The Volunteer Founded by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Wed, 21 Jan 2015 11:47:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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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Book Review: Irish volunteers in Spain Tue, 30 Dec 2014 14:00:58 +0000 Fighting for Republican Spain, 1936-38, Frank Ryan and the Volunteers from Limerick in the International Brigade, Ireland:  Barry McLoughlin, 2014.  ]]> Fighting-for-Republican-Spain

Barry McLoughlin, Fighting for Republican Spain, 1936-38, Frank Ryan and the Volunteers from Limerick in the International Brigade, Ireland:  Barry McLoughlin, 2014.  ISBN 978-1-291-96839-2

Fighting for Republican Spain, 1936-38, is a worthy book that adds significantly to the historiography of the International Brigades.  McLoughlin’s self-published Fighting for Republican Spain to coincide with a celebration of Limerick volunteers organized by the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust [1].  The core of this well-researched work is a regional study of six Limerick volunteers:  Frank Ryan, Maurice Emmett Ryan, Jim Woulf, Gerrard Doyle, Patrick Brady, and Joseph Ryan.  Of the six: two died in Spain, two were captured by the Nationalists, one was sent home categorized as “useless,” and one was repatriated due to wounds.   All six were born in Limerick, but were living in other cities or outside of Ireland when they left for Spain.  The book makes extensive use of local source material as well as the International Brigade records from the Moscow Archives. These resources inform both his discussions of the Irish political landscape and the biographical sketches he incorporated for 230 Irish volunteers.

Frank Ryan and John Robinson, Oct. 1937. ALBA Photo 011,11_0759, Tamiment Library.

Frank Ryan and John Robinson, Oct. 1937. ALBA Photo 011,11_0759, Tamiment Library.

Frank Ryan is the central figure in Fighting for Republican Spain. The first chapters of the book interweave Frank Ryan’s background with an overview of Irish politics in the 1930s.  This sets the stage for discussion of the Spanish Civil War including Ryan’s capture during The Retreats. This portion of the book primarily focuses on Ryan within the context of the British Battalion’s service. McLoughlin discusses Ryan’s time as a POW, his post-war transfer from Spanish prison to Germany, and subsequent, sometimes controversial without passing judgment. His approach allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

Two other Limerick volunteers receive multi-page coverage.  Jim Woulf, who went to Spain from Canada, was severely wounded by a grenade that ripped off most of his jaw during the vicious house-to-house struggle for Belchite.  The coverage of Woulf notes his background, the fatal wound he suffered at Belchite, and the impact his death had on his family in Ireland.    Maurice Emmett Ryan also died in Spain.  His death was controversial because he was executed by Republican forces, a fact that received little press at the time.  McLoughlin devotes an entire chapter to discuss the timeline and events surrounding Ryan’s execution.  In the discussion he implies that Ryan’s execution may have resulted more from suspicions aroused by his socioeconomic background than from the reputed charge of firing on his own men while intoxicated. McLoughlin notes that primary and secondary sources on the three remaining Limerick volunteers provide little information.  Consequently, the text mentions them only in passing.

American readers will find McLoughlin’s coverage of the voluntary transfer of Irish volunteers from the British Battalion to the American Lincoln Battalion of interest.    Twenty-one Irish volunteers voted to transfer after a rancorous meeting with the British Battalion leadership.   This controversial exodus took place while Ryan was away from the Battalion. The Irish volunteers formed a section with the addition of Americans of Irish descent and a few of dubious lineage like Milty O’Goldstein. Several of the Irish who transferred advanced to important leadership positions within the Lincoln Battalion.  The section ceased to exist after the Brunete campaign due to the high rate of casualties.

McLoughlin’s inclusion of biographical sketches of 230 Irish volunteers in the last two chapters elevates this work’s importance. He analyzes data on Irish volunteers identifying this population as those who were either born or lived for a period in Ireland. Most Irish volunteers went to Spain from other nations: 123 from Britain; 30 from Canada; 12 from USA; and 6 from other countries.  Sixty-nine Irish volunteers died in Spain.

[1] During the L-IMBT event, From the Shannon to the Ebro, held in September 2014 a sandstone sculpted memorial to the six volunteers was unveiled at the Limerick City Hall.

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Blast from the past: Si Podolin on John Delehanty Mon, 29 Dec 2014 20:05:50 +0000 Isia (Si) Podolin

Isia (Si) Podolin. Photograph from the Camden, NJ Courier.

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 ChrisHere, to start, is a piece by Si Podolin on John Delehanty, aka “Dely,” which ran in February 1987. 


By Si Podolin

[Originally Published in The Volunteer, v. 9, no. 1, February 1987]

I received a letter from John Delehanty’s mother. Would I please tell her about her son? How he died? Did he suffer? How did we live in the John Brown Battery? The letter broke my heart. What could I tell her?

