The Big Retreat – by Ben Iceland

September 9, 2015
By and
William Schutt

William Schutt in Spain, RA Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 983.

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.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings will showcase articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers.

The Big Retreat
Ben Iceland

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 9, No. 1, February 1987.]

When the fascists retook Teruel, we came down out of the mountains, and took up position in an orange grove near Sagunto. It was a lovely spot after the cold and snow of Teruel, and a welcome respite. There were ripe oranges to hand, no planes overhead, the grub was hot, and there was even a view of the sparkling blue sea. We were also given a day’s leave in Valencia for hot baths and delousing. There was time too for a whiff of the putas [whores] in the cafes.

We remained in the olive groves for about a week, listening to rumors about a coming fascist offensive in Aragon, or perhaps even one of our own. Then the order came to move, and late one afternoon we headed up the road to Catalonia. We thought at first that we might be going to Barcelona which was beginning to be bombed heavily by the fascists. But that was not to be. Near Tarragona we turned off towards Lerida, and all night we tried to get some sleep in our overloaded autocars as we headed northeast. When the sun came up, it was a strange, wild and empty countryside we saw.

Sixty kilometers to the north were the Pyrenees, snow on their lofty peaks, and beyond was France. It seemed so long ago that I had climbed those mountains into Spain. We set up our guns on a wide, lonely plain near Huesca, and the hot sun glared down in early spring. There were eight Americans, one Australian, and an Englishman in the Czech (Klement Gotwald) Antiaircraft battery. We were all observers, except for M. Hawkins[1] who had been assigned to the Oerlikon gun, which was used to protect the battery from strafing aircraft. During the day there were always two observers scanning the skies with their glasses, while the others lolled in the dugouts, or when it was hot, as it was then, took it easy in the shade of some large, jagged rocks.

Charlie Bartelli[2], a lean and laughing Canadian, who had just turned twenty, was writing a letter to his sweetheart. M. Hawkins was telling about his life on the San Francisco waterfront. He used to refer to himself as B.I. (Basic Industry) Hawkins. He explained that he had taken that nickname, because the political people he had known at home, and also here in Spain, were always “yapping” about, and glorifying men from the waterfront or factories. The nickname stuck.  Irving Peters[3] was griping about the many fronts he had been at, and how he should have been repatriated, and the many guys who had been sent home – most of them, undeservedly, in his opinion.

“At Brunete, when I was in the machinegun company,” he started to say, when Eliot[4], a tall, grim-looking Australian, growled at him: “Aw, keep your bloody mouth shut for a spell.” Eliot despised Peters for his griping and for his disinclination to work. “I can’t figure out how so many good guys get bumped off, and a coño [pussy] like you is still around; you’ll probably go home and tell everybody what a hero you’ve been in Spain.” “Nuts to you,” Peters lamely answered. He was scared of Eliot.

Louie Roberts[5], a New Yorker, was telling Crosby[6] about all his love affairs in Valencia. He had many of them, and took them all seriously. He knew practically all the whores who frequented the Café Vodka in Valencia, and there was a table in a dark corner of the Café where he would sit with his back to the wall, and from where he could eye everyone who entered the place. Before settling down to business, the whore would sidle up to him and greet him effusively. He would engage many of them in what seemed to be very serious talk, sitting there with his tight beret covering his right eye. Louie spoke Spanish well, but it was not his conversation that attracted the ladies of the Café Vodka. Louie was an “organizer” – somehow he always seemed to have things – scarves, silk stockings, soap (not the Spanish kind), and real white bread and butter that he had obtained from ships in the Valencia harbor. It was a priceless gift he had, in those days after our hospital train had been bombed and the Fascist had cut through to the sea. But that was later.

Crosby was an avid listener. He responded to the amatory exploits Louie was regaling him with, in a high-pitched laugh, or with the one word in his vocabulary he used most, “wowie,” and then he took a slug of wine from his canteen.

