lunes, 19 de noviembre de 2012

4 km in Belchite

En español

Text, comments and photographs are subject to copyright. Their use is permitted for altruistic ends and provided the source is quoted; for any other ends please contact the authors: Jaime Cinca Yago (34) 976574205 or Samuel Basterra Montserrat (34) 961681612

Fausto Villar Esteban recounts his involvement in the spanish civil war as member of the Lincoln Battalion, part of the XV International Brigade, in memoirs that till today remain unpublished entitled “A little valencian in the Lincoln Brigade and…” a copy of which has been given to us by Mrs. María del Carmen Varona Aguado, Fausto Villar’s widow, in her yearning to see accomplished her husband’s wish of having them published, something so far frustrated by the selfish pursuits of third party individuals.

The object of this essay is to illustrate with photographs and explain with comments the original Fausto’s story so that the reader may understand it better and even visit the places where Fausto was. Only reproduced in the essay is the beginning of this unit’s spectacular retreat from the hermitage of El Pueyo to Belchite.

Our comments appear in roman characters or in brackets and the original Fausto Villar’s text always in italics.

Fausto was born in Utiel (Valencia) on 15 december, 1917; he is therefore 19 years old when he and five hundred more lads leave Valencia on 17 october, 1937 to join the International Brigades in Quinto de Ebro, 125 per battalion. After sauntering through several villages in the provinces of Zaragoza and Teruel and taking part in armed conflicts in Celadas, west of Teruel and Segura de los Baños, his unit is sent at the beginning of march 1938 to the front of Belchite where it faced the great Aragon offensive of Franco’s armies.
Let us see how he recounts this:

.../... Footsore and with our feet pulverised, we arrive in Belchite at eight o’clock in the morning and deploy in the vicinity.
Naturally we spend the entire day tending to our feet and resting up completely.

The next day we establish ourselves to the south of Belchite; our officers start to work us non-stop.

It falls to me to resume the classes I give in my capacity (in the lulls between fighting only) as Spanish “education officer” Once the fighting starts up, I cease being that and automatically revert to observer mode.

The satisfaction I get from helping the Spaniards in my class to write their own letters is doubled when they show me the letters they have had from families delighted to receive letters written by their own hand, even if still written in big, misshapen letters. This is of no matter; they are delighted with me and I with them.

And so pass the first few days in March.

On Wednesday 9 March, my morning classes are interrupted by the crump of artillery fire from the nearby front, while the skies are filled with a great display of Francoist air power.

Like a good observer, I stand and count the planes, German and Italian, which fill the skies virtually the whole day long, and at one point I count a hundred and twenty planes together.

The odd thing is that they are flying at high altitude, not bothering to swoop down upon where we are scattered through the olive groves; it is as if their only interest is in shocking and above all striking fear into us.

Because it is stunning to watch so many planes over our heads that, even as the leading aircraft are disappearing over the horizon, an equal number of planes is coming into sight from the other direction and joining the imposing formation.

Our Brigade’s other battalions are dispersed through adjacent villages such as Letux, Lécera or Azaila or Samper del Saiz, so far as I know, but they too are left unmolested by the planes.

It is a tremendous show of strength by Franco’s German allies, impressing it upon us that the skies belong to them and that there is nothing we can do about it, because, all through the day, their planes to and fro, circling so that at any given moment they have over a hundred aircraft in the air.

We are all wondering where our air force is, but by now we are used to this and we are afraid that once the “joust” begins, we alone and defenceless, will be the targets.

Today is pay day, for the Brigade pay-master has arrived and everyone lines up in his group to collect his monthly pay. When I take my turn towards the end of the afternoon, I find that the Pay-master has left some time before to pay the other battalions.
I inform Cody of this and he tells me that I can pick up my pay tomorrow.

Just as night is closing in, I write a letter to Mary and another to my mother, this time writing that I have a strange premonition of trouble ahead. I have seen too many of Franco’s planes all day and I cannot shake off my misgivings. I finish off my letters and turn in for the night.

They rouse us all at about five o’clock in the morning, to tell us that yesterday afternoon the front lines were breached and that we are moving up to seal the gap.

Yesterday’s fly-past flashes across my mind.

They serve us our breakfast which is wolfed down on the run, each man is issued with ammunition and we are ordered to form up in a column, four abreast.

As usual, I am not carrying any weapon. Should I ever need to open fire alongside my comrades, there is always some rifle dropped by a fallen comrade, because, in keeping with the advice from Claudio Villanueva, to whom I was Fausto el españolito, which was who he used to ask for whenever our battalion’s trucks met up on the road with the Spanish Battalion (Claudio’s battalion), I arrive at the front like our officers, carrying no weapons, yet still left that front with a rifle, ammunition and hand grenades.

