lights” disposed of by having to surrender one of the few automatics issued. Eventually I ended up with the Battalion which was OK with me.

. . .


Ned Golumb


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Stained glass window to commemorate Belfast IBers Mon, 09 Feb 2015 01:19:44 +0000 Good news from Ireland:
The International Brigade Commemoration Committee is pleased to announce that in cooperation with the Belfast City Council a stained glass window will be unveiled later this year to the men from Belfast who went to join the International Brigades in Spain and to the men and women who supported Spanish Aid at home. We approached the council on this matter in 2013 and in March 2014, Councillors McCarthy and Webb moved the motion for this initiative. Subsequently a joint committee of Councillors representing six parties has been established, and the IBCC met with them on the 6th of February to welcome and discuss the project. The IBCC think that it is fitting that such a joint community approach is being taken on this matter. We believe that the initiative for a stained glass window to commemorate the International Brigaders will be the first of its kind throughout the island of Ireland and the UK. It is estimated that the unveiling will take place sometime in October (we aim not to clash with the IBMT AGM in Aberdeen on the 17th Oct.)


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Blast from the Past: A Love Story Tue, 03 Feb 2015 15:43:56 +0000
Jack Liffland

Jacob Liffland, topographer, Lincoln-Washington, April 1938 [1].

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. We follow up last week’s wonderful article with another by the same author, Leo Rosenberg. Here, Rosenberg sets his hand to describing the passionate yet doomed couple Sally Kahn and Jack Liffland who both ventured to Spain as volunteers. 

Sally and Jack – A Love Story
Leo Rosenberg

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 12, Number 1, May 1990.]

This won’t take long. It’s about two people I met in Spain more than fifty years ago. I knew this young couple only a short time, but my memory of them, and of their love for each other, remains as fresh in my mind and heart as if I had witnessed them only yesterday.

Let me tell you first about Sally. I met her during one of my hospitalizations. I had the good fortune to land in the ward which she tended. She had left her job in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital to volunteer for service in Spain with the American Hospital Unit. She was petite, dark-haired and attractive. Capable and conscientious, she took excellent care of her patients. She was a dynamo of energy, working hard and fast and pushing herself to the point where every so often she was forced to stop for a minute or two and rest. And when she relaxed and smiled or told us one of her little jokes, we laughed with her and were glad she was there taking care of us. No matter how tired she was, she never lost her warmth and good humor. It was impossible not to like and admire her.

We talked about many things, but what we did not know, because Sally never mentioned it, was that she was married and that her husband was here in Spain, serving like us, in the Brigades. One day a soldier who looked too healthy to be a patient walked into our ward. He looked around the room until his eyes found Sally. His face lit up and he walked over to where she was working, put his arms around her and hugged and kissed her. When he finally released her and she was able to catch her breath and talk, she turned to us and said,

“Boys, meet my husband Jack.”

For me, this was a moment filled with magic, and I was spell-bound. Here, in a hospital ward where every bed was occupied by someone whose loved ones were thousands of miles away, was living proof that the impossible could be made possible. A woman and her husband had overcome any number of obstacles to get here, refusing to permit even war to keep them apart.

They were together, fighting for the same cause, holding each other, expressing their love face to face instead of in a dream or in a letter that had to cross an ocean to reach its destination. I was very happy for them and for the way they showed their pride and affection in each other. They had earned the right to survive this war and live to go home to the States together, and I wanted to believe that they would indeed be lucky enough to have that happen.

Before Jack left, Sally brought him over to my bed and said, “I told Jack that he just had to meet you.” I asked, “Why?” She answered with a laugh, “Because you two are so much alike.” The next time Jack came to visit Sally he made it a point to come over and talk to me. We had no problem communicating with each other… Jack felt like talking, and I was a good listener. He told me that Sally had arrived in Spain first. He was tied up with projects and problems that he could not just abandon. When he was at last able to come he had traveled the same route most of us had used, across the Atlantic, through France, and over the Pyrenees. He had been assigned to Transport, and because of his mobility he was able to see Sally every once in awhile. He tried to time his visits so that they would not interfere with her work. He would appear when she was ending her shift or was already off-duty.

I liked them both. They were a finely matched pair. They were both personable, bright, witty, sensitive and sensible, and their opinions and statements were expressed clearly and logically, and showed understanding, tolerance and honesty. They recognized the difference between right and wrong, but theirs was not a world of extremes. They knew that there were gray areas between the black and white. I was just as open with them as they were with me. I told them my own doubts and reservations and concerns about certain political and military activities, and we discussed them calmly and reasonably. The one thing that we agreed upon without question was that we had come to Spain to do a job, and that we were staying, no matter what, until the job was finished.

As we discovered how many interests we had in common, and how similar were our likes and dislikes, we grew increasingly fond of each other, and were able to get together three more times before I left the hospital.

I saw them again about one month later. I was in Almansa, learning to be an artilleryman, when they interrupted the short leave that they had been given to visit me and, as they said, “spend some time with me.” It was a wonderful surprise. I was thinking, as we were saying good-bye, that they were two of the kindest and nicest people I had ever known.

The next time that I heard from them was in late January of 1938. I was in Teruel as one of eight replacements in a Czech anti-aircraft battery. I still remember how cold it was the day a truck drove up on the ice-covered road behind us and the driver stepped out of the cab and spoke to a soldier who turned and pointed to me. I watched the driver as he walked toward me. I had never seen him before.

“ Hi, “ he said, “Are you Leo Rosenberg?”

“Yes, I am”

“I’ve got something for you. I’ve been carrying it with me for weeks. You have been one tough man to find.”

“Yes, I know, I’ve been moving around a lot lately. What do I call you to thank you?”

“Just call me Jerry.”

