After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February, 1937.
General José Miaja sent three International Brigades including the Dimitrov Battalion and the British Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. Jason Gurney pointed out in his book, Crusade in Spain (1974): "I got back to Wintringham's HQ and relayed the Brigadier's orders. Runners were sent out to 1, 3 and 4 Companies to order the advance. I went up to No. 2 Company's trench to observe their movement and report back. William Briskey's No. 3 Company on the Casa Blanca hill was the first to move down the hill from its summit, followed shortly after by No. 1 Company under Kit Conway."
On 12th February, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. This included Walter Grant, Christopher Caudwell, Clem Beckett and William Briskey, who was in charge of No. 3 Company. As a result of a lack of the right ammunition, Harry Fry and Fred Copeman of No. 2 Company, had to load the shells individually.
Later that day Tom Wintringham sent Jason Gurney to find out what was happening: "During a lull in the firing, Wintringham sent me down to the Casa Blanca hill to get a situation report from Briskey as we had received no word from him since the barrage started. I went along the sunken road and made my way across the dead ground in the rear of the hill. The firing had died down considerably but was still heavy enough to be frightening. When I reached the crest of the hill, the scene I found was really horrible. Briskey was dead and No. 3 Company had lost more than half of its total strength, either dead or wounded."
After the death of William Briskey, about 30 members of No. 3 Company withdrew from their position. The battalion political commissar, George Aitken "cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol.''
Bert Overton, the commander of No. 4 company, asked Tom Wintringham if he could withdraw his men from the front-line to the protection of the sunken road. Permission was not forthcoming. John Bosco Jones, who served under Overton, later recalled: "After about the third day at Jarama when we went into action, there was very little defence. We were out in the open and people were standing up when they should have been taking cover. They were being shot down and we were losing quite a number of men and right to the front of us, about 500 yards away, there was a big white house. We were hoping to capture that white house but we never got near it." Jones went on to claim that Overton came up to him and said: "I have forgotten my binoculars." Jones said he would get them but Overton replied: "No, I will go". Jones stressed that "you can't go and leave the company, but before I said anything else he walked off and he was gone".
George Leesonwas another soldier who saw Overton walk from the battlefield: "It wouldn't have been too bad if we had a right flank, but our right flank was empty because Bert Overton's No 4 Company had deserted and run back to the sunken road." The historian, Cecil D. Eby has pointed out in Comrades and Commissars (2009): "When Overton panicked on the first day... the right-flank collapsed and the battalion was nearly destroyed." This enabled the Nationalists to virtually surround the British Battalion. Coming under heavy fire the British, now only 160 out of the original 600, had to establish defensive positions along a sunken road.
During the afternoon Jason Gurney had been ordered by Tom Wintringham to reconnoitre to the south of the sunken road: "I had only gone about 700 yards when I came across one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen. I found a group of wounded (British) men who had been carried to a non-existent field dressing station and then forgotten. There were about fifty stretchers, but many men had already died and most of the others would be dead by morning. They had appalling wounds, mostly from artillery. One little Jewish kid of about eighteen lay on his back with his bowels exposed from his navel to his genitals and his intestines lying in a ghastly pinkish brown heap, twitching slightly as the flies searched over them. He was perfectly conscious. Another man had nine bullet holes across his chest. I held his hand until it went limp and he was dead. I went from one to the other but was absolutely powerless. Nobody cried out or screamed except they all called for water and I had none to give. I was filled with such horror at their suffering and my inability to help them that I felt I had suffered some permanent injury to my spirit."
On 13th February, 1937, Tom Wintringham was hit in the thigh while trying to organise a bayonet charge. Jock Cunningham replaced Wintringham. When he was wounded, Fred Copeman became the new commander of the British Battalion. Gurney was not impressed with his new leader: "Fred Copeman, that great bull of a man, clearly visualized himself as a divinely-appointed leader by virtue of his immense strength - he had been a heavy-weight boxer in the Navy - although he was almost illiterate. Throughout his life he had used his fists to put himself in charge of any group of men he found himself among. He was completely without physical fear and seemed almost entirely indifferent to physical injury... By this time he was more or less insane, giving completely inconsequential orders to everybody in sight, and offering to bash their faces in if they did not comply."