It is 10 March and the sun is not yet fully up when the Lincoln set off marching down the Belchite to Fuentedetodos road in the four man ranks I mentioned earlier. We are a little uneasy but at the same time upbeat.

Dave Reiss, our acting Battalion commander, Witt Parker, our political commissar, Cody, our “grey eminence” and I, as his sole surviving assistant, march at the head of the battalion.

On this occasion we have not posted any scout patrols ahead of us or on our flanks, because our belief is that we are bound for a front where there are trenches of ours, to relieve our Naval Infantry who man that front.

The pale light of dawn is rendering the entire column formed by our battalion more visible.

We reach the vicinity of the hills at El Santuario del Pueyo and barely half the battalion has passed the Santuario when, without warning, some machine-guns open up, firing at the front ranks of the battalion, inflicting considerable losses; Cody says to me, “Fausto, come on!” and I off I go, running for all I am worth for the top of the El Santuario hills.

On reaching the brow, panting and practically breathless, we scan the huge number of Brigadiers sprawling scattered on the ground, most of them never to rise again in that they have been mortally wounded in this unexpected lethal ambush.

We fan out over the hills and to our surprise stumble upon a few companies of Naval infantry ensconced in their shelters; they have been resting up ever since they were relieved from front-line service nearby a few days ago. It seems that these troops have been using El Santuario del Pueyo for this purpose for some time back. [They were possibly units of the 95 Mixed Brigade, sent to plug the breach opened the day before in the Fuendetodos front. The 95 had been reorganized in the summer of 1937 with naval infantry].

But the surprise is that they spotted the ambush laid for us and into which we have walked; the odd one among them is weeping openly.

I try to calm them, putting questions to them; their answer is that if the fascists laid in wait for us like this, opening up with their machine-guns at virtually point-blank range, without warning, this, they contend, is an indication that their Brigadier colleagues have been killed or captured to a man, either yesterday evening, or early this morning.

In no time at all there are artillery fire and mortars raining down all around us.

An ultra-modern fighter plane, a Messerschmitt 109 maybe, or so it seems to me, swoops down on us and starts strafing us with impunity.

At the sight of this plane, which we mistook for just a reconnaissance flight, strafing us without further ado, I duck inside a tiny shelter, little more than a hole in the ground, on the top of the hill, and I am unfortunate enough to drop my knapsack by the entrance to this dug-out.

The flyer, whose outline I can see perfectly, draws a bead on the dug-out and I can see, barely a metre from my eyes, how the plane’s machine-guns are riddling my knapsack as this very latest model of fighter plane makes its pass at around head height. Once the plane was gone, most probably because he has run out of information, I jump from the dug-out to see what has happened and I see Reiss and Parker along with two Russian advisors and lots of other people, at the bottom of a gully on the eastern side of the hills.

The gully or depression, a few yards from the dug out caves next to the ancient mudejar tower that served as battalion HQ, was probably chosen by Reiss because it afforded him a better view of the surroundings while at the same time protected them somewhat from the shrapnel of falling bombs.

I spot Cody on the brow of this hill where we are straining to get the measure of what we have in front of us and I question him and he replies in our pidgin English-Spanish that I should get offside quickly for these hills are about to turn into an inferno which will be intolerable.

And in fact shells start to rain down on us. By now this is not a battle any more. The rapid fire from heavy calibre artillery and enemy armour force our Brigadiers to take cover as best they may.

I go back down the few metres to where the Naval Infantry dug-outs are; they are terrified by so much booming artillery and I try to reassure them, because to them this is like something out of Dante, accustomed as they are to trading only the odd occasional rifle shot.

After a few moments I hear a horrendous explosion, so close that it might just as well have been a direct hit on our dug-outs.

A few minutes after this and a lieutenant from No 1 Company is carried into the dug-out by some men; they tell us that he has been seriously injured and then they leave again.

I go over to the casualty and, although I cannot name him, [this could have been lieutenant Arnold Staub, listed as having been wounded at Belchite, March 10th 1938. AW] I know him by sight he knows me.

I reach for his first-aid kit and at the same time, on examining his wounds, I spy a huge shard of shrapnel under his left nipple, momentarily stuanching the flow of blood which ought to be gushing from there. Other injuries in his right thigh and left calf, however, are bleeding profusely.

He is in pain and by my reckoning is about to die at any moment.

While I am handling him, trying to stem the blood gushing from his thigh, I ask him if there is anything he would like, for I would not dare to touch the wound in his chest. He nods his head and tells me in broken Spanish: “Me want speak with American.” (Mi querer hablar con americano).

