“Mac Pap” Battalion
During the Spanish Civil War, Canadian volunteers fought against Franco’s Fascists. The Mac Paps saw combat in the heaviest fighting of the war.
During the first half of 1937, the Canadians proved themselves worthy fighters, fighting with the Lincolns at the Battle of the Jarama River, where the Nationalists tried to cut the Madrid-Valencia highway. In March, the George Washington Battalion was formed entirely of North Americans; the following summer it would merge with the Lincolns. By early April 1937, another battalion made up of Americans, Canadians, and Spanish had also been created. Names for the battalion such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine were discussed, but in July it became the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. The name came from two 19th-century Canadian revolutionaries, William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis Joseph Papineau, who had agitated for democratic reforms in the rebellion of 1837.
The first public knowledge of any intervention in the conflict came when three Italian airplanes were forced down in French Morocco on their way into Spain. The crews carried orders dated July 17, the day the Rebellion began. By late October, twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Italian soldiers had gone ashore at Majorca, although contingents of infantry did not reach the mainland until December. By mid-summer of the next year, fifty thousand of Mussolini’s troops had entered Spain. They brought with them 763 airplanes, 1900 cannon, 10,000 machine-guns, 240,000 small arms and 7600 vehicles. The men and machines were supplied gladly by Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and Italy’s most enthusiastic supporter of the Spanish rebellion.
The rallying point for the volunteers once they reached Spain was the city of Albacete, midway between Madrid and Valencia, which remained the headquarters of the International Brigades until the spring of 1938. In the nearby villages of Tarazona, Madrigueras and Villanueva de la Jara, the battalions of the XVth International Brigade, the “English-speaking brigade,” trained for the war. Cadre offices representing the various units remained in Albacete after the battalions moved to the front, and successive groups of volunteers drilled in the area until they received their assignments.
The first large group of Internationals arrived in Albacete on October 14, 1936. In the manner of so many succeeding drafts, these men formed unkempt ranks in the city’s bull ring from which they were recruited into battalions then being formed: The Edgar Andre, German; the Commune de Paris, Franco-Belgian; the Dombrowski, Polish-Hungarian-Slav. “Reinforcements” came immediately from the devastated ranks of the three Centuria which had already been at the front. The commander of this motley force was a Comintem agent called Emil Kleber (his real name was Stem), a veteran of the Russian revolution, a graduate of the Frunze Military Academy, and, since 1927, a member of the military division of the Comintern.
But during the first months of the war, Albacete and the smaller towns nearby teemed with life, glamour and promise. To these bases came men who would die very soon at Jarama and Brunete; die so quickly that their comrades-in-arms would hardly recall their presence. There came many thousands who would survive Spain, survive World War II, survive purges and investigations. In all, over forty thousand international volunteers would come to Spain.
The American Abraham Lincoln Battalion, which was created during this same interval, had five weeks in which to prepare itself for war. The American volunteers were like their British counterparts except that there were few “holiday-boozers.” An Englishman could skip across the Channel and slip south into France, all within a day. The proximity of England to the continent may have reassured a few who thought they could duck home if things got too rough. But the Americans faced an arduous Atlantic crossing plus all the small anxieties that accompany travel in a foreign country, plus the added discomfort of moving illegally. It is doubtful that “holiday-boozers” would have undertaken such an expedition. There were adventurers among the contingent, who went to Spain because it was the only war around, but those who survived the first battles more than likely “got religion”-the spirit of adventure could not sustain them for long in such a terrible war. The majority of the Americans were idealists, morally and politically, sensitive to the implications of the civil conflict.
On or about July 1, 1937, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion the XVth International Brigade was formally mustered into service in Tarazona de Ia Mancha. After six months of anxious waiting, the Canadian volunteers had received official recognition of their service on behalf of the Spanish Republic. A combination of circumstances, initiative and luck produced the battalion; it is no exaggeration to state that if the designation had not been granted at this time, it probably would not have been available at a later period. No one knows for sure who first proposed in Canada the creation of such a force. More than likely, the first volunteers to enter Spain were urged to agitate for some sort of organization since a succession of delegations sought to win such recognition from the XVth International Brigade staff through the spring of 1937. In April, Canadian members of the Lincoln and Washington Battalions met to discuss a formal petition requesting formation of their own company in one of the two battalions. The group included Edward C. Smith, Edward Jardas, Walter Dent, Harry Rushton, Francis Poirier, Joseph Kelly and Robert Kerr. The men agreed on the name “Mackenzie-Papineau” and dispatched Kerr to the base commander with the petition. This officer, presumably Allan Johnson, an American, replied that the request would be taken under consideration. That same day, the Canadians cabled the Spanish Aid Committee in Toronto informing them of the vote. A second cable was composed and sent off to Prime Minister King: We implore you from the depths of our hearts to do everything possible to help Spanish democracy. In so doing, you are serving your own interests. We are here for the duration until fascism is defeated. The request for a Canadian company was not then granted though it is clear that some time that spring Canadian sections emerged in the Lincolns as well as in the Washingtons.
By early June the Canadians, who now had considerable numbers in the Lincoln and Washington battalions, were clamouring for their own battalion. Canadian sections already had been formed in both battalions, and some of the officers were Canadian, such as Edward C. Smith, the No. 3 Company commander in the Washingtons. Canadian volunteer Ronald Liversedge, a veteran of World War I, approached Merriman with a request to form a battalion. Merriman offered a compromise—a Canadian company within the Lincolns, to be called the Mackenzie-Papineau Company, with Liversedge in command.
The Machine-Gun Company was, from its inception, filled with Finns, many of whom came from Ontario. The gunners took for themselves the name “llkka” after a Finnish patriot of the middle ages. No. One Company, under Wheeler, was entirely American. No. Two, under Schrenzel, contained one section of Canadians, most of them Ukrainians from the prairie provinces. No. Three Company, under Dougher, included one section of “Our Boys from British Columbia.” The battalion, at full strength, held 600 men.
In the absence of battalion records, it is virtually impossible to ascertain such routine matters as exact numbers of men in each company; the numbers, names and frequency of replacement drafts; the extent and nature of casualties. For instance, it is difficult to determine just how many Canadians served in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion during its history. Nor can the number of American members be calculated. More than likely there were always as many Americans as there were Canadians in the unit at any given time after these first months. The three-to-one ratio in favour of Americans was likely reduced once the battalion wasoperational, for hundreds of Canadian volunteers had yet to arrive in Spain. If this history concerns the Canadian participants, it must not ignore the contribution made by Americans, a contribution which has already been described in The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a definitive volume written, incidentally, by an American veteran of the Canadian battalion, Arthur Landis.