Led by Robert Merriman, the 373 members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion moved into the trenches on 23rd February. When the were ordered over the top they were backed by a pair of tanks from the Soviet Union. On the first day 20 men were killed and nearly 60 were wounded.
On 27th February 1937, Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches Merriman was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived. One soldier remarked afterwards: "The battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated."
Edwin Rolfe survived but wrote: "When we were pulled out of the lines I felt very tired and lonely and guilty. Lonely because half of the battalion had been badly shot up. And guilty because I felt I didn't deserve to be alive now, with Arnold and Nick and Paul dead."
Fred Copeman was wounded but survived. He later wrote about meeting Kit Conway at the hospital at Jarma: "Kit was obviously dying. The simple sincerity of people like Kit makes the struggle for social justice the inspiring thing it is. Kit was in terrible agony, and yet his one concern was that he may have been responsible for the slaughter that had taken place. Six hundred and thirty men had entered the line and there were not more than eighty left unwounded, and the percentage of killed was very high. It was hard to convince him that our fighting had taken place in the toughest, bloodiest battle of the whole Spanish campaign, and that it had been decisive in the defence of the Madrid-Valencia road."
Marty Hourihan was made the new commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion by a committee of the soldiers. In Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007) Cecil D. Eby claims that "Party hard-wires distrusted the new Lincoln commander, a political maverick so defiant of the Party line that at times he seemed not even to know what it was."
Jason Gurney, the brigade observer, was impressed by his new commanding officer. "Marty, in his role of Commander, inevitably lived a rather lonely life; he had to maintain absolute neutrality without any close friendships or favourites, but he was by nature a gregarious man and the friendship which we had formed for one another was very strong. He had a terrific sense of humour and, although he had little formal education, a very good mind and a superb sense of human sympathy. He never bore grudges or carried on feuds, he could be tough as hell in public, but there was much more of sorrow for human weakness than condemnation of wickedness in his outlook."
One of the first things Marty Hourihan had to do was to deal with an accusation of incompetence against Oliver Law made by two veteran gunners, Ray Steele and Jim Katz. He was also accused of promoting friends to safer posts at headquarters and with "salting away catches of extra food for himself". Hourihan found Law guilty of the charges but he was overruled by a committee of political commissars.
By the end of February the front lines had stabilized, with both sides consolidating and fortifying their positions. Both sides had suffered very heavy losses. On 5th April 1937 Vladimir Copic told Hourihan to leave their trenches to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. Hourihan refused and Copic replied: "You're cowards! You don't perform your duties! You're not aggressive enough!" Hourihan later told Steve Nelson: "I'm not going to give any orders to the Battalion to climb out of the trench and get themselves slaughtered until there is some real support." Gurney commented that Nelson and Copic accepted this because he knew "the entire Battalion was sufficiently angry to mutiny, as it had done before."
According to the author of British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) Bert Overton was later punished for his behaviour at Jarma: "On the night of 27 and 28 April, Bert Overton's actions during the battle of Jarama were raised in a battalion meeting... At the official brigade court martial which followed shortly afterwards, Overton was charged with desertion, promoting himself to captain and drawing the pay, and sentenced to work in a labour battalion." However, Fred Copeman has claimed that Sam Wild executed Overton: "Towards the end of the war Sam Wild agreed to shoot two British soldiers... one of them was Overton."
In June 1937 Marty Hourihan joined Harry Haywood, Steve Nelson and Allan Johnson in demanding that Vladimir Copic should be removed as commander of the XVth Brigade. Copic wrote in his diary: "Hayward tells me that as a delegate of the Party it is his duty to tell me that the men have no confidence in the CO of the Brigade and want to replace me." Copic refused to go and threatened to arrest Haywood and his fellow rebels.
By 11 February the fascists had crossed the Jarama river, using the bridge on the small dirt road that ran from San Martin de la Vega to Morata de Tajuna. They had taken some of the commanding heights on the last ridge before the Tajuna Valley, and their way was open to the Valencia road. In the early morning of 12 February the British moved forward by truck from Chinchon to an area by a large farmhouse where the Madrid-Chinchon road crossed the smaller San Martin-Morata road. The San Martin road climbed for about a mile to a plateau, covered with olive trees, and then descended through broken hills and ridges to the Jarama river. The farmhouse and buildings around it became and remained cookhouse and rear headquarters throughout the long stay on the Jarama front.