Crosby sometimes had as many as three canteens – one or two always hanging from his shoulder, and one usually in his pack. His constant concern was to see that they were always filled with the bitter red wine, of which at that time, we had an issue every day. Crosby didn’t smoke and he didn’t like sweets; so he would exchange his ration of those commodities for wine; or if we happened to be going through a town, he would always manage to find the local tavern and fill up his canteens – sometimes with anise.  He came from Oklahoma, and had worked as a truck driver for an oil company. I first met him on the boat from New York to France. All of his time on board was spent at the bar. Crosby hadn’t the slightest idea of what was happening in Spain. On board, I once asked him why he was going to Spain, and he told me that a friend of his had told him he was going, and had sent him to someone called “Jim” who had advised him to get a passport, and then sent him to see a doctor for a physical, and a few days later he found himself on board a ship bound for Europe. Crosby was a Catholic, and I remember once in Tarazona, how he expressed wonderment to me that he couldn’t go to mass in the church town. It was hard for him to understand why most churches in Loyalist Spain were closed down. He was a real political innocent – always friendly and smiling, always cheerful, and almost always a little drunk.

One morning, on a high hill near Teruel, a lone Fascist plane was strafing our Battery.  Crosby and I were in a shallow ditch some distance from the guns, and we decided to make a dash for the deeper trenches surrounding our Battery. When the plane zoomed past us and disappeared over the next hill, with the tracers from Hawkins’ Oerlikon streaming after it, we started to run. But in no time, the plane flew back, and very low this time. We flopped to the ground, and could hear the rattle of the plane’s machine guns, and almost simultaneously, the bullets were ricocheting around us. Then it swooped past, and before we could decide whether to get up and make another run, it was back. But this time, it seemed, the pilot had decided to have some fun with us. He didn’t strafe, but released some small hand bombs or grenades which exploded some distance from us. I was hugging the ground, arms around my head, but Crosby was looking up, and he swore he saw the pilot leaning out of the plane and throwing the bombs. The plane didn’t return, and when we got back to the Battery, Crosby was in a state of high exhilaration, laughing and shouting “Wowie, wowie, wait till I tell the folks back home about me being chased by a plane; bet they ain’t never heard one like that before.”

The alarm rang – a clang of metal against a hollow shell, and then the whistle. The Battery sprang into life; swiftly the men ran to their posts and the long green muzzles of the guns were swiveled upwards. The shells were in a dozen hands ready to be plunged into the breeches. We braced for the first concussion. It was a false alarm. Peters had spotted a bird through his glasses that he mistook for a plane and had yelled “avion.” Everyone laughed, relieved. The guns were lowered and camouflaged. Stillness again settled over the brown, parched fields.

It was a strange front. There was not another unit near us. For four days there was absolute quiet – not even the usual turning of the machine guns in the morning. We knew that there were lines in front of us, but we never saw a man, an animal, or a vehicle. It was most welcome, and we wished it might never end. The grub was coming up regularly, and we were getting rid of our lice, and there was not the sight or sound of a plane in the sky, and not far to the north were the majestic peaks of the mountains.

We knew it couldn’t last. One morning, while it was still dark and we were all asleep, we were awakened with the not-unexpected yet dreaded words “Marchar hombres – pronto.” In thirty minutes the guns were mounted, attached to the trucks, and we were on the move. As usual, we observers were crammed into the truck containing the gasoline drums – and if you’ve ever been in a steel Autocar crammed with drums of gasoline, still sleepy-eyed, and with the freezing night wind through your threadbare jacket, you can understand why we were grouchy and sore. And as usual, Irving Peters managed to get the softest and most comfortable spot, and made it more uncomfortable for all of us. Louie who was particularly put out, started to threaten Peters and call him names: “You lazy son-of-a-bitch, coño, why don’t you get yourself shot and become a hero. One of these days you’ll wake up dead, and it’ll be a good thing for everybody.” Peters just smiled foolishly to himself, wrapped a blanket around himself a bit more closely, and closed his eyes. It did no good talking or yelling at him, and even if we could get him to move, in a little while he was always back to the best spot. We kept getting colder and colder, and we huddled close to one another in a frozen stupor, pitying ourselves and thinking of home and warmth. We sped through the deserted countryside, and when we passed through the white-washed medieval towns where people were sleeping warm behind walls, we felt even more miserable.