Prominent American members of the Mac-Paps included Sam Romer who had come to Europe in the Debs Column and whose wife was a nurse at an International Brigade hospital at Benicasim. Romer was, in succession, a Mac-Pap transmissions operator, battalion paymaster and a prisoner of war at Burgos. Sol Rose began his career in Spain as a company officer in the Washingtons, took a wound at Brunete, served at the base at Albacete while recuperating and then joined the Canadians, where he was an adjutant when he was killed early in the Ebro offensive in 1938. Particularly durable soldiers were Abe Smorodin and Jesse Wallach who were battalion runners, Joe Gibbons, battalion quartermaster, Milt Cohen, chief clerk, and Chick Chaiken, armourer. All of these men, assigned to the battalion eadquarters staff, took part in a crucial and celebrated skirmish during the battle for Teruel in January, 1938. An American physician named Julius Hene served as chief medical officer for the Canadian unit. Added to this brief roster are names like Martin Sramek, Milton Herndon, Carl Cannon, Ruby Kaufman, Abe Asheroff, Leo Gordon, Cohn Haber, Milton Epstein, James Hill, Archie Kessner, Manny Mandel, Tom Rissane, John Rossen. Some seventy or eighty American Negroes served in the International Brigades; one of them, Oliver Law, becoming commander of the George Washington Battalion. If there was ever any racial prejudice demonstrated by their associates, it has been carefully kept secret. The one incident described by a Canadian veteran took place in late July. Just before his transfer into a medical unit, S. H. Abramson learned from a Canadian friend, Harry Rushton, that “the Negro comrades had met last night to discuss openracial discrimination in the battalion. We were quite surprised to hear about it and were unanimous in feeling that it should be openly discussed and condemned. I later heard that the matter had been thrashed out, the trouble was caused by a few, and there were no more problems of that kind. ”
Prominent among the Negroes in the Mac-Paps was Milton Herndon, brother of Angelo Herndon, a leading Negro communist in the United States. Irving Weissman, an American veteran of the entire life-span of the Mac-Paps, relates that the Canadians at this period seemed to fall into three major ethnic or national groups: Finns, Ukrainians and Anglo-Saxons. Weissman recalls also that the Ukrainians marched about the training base chanting “One, two, three, Communists are we, fighting for the working class against the bourgeoisie” Only one French Canadian stood out at this time, Amedee Grenier, called “Frenchy”, of course. Grenier remained with the battalion to the end. And what of Lt. Ronald Liversedge, the first officer of the original No. One Company? Within a few days after the creation of the Mac-Paps, Liversedge had resigned his commission and returned to the ranks because he refused to adhere to Merriman’s admonition that all officers should eat in the officer’s mess. Liversedge, said Merriman, was too democratic.
The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was the last unit to join the XVth International Brigade and may have been the last to be incorporated into any international brigade. When it did take its place in the lines, it was reputed to be the best and most extensively trained volunteer battalion to come forward. While occasional replacement drafts were taken from its ranks and sent to Brunete and, later, to the Aragon, the battalion remained essentially intact through the summer of 1937, absorbing party after party of American and Canadian volunteers who continued to come into Spain.
The training program, nearly four months long, resembled those devised earlier for the Lincolns and Washingtons, except that the Mac-Paps had the advantage of experienced veterans of Jarama and Brunete who conducted lectures and field maneuvers. Dallet noted that “the raw recruits who, two days ago, turned in four different directions at the same command of ‘Right Face’, today turn as one man and click their heels together in right smart military fashion. We do not put much emphasis on parade ground fancy dress parade, but we do stress quick response to command in order to bring about the mobility that is required in action.” As Ronald Liversedge recalls, there was no such thing in the Spanish Army as a uniform manual of arms of training. We went at it in our own ways. We Canadians with our platoons, forming fours, right turning, about turning, and the Americans bawling right face, about face and so on. We never throughout the war had a uniform method, and after a while, and when we were front line troops, officers would give commands or instructions, mixing up equally Spanish and English words and everybody would understand… although the Spanish might themselves have difficulty understanding all of it.
The weapons drill, though ample, must have been somewhat frustrating since the weapons used in practice were not to be taken to the front. These were not issued to front-line troops until September when the Mac-Paps finally joined the XVth International Brigade in the Aragon. At that time, they received heavy Maxim machine-guns which rode over the ground on wheels, Dicterovs and Tukerovs, Russian light machine-guns, and an assortment of rifles, many of which bad been made in the United States for the short-lived Kerensky government in 1917. When Kerensky fell from power, the American government refused shipment of the arms to the succeeding Soviet regime. Thereafter, the story goes, the rifles mysteriously turned up in Mexico where they sat until they were sold to the Republican government. Whatever their history, the guns proved next to useless for the bolts seized after the first few rounds were fired and had to be pounded free with a rock. “This could be very embarrassing…”.
Groups of trainees were regularly detached and assigned to special schools: officer and non-commissioned officer cadres, cartographic courses, armaments courses, transmissions courses. The graduates returned to the battalion where they organized classes of their own among the ranks. A few were chosen to remain behind as instructors, a few more were reassigned to other battalions.
While the men understood the need for specialized training, not all agreed that officer’s school was worth the assignment. Ben Goldstein, an American Mac-Pap, attended OTC briefly and then resigned in indignation: “It seemed to me that it would take ten years to learn all this bullshit. It was like a bourgeois army, not like a people’s army.” Though he refused a commission, Goldstein took pleasure in being singled out by Dallet as the fourth in command of the battalion. There was the commander, the commissar, the adjutant and the battalion beefer. And that was Goldstein. Particular stress was put on the identification of skills during these weeks at Tarazona. Men were shifted from one job to another within a company so that all might understand all that they might have to do during battle. “Elasticity thus made for greater efficiency; and compensated for understaffed cadres.” Similarly, the achievement of commissioned or non-commissioned rank depended on performance and need; a soldier could be promoted and demoted and then promoted again in the search for his appropriate place in the organization.
The Mac-Paps were hampered in their dedication to the training program by poor diet and illness. Breakfast consisted of burnt barley coffee and a loaf of bread which was intended to last the day, dinner and supper of rice fried in olive oil, bacalao made of dried codfish cooked in stew, garbanzos or chick peas, mule or donkey meat and strong sour wine which, after a period of indoctrination, became “our strength if not our redeemer.” And the men needed all the strength they could muster, for most contracted dysentery immediately and continued to pass blood for the next few months: their only relief was charcoal tablets. The diet and the heat and the illness seemed to cancel out the physical hardiness resulting from the actual training. “The food,” recalls S. H. Abramson, “did things to your system. A year after I had arrived I found that small scratches tended to fester, and it was an ordeal to brush your teeth, the gums bled so much. I lost four teeth through decay; they had to be pulled after my return home. But at that, we ate better than the civilian population.”
Midway through the schedule, the men received a preview of the months of combat ahead of them when survivors of the Lincoln-Washington battalion arrived in Albacete. Thin to the point of emaciation, bloodshot, pus-running eyes, facial bones sticking out prominently, and in reply to questions, brusque to the point of rudeness. So we saw what a battle did to men in the Spanish war. I could not remember seeing men quite so drained of all vitality in France in the First World War. For that matter, a man could see all the misery he could bear in the figures of the mutilated and demoralized soldiers who drifted about Albacete, unattached to any unit, desperate for friendship and a passage home. Among these were men who had marched off grandly to the defence of Madrid and to the Jarama and Brunete campaigns.
But if war always seemed in evidence, there were many opportunities for diversion and recreation. Dallet writes of a two-day maneuver which included forced marches, night assaults and the conquest of hills “without any casualties whatsoever.” The river along which the battalion drilled was so inviting that the battalion concluded the exercises with a picnic and a swimming party. Robert Merriman’s wife was in Tarazona at this time and accompanied the battalion on maneuvers, marching with the medical detachment.
The last weekend in August was given over to a sports rally which featured mushball, horseshoes and wrestling. The rally seems to have been the grand finale to a series of “socialist competitions” which ranged back and forth from the maneuvers in the field to the entertainments in camp. Sections and companies competed in a program of elimination exercises involving military prowess as well as volleyball and soccer. The winning units carried the battalion banner on parade. The occasion of the last sports tournament is described by Joseph Dallet. Last night the boys put on the best show the battalion has had, including several very good skits, one serious wrestling match between the ex-champion of Finland and the ex-champion of the U.S. Navy, and a burlesque between two guys who were great acrobats, excellent wrestlers and better actors. They threw each other all around the ring with proper grunts, groans and facial contortions, and finally, as they were rending each other limb from limb and were in the death throes of their agony-or vice versa-your hero, the referee, dove in head first to separate them so they could each die separately in peace, and all the seconds, coaches, managers, handlers, masseurs, etc., dove in on top of all of us and the curtain rang down amidst scenes of wildest hilarity.