These were completely raw troops, imperfectly trained and disciplined, ordered to hold a position on an exposed hillside against heavy artillery fire. They had no entrenching equipment, nor had they received any instruction in fortification. So they just had to hold on and endure it as best they could. In front of them were considerable forces of Moorish infantry, the finest infantry at Franco's disposal. It was obvious that as soon as the artillery had finished their softening-up process the infantry would attack. It was true that they were in a tactically inferior position as they would be advancing up hill over open country, and if our automatic weapons had been effective they would have suffered terrific casualties. Unfortunately the shossers had proved completely disastrous in action and the Colts, which were efficient weapons in themselves, were almost entirely useless owing to the supply of defective ammunition belts. This had been suspected before we went into action but since ammunition was short, we had not done enough practice firing to discover the extent of the defects until it was too late to remedy them. In the event, the men of the three Companies put up a very gallant defence but they were hopelessly outnumbered by enormously superior troops, and very few of them survived to retreat.
The situation remained more or less unchanged until late afternoon. It was a ghastly experience to sit in the comparative security of Harry Fry's trench and to watch the gradual but remorseless destruction of men with whom one had lived in conditions of peculiar intimacy in the billets in Madrigueras. Wintringham had tried to persuade Gal to agree to withdraw to the line of the sunken road - but the line must be held `at all costs', any retreat would be met with court martial and all manner of dire penalties. One of the Russians arrived from Brigade HQ and put on a terrific turn in a mixture of Russian and incomprehensible French. By this time the question was becoming largely academic. There were very few of our men left on their original line and a huge body of Moors were advancing steadily up the hill.
Both Gal and Copic had a passion for orders of an arbitrary kind. "You will counter-attack, regardless of circumstances," capped by "These are my orders," and threats of court-martial and executions. Where they had acquired these habits I don't know. It is all part of the ridiculous attitude of mind that war should be a parade ground for courage; whereas, it is usually something closer to a restraint of panic. Acts of courage do arise, but they are not part of the bread and butter business of fighting a battle, and the commander who expects to see them performed all the time and several times a day is a fool. At this particular moment we were a broken battalion. We had been beaten by heavier fire power, superior numbers and superior skills. The best that Wintringham could have hoped for was to prevent the men in his command from running away altogether. But to talk of making an attack with the battered remnant left at his disposal was merely absurd; to have court-martialled him for failing to comply with the orders would have been criminal.
Stretcher bearers were going back now in long lines. Kit Conway had got one in the stomach and was obviously not going to live long. Ken Stalker, the Commander of No. 2 Section had been wounded. In fact, most of the leadership had gone. I decided to find out where this machine-gun that was making it hot for us was stationed. Turning round to look for its exact location, I felt a burning in my hand, and looking down saw that the inside of my watch had gone. There were two holes in my sleeve, and a piece of bullet protruded from my hand. Within seconds the burning became almost intolerable. I grasped hold of the bullet and pulled. It must have been well embedded, it wouldn't move. I cursed everybody and everything I could think of, but the wound was not bleeding so I decided to wrap it up in the field dressing and go back later.
I turned to the hill, and almost immediately received one in the head. It was a curious feeling, rather like receiving morphia. Everything went warm and I felt sleepy. All that I looked at had a red tinge about it, and yet I could still see to move around. By this tune the pain in the hand had gone, and I almost forgot that the bullet was there.
The casualties were continuing to come back now very thick. Only a couple of dozen men with Sam Wilde were left on the white house hill. I suddenly realised that the pinkness was from blood running from my eye. I started back with Danny Gibson towards the dressing station. I was convinced that half my head had disappeared, when in actual fact the wound was not too bad. Danny's was pretty awful. Blood was pouring out of him. By now we were on all fours crawling. Somebody passed on a stretcher and was immediately killed from a hail of bullets that spattered around us. I woke up in a front-line dressing station somewhere near Marata.
It was here I met Kit Conway, who was obviously dying. The simple sincerity of people like Kit makes the struggle for social justice the inspiring thing it is. Kit was in terrible agony, and yet his one concern was that he may have been responsible for the slaughter that had taken place. Six hundred and thirty men had entered the line and there were not more than eighty left unwounded, and the percentage of killed was very high. It was hard to convince him that our fighting had taken place in the toughest, bloodiest battle of the whole Spanish campaign, and that it had been decisive in the defence of the Madrid-Valencia road.
