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Chapter 4: Devastation & Withdrawal

internationals on watch
march to caspe
Internationals Keeping Watch
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:30:10)
A Rest During the March to Caspe
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0074 Photo Unit E0106)

     One day, in the second week of March, Lawrence Cane was shaken awake by a fellow volunteer. A crowd of men had been spotted coming out on the road leading to their sentry post. Calling for the men to halt, Cane confronted a large group of unarmed Spanish soldiers. Upon further questioning, the men claimed that they had left their weapons at the front and were being sent for rest and rehabilitation. “It was a crazy kind of business to us. We didn’t quite understand what was happening,” Cane said. (Landis; Hoar) Unknown to the Americans, the Nationalists had launched an attack and were rolling back the Republican forces. The men Cane had stopped were some of the Loyalist soldiers fleeing in the face of that advance.
     Next day, all hell broke loose and the American retreat became a “confused, uncoordinated series of battles.” Cane and some remnants of the volunteers collected in the town of Caspe and made a stand, holding off the Nationalist forces for three days. (Landis interview, ALBA audio 066, 66-7, CD1; Hoar 1974 interview, part 3)

Alfred Chakin
Alfred Chakin
The City College Teacher-Worker, 1939
(C.C.N.Y. Archives)
Last Known Picture of Alfred Chakin,
February 1938
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0678 Photo Unit B249)

     According to records, it was during the retreat, around Caspe, that Alfred Chakin, the School of Business wrestling coach and instructor, became a casualty. Believed to be captured by the Nationalist forces, Chakin was executed soon after. (ALBA online volunteer database) The policy of Franco called for the execution of all internationals taken prisoner and it was carried out by his troops with few exceptions.

Ely Sack
Sack medical injury diagnosis
Wounded Ely Sack (right)
Small Photograph Collections
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 036:2:28:2)
Medical Diagnosis of Sack’s Injury
Ely J. Sack Papers
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 094:1:10)

     Marching all day during the retreat, an exhausted Ely Sack, together with some volunteers, came upon a barn, where the troops discovered a keg of wine. Extremely thirsty, Sack drank it “like water” and fell asleep. Barely managing to get up to avoid capture, he trudged off to Caspe.

     … As we were retreating near Caspe, descending some terraced olive groves, a bullet struck the officer next to me, a Finnish Canadian whose name was Makela. As I was helping to carry him to a nearby ambulance, I was hit in my left leg, which felt like being hit by a subway train. I then hobbled to the ambulance on my good leg and couldn’t believe my luck that the ambulance was there. (from Sack’s autobiographical narrative, 3, ALBA 094:1:11)

     Sack was given a tetanus shot which caused an infection. He was then evacuated out of harm’s way.

rest camp
taking a siesta
Internationals at Rest Camp
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:33:4)
Internationals Taking a Siesta
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:33:5)

     The Nationalists halted briefly to consolidate the gains made during their rapid advance, allowing the remains of the Loyalist armies to fall back. The American casualties were great. Around half the men in the brigade were dead, wounded, or captured. When reinforcements arrived, the new recruits were shocked by the appearance of the veterans:

     They had week-old beard; they were filthy and lousy; they stank; their clothes were in rags; they had no blankets, no ammunition, no mess kits, no pack-sacks. They had nothing but the rags in which they were dressed and the filth with which they were covered.… Months in the line had reduced these men to a truly animal level … They growled at each other, they were surly, selfish and curt, although they could also be capable of astonishing generosity, considering the circumstances. (Bessie, 82-83, 86)

Cane seated
building fortifications
Larry Cane (seated, front left
with a bandage on his head)
(From the Collection of Professor David Cane)
Comrades Building Fortifications
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment Library/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0275 Photo Unit E0222)

     The respite was soon over. At the end of March, the Americans were again subjected to a massive attack when the Nationalists resumed their offensive. Cane, by this time a sergeant, was with a combat patrol sent to occupy some hills. Carl Geiser, leading the first group of internationals, described what happened next:

     In less than ten minutes we came to a dip in the ridge. A faint odor of wood fires alerted me. I halted when I saw ahead of us several hundred soldiers preparing their breakfasts on a slope facing us. They seemed protected from the fascist observation and fire by the ridge behind them.