Soldiers in what was theoretically a people’s army, members of an international force which had long since begun to be discredited because it was allegedly designed and directed by communists, yet somehow these men retained their sense of humour and their perspective. That they were not automatons is evident in the following anecdote. One day in August, the Mac-Paps were alerted to the imminent arrival of a distinguished political figure. Training details were postponed and the men were summoned to the town church to meet this personage. The only ones exempted from the muster were the sentries. Dallet excitedly introduced the visitor and warned the assembly that they must not write home about the visit of the speaker. After extolling the man’s virtues and praising his achievements in the cause of workers’ movements, etc. Dallet dramatically introduced “John Strongfort”. With the buildup Joe gave him, we all expected someone at least 6′ 4″ and half Cherokee Indian. A little man, not much over 5′ came in from one of the wings of the platform. When he opened his mouth and said “Comrades” in a thick East European accent, many Canadians and Americans became convulsed with laughter. Dallet was furious. That greeting with the accent was to be repeated many times in Tarazona when a man wanted to dramatize a beef or to poke fun at the camp leadership.
In the end, Spanish Prime Minister Negrín ordered the International Brigades withdrawn on September 21, 1938. Madrid fell six months later on March 28, 1939. In the battles in which they fought, as well as due to atrocities committed upon them when taken prisoner, 721 of the 1,546 Canadians known to have fought in Spain lost their lives.
A Bloody First Battle
The first months were spent training and organizing. While their comrades in the XV Brigade were heavily engaged at Brunete and in the Aragon region, the Mac Paps were lucky enough to receive advanced training from combat veterans, something earlier battalions never received. Most of the Mac Paps were Americans at the beginning, outnumbering their Canadian comrades by 3-to-1. Only one officer, Nilo Makela, the future Mac Pap Machine-Gun Company commander, was a Canadian. As more Canadian volunteers arrived in Spain, the percentage of Americans in the Mac Paps dropped, but their value to the battalion and their bravery never diminished. Robert Thompson, the future leader of the Communist Party of the USA, succeeded Merriman as commander of the battalion. A capable leader who was to achieve an exemplary combat record in World War II, the young American would lead the battalion in its first battle.
Toward the end of September 1937, the Mac Paps arrived at the front, in the Aragon sector, where an offensive begun the previous month had proved costly for the XV Brigade. After two weeks spent patrolling in relatively quiet areas, they moved with the rest of the brigade to the outskirts of enemy-held Fuentes de Ebro. Taking over some trenches from Spanish infantry, the Canadians were ordered to take the town—no easy task since close to a mile of open ground lay between them and the Nationalist trenches.
The attack opened on the morning of October 13, and from the outset things went awry. The plan called for softening up the Nationalist positions by aerial bombardment, followed by an armoured assault, with the infantry advancing alongside the tanks. The aerial bombardment was pitifully weak; only a fraction of planes expected by the Internationals took part in the bombing. Timing was all-important, with the tanks slated to move ahead immediately after the planes had left, but there was no sign of them for 90 minutes, during which time the Canadians could clearly see the Fascists remanning their trenches after the planes had gone. At last the Mac Paps began to hear the rumble of engines and clatter of tanks behind them. What followed was a disaster. The tanks roared through the Mac Pap trenches, crushing parapets and two men. Soldiers of the 24th Battalion were riding the tanks, and some of them, their nerves keyed up, accidentally fired into the Mac Pap ranks as they passed. There was no way for the infantry to keep pace with the tanks, which lumbered ahead at a pace of nearly 19 miles per hour before encountering devastating enemy antitank fire. The men riding on the outside of the tanks did not have a chance; all were killed or wounded. As the Nationalists poured a murderous fire into the Mac Paps, the men desperately dug at the earth for cover or broke for a ridge 100 yards away.
Those who survived the initial fire were driven to the left, where they found shelter in some abandoned trenches. From there the Canadians could watch the ensuing carnage. The Mac Paps, the Lincolns, and the British were being cut down as if by a titanic scythe under the machine-gun fire. By 4 pm it was all over; the attack had been bloodily repulsed. Republican survivors lying on the field were forced to remain there, feigning death, until they could crawl back to their trenches after nightfall.
Their first action had been a costly failure, with the Canadians losing 60 dead and close to 200 wounded. Morale, however, remained high. They left the line on November 1; soon afterward, Edward C. Smith took command of the battalion. Smith, a journalist from Toronto, was reputed to have been a soldier of fortune in South America. He had already been wounded at Brunete.
Fighting Fascists at Teruel
Realizing that Franco would almost certainly attack Madrid again before the year was out, the Republicans mounted an offensive on December 15, 1937, to draw Nationalist divisions away from the threatened Spanish capital. The offensive was intended to be an all-Spanish operation, but the Internationals were called into action at the end of the month. The XV Brigade left its reserve position east of Madrid at Mas de las Matas on the night of December 31 for a perilous, nine-hour journey in trucks over ice-covered mountain roads. Several vehicles plunged over the cliff, killing or injuring many brigade members before they reached the town of Argente, which guarded the vital Teruel-Rudilla Highway. For the next 10 days there was no action except for patrolling. The terrible cold was the worst enemy; it was the coldest region in Spain and the worst winter in 20 years. Many of the brigadiers were ill-prepared for the freezing temperatures, and the cold wind cut through their thin clothing, inflicting several cases of frostbite.
The city of Teruel was strategically important because it blocked Franco’s path to the Mediterranean coast. The XV Brigade was ordered to defend it, taking position on the night of January 14-15, 1938. The Lincolns were posted on the outskirts of Teruel itself, with the Mac Pap positions to their north, forming an arc from the heights of La Muela, northwest across the valley floor, to the Canadian No. 3 Company on the right flank, with a company of Spanish marines to their right. Beyond the marines to the west, the superb Thaelmann Battalion, composed of German Communists, held the high ground of El Muleton, while the British took up positions on Santa Barbara Hill, behind the Canadians.
The Fascists struck hard on January 17. Sixty thousand Nationalist troops attacked between Celades and Teruel, striking the Thaelmanns on El Muleton. British antitank guns, firing over the heads of the Canadians, hit the enemy trenches in front of the Mac Paps, which saved them from being attacked first. The tough Thaelmanns stopped the Fascists, who regrouped before attacking No. 3 Company and the Spanish marines. Once again the British guns covered the Canadians, breaking up wave after wave of attacks while the Canadians and the marines poured a withering fire into the flag-waving enemy soldiers. The Fascists pulled back.
Although they had been hurled back with heavy casualties, the Fascists mistakenly believed that the Mac Paps and the Spanish marines had withdrawn. In an attempt to drive around the rear of the Canadians and into Teruel, two squadrons of Moorish cavalry rode past El Muleton, between the Mac Paps and the British. Mac Pap headquarters was located in a railroad tunnel directly in the path of the oncoming horsemen. When they closed in, Captain Smith gathered his force around him and quickly ordered three heavy machine guns into action, stopping the Fascist charge cold in a maelstrom of screaming horses and falling men. Survivors had no choice but to run the gauntlet of fire from the Canadians and British as they beat a hasty retreat.