Dely was killed aboard a Liberty Ship, along with some thirty-eight shipmates off Bear Island, on the Murmansk run.[1] No one suffers when an ammunition ship is hit. She is loaded like a sea-going torpedo. The forepeak compartment, fo’rd of number one hold carries the block-buster fuses, delicate stuff like TNT and nitro glycerin, mustard gas; next come the blockbusters in number one, two, three, four and five holds. She might burn a few minutes, a few seconds, then she disintegrates like and atomic bomb, more violent than the explosion of The Challenger. As a rule all hands go with her, and it is better that way.

I took a case of butts to the hospital in Grenock where shipmates were taken after they were fished out of the Arctic waters.[2] All amputation cases. One leg gone, two legs, ears, noses, one sailor with legs carrying another with none. I had one hell of a time holding back my tears until I got outside.

I had more luck than Dely.  We took a torpedo in number one hold, fourteen miles out of Bone, North Africa, but we had already unloaded our hot cargo.  The eighteen hundred Italian prisoners we were carrying had less luck. Four-hundred-eighty-four of them blown to pieces. A bloody seagoing slaughter-house. The ship’s dog gnawing a human jawbone on deck, holding it in place with his bloody forepaws.

But this story is about Dely. He was a proletarian thespians from a WPA project in Akron, Ohio. We held down the battery’s observation post on the Toledo Front.  We had dug a trench from the Spanish infantry line out into no-man’s land for about fifty meters. We had a powerful French artillery boussole [compass] and could spot people in the streets of Toledo; nuns, monks, priests, Falangists with their red berets, even the battered Alcazar Fortress on the other side of the Tagus river. Some river! If all the men in the battery pissed together they would make more water than flowed in the Tagus river.

Our job was to count all outgoing and ingoing traffic to detect a possible buildup for an attack on Madrid. On a clear day we could make out, in the distance, the capital, its white building reflecting the sun, rising out of the misty earth like a phantom city in a children’s book.

When Dely and I were not in our observation post, we holed up in a chavola [shelter] dug into the side of the main trench. It was a tough winter.

We burned green wood in the dugout, cut from the olive grove in which the trenches were located. The smoke was unbearable; day and night we were half asphyxiated.  Lucky we had the commissar of the Spanish Brigade with us.  He played the guitar and sang wonderful folksongs.

It was from our observation post above Toledo that we observed the first shot fired in anger by the John Brown Battery. Our underground in Toledo said the 156 hit the cathedral; others said it hit the oldest synagogue in Europe, others said it was a Casa de las Putas [House of Whores].

Because of the numbing cold it was an heroic effort to relieve ones bowels. First of all you had to climb over the parapet to get to the chiotte [latrine], and you stood a good chance of getting knocked off by a sniper. Secondly, and more dangerous, was the possibility of going down with a pair of frost-bitten cojones [testicles/balls]. Dely said it didn’t matter because we had no immediate use for our cojones anyway.

After we fired our one shell the fascist artillery, perhaps a dozen pounded the trenches and the hills behind them for hours, searching for the John Brown Battery. If they ever saw our antique, Russian artillery pieces – we called them Tukechevsky’s last stand – they would not have wasted a single shell on them.[3]  They were vintage Napoleonic Wars, with new breeches build into them. No recoil, except on their shaky wooden wheels. They came plunging back like some prehistoric monster and God help the poor sadsack who did not get his ass out of the way.

The lines, at some points, between our observation post and the Franco lines were not more than a good stone’s throw apart, and the fascists used to shout: “Rojos Cabrones! Hijos de putas!”, which would echo in the hills. “Putas!Putas!Putas!” Dely would yell back: “Fascists Mother F@#$%^s.” Echo: “F@#$%^s! F@#$%^s! F@#$%^s!”

“That’ll hold the bastards he would add. You know how the Latin people worship their mothers?”-

In 1942 Dely and I made the same troop carrier, The Brazil.  We were carrying over five thousand GIs and six hundred nurses to the South Pacific. And was there frigging in the rigging! The poor crew stood by with their tongues hanging out, watching some of the most redoubtable fornication conceivable.

The day before we sailed Dely was dragged off the ship, kicking and screaming, by the FBI. He was a premature anti-fascist. The old Thespian had no intention of piling off peacefully.

“Lousy homegrown fascists,” he bellowed. “whose F@#$%^g side are you on anyway?”

Many times during the war I asked myself the same question.

Why didn’t they drag me off, too? I too had been branded a premature anti-fascist. I even won a book for recruiting aboard The Brazil. It was one written by Stalin. On the other hand if I had been dragged off I would have been on the Murmansk run with Dely.