In the morning we reached a small bridge where a dirt road led south to Belchite, and the main road continued east to the coast. We stayed there for a few hours, speculating about where we were going. Schutz[7], a German-American seaman, was sure we were going to take up positions in Barcelona, where there had recently been many heavy air raids. “I can just see myself walking along the Ramblas with all the pretty girls and flowers,” he mused. “What a sell place to fight a war,” and then he started teasing Louie. “Hey Louie, think of all the putas you’ll be able to screw there.” Louie, not even deigning to reply, just arched an eyebrow and looked at Schutz with a slightly condescending air.  Schutz was always teasing Louie.  Basic Industry Hawkins volunteered his opinion: “If I know this outfit, we’ll be going to the asshole of creation, with no putas, no flowers, and a sky full of avions.”  Tall and calm, Eliot listened to all of the talk, and then settled the question: “Why don’t you fellows stop yapping and day-dreaming? We are going wherever they send us, and if I know this bloody war, it is not going to be the blue Mediterranean, least of all Barcelona. So pipe down, and let’s make up our minds we’re here for the duration, and most likely, not that long.” Eliot was right. We took the dirt road south.

We didn’t see any planes, but from afar we heard the throbbing of planes in the sky, and then the faint thud of bombs as they hit the ground. In the afternoon we passed through Caspe. It had been bombed. Many of the homes were demolished and the streets were cratered. Most of the people had fled to the hills and the neighboring olive groves. “We’re in it again,” I said to myself. “Will it ever end, my new world of bombs and blood and noise and fear?” Far away across the hills could be heard the familiar sound of heavy artillery—very faint. When it grew dark we got to the little town of Azaila, only a few kilometers from Belchite. We were creeping along at a slow pace – without light. The Spanish drivers, who, it always seemed to us, judged a truck by the noise they could get out of it, were grinding their gears, using their brakes, cursing one another, and making a horrible din. Some black, menacing tanks crunched their steely way past us. On both sides of the road was a long file of men, grim-faced under helmets, with rifles and packs. Some men were bent over with the burden of the squat Russian machine guns; others, first-aid men, were carrying rolled-up stretchers on long poles. When our trucks stopped we heard snatches of talk in Spanish, French, and what seemed to me a Slavic language – Polish I thought. Then we heard English spoken, American English. We started to yell, and we were yelled back at. It was too dark to recognize any faces and we couldn’t get off the trucks for closer contact. “You call yourselves soldiers?” one of the Americans gibed: “Why don’t you  get off those trucks and fight with the infantry like men?” Another wit added: “Boys, it looks like we’re going to get plenty of shit from the avions today; the Anti-air is hear, and you know  what happens when they’re around; we never saw you shoot down a plane, or if you did, it was probably one of ours.” Someone else said: “How’d you get those piecard jobs, through W.P.A?”[8]  We took the kidding good naturedly, and did some taunting of our own. Someone struck a match to light a cigarette, and a shout went up: “Apaga la luz – put out the light,” and curses in every language. Some cavalrymen galloped by, looking huge and formidable in the darkness.

A few hundred meters from the town, we left the road and started crawling and bumping across the fields. It was very dark, and some of the men had to go ahead and guide the trucks with flashlights. We huddled together in the trucks, talking in low tones. Louie muttered: “My God! Another front – If I get out of this alive, I’m going to ask to be repatriated. How much can a man take? If I’d only get a leave when this is over.”

“Two to one we get a position out in the open, and no more wine and cognac,” remarked Crosby. “By the way, has anyone got anything to drink?  I’ve got some dirty old cigarettes and a bar of chocolate for exchange.” No one took him up.

Shultz, who was a good mimic, with a queer sense of humor, started to imitate the whistle of falling bombs, and the ping ping of bullets overhead. B.I. Hawkins growled at him: “Why don’t you cut that out, you coño? We’ll be hearing the real stuff soon enough.” B.I. was always very nervous and shaky before any pending action, and when it was over he was visibly atremble. But it was amazing how calm and cool he seemed to be while firing the Oerlikon at low-flying planes.