The Moroccan troops retreated out of range, which brought to an end the first day of the battle of Jarama. The British Battalion had endured seven hours of heavy losses, and "Out of the 400 men in the rifle companies, only 125 were left. Altogether less than half the battalion remained."' The remnants of the battalion gathered at the battalion headquarters on the sunken road, or the cookhouse next to the farm, desperate for food and water. After dark, Jason Gurney was asked by the battalion commander, Tom Wintringham, to reconnoitre the sunken road which ran across the plateau, near its forward edge. Here Gurney made a horrifying discovery; about 50 injured men were lying on stretchers, where they had been left and forgotten in the chaotic and desperate times during the day. By the time Gurney discovered them it was too late; most were dying or already dead."
During the night about 30 stragglers from No. 3 Company were found at the cookhouse by the battalion political commissar, George Aitken. Where possible, Aitken cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol.''' However, Aitken never actually used it; like most of the other senior figures in the battalion, he was vehemently opposed to the shooting of deserters. Aitken claims that he was approached at Jarama by higher officers, "and a civilian", with the idea of trying, and possibly shooting, some of the deserters. Aitken resisted it and states that he remained totally opposed to the idea of shooting men who had volunteered. He later stated categorically that "there was nothing of the kind while I was there." However, coerced or not, the volunteers were a desperately needed addition to the front line.
The second day of the battle was to be no less terrifying for the shocked volunteers. The battalion commander,Tom Wintringham, prepared the depleted forces as best he could. Harold Fry's (No. 2) Machine-Gun Company was kept in a forward position, overlooking the valley and river below them. No. 4 Company, under Overton, was placed to the right and No. I Company was facing the open left flank, now under the command of Andre Diamant following the death of Kit Conway. Stand-to was at 3 a.m. Dave Springhall, the assistant brigade commissar, brought orders from brigade headquarters that the battalion should prepare for an advance on the Nationalist forces, which he said would be supported by tanks and another International Brigade.
When dawn broke Fry's company was able to see a number of rebel soldiers who had moved up in the night between the ridge and Suicide Hill and drive them back with concentrated machine-gun fire. But as the day progressed the Franco-Belge and Dimitrov Battalions on the right were gradually pushed back and the British Battalion found itself once again surrounded on three sides. By late afternoon Wintringham was aware that a rebel assault on Fry's position was imminent, as small groups of Nationalist troops could be seen working their way forward to Fry's right, where Bert Overton's No. 4 Company was situated. At this point the nervous Overton finally panicked and withdrew his company right back to the sunken road, as he had been begging the political commissar George Aitken to allow him to do all day. This left the Machine-Gun Company's flank totally unprotected, and rebel forces quickly took advantage of the situation and surrounded them. Tom Wintringham wrote a desperate note to Fry requesting that the Machine-Gun Company hold on, but before the note could be delivered they were overrun by Nationalist forces. As many as 30 members of the Machine-Gun Company, including its commander, Harold Fry, and his number two, Ted Dickenson, were captured.
I got back to Wintringham's HQ and relayed the Brigadier's orders. Runners were sent out to 1, 3 and 4 Companies to order the advance. I went up to No. 2 Company's trench to observe their movement and report back. William Briskey's No. 3 Company on the Casa Blanca hill was the first to move down the hill from its summit, followed shortly after by No. 1 Company under Kit Conway. But I could see no sign of Overton and No. 4 Company as they were concealed from me by a fold in the ground. Suddenly, and without any warning, all hell broke loose under a storm of artillery and heavy machine-gun fire. It concentrated first on the Casa Blanca hill, which became completely obscured in clouds of smoke and dust. Gradually it spread right along the line of our forward positions. The barrage was continued for about three hours. From my position in Harry Fry's trench I could see the chaos of Casa Blanca hill, where some of the men were working away with bayonet and tin helmet in an attempt to produce some sort of fox-hole in which to hide. None of the Colts or shossers were firing, and very few rifles, but the enemy were lying in concealed positions and had not yet started to advance. Our men seemed to be fascinated by the little white house which was already in ruins. They kept moving towards it, presumably because it was the only solid cover in the district, and seemed undeterred by the fact that the enemy were using it as a ranging mark, and that it was there that the shelling was heaviest. No. 1 Company seemed to be a little better off in their position on the knoll. They had a nucleus of experienced men, under Kit Conway, and found a certain amount of cover on the reverse slope. But from both positions there was a continual trickle of walking wounded and stretcher-bearers making their way back from the Front. Some distance away, we could hear a tremendous battle going on to the north of us, but there appeared to be no action on either of our immediate flanks and we got the impression that we had been left on our own to fight a private war. Our prospects didn't look very encouraging. We knew that ahead of us was a considerable force with a far greater fire power than we could muster, and the situation started to lose some of its field-day light-heartedness.