He walked away and I looked at the two articles he had given me. One was a brown paper bag and the other was letter. I still have that letter. It is fifty-two years old and it is one of the few things that I took with me when I left Spain. I am going to let you read it, word for word, exactly as it was written, and maybe you’ll understand why I have saved and cherished it all these years.

January 1st

Dear Leo-

Sally and I are here in Albacete. She came in to be with me for a couple of days.

We are both well. But, to tell you the truth, you were on both our minds. So I am sending you a few cigarettes and Sally sends you the figs. I do hope you will enjoy both and am sorry I can’t do more.

I am working here and Sally is at Villanueva de la Jara, and we do manage to see each other at least once a week.Well Leo, old pal, there is not much news, but I wish you all the best for 1938 and after.

I am sending you the package with Jerry and I hope he’s honest and trustworthy enough not to be tempted in taking all the Luckies.

So long, kid. Good luck! And we both hope to see you soon.

Sally and Jack

When I finished reading I looked up and spotted Jerry just as he was climbing back into his truck. I called to him to wait. When I reached him I said:

“Jerry, please do me the favor of thanking Jack for me and tell him how grateful I am to him and Sally for the letter and the package.”

“Sorry, Leo, I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Aren’t you and Jack in the same outfit?”

“Yes, we were. Gosh, how I hate telling you this. I was sort of hoping that you already knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That Jack is missing. He’s been missing almost three weeks. He was bringing a load up to some front-line outfit at night and never got there. It was dark and he must have made a wrong turn into a wrong road and crossed over into Fascist territory. ” Nobody had seen him or the truck, since.

“Oh, my God! Poor Jack! Poor Sally!”

“Yes, Poor Jack! Poor Sally!”

Jerry started the motor, waved to me, and pulled away. He had sensed how I felt, and he had let me know how he felt.

After Teruel we were sent up north to Huesca, close to the French border and within sight of the Pyrenees. Whatever was expected in that area did not materialize and we moved out and went to Belchite. We got there just in time to see our front collapse. This was the beginning of the Big Retreat.

Months passed before I was able to find out something more, and it was not good news. Jack had never returned. Sally, mentally and physically sick and exhausted, had tried to keep working; finding that impossible, she had been forced to go home for rest and treatment.

I was with the last group of English-speaking Internationals to leave Spain. We disembarked in New York City on February 4, 1939, I had been away for almost two years, and it took me another year and more to adjust to civilian life. I spent much of the time trying to find out what had happened to Sally. Nobody seemed to know where she was or how or what she was doing. I had just about given up on the search when I found the one person in the entire city who seemed to know something about her. At least, he was able to give me her address. It was a building on lower Second Avenue, only a few streets from where my wife and I lived. Its former apartments had been converted into cheaply constructed, cheaply furnished single rooms and Sally was one of the tenants.

I had no way of notifying her in advance that I was coming to see her, so I went directly to the room that she occupied and knocked on the door, hoping she was in. She was, and she asked who was there, and I told her. She opened the door, stared at me and her eyes filled with tears. More than a couple of years had passed since we had last seen each other.

She had aged. She was still a young woman, but her face and her hair and her movements were those of a much older person. The ebullience which had been so much a part of her was gone and had been replaced by a sadness and depression that hurt me to witness. We started to talk, slowly and hesitantly at first, but soon the reservoirs of our memories and experiences burst open. Whatever restraints that had kept us from talking openly and honestly were washed away and our words and our tears flowed on and on. I had no idea whether our talk helped Sally, but I know that I said goodbye, after promising to come back soon, with an ache in my heart.

The story of Jack and Sally was not new to my wife. She had expressed her understanding and compassion when I had first told her about them and now, after learning what I had heard and observed during my visit. She said that she would like to meet Sally and see what she could do to help her. I thanked her, but said that perhaps it would be better if I asked Sally whether it would be all right to bring her with me. On my next visit I asked Sally and she agreed, saying that she would be happy to meet my wife.

From the moment they met, Sally and she seemed to take to each other. They had a long and friendly talk and Sally showed no hesitation or reluctance in answering the few questions that she was asked.

I knew that my wife was a kind and generous person, but I still was not prepared for what she said to me as we were walking home. She began by telling me that Sally did not look at all well, that she was sure that she was not eating properly, that she should not be alone, that she should be somewhere else so that she could be taken care of. I replied, “That’s all true, but what can we do about it?” Her answer to me was, “We can take her home with us. We have that extra bedroom where she can stay. She won’t be any problem, and I want to help her get well, if she’ll let me.”

I was deeply moved by her openhanded response. I just wondered how Sally would accept the offer, and whether she would allow herself to be pried out of her seclusion. When I expressed these uncertainties, her response was, “Let me talk to her – woman to woman. We’ll see.”

We dropped in on Sally the very next night. My wife did all the talking. She kept on until Sally ran out of objections. Finally, Sally looked at me as if to ask what I thought. “Sally,” I said, “ she is speaking for both of us.”

Sally became one of the family. She had her own room and the run of the apartment. She and my wife were like two sisters, the healthy one taking care of the ailing one.  Sally began to look better – a little more cheerful, a little less sad.  We were congratulating ourselves for having taken her out of the morbid environment in which she had hidden herself, and for having raised her self-esteem and helped her to regain her health and will to live. But it was all wishful thinking.

We could not believe what we were hearing when she told us that she was leaving. “Why?” we asked. “Have we done something wrong?” “You have done nothing wrong,” she answered. “You have been wonderful to me. I just have to be by myself for a while.”

She could not be dissuaded. We were very afraid of what being alone again would do to her, but we could not hold her against her will.