[1] John Alphonse Delehanty was killed when the Mary Luckenbach was torpedoed on September 14, 1942. American Merchant Marine at War, US Merchant Marine Casualties During World War II

[2] Greenock, Scotland, Ravenscraig Hospital was requisitioned by the Admiralty after the outbreak of WWII. In 1941, the Canadian Navy took over the hospital. BBC, WW2 People’s War,


[3] Mikhayl Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky was the Soviet officer responsible for the modernization of the Soviet Army. Encyclopedia Britannica,


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Del Berg Interviewed by Friends and Neighbors Mon, 29 Dec 2014 16:53:15 +0000 del cover photo

Photos by Phil Schermeister, courtesy of Friends and Neighbors Magazine, Sonora, CA.

In its winter 2014/2015 edition, the quarterly magazine Friends and Neighbors which celebrates the “boomers and seniors” of central California profiled the last surviving Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Del Berg. In the article Berg speaks about his early life in the Oregon farmlands, his decision to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain in 1938, and his life-long dedication to political activism.

“Deep inside of me I wanted to do what I could to stop fascism. Having grown up as a poor farm kid, I could relate to what was happening in Spain. I was thoroughly committed to going there and helping,” says Berg in the profile which is accompanied by wonderful photos of Berg today and in Spain.

Click here to read the entire story as a PDF.


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Including ALBA in your will Wed, 17 Dec 2014 22:47:49 +0000 alba_logoMaking gifts to ALBA in your will is an important source of funding to continue our work. A gift in your will keeps our educational programs growing in the long term. While gifts for specific purposes are always welcome, ALBA is especially grateful for unrestricted gifts that can be used where they are needed most.

To include ALBA in your will, share this paragraph with your attorney:

I hereby give, devise and bequeath to Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), with offices at 799 Broadway, Suite 341, New York, NY 10003 and federal tax ID 13-2996513, or its successors in interest, the sum of $ ( dollars), exclusive of my lifetime donations, if any, to be used for its most urgent needs as determined by its board of governors in their sole discretion.

Alternatively, you can donate a percentage. Ask your attorney about a gift from your residual estate.

To learn more about a gift in your will, contact executive director Marina Garde at 212-674-5398 or


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ALBA announces matching gift program Wed, 17 Dec 2014 22:39:48 +0000 picDouble your donation! As a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, ALBA is eligible for many employers’ matching gifts programs. Many companies sponsor matching gift programs that allow their employees to make donations to charitable organizations, which the company then doubles or, in some cases, triples! Be sure to submit your ALBA receipts to your Human Resources department to see if your gift can be matched.

Your Matching Gift Makes a Difference! All matching gifts made to ALBA support our efforts to preserve the legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Your generosity makes inspirational programs, like our Teaching Institutes, possible.

Thank you for your dedicated commitment to the cause!


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Book Review: The Stranger in the Attic Wed, 17 Dec 2014 21:19:30 +0000 The Stranger in the Attic: Finding a Lost Brother in His Letters Home (Lexington, KY: Jacobs, 2013).]]> The-Stranger-in-the-AtticJohn Kedzie Jacobs, The Stranger in the Attic: Finding a Lost Brother in His Letters Home (Lexington, KY: Jacobs, 2013).

At the end of his physical strength, the Lincoln volunteer Edward Deyo Jacobs was too exhausted to continue running away from the encircling enemy armies during the Retreats of March 1938.  His close friend and fellow artist Doug Taylor elected to stay with him.  They were both swept up by the advancing Nationalists and neither was ever heard from again.

Veteran Arthur Landis authored an article on Jacobs that was published in The Volunteer and is reproduced in this new book.  He concluded the article by noting, “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.”

Now, in The Stranger in the Attic, John Kedzie Jacobs, Edward’s older brother, provides the previously missing story behind the story, using a framework based on letters John Jacobs found in the attic of his family home. These letters written by and to Edward, include those from his friends and family beginning during his childhood in upstate New York and continuing until shortly before his death. John Jacobs does an exceptional job interweaving family history and the letters.

After graduating from high school, Edward enrolled in the Art Students League in Manhattan.  He grew into a talented artist who signed his work Deyo. Jacobs’s letters from New York deal with diverse subjects, including learning about art, life, and making a living during the Great Depression. In 1935, he and Doug Taylor rode the rails to Salt Lake City. The same year he joined the Communist Party.

Edward Jacobs volunteered when the Spanish Civil War broke out and the Communist Party began to recruit volunteers for the International Brigades. He arrived in Spain in early March 1937. Jacobs served on the Jarama Front, at Fuentes de Ebro, Teruel, and the Retreats. His roles were varied and included those of rifleman, staff artist, and topographer. While Jacobs’s letters from Spain make up only a small portion of The Stranger in the Attic, they provide greater insight into his service in Spain.  When family and friends ceased to receive letters, their hope gradually turned to grief. 

The Stranger in the Attic is a powerful addition to the growing library on Spanish Civil War volunteers.  It is both a celebration of life and a poignant reflection of an older brother lost in a foreign war and the subsequent impact on his family.

Chris Brooks, a longtime Board member, directs ALBA’s biographical dictionary project.

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