Mustering all of the English at my command, I reply: “ I know I am Spanish, but you can tell me something if you want.”
The casualty, sensing that death is near, insists, but this time in English: “I want to speak with an American.”
At this precise moment Cody dashes into the dug-out and, spotting me, says: “Fausto, come on outside with me.”
To which I reply, in Spanish: “Cody, this guy is dying. Could you not see to him?”

Again Cody tells me: “Come on.”

This time I say to Cody in my broken English: “This man is going to death and he want to speak with an American man.”

At which Cody gets cross, draws a pistol from his waistband and pointing it straight at me, says: “Come on outside. Let’s go, Fausto.”

I get to my feet beside the injured man and I say to Cody, in Spanish this time: “Sure, Cody, but we’ll talk about this later”.

I emerge from the dug-out with Cody’s gun trained on me, leaving the casualty behind, to meet with a scene from Dante.

Commissar Parker is sprawled on the ground, with a fair proportion of his brains spilling out of the right side of his head.

There are, in addition, the bodies of four or five other dead officers close to the Commissar’s body.

There too is our commanding officer Dave Reiss, arranged on a blanket, his complexion very pale and his eyes already almost glassy; furthermore, part of his intestinal tract is oozing from his belly and he is expected to die at any moment, although efforts are being made to evacuate him.

Which is precisely why Cody has come looking for me. The hermitage was built over the ruins of a roman town built in the II century a.c. – Judging by the trajectory it must have been a powerful aviation bomb – according to some historians, the odds on such a bomb falling in that precise spot were one in a million – Nowdays this gully looks like a rubbish dump, full of scrap metal and broken bottles, although sizeable chunks of molten iron can be found from the shell that impacted.
Left: Gully today – In the background the new Belchite with the old a faint outline to the right.
Right: HQ caves with the mudejar tower base on the right, clearly used by the troops positioned in the Pueyo prior to the arrival of the Lincoln battalíon.

Three of the four corners of the blanket are held by the clerk-interpreters from Battalion Staff and the fourth awaits me, or so Cody has determined. It is a matter of necessity as there is no one else around.

We hoist up the blanket bearing the body of the Comandante and in the midst of artillery and mortar fire and strafing from the German planes, we scurry forward in pursuit of what Brigadiers are left from our battalion, all of them hot-footing it in disarray back towards Belchite.

Which is how it turns out that we are the last members of the battalion to evacuate the heights of El Santuario del Pueyo, ferrying the near corpse of our commanding officer, Dave Reiss.

Cecil Eby suggests that the last one to leave El Pueyo was Joe Bianca, who with his Maxim machine gun held the advancing Franco troops coming through the southern hills.

Most likely the body of Reiss was deposited between the first, bigger rock and a smaller one, in a west-east direction so as to protect him from the ongoing machine gun attack.

The attacks were only possible in a south-north or north-south direction since to the west the hill was virtually in the hands of the nationals.

Clearly visible are portions of the rock of a lighter coloration produced by the impact of the bullets blowing up chunks of its surface.

To cap it all, even before we reach the flat ground, enemy tanks are rumbling over the hills and enemy planes, which only yesterday were parading their superiority, are today very active against us, strafing all the retreating Brigadiers now.

I can see my three colleagues, struggling, as I am, to ferry our commanding officer’s body along in a blanket, in the knowledge that the worst part in what is to come has fallen to our lot.

For if the vanguard of those desperately scurrying towards Belchite had lent a hand in carrying their commanding officer, they might well have reached the town by now, or at least, found a doctor to try and save the life of the good-natured Dave Reiss.

Foto Izquierda: Dave Reiss is on the left. Photo taken 4-10-37 more than likely in Quinto de Ebro shortly before Fausto arrived at the same village.
Foto derecha: Parker is second from right – In the background the Piquete (Church) from Quinto.
The 15th International Brigade Photoghraphic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA photo 11-0772 y 11-0838. Tamiment Library/ Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY10012, New York University Libraries.
As we come down the slopes, the groans of our comandante are by now barely audible and his eyes less animated. Two German fighter planes, the only one to have sighted us, peel off from their squadron and dive to strafe us, imagining perhaps - and with good reason - that if four men straggling as they transport one wounded man when all of their comrades have taken to their heels, then that injured man must be very important for those four men to be trying to evacuate him in such adverse circumstances.

And the two fighters hurl themselves at the four stragglers, who are only four now, for the fifth has died.

Because the modest figure of Dave Reiss, a man who never thought himself worthy to command a battalion like the Lincoln Battalion, but comfortable and preferring to command his own Machine-Gunner Company, has just breathed his last.