Actually, she went away to die. This young woman, once so full of life and spirit and love, had started to die back there in Spain when she realized that her husband was gone and would never return. Her love for humanity and her love for Jack were equal factors in her life. She never lost the former, but her loss of Jack and of his love slowly but surely killed her. When they told me that she was dead they said that her overtaxed heart had finally given way, but I knew that as bad as her heart must have been it was not the only cause of her death. She had also borne a heavy burden of pain, of sorrow, of loneliness and despair which had become too much for her exhausted mind and body to carry any further.

I mourned her,  and the thought that death had ended her suffering, had at last given peace and rest, was a scant and unsatisfactory comfort. Sally and Jack were two fine and decent people who had certainly deserved more than life had given them. They had given me their friendship and affection, and I wanted to give them something wonderful in return. I wished them a miracle, the best wish I could have for the, unreal and impossible as it was – the miracle that somewhere after death they would be together again and know the love and happiness that had been denied them for so many years.


[1] The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0164. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.


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Blast from the Past: The First Day Tue, 27 Jan 2015 14:47:07 +0000

Martin Hourihan, Adjutant Commander, Anglo-American Regiment and Mirko Markovics, Commander of the George Washington Battalion [1].

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. This week we feature a longer piece by Leo Rosenberg who describes the transformation of the George Washington Battalion from trainees to soldiers in the trial-by-fire of the 1937 assault on Villanueva de la Canada.



Our First Day
Leo Rosenberg
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 11, No. 1, 1989.]

After three long marches, one by day and two by night, the George Washington Battalion had reached the tree-covered hill from which it would launch its attack. It was the morning of July 6, 1937, and the men waited impatiently for the start of the offensive which was giving them the chance to engage in their first military action. They should have been exhausted, but they were so keyed-up that they had forgotten how tired and sleepy they really were. I looked at the faces around me and thought about the fact that just a few months ago their owners and I had been complete strangers. I had met some of them on a hike through the snow and ice of the Pyrenees, and found the others in the training camps of Madrigueras and Tarazona [2].

I knew that they had come to this foreign country, thousands of miles from their homes, because they wanted to do whatever they could do to save the people of Spain from the misery, the oppression, and the enslavement that a fascist victory would impose on them. I admired them all for their courage and commitment, but I had learned, as I got to know them better, that I could admire and yet dislike the same person. There were many with whom I felt friendly and comfortable, and there were others whose attitudes, behavior and general personality I found obnoxious and repulsive.

It was amazing that so few of us had ever worn a uniform or fired a gun before we came to Spain and yet, in the short time since our arrival, we had become a closely-knit and well-disciplined military organization. There were three English-speaking battalions in the 15th International Brigade. The Lincolns, the British and us. The three battalions would be fighting side by side as one regiment, in the coming battle. We knew what the Lincolns had done at Jarama and we wanted to be as good soldiers as they had proven themselves to be. The British Battalion contained a large number of well-seasoned veterans who had already seen plenty of action. We were the newcomers, green and untested, and we had our work cut out for us if we were going to carry our share of the load with the veterans in the other two battalions.

We had already been told that our first taste of action was going to be more than some minor skirmish. The Brunete offensive, in which we were to receive our initiation as a fighting unit, had been planned to relieve the enemy pressure on the almost-encircled city of Madrid by attacking, taking and holding, over an area of many square miles, as much territory as possible. The task assigned to us, together with the Lincolns and the British, was the capture of the town of Villanueva de la Canada, which lay directly in front of us and close enough so that we could see clearly the small houses and the large church, surmounted by a tall tower, which was to be the source of so much of our grief later that day. We and the British, with the Lincolns in reserve, would lead the assault as soon as our artillery and planes worked over the town and softened its defenses so that we could advance with a minimum of losses.
As we waited in the cool shade of the trees which sheltered us, we could see the blinding glare of the blazing sun that was throwing its searing heat on the area between us and the town. Except for a large field of growing wheat that was close to the bottom of our hill, the fields near the town seemed flat and barren as if whatever crops they had produced had recently been harvested.

Suddenly the quiet of what had been a peaceful morning was broken by the thunder of bursting artillery shells and aerial bombs that were falling not only on the target but on every town and village that lay within our view. Almost immediately we were given the order to move out. Our decent from our position presented no problem. Pinned down by the falling shells and bombs, the enemy troops in the town had evidently taken cover and there was no fire coming our way as we walked toward the wheat field through which we had to pass. I had reached the field and was about to enter when I noticed that the shelling and bombing had stopped. The planes and big guns had evidently finished their work here and were looking for other targets.

I was pushing my way through the stalks of wheat when I heard what I thought was a swarm of bees buzzing directly over my head. Somewhere near me I heard a loud scream and then a voice shouting “Get down.” I realized that it had been bullets and not bees that had been buzzing so close to me, and I lowered myself quickly, but it seemed as if the enemy fire was following me right to the ground. I had never been so frightened, and I panicked. I was sure that each bullet was being aimed directly at me and that I was doomed to be hit and die on the very spot on which I was lying. I had never been so close to death, and I was paralyzed with fear. Never before had I found myself in a situation where someone was shooting at me and trying to kill me, and I was not prepared to face this new and terrifying experience. I was shaking and bathed in sweat from the effort of trying to regain control of myself. I was trying desperately to understand why I was panicking so badly.

It was true that being so close to death was a new experience for me, but what had I expected? Back home when I had said good-bye to my wife, my family, and my friends, I had been ready to accept any dangers that I would face as a soldier in Spain. That was then, and thinking like that had been easy. But this was the here and now, the real world and the real war, and being shot at was one of the dangers that had finally caught up with me and which I would have to face, like it or not. What about those principles that were so much a part of my life: my love of freedom, my hatred of the exploiters and the oppressors, my hopes for a better world? Did I really believe in them or were they just lies and meaningless? No, I had meant every word and every thought, and nothing would ever change that.