The next day, the Thaelmanns on El Muleton were driven off. The Canadians received some reinforcements from the Lincolns, and on the 19th they and the Spanish marines were pounded in turn by enemy artillery prior to another attack. Company No. 3 commander Lionel Edwards managed to extend his right flank by capturing a small hill, taking 30 prisoners and four machine guns, but after two days of intense fighting, he could hold out no longer. Edwards recalled: “The end had to come. Mechanized might and overpowering numbers finally told. Our machine guns were all blown to pieces, we were under fire from nearly every side, and no more reinforcements could reach us as the hill to our right had been taken. There was only a handful of us left and our only arms were rifles. We had to make a decision. It was time for retreat. Carrying a wounded man, five of us, the last of the living, stumbled out to make a run for it. One of us was killed and with him the wounded man. We four finally made it. We took up a position well to the rear of the hill and waited for the enemy to take over, but we waited a long time. He was taking no chances that some of us might still be there. But he occupied the hill at last, and with that ended the defense of outer Teruel.”
High Cost of Defeat
The fighting died down at this point; another Fascist frontal assault, three days later, was easily repulsed. The XV Brigade left the line on February 3 and headed for a period of rest in Valencia. Word came soon of another Nationalist offensive launched in the north, in the Celades region. Battle-weary though it was, the brigade was ordered to march 47 miles north of Teruel to Seguro de los Banos, where the Mac Paps were to capture Atalaya Hill while the Lincolns took Sierra Pedigrossa farther south. Guided by peasants through the teeth of sleet and a raging snowstorm, the Mac Paps cut the barbed wire around the base of the hill and took the defenders by surprise, carrying their objective with few casualties. They took close to 100 Fascist prisoners, along with food, ammunition, and guns, but the next hill to the south proved a tougher nut to crack. Eventually it was bypassed, and the Canadians worked their way south to link up with the Lincolns and the British in time to stop several Fascist counterattacks over the next two days.
On the 19th, the brigadiers moved back south of Teruel to kilometer 19. Before they left the front, Juan Modesto, commander of the Republican V Army Corps, arrived to present promotions and decorations to Mac Pap and British battalion commanders. Two of the promotions were for Mac Pap commander Edward Smith, who became a major, and Lionel Edwards, who rose to captain.
The offensive around Teruel cost the Republican cause more than it could stand. The losses in aircraft and equipment could not be replaced, and with the fall of Teruel, Franco’s last obstacle to driving through to the sea and cutting Republican Spain in two was gone. Morale remained high, but defeat was looming on the horizon for the Spanish Republic.
The relentless Franco lost no time in striking. On March 9, a massive Nationalist offensive opened that threw back the Republicans in retreat. For the rest of March, the retreat was orderly, but discipline soon began to crack under the onslaught. Fast-moving enemy armour relentlessly raced past the Republicans, getting around their flanks, cutting them off, and forcing them to change direction repeatedly, while panicked Republican soldiers retreating in vehicles would shout to their weary and demoralized comrades, trudging rearward on foot, that the Fascists were right behind them.
After April 1, the retreat became a rout. Alone or in small groups, Republican soldiers and Internationals tried to evade Fascist patrols and aircraft to make it safely across the Ebro River to Mora de Ebro and safety. Nilo Makela, the Canadian Machine-Gun Company commander, was one of those who did not make it, being killed in action along the way. Neither did the most influential American volunteer in Spain, Robert Merriman. The unfortunate brigade chief of staff was captured and shot. For weeks, the wounded emerged from hiding and came in bedraggled, hungry, and dazed by their ordeal.
The chaotic time became known collectively as “the Retreats”; for months afterward, the shattered battalions struggled to reconstitute themselves. Losses had been staggering; only 20 Mac Paps assembled at Mora la Nueva, near Mora de Ebro. Increasingly, the ranks of the International Brigades were filled by adolescent and largely unmotivated Spanish soldiers whose fighting ability was highly suspect.
The Battle of the Ebro
Overall, the situation was grim for the Spanish Republic. The Nationalists reached the Mediterranean coast at Viranoz on April 15, cutting Spain in two. Shortages in men, guns, tanks, and other war matériel were becoming critical. While Franco continued to receive everything he needed from Hitler and Mussolini (even his own officers admitted that Nationalist success depended on foreign aid), the Republican cause was short of everything needed to stay in the fight. In spite of it all, the Republicans still vainly hoped to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat. In a last desperate gamble to convince the Western democracies to come to the aid of the dying democracy, the Republicans shocked the world by mounting an offensive across the Ebro on July 25, 1938, a last-ditch campaign that became known as the Battle of the Ebro.
The Mac Paps crossed the Ebro River between Flix and Asco in the early morning hours of the 25th, after German scouts had killed enemy sentries on the far shore. The Canadians were the first XV Brigade battalion to cross. Lionel Edwards, who would suffer a wound during the battle that would put him out of the war, remembered that the men “didn’t know the battle order but it must have been to cross over and go as far as you bloody well could.” The next morning, they formed up and came under mortar fire, but still managed to drive off a circling enemy plane.
After quickly capturing Flix and Asco, the battalion pushed inland toward Corbera. Lawrence Cane, an American volunteer and executive officer of the Mac Pap Machine-Gun Company, rode ahead with his men on some horses captured from the Fascists to reach the enemy supply depot. The rest of the Mac Paps followed, viewing evidence of a hasty enemy departure as they marched. Discarded equipment littered the roadside and civilians told the Internationals of the Fascist retreat. Reaching Corbera the next morning at dawn, the Mac Paps found the enemy had indeed gone—only Cane’s “cavalry” and civilians were there. Helping themselves to some much-needed equipment and food from the enemy depot, the Canadians left the rest for civilians to take.
Pushing on, the Mac Paps took their post in a two-brigade wide assault line described by Cane as “something like a scene from a war movie.” Intense enemy fire from the surrounding hills brought the Internationals to a halt just outside the town, although one Mac Pap patrol managed to reach the town’s stone marker. They could go no farther. For the next four days, the XV Brigade mounted charge after charge. While the British assaulted Hill 481, known as the Pimple, other battalions tried to take Gandesa. Each attack was shattered by furious Fascist air and artillery strikes. The Mac Paps in No. 2 Company became some of the first soldiers to witness the new and soon to be dreaded German 88mm gun in action; three Republican tanks passed through their position and were turned into blazing hulks.
The Mountain of the Moon
After 10 days of attacks, neither the town nor the Pimple had been taken, and the XV Brigade withdrew into reserve until August 15, when it was ordered to the Sierra de Pandols, the Mountains of the Moon. This was the worst position ever taken by the Mac Paps, a desolate area scarred by war, covered with bodies, and reeking of death. Cane recalled: “Most of the area was bare rocks. Some hard jack-pine and mountain scrub covering the crests had been burned off by bombs and shells. The whole piece was blackened, evil-looking and stunk chokingly of death since the dead could not be buried. The bodies were of both Republican and Fascist dead, and we had to drag and carry them back to the firing position where they lay in stinking, wormy and fly-ridden piles all the time we were there. It was impossible to dig in, and gun positions were prepared by painstakingly filling sandbags with rocks and chips. There was no water. The only route into our positions was a precarious mountain trail up the face of a cliff that dropped into a frightening ravine. All we did in the Pandols was endure and hold.”
The Canadians were on Hill 609, with the Lincolns to the right on Hill 666, the 24th Battalion beyond the Lincolns, and the British in reserve. For the next 10 days, the XV Brigade reeled under the heaviest enemy mortar and artillery barrage of the war, which reduced the Mac Paps to half strength and killed two company commanders. Relieved by a Spanish battalion on August 26, the Mac Paps left the line amid rumours that the Internationals were about to be sent home.