Taking cover behind the last outcrop before we come to the flat ground, we set the blanket and Dave Reiss’s body on the ground, give him a shake to see if there is any sign of life remaining and, once certain that he is dead, we close his eyes and leave him there on the ground, almost nestling under the outcrop where we are sheltering.

It is the most that we can do for him.

Our problem now is to find a way to reach the open ground with those two planes hovering over us like two vultures over carrion.

Beyond the low hills of El Santuario del Pueyo there is a bare plain, crossed at the far side by a railway bridge that cuts across the road leading to Belchite [The bridge, in fact, did not cross the Belchite-Fuendetodos road but a ravine descending from the hills to the south]. Past that bridge and before one reaches the town, there is more tree cover and then there is a lake.

On the other hand, off to the left of the El Santuario hills and beyond a bald plain, there is an olive grove where we might take cover and defend ourselves against the fighter planes.

Huddled in the lee of the outcrop, we agree on the best way to fall back in an effort to escape the attentions of these tiresome German planes, which wheel and turn, trying to flush us into the open like rabbits.

After a brief discussion among ourselves, the decision is that I should make a dash for it first, with them following suit, one at a time. We also agree that as we make it to the bridge, if we can, we should wait there for the other three, assuming that we all make it.

The maneuvers of each of us will be visible to the others huddled in the lee of the rock, because it offers a very clear view of the bridge and the supposition is that whoever reaches the bridge will likewise have a clear sight of the others as they withdraw.

My three comrades are less used than I am to exposing themselves to the attentions of fighter planes. I noticed as much when we were carrying our dying commanding officer.

Which is why, I suppose, they reckoned that I should be first to brave the two fighters.

I take off at a furious pace while, looking skywards, I can see the two fighters coming after me. I run in sweeping zig-zag movements, my mind racing to decide the best course of action.

My thoughts race as I run flat out, trying to work out whether I would be better advised to hit the dirt when they strafe me, in which case the target I would be offering them will be 1.65 metres, my height, or to carry on running, in which case the target offered to the strafing German airmen will be no more than 0.30 metres as they zoom by me.

I plump for the latter course and I can hear the machine-gun fire from the first plane thudding into the ground beside me; once it has passed over, I start to zig-zag quickly right and left, thereby weathering unscathed the fire from the second plane as well.

Such is the speed at which I am racing along that I reckon that my heart is about to burst forth from my mouth. Meanwhile, I turn my head and see the two planes firing burst after burst as they make pass after pass over my three comrades hiding place.

I can only suppose that the two airmen must reckon that the three hunkered targets and a fourth sprawled on a blanket offer a better target than one running one.

I make it, unscathed, to the railway bridge across the road leading to Belchite and drop to the ground, gasping for breath.

I have barely recovered from my furious dash when I again sight the planes - they have either finished off my three comrades or have at any rate forced them to lie doggo and out of sight- now zeroing in on the bridge, where, in addition to myself, there are a few more Brigadiers sheltering who dare not emerge from their hiding place.

According to Cecil EbyEby two of Fausto’s three comrades were Vernon Shelby, a drop out from West Point and John G. Honeycombe, communist organizer from California. All three made it to the bridge unscathed. Amongst the brigadists under the bridge was Harry Fisher who had been sent one hour before to repair the telephone lines, something which he was unable to do due to the multiple breakages. While hiding under the bridge Fisher was witness to Fausto’s zig-zag flight although he did not know his identity until he read Eby’s book sixty years later.

The sky as far as Belchite and beyond is filled with planes raking our troops with their fire.

Our venomous enemies, the airmen of the two planes which have peeled away from the rest, are diving again, this time at the bridge and strafing us. Thanks to the bridge, we are not hit.

They make another pass and as they draw level with the bridge and after attempting unsuccessfully to mow us down with their strafing fire, they drop a number of grenades, which are not for me, for without a second thought off I go racing as the planes gear themselves up for a third pass.

I dart over to the big olive grove beyond the bridge and, once there, I have lost sight of the planes which carry on making pass after pass over the bridge.

During the war the first olive groves were about 600 yards beyond the bridge in the Belchite direction. To- day they have reached and even overtaken it.

Fausto must have taken advantage of the embankment shown on the photo, left, north of the plain, to slip away since it offered shelter from the planes coming from the south, apart from the fact that the pilots were distracted straffing the bridge.

I try to appraise my new location and I find that near where I have ended up, there are men of the British Battalion flattened against the ground; they have been watching my flight from the planes and their passes over the bridge.

The men from the British Battalion have been lying quiet and silent, trying to evade detection by the planes and using the olive trees for cover.

I report to the officer commanding the British, whose face is familiar to me, though not his name [Sam Wild].

