At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War a battlefront was established at Aragón. The first major campaign took place at Aragón in June 1937. The purpose of the Republican offensive was to draw the Nationalist Army from Bilbao. The first battle took place at Huesca where the Republicans suffered 1,000 casualties. The campaign was a failure and General Francisco Franco was able to enter Bilbao on 19th June.
In August 1937, the International Brigades attacked on the town of Quinto. This involved dangerous street fighting against snipers that were within the walls of the local church. After two days the Americans were able to clear the town of Nationalist forces. This included the capture of nearly a thousand prisoners.
The Lincoln-Washington Battalion then headed towards the fortified town of Belchite. Once again the Americans had to endure sniper fire. Robert Merriman ordered the men to take the church. In the first assault involving 22 men, only two survived. When Merriman ordered a second attack, Hans Amlie at first refused saying the task of taking the church was impossible. He help Amlie, Steve Nelson led a diversionary attack. This enabled the Lincoln-Washington Battalion to enter the town. The Americans suffered heavy casualties, Nelson and Amlie received head wounds and amongst the dead were Wallace Burton, Henry Eaton and Samuel Levinger.
We would knock a hole through a wall with a pickaxe, throw in a few hand-grenades, make the hole bigger, climb through into the next house, and clear it from cellar to attic. And by God we did this, hour after hour. The dead were piled in the street, almost a storey high, and burnt. The engineers kept pouring on gasoline until the remains sank down. Then they came with big trucks and swept up the ashes. The whole town stank of burning flesh.
As Bob explained the battle to me, walking through the town's ruins, the shadows lengthened across the empty fields nearby. Here one of our best machine-gunners fell, beside that wall Burt was killed, there was Danny's grave, here Sidney fell, a sniper's bullet between his eyes, there Steve Nelson was wounded. Our losses were actually very low, but they included some of the best and most loved of our men.
As we passed a little factory, huge sewer rats scurried into a drain beside the road. They were as large as cats. Even though it was two weeks later, the smell of burned flesh still hung faint and nauseating in the cool dusk. Their forces far outnumbered ours, but the fascists had not even attempted to dispose of their dead. They had left hundreds of decaying corpses stacked in various buildings.
As we passed through the debris-filled streets, the air of desolation and death deepened. Homeless cats scuttled about, hungry, and dogs howled and fought bitterly down the blackness of narrow streets. The full moon was bright by the time we reached the cathedral in the center. Across its worn stone steps limply lay a purple and white Falangist banner. Further down was a priest's cassock, perhaps shed in flight.
Only the square admitted enough light for Bob and me to read the fascist posters still stuck to broken walls, posters depicting the horrors of Marxism rather than the horrors of the war that a small group of fascists had started. I noticed there were posted rules for the modesty of young women, rules requiring long skirts and long sleeves, saying sin is woman's because she tempts man. There were no posters promising a government for all of the people.
Belchite has fallen to the rebels. It was taken from them in a successful Government offensive in the autumn, but the rebels claim that in their present offensive nearly all the ground then lost has been regained.
According to a Salamanca communiqué the rebel advance, which covers a front some 50 miles long, has been 'carried to a great depth'. Troops on the left front are reported to have followed the capture of Belchite with the taking of several villages. Gains are also claimed for rebel forces in the centre and on the right front.
The communiqué states that 'terrific' casualties have been inflicted on the Republicans and that over 3,500 prisoners and 'enormous' quantities of war material have been taken.
It is reported that Belchite was defended mainly by soldiers of the International Brigade, the majority of whom were Canadians. About 100 foreign prisoners have been taken. The centre of three columns used for the offensive was at first delayed through having to encircle a hill held by the Republicans, but caught up with the other columns on Thursday, partly through a spectacular cavalry charge which General Franco personally watched.
Extending the front of their offensive, rebel troops yesterday started a push down from the Ebro River valley from the village of Fuentes de Ebro.
The first aid station was in a small abandoned house behind the groves. During the day they had raised Red Cross flags. I was told that there were half a dozen doctors there as well.
When night fell the battalion's Commander, Colonel Merriman, a professor at the University of Los Angeles, came. He told me to grab some of the telephone boys and go fetch a man who had been lying wounded and screaming all day - some hundred metres in front of us on the plain. We lay in a little depression by a road. But it was hard getting anybody to go with me.
They'll have to shoot us before we go out there, they said. We're exhausted!
Well, you have to, I told them.
Finally I got two boys with me. We went out and carried the wounded man back. They carried the stretcher very unsteadily, as they were utterly worn out. Then a doctor came up to us. I think the kid had some six or seven bullet wounds in him. The Moors were situated behind entrenchments in the city, and would shoot at anything that moved. Maybe the kid had been waving his arms every now and then.
The Fascists still had control of the church in Belchite. There were probably underground passages there, because some of our boys would suddenly fall over, shot, while they were walking down streets several hundred metres from the church. It seemed as though the Fascists had crawled out through the passages. Also, there was a company of Franco's surrounded on a hill. I don't know if the Fascists had any positions in the mountains themselves, because I never went to take a closer look. But there were armoured trenches running all around that they had dug. I was given orders by Merriman to run a wire, one and a half or maybe two kilometres long. There was hardly enough cable. We had to run the wire via some trenches the Fascists had abandoned. There I was supposed to set up an observation post. We crept into the trench, set up the phone and spoke with the colonel. He said:- Now the tanks are going to attack. But first we are going to shoot with our artillery at the hill.
"All ready here", I said. The trenches we lay in were no more than two hundred metres from the earthworks around the hill, or cliff or whatever you would call it. I had a periscope. When I looked through it I would sometimes see the heads and arms of the boys on the other side. The first grenade from our artillery hit the very top of the hill. They asked me on the phone about the impact.
"You have to lower your aim," I said. The next grenade exploded ten metres behind me.
"This is nuts" I said. You hae to raise it again.
"We'll be done in a minute", they said.
I saw tanks advancing from two different directions. The sound of the firing was deafening. Then I saw a white flag being raised from the Fascist trenches, and I called immediately.
"Now they're… they're giving up, I said. So you can stop now. With the bombing."
But the hard part was that - my boys had left me. I was alone. There was no infantry there, or anything else for that matter. The whole Fascist gang came up out of their trenches. They walked down the hill, coming straight my way. I was unarmed. I had one revolver, but it was a revolver I had taken from a dead Italian Officer. There was no ammo in it, even though it hung there in its holster. I had to leave the pit, go up and meet the Fascists. They could see that my holster wasn't empty.
I pointed at the ground and showed them how to lay their guns in a pile. There was… There was a young boy. More than half of his hand had been shot off. There were no fingers left. Some of the things.
Outside of the trenches lay two tanks of wine. The prisoners threw themselves over these wooden barrels, broke them and drank it all. Because of their thirst for water… which had almost killed them then. Three officers came last. They shouted commands and the troop stood in formation. I pointed at the church. That's the way they were supposed to go. But at the same time our patrols came and marched away with them. It was some fifteen or twenty men I had dealt with. I don't know. They could have shot me any time.