During a lull in the firing, Wintringham sent me down to the Casa Blanca hill to get a situation report from Briskey as we had received no word from him since the barrage started. I went along the sunken road and made my way across the dead ground in the rear of the hill. The firing had died down considerably but was still heavy enough to be frightening. When I reached the crest of the hill, the scene I found was really horrible. Briskey was dead and No. 3 Company had lost more than half of its total strength, either dead or wounded.
The survivors seemed to be in fairly good heart but very angry. Some of them were trying to scratch some sort of cover for themselves and cursing the lack of any tools; others were trying to clear jams in the wretched shossers - spare magazines had become hopelessly clogged with dirt and had to be emptied, cleaned and reloaded. Everyone was asking for water. The situation in Overton's Company was worse. They had had equally heavy casualties but seemed to be making a much less serious attempt to prepare for the attack which must surely be imminent, and I could get no coherent sense out of Overton himself. He had a list of totally impossible requirements: reinforcements, artillery support, food, water and God knows what beside, but seemed to be making no real effort to keep the Company together. I had just got back to the sunken road when there was a storm of musketry. The enemy had started their advance.
We were issued with uniforms and rifles of all descriptions. Most of the Spanish had Mausers from 1896. First I was given a Canadian Ross, a kind of elephant gun. But then the Russians sent us a whole load of bayoneted rifles.
My first battle was the bloodiest of the whole war, at Jarama, near Madrid. Oh, it was horrible. It was like a Hollywood film. We were issued with machine guns, German Maxims, water-cooled things. We had dug ourselves into this escarpment and the bastards, loads of them, came up howling. They had these Mauser grenade rifles. I had a lump in my throat but I let fly at the bastards with my machine gun and they all dropped down. I was really enthusiastic. We had come to our enemies now, not just the Spanish - they were bloody Germans. And there were a bunch of Italian Black Arrows too. I let fly and got a couple of them as well.
The battle lasted a fortnight. On the third day, over 200 of our boys lay dead out of 600. That's where I copped it. I was shot in the groin.
"That is the stage on which the first act of the world war drama is being played," said a doctor of the militia to me today, pointing down to the Valley of the Jarama as we lay on a hill in long, thyme-scented grass.
I had driven out from Madrid along the Valencia road, turning off along a mule track about ten miles from the city. The track carried us into the heart of the hills, along whose seemingly deserted slopes reverberated the booming of guns.
At last we came to a little hollow in whose shelter stood two ambulance cars.
"This is the place," said the army doctor with me, and getting out he told us to follow. Imitating my guide, I crawled up the slope to the summit and there we lay prone with our nostrils buried in the thyme and our eyes fixed on the field of battle.
This was Valley of the Jarama, that stream whose name, beside that of the Manzanares, is now being written with letters of blood in imperishable annals of humanity's fight for liberty. Beyond the stream were our lines facing the long forbidding ridge of Redondo, now held by enemy.
A week ago, in the most powerful drive since the battle for Madrid began, the rebels advanced along the ridge, and now from the bluff at the northern end their fire commands the Valencia road and compels the convoys of lorries carrying precious food to Madrid to make a detour to the north.
But the mercenary troops of international Fascism, despite repeated attempts, have not yet set their feet on the road; between them and their goal stand the men of the young Republican Army, determined that just as the Manzanares defied Franco when he tried to storm Madrid, so shall the Jarama defy him as he tries to starve it.
Through field-glasses we could see bands of rebel troops move along the ridge.
"This morning we saw a priest among them," said the doctor. "He was carrying a machine-gun, but as soon as our men opened fire he scurried off and took cover behind a boulder. Most of his companions over there seem to be Moors.