The trucks stopped and we all piled out. We could only see a few yards around us, and after helping unload the instruments and setting up the guns, we started to dig shelter for ourselves. Louie, Irving Peters, and I set to work digging a foxhole for the three of us.  We only had one shovel and one pick, so one guy could sleep while the others worked. Louie wrapped a thin blanket and a poncho around himself and was immediately asleep on the cold, rocky ground. The ground was so hard, and our tools so dull, that we accomplished very little, and after a little while, our backs and arms ached. All around us the men were digging and nothing could be heard but the grunting and thud of picks in the rocky soil.  Our section leader John, a Czech-American, came to exhort us to work harder. John was our liaison-man with the Czechs, who spoke and understood little English. When we had any requests or gripes it had to go through him to the Czech command. We sometimes had the feeling that our messages, or the replies, were slightly garbled in transit. John came from Cleveland, where he had worked in a steel mill. He was a pleasant guy, a hard worker, and a good man to have at one’s side in action.

We continued to dig out pitiful little handfuls of earth in the darkness, our bodies aching from weariness and lack of sleep, all the while cursing the war, and the thought of daylight weighing heavily upon us. Thus we passed the night.

When first light appeared over the bleak Aragon plains, we saw we were in a flat field with no vegetation but a few dwarfed olive trees. The foxholes we had dug were pitifully shallow – no more than two or three feet deep. Louie started yelling at Irving Peters for not having done his share of digging, and threatening to throw him out if he dared to duck into any part of the foxhole when the time came to take cover. Peters said nothing, just smiled. He was used to being a scapegoat for everybody’s wrath and frustration. There was hardly any protection for the guns, and a half-hearted attempt at camouflage had been made with some branches of the olive trees. For breakfast we had a lump of congealed, sticky rice, stale bread, and the lukewarm stuff that passed for coffee. Hawkins, his hands trembling, remarked: “Things sure do not look promising this morning in sunny Spain.”

The air began to throb with the old familiar hum – “Messerschmidts,” yelled Eliot, and there in the  western sky, first one black speck and then another and then a third appeared growing larger, and the air filling with noise. We were ready, and when they came within range, our guns opened up; volley after volley thundered into the sky, and as the shells left the gun barrels, we could hear them whistle in the air for a few seconds, and since if was not yet completely light, we could see them explode in the sky, way up, like dim streaks of lightening. The planes floated serenely around and under the bursts of shrapnel, and the white puffs of smoke disappeared into the atmosphere.  Then from the south they came into view, and then more Heinkels and Capronis, and the silver Messerschmidts above them, and our guns were firing in all directions; the air was thick with the smoke of our guns and the smell of burnt gun powder made our mouths dry.

From our left the French Battery was also firing; but still they came on, circled over us disdainfully, and then they headed for the ridge beyond which lay the town of Belchite and the Loyalist troops.  They dropped their bombs, and the west was filled with smoke, and through it all could be heard the thud of the fascist rapid-fire artillery, and the rattle of machine guns. Then the fighter planes started to form a maddening circle, and one after another they power-dived with a roar, and strafed beyond the ridge, and came up out of the dive, and then circled and dived again, with no let-up.

“Where are our fucking planes?” we cursed. “Why the hell aren’t they around when we need them?” “Those poor bastards in the line – they’re getting hell” Eliot said. “By God, I don’t envy them – if they hold it will be a miracle – I saw them throw stuff at Brunete, and Teruel was bad enough, but this beats it all – and the lousy French keep the border closed.”

Then suddenly the air was cleared of planes, and although the artillery was still pounding and the machine guns firing, it seemed unnaturally quiet. Our guns were leveled, and we sat down utterly exhausted; yet the day had hardly begun. The food truck came up again, and dished out some more of the same cold, sticky rice we had had some hours before. Maybe they had a premonition that it would be difficult to feed us in the immediate future. They also handed out a can of bully beef to each man, and a ration of cigarettes – those utterly unspeakable, un-smokeable Spanish “pillowslips” – fat stubby cigarettes wrapped in paper that was always mixed in our pockets with bread crumbs, lint and cotton threads, and which we rolled, hoping to get a puff of smoke – but usually in vain.

Like the rush of an invisible express train, with a whistle and swish, a shell hurtled toward us. Startled, we flopped to the ground, and the shell exploded a little beyond the battery.