     An officer came alone to greet us, calling out in good English: “Come on over. Don’t be afraid. We are your friends.”

     I thought, we got to our positions after dark last night, and the fascists would not know that we spoke English, but the 11th Brigade would expect us on their left flank. I was overjoyed, as was the rest of the patrol. We hurried forward happily to greet the officer. Less than fifty feet from him, I saw “23 de Marzo” on his jacket, the name of an Italian division.

     I stopped. For the first time, I noticed crews behind three light machine guns on tripods in the background zeroed in on us. I carried a liberated Luger, for which I had been unable to obtain ammunition, and a hand grenade.

     I looked back. Everyone had stopped. Hodge, carrying the light machine gun, had it resting in the crook of his arm. The riflemen were not prepared to fire. All were watching for my signal. It was painfully obvious that since we were out in the open we would all be shot down before we could open fire.
(Geiser, 66-67)

Franco and Mussolini
Mussolini postcard
Franco and Benito Mussolini
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:3:129:1)
Mussolini Standing Atop Spain and Italy
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242:1)

     The soldiers confronting the Americans were just some of the thousands of Italian troops sent by Mussolini to aid the Nationalists. Their numbers, training and equipment would contribute greatly to Franco’s success.
     Geiser surrendered his empty Luger and the rest of his men were disarmed by the Italians. The volunteers were not executed, because the Italians wanted to exchange them for their own men captured by the Loyalists. The Italian officer tried to get Geiser to call Larry Cane and the rest of the men who halted, sensing something amiss.

     When I made no move to obey, he pulled out his pistol. “This one’s got ammo in it. Now turn around!” Pushing the end of the barrel hard against my back he ordered, “Forward march!”

     Thirty steps brought us to a fifty foot cliff, overlooking Cane’s men. “Now Commissar, call those men up here!”

     Fall forward with a bullet in my back, or backward with a bullet in my chest? Since I could see that my comrades were already taking cover, I decided to face the captain. I turned slowly and told him, “As an officer, I will not call them up.”

     Scarcely had I finished when bullets started to whistle past our ears. Sergeant Cane had ordered the group in the valley to open fire as close to us as possible without hitting me. (Geiser, 67-68)

Vladimir Copic
Vladimir Copic
Vladimir Copic, Commander of the 15th Brigade
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0939 Photo Unit B204)
Vladimir Copic in Teruel
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0780 Photo Unit C338)

     Cane and his men beat a fighting retreat and took up a defensive position, beating off every attack to dislodge them. Running low on ammunition and finding the rest of their unit gone, Cane ordered his men to fall back. During their pullout, they ran into Vladimir Copic, the Croatian commander of the English Brigade, who immediately confronted Cane:

     “Who give you orders to retreat? Where are you coming from?” When Cane reported the battalion was no longer in front of him, Copic yelled, “What do you mean! No one has been given an order to withdraw – who gave the order!” What are you asking me for?” Cane snapped. “All I know is that we got out with a whole ass!” As Copic was shouting, “Why didn’t you stay there and fight?” an Italian tank rumbled down the road and opened fire. Copic had his answer. He “jumped fifteen feet” and had a fine running start on the others. “Then it was every man for himself.” (Eby, 325)

group of internationals
Italy postcard
A Group of Internationals
Edwin Rolfe Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 010:1:10:2)
“The Claw of Italy Invasion Grasps to Ensnare Us”
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242:1BX)