"At night the Moors steal down the hillside and crawl towards our lines. Then, when they are quite near, they jump up, and uttering fiendish cries to frighten our men, rush forward. But our lads are not frightened, and in many cases those wild cries of the Moors have been their last."
A mule with two stretchers strapped to its saddle was grazing in the hollow. "That's how we bring in our wounded," the doctor explained. "Two men at a time. They have to be carried across the bridge which spans the Jarama and up this side of the valley to where we are, all under enemy fire. Today we have brought in between sixty and seventy. Ten were dead."
Seriously wounded men, if they survive that nightmare ride on the mule across the valley of death, are treated in one of the ambulances which are equipped with an operating-table.
On the Jarama front the rebels, in reply to the Government offensive, launched a vigorous counter-attack in the La Maranosa sector. After five hours' fighting the rebel onslaught weakened and the Government troops maintained their positions.
The Government troops carried out a particularly brilliant operation in the Marata sector, where they stormed fortified positions held by German troops.
A diversion was staged by the rebels in the University City sector with the double object of distracting attention from the Jarama front and re-establishing communication between the rebel positions at the Bridge of the French (across the Manranares) and the advance guard holding the Clinical Hospital. The attack, however, completely failed.
There was a dip in the ground that was completely invisible, and through which the enemy could have walked and popped up in front of us. It wouldn't have been too bad if we had a right flank, but our right flank was empty because Bert Overton's No 4 Company had deserted and run back to the sunken road. We had eight Maxim machine guns (usually we had around five because they jammed and we sent them back to the armourers on the sunken road). Two Maxims and 12 riflemen should have been taken out and sent to the right flank. The Franco-Belgian Battalion further on the right had been forced back 300-400 yards, so we were exposed.
After continual enemy artillery bombardments and heavy machine-gun fire, which lasted all day long, there was a complete cessation of fire on the enemy side. You think, what's the enemy doing? He was attacking, because they didn't want to hit their own troops. We saw men running down the side of a hill, and we mowed them down. But the enemy was grouping in the blind spot and eventually we were surrounded and captured.
I was exchanged in mid-September 1937 and crossed into France. I wanted to go back. But then Jimmy Rutherford was executed and they wouldn't let anyone who had been captured and exchanged go out again. So I worked for the Spanish aid organizations
After about the third day at Jarama when we went into action, there was very little defence. We were out in the open and people were standing up when they should have been taking cover. They were being shot down and we were losing quite a number of men and right to the front of us, about 500 yards away, there was a big white house. We were hoping to capture that white house but we never got near it. Our commander, Bert Overton, came over to me and said: "I have forgotten my binoculars." I was a runner then, a messenger, and I said I would go back for them. He said, "No, I will go". I said you can't go and leave the company, but before I said anything else he walked off and he was gone. I didn't think too much more about it. I thought that maybe he had been killed. So many people got killed, especially officers, at that time.
The battle for the Valencia road begun by rebels almost a fortnight ago had yesterday come to a standstill. The attack began from Piato and some ground has been gained, but the rebels have been pushed back from the positions they held at the beginning of the week.
It was made clear by a Government communique yesterday that the Jarama River has been crossed and that a small force of rebels, said to be "German troops", are holding fortified positions in the Morata sector, north of Chincon. But the main rebel forces appear never to have been across the Jarama, and in the Government's counter-attack of Wednesday were pushed back. According to the Government's claims the Republicans advanced on a front of five miles, the greatest advance - of three miles - being from San Martin.
Wintringham stood up to lead the charge, was almost immediately shot through the thigh, and collapsed into the sunken road. Aitken and about ten others jumped to their feet, scrambled over the bank of the road and charged. Very, very reluctantly I followed them.
I was running with my head down, presumably subconsciously imagining that my helmet would protect my face, and with absolutely no idea what I would do when, and if, I got to the other side. By the time that I had run about sixty yards I realized that there was no longer anyone in front or alongside me, and I dived for cover under one of the small hills built up around the foot of every olive tree. The heap of earth was only about eighteen inches wide and one foot high, but the eight-inch trunk of the tree provided cover for my head. This was the only part of my body that I was worried about at that particular moment and it felt as vulnerable as an egg shell. I had absolutely no confidence in my French tin helmet.