I tell him who I am, he shakes my hand and tells me that he is familiar with me and thus knows who I am .

I brief him on everything that has befallen us since the Francoist dawn surprise attack and he tells me that he knows all this, for they are there for the very purpose of protecting the Lincoln Battalion’s left flank in its desperate fall-back and of ensuring no further ambush of the Lincoln.

He also explains that until daybreak today they were bivouacked in Letux and consequently the trip here has been a straightforward one.

I press him to tell me what is left of the Lincoln and he tells me that the surviving Americans are in Belchite, where Merriman has also arrived. [According to Eby, Merriman appeared at El Pueyo around 9 a.m. in a tank promising reinforcements. He was also seen in the same tank on the road between Belchite and Lécera during the day].

The British are to try to slow the enemy as best they can but they are also to converge on Belchite, for the enemy has, he says, been detected in very large numbers; Look! the officer commanding the British tells me, and indeed, the El Santuario del Pueyo hills are even now hiving with Franco’s tanks and troops, each column brandishing at its head huge bicolour banners, the old red and yellow flag of Spain. It is apparent that they are ambling along at their ease, as if this is some sort of anodyne military parade for them, because the punishment meted out by their huge numbers of aircraft, artillery and tanks has rendered the opposition hors de combat, as a result of which they can deploy undisturbed.

The commander of the British Battalion advises me to remain with them until we get closer to Belchite, for the enemy has already outflanked us and may hunt me down if I try on my own to reach whatever remains of my battalion.

I ask the officer commanding for a rifle and he has me issued with one, with just ten bullets. He says that he cannot give me any more, but anyway, that should be enough to see me as far as Belchite
The British make a staged and orderly withdrawal from the olive groves, falling back in echelons, each echelon taking a turn at covering the withdrawal of the other as they fall back in the direction of Belchite.

Just when we are all but in Belchite, with only the lake between us, I take my leave of the British commander who offers his hand again in friendly fashion and shakes mine firmly.

I take off at a desperate run and as I come level with the lake, I have to hit the dirt several times on account of the enemy artillery fire which start to open up at me on my own, until their fire moves ahead towards Belchite.

On past the lake, which I reach on the run in spite of the artillery fire, I come upon a small trench, more of a ditch really, where I can just make out a Brigadier from the Lincoln, clutching a silvery self-loading rifle. I scramble across to this little trench before a Francoist column headed by its banner gets too close; it has already taken up position between the British Battalion and Belchite.
España. Ministerio de Defensa. Archivo General Militar de Ávila. Foto80-CP2-29.

As I arrive in the little trench, which is merely a small evacuation trench, a hearty Hello! from the man with the self-loading rifle indicates that he has recognised me from afar and has been awaiting my arrival.

I ask him about Cody and in broken Spanish, because he is aware that my own English is still quite poor, he tells me that Cody must be with Merriman, a little further back.

The troops with the Spanish bicolour flag, already firing upon us, come up against the bold American machine-gunner, who is known to me, as I am to him, albeit not by name; he wastes no time before making effective use of his self-loading rifle. I raise my rifle to my shoulder and I in turn loose off all five of the bullets in the chamber of my Russian Remington, but when I attempt to open the chamber to load the other five I have left, I discover that the chamber is jammed and I cannot open it no matter how I try. I find the American so carried away that he cannot hear my question, so I slap him on the shoulder, show him my rifle and tell him “Goodbye” before scrambling back out of the trench.

As I emerge from the trench on to the road I cross the path of one of our armoured vehicles which, on sighting me, looses off a burst of fire in my direction but misses.
España. Ministerio de Defensa. Archivo General Militar de Ávila. Foto80-CP2-29.

I start to bitch and damn them as “bastards” and the armoured vehicle halts, a lieutenant climbs out and asks me who I am and what is going on.

After telling him who I am, I brief him quickly that the British Battalion is stranded in the olive grove over to the left and that the only thing between the enemy and here and holding them up is the brave American with his self-loading rifle. 

I in turn press him for information about the Lincoln and he tells me it is in the cement trenches constructed back when our side captured Belchite. He tells me too, that Cody is trying to rally them and utilise to the full whatever is left of the Lincoln.

I say my farewells to the Spaniards from the armoured vehicle and I begin my uphill climb to where the trenches are and I soon find that I have walked into sludge.

España. Ministerio de Defensa. Archivo General Militar de Ávila. Foto80-CP2-25.

The terrain has been flooded to stop enemy tanks from operating there.

Fausto’s suspicions about a premeditated action to flood the fields may have been unfounded – More likely bombings from the air force destroyed buildings next to the irrigation ditch as well as the ditch itself causing the flooding.

