The Jarama Battle

Sean Quinn looks at one of the costliest engagements in the Spanish civil war

The Jarama battlefront was one of the most costly engagements of the Spanish civil war. This article gives a brief insight into the Jarama battle, as extracted from the book Irish Volunteers for

After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault, Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa (Spanish troops that had been based in Morocco along with the Spanish Foreign Legion) crossed the Jarama River on February 9, 1937.

General José Miaja sent three International Brigades including the Dimitrov Battalion (Greek and Balkan volunteers) and the British Battalion to the Jarama Valley to stop the advance. Bill Alexander of the British Battalion recalled:

‘By 11 February, the Fascists had crossed the Jarama river, using the bridge on the small dirt road that ran from San Martin de la Vega to Morata de Tajuna. They had taken some of the commanding heights on the last ridge before the Tajuna Valley, and their way was open to the Valencia road.

‘In the early morning of 12 February the British moved forward by truck from Chinchon to an area by a large farmhouse where the Madrid-Chinchon road crossed the smaller San Martin-Morata road. The San Martin road climbed for about a mile to a plateau, covered with olive trees, and then descended through broken hills and ridges to the Jarama river. The farmhouse and buildings around it became and remained cookhouse and rear headquarters throughout the long stay on the Jarama front.’

Suicide Hill
That same day, February 12, at what became known as ‘Suicide Hill’, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties against overwhelming opposition. Confused leadership did not help the situation. Tom Wintringham, the British commander, was forced to order a retreat back to the next ridge. The Nationalists then advanced up Suicide Hill, only to be routed by Republican machine-gun fire. However, despite this initial success, on the right flank, the Nationalists forced the Dimitrov Battalion to retreat.

This enabled the Nationalists to virtually surround the British Battalion. Coming under heavy fire, the British, now only 160 men out of the original 600, had to establish defensive positions along a sunken road.

Tom Wintringham recalled events 19 months later (October 13, 1938) in the Manchester Guardian:

‘The Battalion found itself facing three times its numbers, with a gap of three miles in our line to the left of it, and a gap of 1,000 yards on its right. None of our machine-guns was less than twenty years old, and two of the three types jammed continually. The hill was held until near nightfall with rifles only, then we retreated six-hundred yards. This effort cost the Battalion nearly half of its strength in casualties. But it was a necessary effort. In subsequent days of bitter fighting the Battalion gave ground only to regain all but 200 yards of it.’

The Abraham Lincoln Battalion
Within a week, the Lincoln Battalion received orders to cut short its training and move immediately to join the battle. The more experienced men in the Irish column had already gone to the front with the British Battalion, and indeed, some of them had been killed. One such casualty was Revenor R. Hilliard, who died  February 19 from wounds received at Jarama five days earlier.

Another casualty was Richard (Dick) O'Neill. O'Neill was born a Falls Road Catholic, one of the few who worked in the skilled trade of compositor, and had joined the Belfast branch of the Typographical Union in 1929. An active socialist, he had been a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party before transferring to the CPI (Communist Party of Ireland).

He lived with his father, Hugh O'Neill, a tailor, at 5 Colinward Street, Belfast, before going to Spain on December 10, 1936. He was quickly into battle, serving with the British battalion, roll number 620. He fell victim to a stray bullet 'behind the lines' at Jarama on February 14, 1937.

An obituary report in the Irish Democrat states: ‘When the International Brigade was first formed, right from the start he was anxious to enlist.’

Party comrades tried to dissuade him as it was thought sufficient of the group had already left Belfast, but Dick would brook no refusal. He insisted on being sent; other­wise, he said he would travel to Spain alone.

Many others, including Frank Ryan, were wounded. The Lincolns arrived at Jarama on February 16 with 373 men divided into two infantry companies – a machine gun unit and a group of paramedics and doc­tors.

Both sides were dug into trenches at opposite ends of the valley. The terrain was rough and sparse, dot­ted with twisted olive trees and vines. Conditions were appalling, the trenches were filthy and both food and medical supplies were scarce. The only pleasantry seemed to be the strong perfume-like smell of wild thyme.

Despite the poor conditions, morale was high and volunteers fought as strongly as the ideals they held. Perhaps it was those ideals that encouraged their spirits to fight, for in reality their defence lacked good military tactics and thinking. Nevertheless, they held up Franco's offensive, but at great cost.