“I was Beginning to Think They’d Never Get Me.”
Instead of going home, the Mac Paps went back into line east of Corbera in the Sierra de Caballs on September 4. They were now commanded by Gunnar Ebb, after Smith was wounded on his way to the Mac Pap position on Hill 565. The Canadians forced a salient in the enemy line on the 10th before going back into reserve until the 22nd, when they returned to the same area. The previous day, Republican Prime Minister Juan Negrin had addressed the League of Nations and called for the withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain “in order to eliminate all pretexts and possible doubts about the genuinely national character of the cause for which the Republican Army is fighting.” Brigade members heard the news the morning of the 22nd; they were told all they had to do was to survive one more day. For many, it would prove to be one day too many.
At 9 AM, the Fascists launched an attack along the entire brigade front after a two-hour barrage. By the afternoon, the XI Brigade on the left had pulled back, and the British and Lincolns had abandoned their hills. The Mac Paps were the only unit to remain in position, and they were furiously attacked. Enemy soldiers swarmed over their trench lines and engaged them in savage hand-to-hand fighting. A second line of riflemen had been set up in the rear, and with the Mac Pap position being overrun fast, there was little to do except make a dash for safety.
Cane passed around his last cigarettes to his men before they all ran for safety with guns blazing. The second line managed to hold, some of the men even mounting a counterattack, but it was repeatedly bombed by three squadrons of enemy aircraft. During one strike, American Mac Pap Archie Kessner was killed. He had fought through the entire war and may well have been the last American killed in Spain. His final words were, “I was beginning to think they’d never get me.” The next morning, 35 Mac Paps marched down from the hills and out of the war for good.
Returning Home in Defeat
After a tremendous farewell parade in Barcelona on October 29, the Canadian volunteers faced a long journey home. Although the government viewed them with hostility, thousands of Canadians greeted them as heroes when they returned. On February 5, 1939, the largest group of them, 272 men led by Edward Smith, was greeted by 10,000 people in Toronto. After Smith addressed the crowd gathered at Union Station, Methodist social reformer Salem Bland spoke to the volunteers, saying, “Canada didn’t understand at first what you were doing, but understands now, and as time goes by, you will have more friends, more honor, because you have done one of the most gallant things in history.”
Of the 1,600 Canadians estimated to have volunteered for Spain, nearly half found their graves there. During the conflict, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was recognized as one of the best-trained and hardest-fighting battalions in the five International Brigades. The heroism and fighting ability of the Mac Paps cannot be denied, regardless of one’s politics. History has vindicated them. The soldiers of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion who froze in the icy winds of Teruel, charged headlong onto the murderous plain before Fuentes de Ebro, lay beneath Fascist artillery barrages surrounded by the stench of death in the Mountains of the Moon, and counterattacked in the Caballs when they knew full well that the war would be over for them within hours, left behind a timeless legacy of valour and constancy. Better than most, they realized that the menacing spectre of fascism had to be fought and stopped. Had the governments of the Western democracies seen the writing on the wall as clearly as the Mac Paps and the other Internationals did and dealt with Hitler and Mussolini in 1936, the catastrophe about to befall the world only months after the Spanish Republic went down to defeat in 1939 might have been averted, and millions of innocent lives might have been saved. Tragically, it was not to be.
Dr. Norman Bethune
The Little Station Wagon bore the inscription, Service Canadien a Madrid de Transfusion de Sang, and the three men inside wore distinctive blue coveralls, “siren suits,” with a Canada flash on the shoulders and a huge red cross on the breast. The men were gripped with excitement though, being strangers to one another, they were careful to appear at ease. They were excited because they were off to war, and while they would not be combatants, still as a medical team they would be in occasional danger. Besides, the inscription on the side of the station wagon provoked cheers and salutes from road workers and peasants in the fields and this evidence of sympathy was moving, to say the least. On the other hand, that same inscription could be read by stony-faced Frenchmen who had no patience at all with the Spanish Republic. So the excitement came from happy anticipation but also from anxiety.
The three occupants of the little car were Canadians: Dr. Norman Bethune, Henning Sorensen and Hazen Sise. Bethune and Sorensen had met a month previously when the Montreal physician arrived in Madrid to contribute his services to the Republic. Sorensen, fluent in the Spanish language, had directed him about the great city, introduced him to the Spanish and international leaders, and translated their conversations. Sise was a newcomer, recently recruited by Bethune to assist him in the creation of a blood transfusion service. As the trio drove down the Rhone Valley into the south of France, they exchanged personal histories and privately made estimates of one another’s characters and motives.
Sorensen had arrived in Spain the preceding September and, until Bethune’s arrival nearly two months later, had followed a disillusioning career as a journalist. The young Dane had prepared a handful of articles for The New Commonwealth whose credentials he bore in Europe and for a socialist newspaper in Copenhagen. But so dismayed was he by the “scoundrels and prostitutes” who professed to be newspapermen, so revolted was he by their apparent indifference to the passion and misery of the Spanish Civil War, that he leapt at the request from the Canadian Spanish Aid Committee that he serve as Bethune’s assistant. Sorensen was devoted to the Spanish people; “a very sweet, soft spoken, dreamy character,” he had a simple, direct approach to matters, an approach which had little room for political maneuvering.
For the first month Bethune was in Madrid, Sorensen never left his side.
Dr. Norman Bethune is firmly placed in the legends of three countries: Canada, Spain and China. Before his departure for Madrid, he was a brilliant surgeon and a noted humanitarian in his own country. Following his return from Spain, be rushed off to China where he developed a medical service for the Eighth Route Army in the war against Japan. On November 13, 1939, in a small, obscure Chinese village, Bethune died of blood poisoning. Between life in Canada and in China, there was Spain. Bethune had gone to Spain at the suggestion of the Spanish Aid Committee. Whatever service be might render, it would be the first concrete sign of Canadian concern for the beleaguered Republicans. In agreeing to go abroad, Bethune realized that his career as a surgeon might be jeopardized, both because of an indefinite absence from practice and because of the political repercussions which could follow his public dedication to a cause that was not supported by his own government. Still, he went, and now he is a legend.
The doctor arrived in Madrid on November 3, and with Sorensen’s help toured hospitals, met his Spanish colleagues, and took a subway to the front which was then in and around the grounds of the University of Madrid in the southern suburbs, where he mingled briefly with the haggard survivors of the German Thaelmann Battalion. The Spanish medical service proposed that Bethune work as a surgeon in the military hospitals, but the Dr. Norman Bethune demurred. While he would work with the Republic he would work on his own terms, not because he had lost interest in surgery but because he sought some more dramatic activity, though not for the sake of drama. As Hazen Sise has put it, Bethune “had an inborn sense of public relations.” This, coupled with a forceful personality, determined for him that his contribution should be so distinctive and so identifiable as Canadian that a greater sympathy for the plight of the Republic would be elicited in Canada. Bethune did not have to venture into Spain to add to his laurels. In fact, he was in some danger of losing those he had earned at home. He was an egotist, yet a man who could command loyalties, surmount great obstacles, create much good by the sheer power of his character: ” the sort of person who could say ‘Rise and follow me’ and you would follow him.”
Bethune’s great vocation was first articulated while he and Sorensen sat uncomfortably on a slow-moving train to Valencia. They would organize a blood-transfusion service and then make that service available to the Republic. Blood was life, and in a country which already possessed a powerful and primitive sense of blood-mystique, the transfusion of blood for the saving of lives promised to be something more than a medical enterprise. Perhaps Bethune did not understand this association as yet, but according to Sise “it was a brilliant choice because the Spanish people took us to their hearts and the response was enormous and was strongly emotional …. “.