I try to make my way up the slope to the trenches; it is hard going and I advance pulling one foot out of the mud into which I have sunk past the knee and planting the other down to trudge laboriously through the sludge, making headway up the slope, but I can find no way out of the morass.

This is a truly superb photograph taken by the Condor Legion on March 11, 1938, less than 24 hours since Fausto and hundreds of other republicans fled through the same spot. Standing out are:

España. Ministerio de Defensa. Archivo General Militar de Ávila. Foto80-CP2-16.

The line of craters at the bottom of the photo, six of them clearly visible, would indicate the route taken by the escapees from the road Zaragoza-Lecera, to the right, to the Calvario hillside (stations of the Cross), as a plane would let out its complement of bombs on a line or group of men.

The space between the north wall of the building (roofless) and the end of an irrigation ditch seems to be the entrance to the field used by the owner of the field and by those fleeing on 10 March. (underlined 3 on the photo).

Three substantial craters, made by much bigger bombs, can be seen to the east of the new schools(underlined 4).

The first terrace shows a lighter background than the rest of the field, as well as two thirds of the second and the upper part of the third , showing it to be water or bog the day before.

Absolutely amazing is the sight of a section of the irrigation ditch torn off and lying diagonally to the rest of the ditch preceded by various sections still linked but dislocated from their normal direction (underlined 1). From this torn off section emanates some form of sediment left by a course of water bubbling out of the hole of the ditch and reaching almost the end of the first terrace.

Underlined 2 is another section of missing ditch and a little whitish crater in the field, immediately next to the last bomb crater, evidencing a substantial fall of water. The bogged field appears to be full of chunks of concrete from the pulverised section of the irrigation ditch.

Visible are innumerable little craters produced by bullets or shrapnel – Visible also is the sluice to the first deep gully between the bogged and the other fields. The wreckage on ditch and buildings is considerable.

The outline of the small fort to the east of the hermitage, photographed by us, is faintly visible.

No human being appears on the photo whereas there are groups in the field more to the east, one more testimony to the impracticability of the field.

There are outlines of trenches to the east of the hermitage.

Francisco Naval, in a visit to the Calvario, told us that on March 10, 1938 the nationals had shot four stragglers and had buried them on the spot underlined 5.

It is the most photographed bunker by the republicans as they occupied Belchite – Even Gral. Walter appears in several photos examining it - It was made 15 Brigade HQ
Archivo Jaime Cinca Yago. Bunker: "LOMA ARTIFICIAL"  in Belchite.
Situation of the big bunker, Brigade HQ, in which Merriman lashed out at Reiss at 3 a.m. of March 10th for not being on his way to El Pueyo and to which Fausto returned before fleeing to Azaila.

I call out to some men I can see making their way uphill, they having managed to find a way out of the morass.
In English I call out for help: Help me, comrades! but no one answers.

I give it a go in Spanish: Por favor echarme una mano ! but again get no response.

In the end, seeing as no one wants to lend me a hand and that I am stranded, I call out in Valencian dialect: Per favor achudeume, que no puc isir asoles de asi! [Help me, please I cannot get out of here on my own].

At the sound of my words in Valencian, one of those up ahead turns his head and calls down to me: Ya vaig! (Coming!)

And down runs this Valencian to greet me, for he knows me, and I ask him his name. And he says to me: Pepe, No 2 Company and you, I know, are Fausto.

He reaches the butt of his rifle out to me. I grab it with both hands, as the Valencian applies his strength to pulling me out and, little by little, I rise up the slope, free of the sludge.

I thank Pepe in Valencian and off he runs up the hill to rejoin the remnants of his unit.

Meanwhile, I halt to get my breath back and ahead of me I spot, on the far side of the morass, Merriman’s Beacon motor car, which looks to me just like an 8 horse-power Ford, and there beside the car is Bob, undaunted and heedless of the grenades exploding near him.

Perhaps conscious of the watching eyes of his men, for he knows for sure that they are watching him, Merriman poses in a display of bravery.

In fact, we all venerate him for his prestige and his holding his ground as the grenades go on exploding now does nothing to diminish it.

As ever he has on high boots like women used to wear at the turn of the century, but higher still, brown and laced up almost to knee height.

His boots, his riding breeches and spotless officer’s tunic as well as his gold braided cap would identify him even if were I not able to see his face, for he is just a little over fifty metres in a straight line from where I am.

[stations of the Cross]

Photo dating September 1937 just after Belchite was conquered by the republicans. The great value that this photo has for the essay is to show the irrigation ditch on the left, with no water at that moment, in its original situation next to the beginning of the road Belchite-Azaila, long before the new crossroads made it necessary to convey the water underground.