I was now lying in the middle of no-man's-land with rifle fire coming from both directions. I was familiar with the phrase "to hug the ground", and I was now hugging it with a vengeance, as if I could press my way into it by pure force of will. My olive tree, and its minute hillock, gave me some protection from the front, but my backside was completely exposed to the fire coming from our own men behind me and I began to feel terrifyingly vulnerable. There was such an enormous mass of metal tearing at the air above my head that I dare not get up and try to run for the shelter of the road. I lay very close to despair. I had no thought of prayer, although I think that it might have been a very valuable consolation at such a time; nor did I think back over my past life, nor any of the other things that people are supposed to do in the face of imminent death. But I did feel very unhappy in no very specific way.
I wasn't frightened of being killed but of being mangled. The sight of a dead man did not cause me any particular distress; it was simply the end of a man which seemed to me normal and reasonable. But a living man, smashed out of shape, caused in me a reaction of the purest horror. To some extent this may have been because I was a sculptor, and the logic of the human body was for me one of its most exciting characteristics : the bone structure which maintains the basic shape; the articulation which enables the bones to operate around one another, but only in a limited and disciplined manner, making chaos impossible; the extensor and flexor muscles which act one against the other to control the movements. The perfection of the whole fascinated me, but the sight of the smashed and deformed living bodies at the end of the sunken road on the previous evening had shaken me badly. The thought of being torn and broken terrified me.
Finally my mind cleared sufficiently to arrive at conscious decision - if I stayed where I was, I was bound to be hit sooner or later, if I ran I might be able to reach the shelter of the road. I ran. I ran like hell and dived over the banking of the road and rolled to a stop on the far side of it. I have no idea how long I lay out in no-man's-land - time is not a factor in that sort of situation.
Jarama was a complete success, in a way which none of the Americans who took part in it could then foresee. For the attack on February 27th impressed the insurgents with one inescapable fact: that the Jarama front was too heavily, too perfectly defended. From that day until the very end of the war, the rebels never succeeded in advancing another meter along the line which, they had hoped, would cut the Madrid-Valencia highway, effect the encirclement and the capture of Madrid.
This was a full-scale drive to cut the last road into Madrid. At "Suicide Hill", within distant rifle range of the Jarama River, the battalion found itself facing three times its numbers, with a gap of three miles in our line to the left of it, and a gap of 1,000 yards on its right. None of our machine-guns was less than twenty years old, and two of the three types jammed continually. The hill was held until near nightfall with rifles only; then we retreated - six hundred yards. This effort cost the battalion nearly half of its strength in casualties. But it was a necessary effort; for the timidly orthodox, clockwork strategist from the Reichswehr opposed to us did not think it right to move forces between our hill and the river until we were driven back, and therefore did not find the three-mile gap on our left until it was no longer a gap - Lister's division had filled it.
In subsequent days of bitter fighting the battalion gave ground only to regain all but 200 yards of it. Franco's offensive was stopped, and the Madrid-Valencia road remained open.
Followed ninety days in trenches without relief, and then the Brunete fighting, when the village of Villanueva de la Canada was carried. Copeman leading, by a night attack made in close formation as if an enemy ship was being boarded. Next month's attacks in Aragon cost the battalion two of its commanders.
I had only gone about 700 yards when I came across one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen. I found a group of wounded (British) men who had been carried to a non-existent field dressing station and then forgotten. There were about fifty stretchers, but many men had already died and most of the others would be dead by morning. They had appalling wounds, mostly from artillery. One little Jewish kid of about eighteen lay on his back with his bowels exposed from his navel to his genitals and his intestines lying in a ghastly pinkish brown heap, twitching slightly as the flies searched over them. He was perfectly conscious. Another man had nine bullet holes across his chest. I held his hand until it went limp and he was dead. I went from one to the other but was absolutely powerless. Nobody cried out or screamed except they all called for water and I had none to give. I was filled with such horror at their suffering and my inability to help them that I felt I had suffered some permanent injury to my spirit.