Then three more shells in rapid succession – one of them a dud. We were under fire from German 88s, a gun which was first introduced in Spain, and used both as AA artillery, and against troops on the ground. The order was given to find cover. So long as we were under fire, our guns were useless. Sure enough, Peters was first in the foxhole we had dug, and Louie and I cursed and pummeled him to make some room for us. He did not listen, and lay at the bottom of the trench, we could feel his body trembling, and he said: “What are you guys so scared about?” and continued shivering. Every few minutes the shells came. Then the planes came back, but our guns were silent, and we huddled in the earth. From over the ridge to the west the noise of battle continued, and we three lay fearfully in our shallow trench, expecting the artillery to blast us out of our hole. Now we were all trembling, and my mouth was dry, with not a drop of spittle. I thought to myself: “What the hell are we hanging around here for? Why don’t we move? Why isn’t headquarters ordering a change of position?”

A stray dog, long and horribly skinny, with every rib showing, and with his tail between his legs, crowded into our dugout, trying to nuzzle his way between us. Louie grabbed him and threw him out bodily, cursing: “Stay out, you lousy mongrel; it’s crowded enough in this hole.” But the dog was mortally afraid. He no sooner hit the ground, than he crawled like a streak back again, whimpering and trembling all over. Louie threw him out again; but it was useless. He came back, and tried to inch his way to the bottom of the dugout, crying softly in the back of his throat, and we did not have the heart to throw him out again. I thought: “The poor dog is even more miserable than we are, not understanding why men should be hurling death at one another, making the ground quake, and sending bombs down from the blue Spanish sky.”

The artillery was no longer firing at us, and we all rose up out of the ground, and the guns were readied for action. Our commander, a young, soft-spoken Czech, went around to each gun crew, speaking words of encouragement. John, our section leader, spoke to him and then he told us that we were waiting orders to move. Our position was too open and unprotected, and the enemy had us under observation. Obviously things were not going well for us in the lines.

The sun was overhead and burning, when soldiers, fear graven on their pale faces, started to run across our position from over the ridge to the west. Some had rifles; others did not. Our commander went out to meet a group. He was carrying his long Luger pistol and stopped one group of retreating men.

“Get back, you cowards, or I’ll shoot,” he shouted in poor Spanish.

The soldiers stopped, for the moment more terrified by the pistol in front of them than the enemy. The youngest of the group, a boy of about eighteen, started to cry. But the groups coming from the ridge were increasing in number, and one brave man could not stop it. He put his pistol back in his holster, swore, and went back to his dugout. The soldiers scampered away, and we all felt a little contemptuous, and yet sorry for them.

“After all, they’re only kids,” Louie said. They don’t know what it’s all about. We would like to get out of this place too.”

Finally the order came from headquarters to retreat. Reluctantly we got up from our dugouts. One of the Czechs, a member of the communication squad had been killed, his head mangled by shrapnel. We covered him with some earth and stones. Three or four others also had slight wounds from shrapnel. None of the Americans were hurt.

When we started to load the trucks, we were under fire again. First the instruments, and then the boxes of shells were hoisted onto the trucks, and then our personal belongings. The fascists were firing shells with overhead shrapnel, and often while we worked we would have to drop everything and duck back into our holes. While we worked we were unafraid. Terrified soldiers were streaming past us, with nobody seemingly in command, all headed east. Some of the retreating soldiers had blood-soaked bandages wrapped about their heads. Men retreating are contagious, and in times like that when every instinct tells you, “run, run with the rest and save yourself,” it is not bravery that keeps men from breaking; rather it is shame – shame at the thought of acting like a coward in front of your comrades – shame at being the first to give way – shame at the thought that you who had come thousands of miles to fight, could not take it. So men act nonchalantly when inwardly they are consumed by fear.

When the trucks were all loaded, and even before some of us had a chance to get on them, they were off. We started to yell for them to stop, and started to dash after them, but it was too late. Of the Americans, Eliot, Louie, Crosby and myself were left behind. We had no arms – just our packs and a couple of blankets. There was nothing to do but walk and hope to meet up with our outfit in some new position they would undoubtedly set up. We joined the helter-skelter mobs of men, all going in the same direction, away from the front. The fascists, knowing that the men were in retreat and the front broken, continued shelling us with overhead shrapnel – shells that exploded up in the air and rained down. Squadrons of planes would dive and strafe, and we spent much time that day hugging the good Spanish earth.