     As the Nationalist advance surged forward, the Americans were confronted by the danger of being cut off. While attempting to extricate itself by a forced march, the long column of men became separated and lost in the dark. Some of the men wandered into Nationalist encampments by accident. Many were taken prisoner or killed.
     Cane and a few men accidentally stumbled into the camp of an Italian patrol. Before they could react, they were taken prisoner. The Italians decided to send Cane and eight other captives to battalion headquarters, but the two guards sent to accompany the prisoners soon found themselves lost. Seeing their chance, Larry and the others jumped the guards and escaped. (Landis interview, ALBA audio 066, 66-7, CD 2)

loyalist surrender
Lincoln survivors
Loyalists Surrender Arms and War Machines
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242: 3)
Lincoln Battalion Survivors after the April 2 Retreat, April 1938
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:41:5)

     Slowly, survivors lucky enough to escape the Nationalist noose were making their way to the Ebro River. Evading patrols guarding the river bank, they tried to get to the safety of the Loyalist-held side. The bridge had been blown-up, and those who could not swim had to take their chances. Cane and three other men – one Canadian and two Spaniards – traveling by night and hiding to avoid the enemy, reached the Ebro after one week. Hiding for two days, observing the Nationalist patrols, he and two of the men swam to the Loyalist side, assisting the fourth man who could not swim. (Hoar, 192-193)
     The offensive had been a great success for Franco – his forces soon reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Republican territory in two.

John Gates
John Gates
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0132 Photo Unit B335)
Lawrence Cane (right) with an Unidentified Man
(From the Collection of Professor David Cane)

     Temporarily out of danger, the Americans counted their losses. Close to three hundred men had been killed in the three weeks since the Nationalist counterattack began. Almost half of those casualties were men executed after having surrendered. A further 87 were prisoners of war, and there was a large number of wounded and missing. (Eby, 340)
     The survivors tried to rebuild their forces and morale. Slowly they came to resemble an organized unit as more Spanish recruits were incorporated into the brigade to fill the gaps left by foreign volunteers. Larry Cane received a promotion, becoming a commissar, a rank equal with that of a commander of a unit. John Gates, himself a commissar, described what the position entailed:

     … In rank he equaled the officer in command of the particular unit and they signed all orders jointly as a symbol of the unity of army and government. While a military officer in combat, the commissar was a combination of morale officer, chaplain, information and education officer in the rear. His province included relations between soldiers and civilians, and with illiteracy widespread in Spain, he organized classes in reading and writing. (Gates, 47)

Sack seated
Sack on beach
Ely Sack (seated fourth from left)
Small Photograph Collections
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 036:2:30:1)
Ely Sack on the Beach
Small Photograph Collections
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 036:2:31:1)

     Ely Sack, wounded and evacuated behind the lines, was moved to the north of Spain before the Nationalist forces cut the Loyalist zone in two. He underwent three operations to remove the shrapnel in his leg, and he celebrated the first anniversary of his arrival in Spain. Planes on their way to bomb Barcelona would fly close to Sack’s hospital, but did not bomb it. While recuperating, Sack relaxed and swam in the sea. (Sack’s autobiographical narrative, ALBA 094:1:11)

certificate of service
Sack with parents
Sack’s Certificate of Service
Ely J. Sack Papers
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 094:1:10)
Sack with his Parents[?]
Small Photograph Collections
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 036:2:35:1)

     On July 23, two days before a new offensive was to begin, Sack was declared totally disabled with chronic osteomyelitis. In August, he boarded a train and traveled back to France. “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to leave Spain alive and in one piece! The transition in food, clothing and lodging, not to mention feeling safe, was unbelievable,” he wrote. (Sack’s autobiographical narrative, ALBA 094:1:11)
     Ely Sack arrived back in New York on August 28, 1938 and was greeted by his family and friends. For him the journey was over.

crossing the Ebro
bridge over Ebro
Crossing the Ebro by Boat
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0533 Photo Unit E1333)
Building a Foot Bridge Over the Ebro
Fifteenth International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA Photo 011, 11-0528 Photo Unit E1309)

     Following the successful Nationalist offensive, France briefly opened its border with Spain, and the Loyalist government was able to receive much needed military material. Soon they were able to mount an attack of their own.
     On July 25 the Loyalist army, crossing the Ebro River in small boats and on pontoon bridges, attacked the unsuspecting Nationalists. Taking the enemy by surprise, the Republicans made great initial progress and captured hundreds of prisoners. Some Americans felt that the tide was at last turning.
     Seizing some horses from a cavalry detachment, Larry Cane, who had never ridden a horse before, galloped off with some of his men to capture an enemy supply depot at Corbera, an act he managed to accomplish successfully.