They had told us we'd be fighting the Moors and the Foreign Legion, and we weren't exactly happy about it. We had to walk a few kilometers. It was a nice morning, and the birds were chirping. The French battalion had been there before us. We sort of fell into the battle unexpectedly. Suddenly we understood that we weren't hearing chirping birds. The French had already pulled back. We never saw them. Maybe they had moved back on the flanks, so that we just came to fill up the empty space. We marched over the ground, in firing column, trying to act like we were on the front. The terrain was bushy and hilly, with forests. The Frenchmen had been able to dig a little on a hill. Skotte probably meant for us to lie there. But we were being fired at, mostly from rifles. We couldn't see our assailants. So we figured we shouldn't be lying there. It could have been nerves and it could have been something else. But we wanted to get in close, so to say.Group after group sprang up and raged down. We all got caught up in the whole thing. We came down the hill, so we could see Jarama. That's when we got into a little hell. We had concentrated machine-gun fire on us. There was straight firing, but there could have been indirect cross-fire too, from the flanks. Machine-guns can shoot a few thousand meters, so You can map in an area so that you have indirect firing there. Those machine gunners who couldn't see us when they heard a certain gun start firing, they figured they ought to be shooting at the field we were attempting to cross. We had tree trunks to take cover behind. Once we had gotten that far, the machine guns couldn't reach us anymore. But they were shooting with rifles from straight ahead. The shortest distance was thirty or forty meters, at least in the past where I was. The boys to the left may have come a little further."
I saw boys being shot down beside me, and boys being shot down on the other side. But if it was me who shot them, or one of the other guys, I couldn't say. We had to get back to the trenches. But then we would have to run across the field, a distance of maybe one hundred meters. And there you had the barrage from the machine guns. You ran and you had a feeling of leaping hurdles over the machine-gun fire. The one who set my nerves straight was a sailor boy from Kalmar, Ivan Karlsson. Some of the fellows weren't on their best behavior at the front, so to speak. They had been drinking. Ivar was a bit tipsy. He had brought along his canteen, filled with cognac. And he said: "Here, have a sip. All you have to do is lay here and try to survive. Then you've got to run like hell for a bit, and then you get to lay down again, and then - then I'll come."
A lot of boys were killed there, already the first day. But we got support from the machine-gun boys in "Edgar Andre". They were on the right flank and saw how exposed we were, since they were situated higher than us. From there they could also see the indirectly firing machine guns that they opened fire on. But still Our only chance was to leap hurdles. The battle continued all night long. Then we were lying in the trenches. We held them. They weren't trenches in the classical sense. The ground was too hard. We tried to dig, working in shifts, and got as far down as was possible. During the maneuver we had been taught to make fairly soft sandbanks. A bullet from a rifle will go through a piece of rail, but a pillow, for example a feather pillow, will make the bullet spin. So we dug pits and put sandbanks all around. But it was damn hard dirt. I was at Jarama for three weeks. You could say that we basically, fought over a stretch of land approximately two to three kilometers, back and forth. It wasn't even five kilometers from the big road. We didn't have anything There just wasn't anything to choose from. Unless the road to Valencia would be cut off. Our weapons were rifle, bayonet, spade and knife. But one day the Cuckoo and I were sent to the battalion staff to fetch dynamite, the kind that the dynamiters up in Asturias used.
It was about six months later, at Mondejar, that I met Peter Kerrigan, the commissar, who was a very stern and severe but good commissar. He did things for everyone's good. He says to me, "There is a battalion trial, go and get the prisoner". So I went in and there was this bloke sitting there. It was Overton. I looked at him, sort of remembered his face, told him to come along and marched him in. I remember Kerrigan and a fellow called George Aitken were sitting there. Overton was asked about this and he told them the same story as he had to me: that he had left his binoculars and he went back to fetch them. He was accused of cowardice, taken in front of the battalion, stripped of his officer epaulettes and was dishonoured. That was the last I saw of him. I was told he went off to another front and died there. After the trial I did say to Peter Kerrigan that because Overton had given my name as a witness I should have been allowed to step forward. I couldn't have made any difference. I would have told the same story, but it seemed a bit unfair to me. Kerrigan said he was a coward and that men had died.
Bert Overton may have suffered a somewhat similar fate. The brigade court-martialed Overton, an ex-Guardsman who failed abysmally as a company commander at the Jarama, costing the lives of many because of his fear and incompetence. He was then sent to a labor battalion. At Brunete, he was killed while carrying ammunition "to a forward position." Some wondered if putting Overton in harm's way wasn't simply an expedient means of getting rid of a soldier who had become a dangerous embarrassment.