The wide plain was full of retreating men. Many of the Spanish soldiers were carrying suitcases. We met some men of the French battery. They told us they had been forced to blow up their guns, not having time to pull them out. They seemed utterly demoralized, and said they were heading for the coast. They slyly hinted that we accompany them to Valencia. The thought of that sunny Mediterranean city, surrounded by its orange groves, and gleaming near the blue sea, was tempting. Eliot, who could speak some French, gently told them to fuck-off, and dead-tired, we kept going ahead. Eliot was a union organizer in one of the Australian port cities. He was a Communist, and one of the bravest, most dedicated men I have ever met. He had no small talk, no sense of humor, but a good man to be with.

It was growing dark when we reached Azaila. The town and been bombed about a half hour ago, and a thick cloud of smoke still hung over it. We hurried through the crowded, narrow streets anxious not to be caught in another raid. Everybody else in town had the same thought. Carts were being piled with pitiful household belongings, and black-tuniced, bent peasant men were leading their burros, with women and children sitting on the heaped-up carts, and sheep and goats following behind. Soldiers, peasants, burros, sheep, all living things fleeing the fascists and their thunderous death from the skies. Many of the women were weeping, leaving loved ones buried in the debris of their homes. Most of these peasants of Aragon had never passed beyond the fields of their village, and were almost more terrified to flee to the unknown East than to stay at home and wait for the fascists. But the tide was to the Mediterranean and the black sorrowful mass choked the roads, looking fearfully up at the sky. Some distance from the edge of the town we found a small barn filled with straw. Other soldiers were already there and the place smelled of unwashed bodies. We burrowed deep in the straw, and fell asleep immediately. At dawn we awoke, and shook the straw from our clothes and hair. We had some bread, and I also had a tin of sardines that I had saved from a package my wife had sent me many weeks ago. We tore the bread apart, and were dipping it in the olive oil in which the sardines had been packed. The smell of the sardines and the oil was strong, and all the soldiers around us eyed us hungrily and enviously. When we had eaten, one of the soldiers asked us for the can. He dipped a tiny piece of bread in it, and asked: “Sardinas Americanas?” “Si,” I replied, “Sardinas Americans.”

“There is much food in America, is there not?” “Yes,” I said in my poor Spanish, “much food.”

“Then why did you come to Spain, the land of war and hunger?”

“To fight the fascists,” I said.

He looked at us with bewilderment, and shaking his head muttered something to one of his buddies.

It was with an effort that we left the barn. Our muscles were stiff, and it was difficult to fit the shoes to our swollen feet. Although it was very early, the road was a crowded as the day before. Rumors were circulating that the fascists were here, there, everywhere. An Italian Savoia appeared in the sky, and panic spread among the crowd. There was a rush for the fields at the side of the road; women were screaming and children were crying. A two-wheeled cart, with the braying, terrified burro still in the traces, had overturned in the ditch. Dogs were barking and snapping at the frightened people. However, the plane neither bombed nor strafed; it just circled overhead once, way up and flew away.

The road ran straight across the plain. There was no shade on that road, and even though it was March the sun was burning. In the distance, the whitewashed houses of a town were shimmering. Louie and Crosby sat down to rest. Louie was carrying an enormous pack, filled with the many articles he had accumulated in Spain – stuff he meant to take home with him, he had explained to us, when he had been kidded about the size and contents of his pack. He had a special attachment to a heavy steel German helmet, which had a bullet hole in it. He never wore it, but carried it with him everywhere. It was his good luck charm, and he felt that as long as he had it, he would be safe. Crosby was quite drunk, since had been sipping wine from his canteen all day. Eliot and I, who were not so heavily loaded, both actually and figuratively, decided to keep on moving. That was the last I ever saw of Crosby.[9]

We felt uncomfortable on the road, and decided to cut across the fields and low hills where it would be less dangerous, even though more arduous. Many other soldiers had the same idea. So hour after hour we trudged across the fields, cursing the Spanish sun and the lack of shade. For miles around there was not a piece of shrubbery or a tree. When night fell, we lay down in the field, and huddled closely together, covered by our ponchos and one thin blanket. We fell asleep immediately.