It illustrates also the height of the embankment judged to a certain extent by the people chatting at the entrance to the flat ground before the uphill begins or even the mules on the flat ground itself, which would give an approximate height of 5 yards. This height, the angle of 60º or so and the fact that was covered in grass would make it difficult to climb.

The damage to the wall on the left must have been caused by the collapse of part of the factory on the right.

Fausto can see Merriman’s car and Merriman about 50 yards from where he was, ‘as the crow flies’, which means that Merriman must have been in the flat ground before the climb to the Calvario  stations of the Cross.

Robert Merriman.
The 15th International Brigade Photoghraphic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA photo 11-0122. Tamiment Library/ Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY10012, New York University Libraries.

I lose sight of Merriman, acting out with dignity his role as the imperturbable hero, as he starts to climb towards the complex of trenches at the very moment that I am about to enter them.
Throughout all this, the German and Italian planes are strafing continually and their artillery bombing us without let-up.

Once in the trenches I ask about Cody and they tell me that he can be found in a spacious “bunker” a few metres beyond the trenches.

I slip into the “bunker” and there is Cody with three or four officers unknown to me, for they are not from the Lincoln Battalion.

Cody, to whom I report and whom I hail very seriously, reacts in a very friendly way, asking me for any news and showing especial interest in Dave Reiss’s death latterly in El Santuario del Pueyo and in the circumstances of the British Battalion which took me under its wing.

He asks how I am physically, having seen my haggard, weary face.
I am, I tell him, footsore, because all I needed on this fateful day, was that mudslide and I tell him that it was only thanks to that Valencian that I managed to extricate myself from the sludge.

He asks me if I am up to going out on to an observation post, for, of the ten observers we had at the outset, he and I are the only ones left, with this difference, I volunteer - that he is now officer commanding the Lincoln Battalion, there being no one else to do it.

But I also tell him that, physically, I am spent and that maybe some grub would get me over my exhaustion.

Cody’s answer is that there is none to be had and that I should stay in the “bunker” to get what rest I can, for the Francoist troops are so many, as are their tanks and guns, that there is no need for observer work, since they are already on top of us
Unexpectedly - at any rate unexpected by me - I see Merriman stride into the “bunker”, with a negro lieutenant in tow
He catches sight of me and calls out “Hello, Fausto!” and then strikes up a conversation with Cody about I know not what; my English is so poor that I can only make out two phrases: “over here” and “over there”.

Cody takes out some maps and sets about explaining to Merriman how things stood on the front this morning when the enemy caught us on the hop.

At this point I imagine the worst for, after they have been a while in conversation, Merrima’s head turns slightly to look at me across the room. I reckon that Cody must be telling him how he had to force me at gunpoint to lend a hand in the attempt to save Reiss, for I hear them mention that name and later in the conversation I hear the word “British” used, so I imagine that my earlier report to Cody has placed him in a position where he can point out on the maps pretty much the exact spot where the British should be by now.

As their conversation proceeds, with both of them chattering excitedly, lieutenants, or sergeants come in from time to time with ordinary Brigadiers who have come to collect crates of munitions, containing bullets, machine-gun ammunition belts and hand grenades from the dump set up here in the “bunker”.

Merriman, Cody and the negro lieutenant and the other two officers from Brigade Command there, carry on chatting. Cody points out the telephone in the “bunker” and carries on talking to Merriman, but all that I can make out is the word “nothing” from time to time; the explanation, I think, is that requests were put for food, for munitions, for artillery support, for aerial support, but there are no munitions, no guns no planes to be had except Franco’s munitions, guns and planes.

The conversation dies away and an ominous silence falls over the “bunker”.

A little later, in comes another lieutenant with some men in search of munitions and off they go with the last of the boxes.

Cody and Merriman start to splutter and swear. It seems to me that they are saying that the situation is untenable.

That we are not going to have any option but to make a run for it where we may, for we are virtually surrounded on all sides and will shortly be in no position to defend ourselves.

Not only have Franco’s forces poured in along the road from Fuendetodos, but they have also outflanked on our right along the Mediana road and on our left via Azuara.

Franco’s onslaught has resulted in a complete collapse of the front.

There are upwards of a hundred planes continually in the air, huge numbers of tanks on the ground and who knows how many hundreds of cannons and between them they have pulverised all our defences.

The ambush and subsequent massacre of a goodly fraction of the Lincolns in El Santuario del Pueyo just puts the tin hat on it.
Again some lieutenants arrive in search of munitions for the shooting is very heavy.