Bethune knew little about blood transfusion beyond what any surgeon would ordinarily have to understand. Blood transfusion was still in its primitive stage, in any case, so at the end of his first month’s stay, the physician left for Paris and London, in the companyof Sorensen, to organize his unit and to purchase equipment. At the same time be burrowed into libraries in these cities, collecting and studying furiously all that was available about the history and practice of transfusion. What Bethune undoubtedly came to realize during that frantic cramming in London was that his unit would be unsophisticated in experience and application but that it could do the job, nonetheless.
In London, Bethune found a second recruit, a young Canadian architect named Hazen Sise. Though both men were from Montreal, they had never met. Sise had been abroad for three years and was, in late 1936, just settling down to his first commission. He had already made many visits to the continent and his reaction to the mounting political tension was sharp and anxious. A few days before the outbreak of war in Spain, Sise had watched in fascination as the French Popular Front paraded across Paris, behind the dim form of the last survivor of the Commune of 1871, to the Place de Ia Nation where “amidst a sea of clenched fists” the health and prosperity of this political alliance was pledged. Later that day, Sise and his friends met for dinner on the Champs Elysees, and while we were sitting on the terrace having our drinks we could see expensive racing cars-Bugattis and such-dashing up and down the Champs Elysees with young bucks perhaps from the Jockey Club doing the Fascist salute. And it was very evident to me that on that day, France was very close to civil war. The powers of the right, the Camelot du Roi, the various pro-fascist groups were mobilizing in the west end, let us say, of the Champs Elysees-Etoile area whereas in the east end, in the area of the Place de Ia Nation, there were enormous crowds of people of the left-wing parties, and if they bad ever met, there would have been bloodshed.
Four days later, the Spanish Civil War began. For the next few months, the young architect found himself preoccupied with the war in Spain and he shared his misgivings with other young intellectuals, John Cornford and Stephen Spender, and the group that revolved around E. M. Forster. Bethune and Sise were introduced by a mutual friend, and Sise found his new acquaintance “a ramrod-erect man, almost six feet tall, wearing a trench coat and pork pie hat and a bristling military moustache.” (Sorensen noted that Bethune resembled a Coldstream Guards officer on leave.) Once apprised of Bethune’s mission, Sise, normally reticent and detached in manner, blurted out his wish to return to the war with the new unit. After a day or so Bethune agreed, and the young architect promptly went underground while he closed his office, transferred his first commission to a colleague and otherwise made himself ready for what he knew, as so many others found, was to be the “great turning point in my life.”
So the three Canadians went to Spain aboard a brand-new Ford station wagon, jammed with medical equipment, a refrigerator powered with coal oil, and their personal belongings. They wore blue overalls, a romantic gesture and useful too, because many of the workers in Barcelona adopted such a dress and because the Republican army published a newspaper called el mono azul, (the blue collar). Later on, the members of the unit removed the red cross to avoid confusion with the world-famous organization, and
in its place they put a Maltese Cross set in a wreath, the emblem of the “Sanidad Militar,” to which they would be attached. In Paris the men ransacked the city for gas masks, mainly at Sise’s insistence because “I am a boy scout at heart and always wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.” What, with the nervous condition of Frenchmen at this time, the masks were almost all sold out. They found some eventually and stood in the store trying them on, feeling a little foolish, “and the saleswoman fluttering around saying, ‘Oh! it looks fine, you know’ and ‘It fits beautifully!’ just as if she was selling a coat and possibly holding in the fact that it didn’t fit properly in front.”
South were the Pyrenees, and the breathtaking approach to the mountains moved them to silence. Beyond the Pyrenees was Spain. Each man who went there formed an impression of the countryside, an image that he carried with him and that became his “version” of the land. For Hazen Sise, architect, the image was of “the geometrical villages climbing up the hills and the vast naked skeleton of the landscape. ”
In Madrid the Canadians found temporary quarters in the Grand Via Hotel, at that time the gathering and watering place for journalists. Meals were obtained in a grill found in the basement, and there the transients consumed the traditional wartime diet: chick peas soaked in oil, sardines “and odds and ends of things like that.” At night they fell asleep with the rattle of machine-gun fire in their ears. The front was scarcely half a mile away. Within two or three days, Bethune set up his institute in a large apartment located in an upper-class residential neighbourhood. The location was a welcome one, for this district was seldom bombed, perhaps because there were many fifth columnists in the area. The place had formerly been occupied by a lawyer who had been a legal advisor to the German diplomatic corps prior to the outbreak of the war. Much to their surprise, the Canadians discovered that the former tenant, in his hurry to depart a hostile Madrid, had left behind documents revealing the extent of the German collaboration with the rebels. Sise dumped these into a huge laundry basket, drove with it to Valencia and proudly turned his discovery over to Foreign Minister Alvarez del Vayo.
The unit was not yet a unit. Bethune needed a week or more to ready his equipment, to advertise for donors, and to train his small staff. Two Spanish doctors were placed on temporary assignment, one brought several relatives along, two or three nurses came forward and a pair of militia girls volunteered to cook and keep house. Butane refrigerators replaced the coal-oil machine the three Canadians had hauled from London. Despite the magnificence of their quarters, the Canadians soon discovered just how primitive life could be in a besieged city. There was no heat available except what they could coerce from small electric heaters which were only as reliable as the city utility service. Baths were taken in cold water, and everyone wore their heavy coats indoors. Travel at night was incredibly difficult because of the darkened city and the wreckage strewn everywhere. Groping along the street, one could hear the murmur of voices, the strumming of guitars, “and you found that the doorways would be full of people just sitting quietly talking, and singing. Life all around you in this pitch blackness.”‘
Despite Bethune’s cramming in London libraries, he arrived in Madrid ill-equipped for the work ahead: few blood needles and no syringe-pumps. The first transfusions were performed by the gravity method with glass canulas sewn into veins. Soon, the team imported more needles and a quantity of 10 c.c. Joubet pumps and found squat 500 c.c. bottles. There appeared to be no laboratory available for Kahn or Wasserman tests so they proceeded with untested blood on the premise that a patient would prefer to have his life and a venereal disease rather than to lose his life. When they did discover a private lab, the doctor who performed the examinations reported a percentage of positive reactions so far below the known national average that his services were abandoned.
Subsequent police investigation suggested that this man was a fascist sympathizer. Eventually, idle technicians at the Madrid Rockefeller Institute took over the job.
Moss and International classifications of blood-groups were employed throughout, with Madrid hospitals supplying the bulk of the grouping serum. Cross-matching was conducted though there was often no time for this. In Madrid itself, the team extracted only blood groups II and IV with two-thirds to three-quarters of the total amount being group IV, universal. Particular care was given to the ticketing of the bottles not only for the protection of the patient but so the unit could compile statistics on its work. Within a month after the arrival of the Canadians in Madrid, they learned of the work of the Spanish physician, F. Duran Jorda of Barcelona, who had created a pooled blood-transfusion service of superior proportions. Bethune and Sise made at least two trips to Duran’s base and came away with valuable information as well as respect for the Spaniard. The preservation of the blood in ampoules involved still another risk. If sodium citrate was mixed with the blood, then preservation could be guaranteed for about ten days. But if the fluid was agitated greatly, then it broke down and became useless. And there was considerable danger of agitation, for the unit had to deliver the ampoules across city streets littered with wreckage and into mountain retreats to field hospitals.