     Men were issued shoes, blankets and innumerable tins of sardines and octopus which Cane had taken from the supply depot. When the soldiers had passed, the American [Cane] invited the civilians to help themselves to stores which he placed in the street (Hoar, 215)

Mendelson with family
Mendelson on ship
Wilfred Mendelson with His Family
Wilfred Mendelson Vertical File
Wilfred Mendelson on His Way to Spain
Wilfred Mendelson Vertical File

     The attack soon ground to a halt, and the Americans began to sustain large casualties. Among the men killed was Wilfred Mendelson, a City College student and one of the last volunteers to leave the United States for Spain. By this time, the horrendous casualties the volunteers were repeatedly sustaining were widely known, but Mendy, as he was known to his friends, went anyway. He was killed only two months after this arrival in Spain. (Wilfred Mendelson vertical file, ALBA)
     Out of all the units engaged, the Mac-Paps made the farthest penetration in the total advance, but were unable to take the important town of Gandesa. During the fighting next to the town, as Cane and two of his men stood up in their position, a shriek of an incoming shell was heard. Larry dove to the ground; the explosion only stunned him. His two companions were blown to bits, their remains raining over him. (Hoar, 216-217)

internationals in trench
wounded internationals
Internationals Firing Guns from Trench
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:19:3)
Wounded Internationals
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:32:10)

     Pulled out, and then sent to fight in some of the worst terrain they had ever fought in, the 15th Brigade continued to persevere into the fall. However, on September 21, 1938, Juan Negrin, the prime minister of the Republic, announced to the League of Nations that all international volunteers would be withdrawn from the front and repatriated to their home countries. Negrin hoped that by this announcement, the foreigners fighting on the side of Franco, specifically the Italians would also be withdrawn. In addition, due to the high casualties the internationals had sustained, the foreign brigades were foreign in name only. The majority of recruits who belonged to them were by this time Spanish.

mac-pap members
soldiers hug
12 Members of the Mac-Paps
VALB Photograph Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 015:4:42:7)
An International and a Spaniard Hug
Spanish Civil War Postcard Collection
(Tamiment/NYU: ALBA 242:1)

     Before they were to leave, the men had to bear one last day of battle, on September 23, which by all accounts was a very hard day indeed. Out of the 600 or so men of his unit who went in action three months before, Cane could only count 36 still in line, still able to fight. “It was the last day. Here we were, most of us veterans of a year, year and a half, as much as two years of war. And everybody, everybody wants to live, especially the last day, when you know it’s the last day.” (Hoar 1974 interview, part 5)
     Subjected to the heaviest artillery barrage many of them had experienced, the remaining internationals fell back under the Nationalist attack that followed. Observing their crumbling position, “Larry Cane took a moment to pass around the last tin of cigarettes he owned, then he and his men, firing pistols frantically, broke away to safety.” (Hoar, 222-223).
     On September 24, the remnants of the XVth English brigade were relieved:

     Dawn had come when on September 24 the last Americans tramped across the wooden planks of the pontoon ridge at Mora de Ebro and climbed up the long hill on the far shore. The sound of their marching feet was “a low shuffle, there were no voices; there was no singing.” From the summit above the left bank they looked back at the wide yellow river and the ruffled landscape beyond, obscured by the dirty haze of war. They were now spectators. It was possible to want to leave and, at the same time, want not to have left what was being thrashed out over there. Men wept, without shame. For them the war was over. (Eby, 408-409)

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