What about the other men scattered around me in this field? I had liked and admired so many of them because I was sure that they felt as deeply as I did about the things in which I believed. They were my comrades, my friends. I could not let them down and I could not let myself down. What was the saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but once.” I was no hero but I knew that I would never be able to live with myself if I did not do the job, no matter what it cost, that I had come so far and given up so much to do.

I had been filled with fear and shame, and I had not been able to think straight. My thoughts were still jumbled, but now at least they were logical. I had asked myself a lot of questions and the answers that I had found had helped me make a decision which I knew was correct and would give me the peace of mind that I needed to face the future and whatever it presented. I had come here to be a soldier, and my conscience and sense of responsibility gave me no other alternative but to give it my best shot. If that meant being hurt or being killed, so be it!

When the enemy fire eased up, and the shouted order this time was “Let’s go,” I was prepared. I stood up and began to move forward with the other men. I notice that there were gaps around me, and I remembered the scream that I had heard earlier, but my fear had left me and I was at peace with myself. I had fought my own private war against the terror which had devastated me and almost cost me my mind, and nothing I would face from here on in could be worse than that. I was now what I wanted to be – a soldier, ready to do whatever was asked of me, and I was content and almost happy as I walked out of the field and toward the enemy.

We had advanced only a few hundred yards when the enemy fire began to intensify. We were being shot at not only from what appeared to be trenches in front of the town but also from the high windows of the church tower. We were completely exposed and the combination of rifle and machine-gun fire was creating a curtain through which it had become increasingly costly to penetrate. The fire was so heavy and so many of our men were being hit that we were forced to stop our advance and look for cover. The trouble was that the field where we had stopped was flat and the ground so hard that the only protection we could find or provide for ourselves were some stones and loose dirt that we were able to scrape together and place in front of our heads. Things could not have been much worse. We could not advance, we could not retreat, we had the poorest cover, we were hot and thirsty, and the firing never seemed to stop.

Through the long hours of the afternoon we lay there, held down so effectively that we could not do anything to help ourselves. Every once in a while I could hear a gasp or groan and I knew that another bullet had found its mark. Even though very little of the fear which I had suffered earlier still remained, I could not help wondering whether I would be the next one hit. I realized that this was dangerous thinking, and that I had to stop it.

I was new at this game but I learned enough to understand what it took to keep soldiering day after day without going crazy. I would have to acknowledge and agree that I had absolutely no say over what might happen to me. Fate, and only fate, would decide my future, and since I had no control over the decision, the only course that was left to me was to do the best that I could for as long as I could, and let the future take care of itself.

It seemed to take forever, but at last the afternoon was ending, the sun was setting and the evening shadows started to appear. As night came on the firing from the town seemed to lessen, and I was able to get up from the spot where I had lain motionless for so many hours and, light-headed and staggering began to relax from the tension of the long afternoon. Now it would be possible to get some food and water, and some rest, but first I had to see how my comrades had made out. I knew that there had been numerous casualties. I just did not know how many and who they were. As I walked around and looked and asked, I received shock after shock. So many wounded, so many dead! So many good men, so many good friends, so many that I would never see again. I began to cry, and walked off by myself because I could [not] stop the tears.

I had thought that the fighting was over for the day and would not be resumed until the next morning, but I was wrong. Somebody changed the signals and orders had come down that the town had to be taken that night. So, instead of the food and rest that we had expected, we found ourselves back in action. The Washington, the English, and the Lincolns together with what must have been the rest of the 15th Brigade, fought their way into the town and wiped out what remained of its defenses and defenders. Villanueva de la Canada was ours at last, but at what a cost!

That night, as I was falling asleep, I was thinking of my Battalion, and of how much it had seen and done and learned and gone through in just one day, and I thought of myself, a trainee yesterday, a soldier today, and what I had done and how I changed in the same short period. The men in the George Washington Battalion, including me, may have been rookies but we were all veterans that night!


[1] International Brigade Archive, Moscow: Select Images, Folder 191: Commanders of the 15th International Brigade, 1937-38, Box 2, Folder 17; ALBA Photo 177; ALBA Photo number 177-191043. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

[2] See “The Making of the Washington Battalion” for background on the training of the battalion.


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Honoring Limerick brigadistas and a British battalion commander Wed, 21 Jan 2015 11:46:31 +0000
This article appeared in the 38th issue of the newsletter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and is reprinted here with the IBMT’s permission.

From the Shannon to the Ebro: The Limerick men who went to fight Franco, the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust, September 2014;

Fighting for Republican Spain 1936-38: Frank Ryan and the Volunteers from Limerick in the International Brigades, Barry McLoughlin, September 2014.

ShannonThe weekend of September 12-14 saw a wonderful celebration of the legacy of the International Brigades in Limerick. It ranged from a book launch to a symposium, and from a concert by LIBMT patron Andy Irvine (including his newly composed song in honour of Frank Ryan) to the unveiling of a wonderful memorial at Limerick City Hall to the six Limerick International Brigade volunteers: Paddy Brady, Gerard Doyle, Frank Ryan, Joe Ryan, Maurice Emmet Ryan and Jim Woulfe. Attendances of up to 300 people were experienced from start to finish. Premises on the main and adjoining streets were bedecked with Spanish Republican flags. The Sunday morning parade through the city from the Limerick Mechanics’ Institute to the City Hall was led by a colour party from Ireland’s Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen, carrying both the Irish National Flag and the Flag of the Spanish Republic, followed by International Brigade banners of the Connolly Column, the British Battalion and the Tom Mann Centuria, as well as many trade union banners. The memorial was unveiled by Charlotte Ryan Wetton, a grandniece of Frank Ryan, and a wreath was laid by a sister of Joe Ryan. The oration was given by IBMT patron Jack O’Connor, General President of Ireland’s largest union, SIPTU.