Such experiments were not only necessary to the perfection of the transfusion technique, but they were considered in another light as appropriate to the subordinate function of the unit: medical research. The word “institute” was selected for just this reason. At least two scientists joined the Bethune operation for short-term investigations: J. B.S. Haldane, the British biologist, whose attempts to develop a home-made gas mask proved hilariously abortive, and Dr. Herman Mueller, an American geneticist. By and large, however, the research programs conducted at that time came to nothing since Dr. Mueller had to return to America.
There were a few uneasy moments as the Canadians prepared to open the doors of their institute. Unsure about the Spanish appetite for blood transfusion, the men simply did not know whether their call for donors would be heeded. But the two thousand people gathered in the streets before their office on the first morning dispelled any further doubts. Thereafter, Bethune and his staff were celebrated throughout Madrid, and in fact became the source of much exotic copy despatched by the foreign press.
As the weeks passed, the unit became accustomed to the daily shelling, to the sounds of combat from University City, sounds that receded as stalemate was reached there and then increased again as the Nationalist offensive at Jarama began. Bethune now purchased three more vehicles for the transportation of the precious blood about and beyond the city: a German DKW, a Renault truck and an unidentifiable yellow roadster. It was Hazen Sise’s unenviable duty to deliver the ampoules to field hospitals, and nothing was quite so eerie as those trips deep into the Guadarrama Mountains in the yellow roadster in the bright moonlight. The initial campaign of education had proven successful, and Sise came to relish the excursions into the sierras where he met isolated groups of soldiers huddled near the snow line. Once be stood high on a ridge and looked into a river valley far below crossed by a bridge which, Sise believes, later became the object of the partisan attack described in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
In the city one moved, as best one could, through the filth and horror of war. In a letter home, Hazen Sise described one errand to a local hospital. The hospital is a large one, of many pavilions connected by glass-enclosed corridors. As a modern architect, I am all for glass and lots of it, but in war-time, I don’t feel so enthusiastic. Flying glass makes a shell or bomb about three times more effective. Groping, with the aid of a flashlight, along those corridors, it seemed at first as if the place was deserted till one noticed constellations of glowing cigarettes and a hum of quiet, noncommittal conversation from those less exposed corners where the few wounded still able to walk had congregated. The rest lay quietly in their beds and listened. The explosions seemed uncomfortably close and my architect’s brain could not but try and picture the rather complicated plan of the building, to see whether we were moving towards the exposed side. Such little preoccupations become automatic in Madrid though one knows they won’t do any good. At last we were blinking in the brightness of the operating room, that cool room with green-flowered tile walls where I have seen things that I would like to forget; seen men die on the table in undignified and unmentionable ways before we ever had a chance of pumping new blood in them.
Our man lay in the central pool of light with two surgeons working on him. He was a civilian, wounded not two blocks away from the hospital. I peered over their shoulders. It was shell-splinters in three places. Ugh! By comparison your nickle/steel bullet (Canadian nickle!) is a polite, almost courtly method of destruction. Except for the rapid honking breathing of the unconscious man, it was very quiet. That brilliant spot of light in a darkened world made us feel curiously isolated; a camp-fire gives you the same sensation. The surgeons mumbled over their work, the nurses stood by, the anaesthetist sprinkled the ether and a man in civilian clothes stood close, watching every movement, but with a perfectly expressionless face. Probably a relative. With a can of hot water I warmed up the bottle of nearly
ice-cold blood while Lorna lays out the little gleaming syringe pump and examines the veins at the crook of the man’s arm. The shells began falling closer, rattling the windows and making the instruments jump about in their glass cases. A nurse with a beautiful, grave face suddenly smiles at me with just the slightest suggestion of a twitch about the lips. The anaesthetist grins cheerfully and sprinkles the ether. A doctor grunts. “God damn them”, I think, “they know perfectly well there’s a hospital here; it’s by far the biggest thing on the map of the district.” Lorna slipped in the needle and we started connecting up the tubes, holding the syringe, our arms entwined in a complicated way. We are all bending over different parts of the man who is breathing so fast that his whole body is heaving about with the effort. It’s a frightening thing which you take a long time to get used to. The surgeons quickly sew up one wound in the abdomen and start on the leg. Lorna begins to pump. Soon a doctor mumbles “350 cc is enough” and we’re finished. We wash up, pack up and as we turn to the door they call softly, over their shoulders “Saludl” “Hasta Ia vista.” The anaesthetist suddenly laughs and raises his clenched fist. The blood transfusion unit was Norman Bethune’s brainchild. and to the end, Bethune guided, cajoled, nagged it on its way. All his life the doctor had possessed great ambition, great vitality, and in Spain he found the sort of challenge which not only humoured him but brought him to a maturity which moved those who met him in Canada in the brief interval between Madrid and China. Always a sensualist, Bethune carried to Spain his love of good food, cultivated friends and superb women. (During his visit to London, he purchased a handsome set of monogrammed silk shirts.) His sensibilities never altered while he lived in Madrid; he was always the artiste manque. But something happened to him during those months: the incredible suffering, the quiet patience of the Spanish people, their devotion to their Republic, perhaps these sobered him. When he went to China, eventually, he was a changed man: intense, serious, stable. In Spain, in his middle-age, he found his vocation.
Yet, in Spain the man could be vexing as a child. He loved to lecture his friends on the issues of the war and on the potential of socialism. Most of those in his “audience” knew as much of the subject as Bethune did. J. B. S. Haldane, himself a dedicated scientist and socialist, would listen politely to the Canadian’s harangues and then reply, “Yes, teacher.” Bethune was an instinctive democrat but he was also an instinctive autocrat. After a “lecture” on socialism in a cafe, he could turn about and brusquely call for a waiter, “Hey there!”Hi. Bethune revered the Spanish people, but he regularly flew into a rage when he uncovered some failure or oversight on the part of Spanish doctors or when bureaucracy confounded his plans. Allan Dowd, a representative of the Canadian Spanish Aid Committee, arrived in Madrid in the spring of 1937 to resolve differences Bethune was having with the Republican medical establishment.
Bethune could be a nuisance, even when it was evident that he was in the right. The fact that Dowd had to be despatched as a peace-maker suggests that at this period, Bethune may have been on the verge of exhausting Spanish hospitality. In a war and in a country that produced many exotic figures, Norman Bethune proved to be one of the most colourful of men. And if he could be eccentric and unpredictable on occasions, at other times, at moments of profound stress, his strength, perhaps his genius, emerged.
