Battle of Brunete

On 6th July 1937, the Popular Front government launched a major offensive in an attempt to relieve the threat to Madrid. General Vicente Rojo sent the International Brigades to Brunete, challenging Nationalist control of the western approaches to the capital. The 80,000 Republican soldiers made good early progress but they were brought to a halt when General Francisco Franco brought up his reserves.

Fighting in hot summer weather, the Internationals suffered heavy losses. Three hundred were captured and they were later found dead with their legs cut off. In retaliation, Valentin González (El Campesino), executed an entire Moroccan battalion of some 400 men. All told, the Republic lost 25,000 men and the Nationalists 17,000. George Nathan, Oliver Law, Harry Dobson and Julian Bell were all killed at the Battle of Brunete.

Primary Sources

(1) Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, Very Little Luggage (2009)

So, against this psychological background, Thora and I moved with the Unit to the Escorial where we took over a relatively modern building which was to be the last hospital we were to help set up in Spain. Our work load was greater than ever before and our standards were, I believe, truly exemplary. As the principal Field Hospital serving the Battle of Brunete, we benefited from the total logistic support that comes with being a part of a real Army.

Julian Bell joined us at this point; we had both known somehow that the other existed. Julian had enormous energy; he had come up to Cambridge in 1927 and had been an Apostle into which grouping (unlike my half-brother Austin) I had not been deemed worthy of the call. Julian had asked me if I had been one of the elect, but my exclusion did not stop us having many very Apostolic discussions. He was profoundly anti-fascist but not Marxist in any organised or orthodox sense. He had been deeply influenced by his time in China. He felt that England needed a dose of Confucius. There was plenty of Right Thinking, he said, a fair amount of Right Talking, rather less Right Writing and far too little Right Action. Unless these unities were manifested, man's intellectual life became a bundle of meaningless contradictions. Since I had arrived at much the same conclusion (without going to China), we got on very well indeed.

Though Julian had great worldly experience, he had retained a capacity for wonder, an innocence, a candour, and a ceaseless zest for activity. All this made him magically attractive. Though he detested the heartless destruction of war, it did not make him afraid. He was consistently courageous. The battle for Brunete went on and on; we won 75 square kilometers at the price of 25,000 dead (to be fair the Franco losses of 10,000 should be added which makes the price in human lives 35,000). This meant that every one hundred paces of our advance had been bought with the lives of four men. One of those lives was that of Julian Bell. Dying in the bed next to him was a young Hamburger whose last message of love to his family I took down and sent back to Nazi Germany by the Rote Hilfes underground mail. Julian drifted out of this world quietly, on the edge of coma since admission. It was on the 18th of July 1937 that the Luftwaffe bombed the spot where Julian was repairing the road for his Ambulance to move forward. He had a massive lung wound; his case was beyond hope but he came back in time for us to be able to make his end comfortable. Dr D'Arcy Hart (no relation of Tudor H. ), a most distinguished lung specialist, was with us as Julian came in, so quite literally everything possible was done to save him. Wogan Phillips had been brought in with Julian. They had been hit by the same shell-burst. Wogan was holding his wounded arm with his sound hand; he was in considerable pain but held himself back. He told us with insistence to leave him alone and to get on with the stretcher cases. I remember his face today - drawn and very pale. Though in no sense a militarist, he was built in the George Nathan tradition.

(2) Cecil D. Eby, Comrades and Commissars (2007)

A major loss for the brigade was the death of Major George Nathan, killed by a random bomb from a Junker as the XVth was withdrawing from the battle. Spiffy and regimental to the end, during lulls in the battle he entertained visitors at lunch under shaded oak trees, offering them sliced tomato salad and fruit jam, served on a table carefully laid by his batman, whom he kissed and fondled openly. His funeral drew a distinguished crowd, for he was admired by Soviet "observers" for his "cool arrogance under fire," even though he had been refused membership in the Communist Party because of his sexual orientation.

(3) Eslanda Goode diary entries while in Spain visiting the International Brigades in January 1938.

Monday 31st January: We had a good talk over lunch and afterwards over coffee in the lounge, and then we went off to the border. Fernando, in civilian dress, accompanied us, and Lt. K., armed in full uniform, was our official escort.

As we drove along, Lt. K. got talking and told us the story of Oliver Law. It seems he was a Negro - about 33 - who was a former army man from Chicago. He had risen to be a corporal in the US Army. Quiet, dark brown, dignified, strongly built. All the men liked him. He began here as a corporal, soon rose to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and finally was commander of the Battalion - the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. Lt. K. said warmly that many officers and men here in Spain considered him the best battalion commander in Spain. The men all liked him, trusted him, respected him and served him with confidence and willingly.

Lt. K. tells of an incident when the battalion was visited by an old Colonel, Southern, of the US Army. He said to Law - 'Er, I see you are in a Captain's uniform?' Law replied with dignity, 'Yes, I am, because I am a Captain. In America, in your army, I could only rise as high as corporal, but here people feel differently about race and I can rise according to my worth, not according to my color!' Whereupon the Colonel hemmed and hawed and finally came out with: 'I'm sure your people must be proud of you, my boy.' 'Yes,' said Law. 'I'm sure they are!'

Lt. K. says that Law rose from rank to rank on sheer merit. He kept up the morale of his men. He always had a big smile when they won their objectives and an encouraging smile when they lost. He never said very much.

Law led his men in charge after charge at Brunete, and was finally wounded seriously by a sniper. Lt. K. brought him in from the field and loaded him onto a stretcher when he found how seriously wounded he was. Lt. K. and another soldier were carrying him up the hill to the first aid camp.

On the way up the hill another sniper shot Law, on the stretcher; the sniper's bullet landed in his groin and he began to lose blood rapidly. They did what they could to stop the blood, hurriedly putting down the stretcher. But in a few minutes the loss of blood was so great that Law died.