Fighting-for-Republican-SpainHistorian Barry McLoughlin had originally been working on the LIBMT brochure, but a breakdown in his relations with the LIBMT last May resulted in the two books under review. In many ways, this has had a beneficial outcome for those wanting to learn a lot more about individual International Brigaders. Both books bring to life the stories of all six Limerick brigadistas, but particularly of three little known before now. LIBMT Secretary Tom Collopy tells the story of Joe Ryan, a December 1936 volunteer who would be wounded in mid-1937 and later lose his life in August 1941 when his British merchant navy ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. LIBMT Vice-Chairman Mike McNamara tells the story of Gerard Doyle, already promoted to sergeant when wounded at Belchite in July 1937, yet back in action by the end of the year at Teruel, but captured by the Fascists, along with Frank Ryan, at Calaceite in March 1938 and fated to be imprisoned in the notorious San Pedro concentration camp until released in a prisoner exchange in October 1938. IBMT trustee Danny Payne profiles the Liverpool-based but Limerick-born Paddy Brady who fought at both Jarama and Brunete, where he was wounded. IBMT trustee and historian Richard Baxell provides an overview of the Spanish War itself, while LIBMT PRO Ger McCloskey profiles both the International Brigades in general and the Irish involvement in particular.

Both books are well illustrated with photographs, many previously unpublished. Each book has its own respective strength. The LIBMT book is also a wonderful cultural miscellany, with a perceptive review by Pamela Cahill of Limerick writer Kate O’Brien’s 1937 book Farwell to Spain, together with poems by García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, John Liddy, John Cornford and Margot Heinemann, complemented by a biographical essay on Heinemann by her daughter Jane Bernal. McLoughlin’s strengths as a historian are evident in his coverage of the military aspects of the War, with the reader’s understanding greatly enhanced by the author’s reproduction of maps in respect of each of the military engagements described. His knowledge of German sources also provides for a greater understanding of Germany’s view of Ireland’s World War Two neutrality. He further concludes: “Fearghal Mc Garry, an expert on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War and on Frank Ryan’s life, writes (in his 2002 biography) of ‘Ryan’s decision to go to Germany’, and that he was a collaborator of the Germans.  A careful reading of the sources, I believe, would suggest that such statements are too unequivocal.” But McLoughlin’s soft comments are themselves too equivocal, avoiding either a critical analysis of the selective use of primary sources by McGarry, or reference to any corresponding secondary source. One such was my own point-by-point refutation of McGarry’s selective use of sources, posted on the website for over a decade, and again restated in my own chapter on Frank Ryan for the LIBMT book. I demonstrated that throughout his stay in Germany, as in Ireland and Spain previously, Frank Ryan remained a Connolly Socialist; that the Spanish Anti-Fascist War never left his thoughts, as evidenced on the very day of his death in June 1944; and that he was no collaborator, but rather his declared policy and practice was one of 100 per cent support for de Valera’s strategy of saving Ireland from both War and Fascism.

McLoughlin explains that his book was a rushed job, designed to be launched a week ahead of the LIBMT commemoration. In the LIBMT book Alan Warren is the author of the profile of the third of the unrelated Ryans among the Limerick brigadistas, Maurice Emmett Ryan, while the closing chapter of McLoughlin’s book is entitled “The Killing of Maurice Emmett Ryan”. McLoughlin admits he has no new information to add on that death. The fact that Ryan had been executed by British Battalion commander Sam Wild for firing on his own side has been in the public domain since the 1986 publication by Ian McDougall of Voices from the Spanish Civil War: Personal Recollections of Scottish Volunteers. Prior to that, International Brigade veterans had avoided all mention of that execution, including two of Ryan’s fellow Irish brigadistas on the Ebro front, Michael O’Riordan in Connolly Column (1979) and Eugene Downing in La Niña Bonita agus an Róisín Dubh (1986). But in a 2002 interview posted on the irelandscw website Downing finally did so, while O’Riordan republished that Downing interview in full in the second edition of Connolly Column in 2005. McLoughlin, however, complains that Scottish brigadista John Dunlop’s “version of the cause of Ryan’s final and fatal arrest has been accepted by historians”, and while having absolutely no additional evidence whatsoever to present, he nonetheless proceeds to present a new, sensationalist spin.

It is a pity that, in his rush to print, McLoughlin also engages in a rush to misjudgement. In his pre-launch press release McLoughlin claims: “The final chapter is the first attempt to describe in detail one of the most gruesome episodes that occurred in the British battalion: the semi-judicial murder of a Limerick volunteer, the machine-gunner Maurice Emmett Ryan during the Ebro battle in August 1938.” He further states in his introduction: “There was a sinister side, specifically ‘getting rid of troublemakers’ (assassination), as the case of Sergeant Emmett Ryan demonstrates.” Now, wild accusations of “semi-judicial murder” should not be made without evidence. Paul Preston, a superbly professional and conscientious, if often uncomfortable, historian of the Spanish Civil War, spent decades scrupulously and painstakingly weighing up the pros and cons of the forensic evidence in its unculled entirety, before arriving at a definite conclusion on the shared responsibility of the future Eurocommunist leader Santiago Carrillo, together with communist and anarchist forces, for what Preston described in his 2014 biography, The Last Stalinist: The Life of Santiago Carrillo, as the 2,200 to 2,500 “extra-judicial murders carried at Paracuellos” in November 1936. But McLoughlin throws his own allegation around like confetti, ignoring some of the evidence that he himself has presented, while culling more. The prosecutor and chief witness against Maurice Emmett Ryan would not for a moment have countenanced his execution merely for being a loud-mouthed and cynical shit-stirrer. Quite the contrary, John Dunlop had very much warmed to Ryan, saying of him: “And yet the man, although he was such a rogue, was an extremely likeable rogue.” Nor did Dunlop accuse Ryan of actually killing any fellow brigadista with his “friendly fire”, in which case summary execution without the slightest delay would have been more than justified. That accusation has, of course, been made, and was the subject matter of a controversy between Alan Warren and myself in July 2008 which was posted on both the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives digest and the irelandscw website. Warren related some gossip that Ryan had killed Lewis Clive, which I immediately refuted, with the evidence of my own father, Michael O’Riordan, who was right beside Clive when he was shot in the forehead by Fascist fire from the front, and not by any of Ryan’s fire from behind. I have never tolerated false accusations against Ryan, and in two separate publications in 2003, both of which were republished by my father in 2005, I thoroughly rejected any suggestion that Ryan was a Fascist agent.