Early the next morning we continued east across the fields. The sun rose and it became hot again. We were hungry and we were lucky we had some very stale pieces of break and a couple of cans of bully beef to eat. But we had no water, and the soldiers we met had no water, or said they hadn’t. We were so tired we could barely move, yet we dared not stop, fearing that once we felt the luxury of resting, it would be difficult to move again. The planes were active that day too, and the throb of their motors filled the air, and bombs distantly exploding.

We were wondering what had happened to our battery. We were pretty sure that by this time they would have set up new positions, and when we saw planes we expected to hear the familiar explosions and see the white puffs in the sky.

Two soldiers were passing close to us, one of whom was bandaged around the head. They were ragged and covered with dirt, and on both their faces was that gaunt and yellow look of men who had just come from the front. The both were carrying rifles and nothing else. They were tall and did not look Spanish. Then one of them with an unmistakable English accent, asked us in halting Spanish if we had any water. “Are you guys from the Lincolns?” we both burst out, overjoyed. “Yes,” they were from the Lincolns, or “what was left of them,” they bitterly exclaimed. “The 15th Brigade was wiped out – nobody fucking-well left.” They said Brigade headquarters had received a direct hit, and many officers and men had been killed. They listed casualty after casualty. We had no way of knowing how much truth was in their statements, but it did seem pretty bad. And they cursed as they told us how their right flank had broken.

“We could have still been holding the lines if not for those bastards in the 8th Brigade – anarchists or marineros [naval infantry] I heard, “and then he rambled on: “and what did they do for six months after we took Belchite and gave it to them? Did they build a trench? Not even a foxhole, the lazy bastards, and then they expect us to hold the lines with peashooters against all-hell-breaking-loose.”

The soldier with the bandaged head did not say anything. He was leaning for support upon his more voluble comrade, and looked deathly pale. He needed water badly, and his wound needed dressing. We kept walking glad to be with these men from the Lincolns. The soldier with the bandaged head stopped.

“I must stop,” he said. “I can’t keep up with you. I’ll stay here and rest.” His buddy also urged us to go on without them. We said we would stay with them for a while, secretly glad to rest our weary swollen feet. I had an emergency first aid kit. We took off his bloody bandage and applied a fresh one. The wound was not a serious one – just an open cut on the scalp, matted with blood and hair. But he had lost plenty of blood, and was faint and needed water. We all needed water.

Two Spanish soldiers were passing us, and Eliot, taking hold of one of the rifles, approached them.

“Comrades,” he said in broken Spanish. “We need water for a wounded soldier.”

“We have no water,” one of them replied.

Eliot lifted the rifle, a bit menacingly, and approached nearer. He did not have to say anything more. One of the soldiers gave him his well-filled canteen, and the wounded Lincoln drank as much as he could. We also took some hefty swallows, feeling like thieves. The canteen, almost empty now, was returned to the soldier, and Eliot apologized: “I’m sorry comrade, but we needed it. You can probably get some further on.” The soldiers left, muttering under their breath. Eliot I know, would never have used the rifle – and besides, it was not loaded.

“Coños,” exclaimed one of the Lincolns. “They’re probably cursing us now; you come thousands of miles to fight in this fucking war, and you’d think they would give you a little water when you need it.”

“Aw, lay off of them,” said the wounded one.  “They’re probably conscripts; they don’t understand the situation as we do, and they’ve been through hell too.” His buddy could only shake his head wonderingly and say: “Look at the guy – a hole in his head and still PD’d (politically developed) up to the asshole.”

Late in the afternoon we came to the town of Hijar. It was deserted. Never before had I seen such fearful wreckage. Hardly a house was standing. Large bomb craters were in the streets. The railroad tracks along the station were twisted grotesquely. A café in the town square was filled with soldiers drinking wine from the huge barrels; other soldiers were filling their canteens with wine. The proprietor had fled. Eliot and I were welcomed into the drunken crowd. When they found out we were Internationals, they surrounded us admiringly, and began to drink to the “extranjeros” [foreigners] and to the “Lincoln Brigada” and pressed some wine upon us. We did not need much urging, and were soon a bit drunk.

We staggered when we left the café but we were thankful, for the wine made us feel happy and free, for a time, of the tension and fear we had had for the last couple of days. For the first time I heard Eliot express an irreverent political sentiment: “Christ, will this bloody war ever end? I haven’t been near a woman for a year, and I’ve forgotten what they look and smell like, and if I ever again get near one, I wouldn’t know what to do.” But then in afterthought – “First though, we’ve got to lick these bloody fascists.