In January, 1937, Bethune became anxious to expand the facilities of the unit to other cities, Valencia, Barcelona, Malaga. But the question that had already proved an irritation remained: how to preserve the blood over such long trips? Bethune and Sise thought that they had found a solution when Bethune bought a large Renault panel truck in France and had it revamped in Barcelona to include a refrigerator and a generator. Then in the company of a young Englishman with the unexpected name of Cuthbert Worseley, the Canadians set off on a trial run south along the Mediterranean coast to Malaga. In spite of warnings in Valencia that Malaga was besieged by Nationalists, the men pressed on. Beyond Almeria they ran head on into the war. Malaga had fallen, and tens of thousands of refugees thronged the road, their destination any place in Spain but Malaga. The people ran towards the truck, “like snowflakes rushing at one’s windshield.” By this time night had fallen, and Bethune realized that it was pointless to continue their expedition, so they turned to assist the frightened hordes. Bethune got out of the truck and confronted the refugees. Only children, he yelled. Not unexpectedly, great cries went up all about him. No mother could be persuaded to give over her child to a stranger, even if the separation was only to be temporary for the truck would discharge its passengers in Almeria, a hundred kilometres away. But Bethune continued to bellow and then to charge into the crowds, grabbing children up, pointing out others. Still mothers fought to keep them back, and still Bethune, Sise and Worseley fought for their rescue. At some point Sise took a photograph of the madness, and engraved there is all that one need know about war and loneliness. A peasant woman is standing at the rear of the truck, peering into its shadows, her arms flung out in appeal. But there was no room for her though there was for her children. The van held twenty small bodies and Sise drove these to Almeria while Bethune walked through the night with the distraught people. For four days and nights the three foreigners made their way back and forth along the highway, taking only the children and ignoring with agony the dozens of forlorn figures that littered the roadside. The two Canadians and the Englishman became frantic in their efforts to save the children. Once, Sise left his truck to spoon in the other. As the crowds pressed by, be called children over and shoved the jam into their mouths for quick energy. In one respect, the Mataga tragedy was the climax of Bethune’s career in Spain. Along that desolate, anonymous road, the Canadian lived his finest hours. The only way to ease horror and ugliness is to lay on hands, and this is what Bethune, all his life,
sought to do. And he never performed so well as he did in those four days, walking with the Spanish people to Almeria. Back in Madrid, the exhausted men threw themselves into the work of blood transfusion. Sleep and food and whiskey restored them, though it was evident even then that Bethune’s stamina was diminishing. More and more, he resorted to afternoon naps, sinking to the floor or onto a cot as if he were in a faint. The unit was now reinforced by the addition of an enigmatic young Canadian named Allen May and by a journalist named Jean Watts Lawson. This lady, one of the two or three Canadian women who served in Spain, later worked as a censor in Madrid and then concluded her career there by volunteering as an ambulance driver with a British hospital.
The Canadians found relief also in the antic behaviour of men desperately at war. J. B. S. Haldane came to live with them for a while. The huge bear of a man was determined that he would develop a makeshift gas mask that any civilian, especially the wine-loving Spaniard, could make. Haldane broke the bottom off a wine bottle and stuffed the remaining section with charcoal and bits of grass; then all one did was simply suck air through the mouth of the bottle. Sise and Haldane located a fume cabinet in a hospital and there Haldane hoped to prove his theory. Within two minutes, the scientist was signalling frantically for help and was then dragged out of his prison, wretchedly sick. The chlorine gas set off in the cabinet had no respect for grass, charcoal or fanciful theories. To avoid demoralizing the citizens of Madrid, Haldane was kept incognito at the unit’s offices until he recovered.
By June, 1937, the Canadian blood transfusion unit had completed its mission: the period of instruction was over. The Canadians had been awarded honorary commissions in the Republican army, these in lieu of actual ranks which might have compromised them under the Canadian Foreign Enlistment Act. Bethune decided to return to Canada, probably because his health was so poor, and because his relations with the Spanish doctors had become difficult; certainly because he was anxious to report directly to the Canadian people his experiences and impressions of the civil war. Soon after, Sise, May and Sorensen followed him home.
In the 1920’s, Norman Bethune had discovered that he was seriously ill with tuberculosis. In an effort to ward off inevitable death and to augment the research for correction of the affliction, he submitted himself to the then experimental thoacophasty operation, and his life was saved, though he had but one lung left. Bethune bad believed that he would die, and when he didn’t, like other men who have survived that strain, he believed that his life thereafter was a bonus. So he subjected himself to whatever ordeal or discomfort was necessary in Spain in order to carry on his work. But he did give his life two years later in China and, in a last letter to Canada, written as he lay dying, he said, “I have been very happy.”
A number of Canadians performed elsewhere in Spain with medical detachments. Samuel Abramson joined a British Medical Mission led by Major Douglas Jo11y of New Zealand. An ambulance driver, Abramson was at Quinto and Belchite and at the Ebro offensive. He was later joined by James Southgate, Art Siven and Roy Braden. Marvin Penn of Winnipeg fought with the Lincolns at Jarama, Brunete and Quinto-Belchite. After the last battle, he accepted a transfer to the brigade medical corps. For a time, Penn moved back and forth from Spain to France escorting convalescent Canadians to Paris on the first lap of the voyage home. In the fin al months of his own stay in Spain, Penn helped organize and direct a brigade hospital in Barcelona. Bell, the same volunteer whose distrust of the communists emerged in Paris, held a variety of posts with medical units, as a first-aid instructor in Albacete, as a male nurse in the city hospital, then as a first-aid man in the 20th Battalion of the 86th Brigade on the Cordoba front. His last assignment took him to Villa Paz where a brigade hospital had been established in the summer home of the Infante Beatrice, sister of the former king, Alphonso. Dr. Aaron Magid joined the XVth International Brigade in time for the Brunete offensive.
One of the strangest of all stories involving any Canadian volunteer concerns Dr. Eugene Fogarty, born in Vancouver in 1897. Dr. Fogarty was on the staff of the International Hospital in Villanueva de la Jara, near Albacete, when on March 6, 1937, he married Senorita Jacoba Moreno Cordoba, by whom he subsequently had two children. When the Civil War ended, be moved with his family to a little town called Iniesta, where he established his own practice. In 1940, however, he disappeared. Presumably escaped from Spain after the Second World War began, but he did not take his wife and children with him. They returned to Villanueva de la Jara for a short time and then moved to Barcelona. The doctor seems to have been swallowed up in the world war; a brother of Mrs. Fogarty has said that the Canadian died in the Far East. Inadvertently, Dr. Fogarty was instrumental in saving the life of a Spanish colleague in Villanueva de Ia Jara. The Spaniard was sentenced to execution because of his alleged fascist convictions. Execution was delayed until the townspeople could confirm the arrival of another physician. When Dr. Fogarty appeared on the scene, he proved to have such an unimpressive bedside manner and
so poor a reputation that the Spanish doctor had his death sentence revoked so that he could remain in practice. Dr. Fogarty is still well known about Villanueva de la Jara: Dr. Eugenio Furgarte, that is.
Day 1: Toledo (City and Army Museum)
Day 2: Madrid (City and Navy Museum)
Day 3: Madrid (Pardo Palace and Royal Guard Museum) / free time / Blue Division Museum
Day 4: Madrid (Army Armored Collection – Goloso Base) and West area of the city of Madrid (Moncloa “Lighthouse”) free afternoon
Day 5: Valley of the Fallen (Franco´s Grave) and Brunete battlefield (as an option as only a few bunkers remain, Mac-Paps fought there)
Day 6: Arganda (Spanish Civil War observation trench & re-enactors) and Morata de Tajuña (Spanish Civil War Museum / battlefield positions as an option)
Day 7: Madrid Air Force museum and east part of the city of Madrid / free afternoon.
Additional Tour Information
As with our other tour options, this tour will be a private, personalized tour, available anytime on a first come-first serve basis, ideally for groups of 1-3 people. As with our other tours, our personalization service allows you to participate in the structure of the tour. If you have any special requests, like following the footsteps of a particular Veteran or unit, we are happy to accommodate, whenever possible. If you do have an interest in a particular soldier or unit, please provide us with his details and we will do some preliminary research, to make your tour an even more meaningful experience.
Of course, the tours combined in this package are still available on a stand-alone basis or any combination thereof, that best suits your interests.
This tour, as well as our others, will be costed on the following basis. The price quoted will be for all ground transportation within the battlefield areas, with professional guide(s). It does not include anything else. Of course, we are happy to make recommendations to help with your travel planning, like hotels, B&B’s. With this tour, the planning will be quite simple. The cities where you will need accommodation Bayeux – four nights; Arras – three or four nights; both are larger centres with many choices. There are many hotel booking sites but we have always liked https://booking.com.