Warren readily accepted my evidence that Ryan was innocent of Clive’s death, but now appears to be agnostic as to whether or not he was guilty of any drunken “friendly fire” at all. McLoughlin, however, insists that he was completely innocent. In the process he blackens Sam Wild’s character, accusing him of “semi-judicial murder”. There is a build-up. His account of the British battalion fiesta on 14 July 1938, and “the second event that throws a negative light on Wild’s leadership”, draws on the Billy Griffiths narrative reproduced in Angela Jackson’s 2008 book At the Margins of Mayhem. ‘Hooky’ Walker, the battalion cook with responsiblity for preparing the fiesta dinner, “had got into a hopeless alcoholic state in the morning” and had to be arrested, and “after the meal Wild returned and subjected ‘Hooky’ to an unmerciful beating”. McLoughlin, however, in contrast to Jackson, stops short of continuing the Griffiths narrative: “In a few days, they made up and carried on as if nothing had happened.” But surely Wild’s behaviour that evening was also a reaction to the outcome of McLoughlin’s first “negative light” event of the fiesta, the machine-gun competition that took place, with a considerable amount of drink also taken, between Maurice Ryan and Gordon Bennett, when a failure to clear the gun chamber of bullets resulted in the accidental but fatal wounding of a Spanish Republican soldier and a refusal by the incensed Spaniards to allow any British battalion presence at his funeral.

Both Warren and McLoughlin state that it is not clear whose gun went off. There is, however, a balance of probability. Warren’s account displays a photograph of Ryan operating his machine-gun at the fiesta, but omits to complement it with the second photo that had accompanied it in Jackson’s book, of the self-same Ryan attending to the dying Spanish Republican. While Ryan was undoubtedly upset by the death that resulted from such irresponsible and drunken mismanagement of a machine-gun, it is regrettable that its fatal consequences did not now have a sobering effect on him. Quite the contrary, to such an extent that McLoughlin would have us believe that Ryan was incapable of firing even a single bullet in that end-July unsuccessful assault on Hill 481, with so many British battalion dead, and O’Riordan and Downing among those wounded. McLoughlin argues for “the strong likelihood that Ryan was not firing the gun at all but enjoying a siesta with a bottle of wine”. But such a “fiesta to siesta” portrayal of Hill 481’s bloody battle totally ignores the account in my July 2008 posting of the eyewitness testimony given to me by John Dunlop himself in Glasgow in October 2003. In the wake of reporting to Sam Wild that he had come under fire from a gun on his own side, Dunlop told me that “when he and others subsequently came back to investigate what on earth lay behind that occurrence, they found a drunken Maurice Ryan fast asleep beside his machine-gun, together with the spent belt of his erratic, but mercifully off-target, fire.”

Sam Wild did not shoot Ryan on the spot, although that would not have been an unreasonable temptation. Instead, another five days elapsed, as Wild sought to have Ryan formally court-martialled behind the lines. In the midst of such a fight-to-the-death battle, this was quite impractical, and the order came back for Wild to sort it out himself. In his 1999 book, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, Robert Stradling more realistically recounted how hurried consultations among the Brigade’s field officers “in effect constituted a drum-head court martial” but, as the battle raged on, “nor could even a firing squad be spared from among the men on Hill 481. Thus, Sam Wild and his adjutant volunteered to carry out the grim duty.” Downing and O’Riordan were hospitalised at the time, having been wounded in the previous week’s fighting, but Wild asked fellow-Irish brigadista Jim Prendergast to explain to them on their return from Spain both the details and the necessity of what Wild himself undoubtedly regarded as his “grim duty”.

McLoughlin otherwise notes that Sam Wild was “arguably the most popular leader in the history of the British battalion.” I know not of a single member of that battalion who would have ever subscribed to a character assassination of him as a semi-judicial murderer. Ryan had not been executed for any thoughts or words uttered, but for his potentially lethal actions. McLoughlin misses the point of the precise words in the poem by fellow Ebro brigadista James Jump recalling his own warm friendship with Ryan: “Though I do not condone what you did… you were a fine machine-gunner when you were not sleeping off the effects of drunkenness.” Ryan had been a courageous brigadista, and McLoughlin rightly pays tribute to both his heroism and his proficiency as a machine-gunner during the previous winter’s battle of Teruel. But I know not of a single brigadista who would subscribe to McLoughlin’s contention that Ryan had not drunkenly fired on his own side on Hill 481. Nor, despite appearances, does McLoughlin know of any. In fairness to Warren, he at least retains the integrity of some key remarks by Downing, quoting in full what followed after his conclusion that “vino was his downfall”. McLoughlin, however, completely omits any reference to the very next sentence, where Downing added, without any shadow of a doubt over his own considered conclusions: “During the Ebro battle he turned his gun on his own comrades while roaring drunk.”