As we neared the edge of town, our sensitive ears caught the drone of planes cutting the clear air, and all of a sudden we were drunk no longer. We looked at each other knowingly, and I began to feel that weight in my stomach. When we could see the gleaming specks getting larger and flying in our direction, we jumped into an irrigation ditch at the side of the road. We sank into water and mud up to our thighs, and leaning against the side of the ditch, we cursed our vilest. There were five of them in formation, big silvery trimotors, and they flew by, serene and unafraid.

But suddenly, from the hills outside of town, a familiar sound hit our ears. There a few kilometers in the hills, we could see the flash of the guns, and then looking up, the white puffs in the sky around the planes. The antiaircraft was in action, and the planes wheeled and left, without dropping any bombs.

“It’s our outfit,” I said. “Sure enough,” added Eliot. “Let’s get to them.”

We picked ourselves out of the ditch, and headed in the direction of the guns. The hills were steeper than we thought, and it was tough climbing, but we reached them just as it was growing dark. The guns were placed on a small plateau surrounded by rocks that cast huge shadows. The gun crews were starting small fires, as it was now too dark for flying aircraft.

It felt good to be back again with these tattered and hungry men. The young Czech commander greeted us very warmly, and in broken English said:  “Comrades, I thought you were dead – kaput. Salud.” John, our section leader, was beaming and happy. The Americans hugged us and slapped our backs, and wanted to know what had happened to us. Louie had reached the outfit that morning. Crosby, he told us, had been too drunk to continue on with him. He had left him asleep by the side of the road.

While we hungrily devoured some cold chickpeas, they told us of all that happened since we last saw them. This was the first position they had been able to set up since the fascists had broken through at Belchite.  We were not the only ones who had been left behind. Seven Czechs and two Hungarians were still missing.

It was very dark over Aragon, and sitting around in groups, talking, we loved our comrades. The long, menacing guns set up in a square, seemed warm, familiar, and protecting. For a brief moment we forgot the coming dawn and the many more dawns until the fascists chased us to the sea. We were back with our battery, where, it seemed, we had lived forever.

[1] Maurice Harrison Hawkins

[2] Charles Bartelli is Charles Bartolotta (Canadian) b. October 28, 917; Domicile Hamilton, Ontario, Canadian of Italian descent; Student; YCL; Served with the XV BDE, Mac-Paps, Artillery [William Beeching, Canadians in Spain 1936-1939; RGASPI  Fond 545, Opis 2, Delo 127].

[3] Irving Peters is Irving Peshkin.

[4] Louis Elliott (Australian) CP Australia; Arrived in Spain on December 3, 1936, Served in the original English Co. 1; XV BDE at Jarama, WIA; After recover sent to Almansa attached to Artillery; Noted as repatriated September 1938 [RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 68].

[5] Louie Roberts is Leon Rosenberg.

[6] Paul Sidney Crosby.

[7] Schutz is William Schutt.

[8] Works Progress Administration – one of FDR’s programs meant to provide employment during the Great Depression.

[9] Paul Sidney Crosby, survived The Retreats. He went on to fight in the Ebro Offensive. Crosby was wounded in action on July 28, 1938. After returning to the US on December 20, 1938 aboard the Ausonia, he returned to Kentucky. He died seven days later in Louisville, Kentucky after surgery on his elbows. His death certificate indicated that he died of pneumonia, complicated by an embolism.


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One Response to “ The Big Retreat – by Ben Iceland ”

  1. Ray Hoff on September 9, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you, Chris and Liana. These stories are invaluable to understand what these men, many who have had nothing written about them, went through. My father was in the retreats and joined up with the Mac-Paps in Azuara west of Belchite. His unit had been overrun and they straggled into Azuara without their guns. The Mac-Paps had a fighting retreat all the way back to the Ebro and my father was able to get over the Mora bridge on April 2. Like Alvah Bessie, who described the destruction of the Bridge in Men in Battle, he was one of the last brigadistas across who did not have to swim the river.

    Thanks for these throwback stories. They help keep the Lincolns truly alive.