Merriman tells the lieutenants that there are no munitions left and that they should hold out as best they can until nightfall, using their men’s remaining ammunition sparingly and, if need be, fight with fixed bayonets. Later he will order a withdrawal so that by morning a new front will have been established. The lieutenants leave the “bunker” in deep depression.

Around six o’clock in the evening, with the light fading and with nightfall imminent, Merriman issues the order to fall back to Hijar or to wherever each man can reach.

This is tantamount to saying: Run for your lives!

A rout ensues; Merriman, Cody and the other Brigade Staff officers look on as our forces, munitions gone now, start to run away in a desperate effort to avoid capture, and eventually, Cody, Merriman and the officers too emerge from their bunker and take to their heels, without a thought for me.

My situation is critical as I cannot go on.

I can scarcely hobble along; this has been one exhausting day.

It is over twelve hours since the engagement began; we have been shooting, running, putting up resistance, been decimated and now here we are on the run again, without a bite to restore our energy.

My feet are blistered and I have sharp pains in my groin.

I too emerge from the bunker. I can still make out the last retreating stragglers running past.

Now the enemy gunners start to amuse themselves again, firing at random at us fleeing runners.

Away off across this plain there is the silhouette of our sole anti-aircraft gun, which has been rendering sterling service, although not to much effect all afternoon, but which has now fallen silent and is due soon to be destroyed or pulled back.

This transversal trench down which Fausto fell was originally a Franco trench, part of a forward line of defense anticipating a republican attack from the east, which, indeed, happened in 1937.

Off I go running through the hail of shells raining down upon us and one of these, which I sense in advance may do for me unless I hit the dirt, hurls me head first into one of the connecting evacuation trenches still left in Belchite and through which we now make our way.

I landed at the bottom of the trench, badly shaken by the awful tumble I have taken and I think to myself that this time this is the end for me, for the slightest movement causes me great agony.

Luckily there are two men of my acquaintance down in the trench with me; one is Lieutenant Martínez, a Spanish volunteer who returned from America where he had been living, to fight against the fascists and the other is a Lieutenant Camacho from Córdoba, another volunteer, this time from the Franco-held zone, from where he defected to our ranks, fighting valiantly and rising through the ranks to lieutenant.

They both come over to me, for they recognised me when I fell into the trench where they had arrived just moments ahead of me.

They ask me how I am and help me to my feet, for I can barely move, and they are keen to find out if I have broken anything. I am not too badly injured, apart from the fact that I must have bruised my back, which is killing me, and from a few scratches on my face.

When we try to get me to walk, I find to my dismay that I cannot take a single step.

I am now so sore that I cannot walk without agonising pain in my legs and especially in my calves and groin.

I urge lieutenants Martínez and Camacho to move out, telling them, as if they needed telling, that Merriman’s very own spoken orders are that we should assemble, if we can, in Hijar or in Azaila.

Their response is that they know all this, but that they are not about to desert me, because in my state there are only two things for me to look forward to; putting a bullet into myself, committing suicide to avoid capture, or, most likely, facing a firing squad, if I am taken prisoner.

They grab me between them and after much exertion drag me out of the trench for it is quite deep and they had a job of it to drag me out of it.

Then they each take one of my arms and wrap it around their shoulders and bring me along with them, half walking and half swinging.

In spite of the exploding shells from the enemy artillery still pounding us, albeit less intensely than before, it being almost night-time, there are lots of men racing like madmen for the rear guard.

I can see men from the British Battalion hurtling along alongside our own men from the Lincoln.

Lieutenants Martínez and Camacho flag down an evacuation truck loaded with wounded and bundle me on board before they both clamber on board with me.

They go to Caspe, from there in another truck to Mora la Nueva and in a third to Tarragona. Fausto arrives on 12 March to his house in Valencia. Both lieutenants think of going AWOL. Fausto reports to the offices of the International Brigades on the 14th, at 8 am. He is immediately sent to the area surrounding Gandesa to rejoin his battalion. Commissar Gates threatens to have him shot but Cody defuses the situation.

On 2 April he is taken prisoner and spends the following 26 months in prisons and concentration camps; but with this we shall deal later.

Fausto’s itinerary – To magnify press on map

Original story by Fausto Villar, comments and updating by Samuel Basterra and the generous and invaluable contribution of Jaime Cinca, expert in everything relating to the area of Belchite.

Text: Fausto Villar.
Translation of text: Paul Sharkey.
Fotographs: Samuel Basterra; Jaime Cinca’s archives; Agencia Efe (fototeca)http://www.portalcultura.mde.es/cultural/archivos/.
The authors acknowledge Allan Warren’s courtesy locating Dave Reiss’ photograpah.
Copyright: Madrid and Valencia 1997.

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