It is a pity that McLoughlin’s book is marred by character assassination, for it otherwise has much to offer, not least in respect of the one Limerick volunteer to be killed in action, Jim Woulfe. Previous histories had said little more than that he had been fatally wounded by a grenade at the battle of Belchite in August 1937. Barry McLoughlin, as well as David Convery for the LIBMT book, have each now reproduced the eyewitness account by Woulfe’s Canadian comrade-in-arms Peter Nielsen that pinpoints the spot outside the church of San Agustín where he had fallen, with McLoughlin providing the map and Convery the photograph of that church. It is thanks to both of them that, during the IBMT visit to the battlefields of Aragon this October, I was able to pay a Connolly Column tribute to Jim Woulfe at that precise spot in Belchite where he had given his life in defence of the Spanish Republic.

Manus O’Riordan is Ireland Secretary of the International Brigades Memorial Trust





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Blast from the Past: Two Memorial Poems Tue, 20 Jan 2015 15:11:49 +0000 Louis Ladman

Louis Ladman, clipping likely from the Daily Worker, VALB/ALBA.

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. Here we reproduce two poems written by Ida Gill in memory of Abraham Lincoln Brigade Volunteer Louis Ladman. They were originally published in December 1983. 


Poems in Memory of Louis Ladman
Ida Gill

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 5, Number 3, December 1983.]

Louis Ladman was a volunteer from Jamaica, Queens. He was the first to go from that community and the first to die. He was a veteran of World War I, a garment worker, and a constant activist.

Upon the news of his death in 1937 Ida Gil (at that time, Ida Levine) wrote a series of poems. They existed in typewritten form, with carbon copies circulationg until September 1982, when Ida’s two sons and her brother presented her with one hundred clothbound printed copies of her poems. In a personal letter she has written, “It was the greatest surprise and satisfaction of my life. At last my Louis was shown in the rightful setting for his greatness.”

Ida Gil is 85, and lives today in La Mesa, California.


From Poem number 10:

One day I turned the corner

And met a woman, an acquaintance

I did not want to linger with her

I was impatient to reach the mail-box

Your long silence and my hope urging me onward

But after our mutual greeting

The woman spoke further

And the news she told me forever banished

Your presence on that street when I turn the corner

And made of the mail-box a useless object.


Poem 23:

Louis Darling –

You did not die by accident or illness

You did not die of old age or despair

No worn out body, tired of living,

No aching limbs, tired of burdens,

No mind discouraged, melancholy.


You did not wait for death to claim you

You chose your time to die.

Death me a body in the promise of manhood.

Death me a mind, healthy, heroic,

Death comes to man in many guises,

Your dying has death ennobled

Your sacrifice has given death a purpose


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Blast from the Past: The Unknown Contingent Tue, 13 Jan 2015 14:58:10 +0000 Ken Graeber

Kenneth Graeber in Spain, RA Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 902.

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. The third installment is a piece from Ken Graeber on the International Brigades’ reserve ambulance corps. It was originally published in February 1991. 


The Unknown Contingent

Ken Graeber

[Originally published in The Volunteer, v. 13, no. 2, February 1991]

I want to tell you something about an organization whose name I have never yet seen in print.

I cannot tell you when the First Group of Evacuation (officially el Grupo de Evacuacion Numero Uno) was formed, nor who was its first chief officer, but its function was clear – to serve as a reserve ambulance group for the entire International Brigade (IB). This meant, in practice, that these ambulances were sent to any front at which any unit of the IB was in action.

I came to Spain in late June 1937. I spent about a week in late June 1937. I spent about a week in Tarazona, training with the Mackenzie –Papineau Battalion. It was learned that I could drive, ambulance drivers were needed, and so one morning I was sent to the Plaza. There I found a medium-sized ambulance waiting with the driver, Taini, and a very self-confident individual named Harry Wilkes. A total of nine drivers were chosen and within an hour we were on our way to the French border.

At Port Bou nine new Americans ambulances were waiting, and we drove them all the way to Vill Paz, stopping overnight in Barcelona on the way. The drivers were Sam Abramson[1], Roy Braden, Chilingarian[2], Luchell McDaniels (believe it or not), Bernie Gerber, myself and some other guys whose names I cannot remember. We hung around Villa Paz for a few days. There is a gap in my memory here. I remember being in Albacete for a day or two with this same small group of drivers. If I were to guess, I would say that it was about this time that the Group of Evacuation came into existence as a formal military unit. Memory returns with me sitting high in the cab of a large evacuation ambulance, in the middle of a huge convoy along the coastal road. We are on our way to the Aragon front, but we know nothing of our destination.

We arrived too late to help at the battle of Quinto. Turning back, we drove slowly up the Mediana road in the direction of Belchite, passing the Lincolns who were moving in the same direction through the fields alongside the road. I was able to exchange a few words – for the last time – with Don Henry.

A little farther on we pulled the ambulance off the road to park on the sides of a small arroyo which led to a large culvert under the highway.

I was walking up the slope toward my ambulance when five Fiat airplanes suddenly appeared. As they came in over the highway, flying very low, the flight leader apparently spotted our ambulances and turned. The other planes followed until they almost formed a circle. As each one came into position, the pilot fired his machine guns.

I lay out on the open hillside in the middle of this rain of hundreds – oh, what the hell – thousands of bullets, ricochets, and flying rock fragments and tried to dig a hole in the rock with my bare hands. The Fiats made two or three passes and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Never had so much lead been expended to so little purpose.

As for me, I decided I was immortal.

When the attack on Belchite began, we drove there and under the instructions of some tactical genius, parked these large truck-like ambulances in an olive grove within medium rifle range of the church tower. Thus at Belchite, evacuation ambulances were used on the front.

The hospital was under a large tent just outside Azaila. We drove our wounded back down the road, cut off through Codo and then across some fields to avoid the torn-up road and up the cliff road to the town.

Even yet I find it difficult to put into words how I felt driving my first load of wounded. The roads were pitted, cratered and in places unusable, and the truck springs on those ambulances didn’t help much. I felt, somewhere inside, every jolt and every bump and felt guiltily responsible for every one of them. The pain I was causing those poor guys in the back almost panicked me. At the hospital I found my hands were white and almost frozen to the steering wheel. I got over this of course. Had I not, I would not have been able to function.

We remained at Belchite for a week after the battle, and the drove to the I. B. base hospital at Benicasim, our base as well. I discovered that I was changing color, turning yellow. I was hospitalized with jaundice and was in the hospital when the wounded from the disaster at Fuentes de Ebro came flooding in.

Awaiting discharge in the office, I overheard the following conversation.

First voice: “Send him to Battalion.”

Second voice: “We can’t do that. Grosfelt says he is one of his men.”

This was the first time I heard the name of Dr. Grosfelt[3], who had, after his relief by Dr. Grunblatt[4] at Brunete, been assigned the task of organizing or reorganizing the First Group of Evacuation. It is my personal belief that he did a competent, if not excellent job.

Dr. Grosfelt spoke Polish, German and French, but no Spanish or English. He quickly discovered that my Spanish was good an that I could understand his (rather bad) German, and so I was often called on by him to serve as his “lucky” driver, since nothing bad ever happened to him when he was riding with me. “Er hat Gluck,” I overheard him say to a friend.

Because of his attitude, I was not sent out to front-line units as often as most of the other drivers, something I resented. However, I did see more of Spain, than most Internationals and, I think, almost every hospital.

Headquarters staff consisted of a number of Germans, whose function I never really knew, a Bulgarian commissar, a Rumanian paymaster, a couple of motorcyclists who were German, and two young Spaniards named Diego and Felipe. The unforgettable Joe Maier, a German-American and a man much admired by all of us, was a “responsible,” of exactly what I never knew.

There were Danish, Czech and German drivers and one ex-Palestinian bus driver names (I think) Gutman. However, the majority of the drivers were Canadian or American. They were neither members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, nor of the Medical Bureau; and this is why so little is known of them. There is no mention of them in Landis’ book nor, to my knowledge, anywhere else. Yet these Americans too made an important medical contribution.


[1]Sam Abramson b. 1909, was a Canadian volunteer from Montreal, a high school graduate he worked as a driver and writer, he survived the SCW and served in the US Army during WWII.

[2]Unidentified volunteer.

[3]Commander of the First Group of Evacuation.

[4]Dr. Jacques Grunblatt was born in 1910 in Kolomyja, Poland and studied medicine in France. He initially served with an International Cavalry squadron on the Jarama Front, after his unit was destroyed in combat he was transferred to the XV Brigade as the BN doctor for the 24th Battalion. He joined the French Army and served until fall of France in 1940. He escaped to Mexico and moved to the United States in 1946. Grundblatt had a private practice as a rural doctor, retiring in 1975. He died January 14, 1898 in Manzanillo, Mexico.


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Blast from the Past: I Didn’t Shoot Him Tue, 06 Jan 2015 16:22:51 +0000 Collow Maury

From a group photograph taken during the opening day of the Ebro Offensive, ALBA/VALB.

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. For this next installment, here is Maury Colow’s reflection on a decision made through rifle-sights which ran in July 1985.

I Didn’t Shoot Him

By Maury Colow

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 7, No. 2, July 1985.]

War evokes memories. If you live, you remember. Now that almost half a century has passed, memories come back as though it all happened yesterday.

I have a story to tell that I’ve kept hidden all these years. I had a conflict relating it … mixed feelings, guilt feelings, no matter, now it’s time.

My Company 2 of the Mac-Paps was advancing through the barrancas approaching Gandesa during the final crossing of the Ebro. I was a scout and had a trusting relationship with my Company Commander, Henry Mack. We had crossed the Ebro without casualty. However on the enemy side, we were hit by heavy artillery and took many casualties. In addition, we were practically out of ammunition, machine guns and food. After a heavy mortar barrage, Henry Mack asked me to scout ahead; to note where the enemy was and to gather information. I was only to fire in self-defense.

The terrain was lush. Rolling hills full of flowers and deep green grass. I had that morbid feeling that always seemed to occur to me in these circumstances. What a beautiful and strange place to die. I moved out in full daylight. The countryside was quiet. Off in the distance I could hear the rat-ta-tat of a machine gun and muffled artillery fire. I hugged whatever shadow I could find and silently moved forward. I made sure my steps did not snap twigs and dry leaves (a dead giveaway of my position). I approached a large meadow with a rise of hills behind. I headed for a clump of bushes knowing they were good cover as well as an observation point. It was pastoral and peaceful with a delightful end-of-summer smell. I felt at peace with the world.

Suddenly with my ear close to the earth, I heard footsteps. Within a minute I saw a soldier some 100 feet away. He turned toward the bush and my finger moved on the trigger. I was never a great marksman but with the hairline telescopic sight of my Mauser, I wasn’t bad. I could see him so clearly. I saw every pimple on his face. He was shabby, needed a shave and he had bags under his red eyes. He looked worn out and haggard. His clothes were torn. He had a frightened and sad look about him. I zeroed in on his head and I thought, as my heart pounded, if he comes a few steps closer, I’ll fire. It was as though I held his life in my hands. I waited. He didn’t move any closer and I couldn’t shoot him, yet I was in conflict, another part of me said shoot, shoot.

I watched him as he walked away and noted where he entered his lines. Afterwards, my rationale was that Henry Mack wanted the information and perhaps that was why I didn’t fire. After all these years, I remember that afternoon near Gandesa and I’m glad I didn’t shoot that poor bastard.


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