The Abraham Lincoln Battalion were ordered over the top on February 23, where they pushed forward out of their trenches backed by a pair of tanks from the Soviet Union. They were led by the battalion com­mander Robert Merriman. Merriman was a 28-year old teacher, having taught at the University of California. In his younger days he had served two years in the Reserve Officers training corps while study­ing economics at the University of Nevada. By the day's end they had lost 20 men killed and nearly 60 were wounded.

The late Peter O'Connor, an Irish volunteer from Waterford and a member of the Republican Congress recalled:

‘On 23rd February our battalion took part in the first attack on the Fascist lines. It was very dark and the olive groves were lit up with the rifle and machine gun fire. We advanced too far, but dug in where we were. Paddy Power was just near me, in a section of a trench cut off from our main lines. Alan MacLarnan from Dublin was wounded. I made the following entries in my diary for 26th and 27th February 1937: We were holding the line. We did not get anything to east since the morning of the 23rd. It is now 26th February and all our canteens are empty. We fight our way back to the main line.’

Four days later on February 27, Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches, Merriman was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived. Merriman was replaced by a popular black officer, Oliver Law – a 33 year old from Chicago who had worked his way up through the ranks. (Both Merriman and Law were later killed – Merriman at Gandesa in March 1938 and Law at Brunete.)

Peter O'Connor recalled the attack:

‘The 27th February, and we attack again, led by Eddie O'Flaherty and Paul Burns. Jackie Hunt from Waterford is wounded in the ankle and Bill Henry, that great Protestant working class comrade from Belfast, was killed in the vanguard of the attack, together with T. T. O'Brien. We hold the line and con­solidate our positions. The road to Madrid is safe. We settle down to a stint of trench warfare, making the dugouts more livable. Our main position is among the olive groves on the hills overlooking the vil­lages of Morata and Chinchon, where we settle down to repulse attacks and counter-attack.’

Also killed on February 27 were Charlie Donnelly and Eamon McGrotty. Fred Copeman, a 29 year old member of the British Battalion, was wounded in the arm and head but sur­vived. He later wrote about meeting Kit Conway, who was one of the original Irish contingent, at a hos­pital:

‘Kit was obviously dying. The simple sincerity of people like Kit makes the struggle for social justice the inspiring thing it is. Kit was in terrible agony, and yet his one concern was that he may have been respon­sible for the slaughter that had taken place. Six hundred and thirty men had entered the line and there were not more than eighty left unwounded, and the percentage of killed was very high. It was hard to con­vince him that our fighting had taken place in the toughest, bloodiest battle of the whole Spanish cam­paign, and that it had been decisive in the defence of the Madrid-Valencia road.’

That vital road that Franco needed to have cut, remained open. Fred Copeman later commanded the Battalion for a period, before falling ill and being returned to England.

Northern Casualties
Bill Henry, referred to by Peter O'Connor, lived at 31 Bradford Street on the Old Lodge Road. Bill had survived the Great War and was 36 years old when he was killed at Jarama. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) and the Irish Distributive Workers Union, as he worked as a Belfast 'dealer’. O'Connor made an earlier reference to Henry that during an artillery bombardment on February 17, before they went into action, that they were glad of his presence and experience obviously gained in the trenches during the first world war.

In his last letter home to his wife Rosina, Bill Henry wrote: ‘There are some great comrades here with me, and with whom it would be an honour to go to the happy hunting ground.’

Charlie Donnelly's body lay on the battlefield for ten days before it was recovered by three of his fellow Irishmen, Peter O'Connor and Johnny and Paddy Power. His body was buried in an unmarked grave on the battleground along with other volunteers. Among the dead were Eamon McGrotty and Belfast man Liam (Bill) Tumilson.

Liam Tumilson was aged 33 when he died at Jarama and had last been promoted to the rank of adjutant in a machine-gun company at the time of his death. Tumilson was shot in the head while directing the machine guns against an enemy attack on March 14. In his last letter home to his fiancee Kathleen Walsh on March 11, just three days before his death, he told her he was fine and that, ‘We are still driving the Fascists back and still confident of victory’.

As with the others, he was buried on the battlefield near the village of Morata. Liam Tumilson was one of several men from Ballymacarrett in East Belfast to have fought in Spain, having originally lived in Thorndyke Street on Templemore Avenue.

His death prompted two of his friends Jim Straney and Willie O'Hanlon also from Ballymacarrett to make their way to Spain to take up the stand. Only Willie O'Hanlon of the three friends would survive to see Ireland and home again. Jim Straney died on July 31 1938 at the Ebro on Hill 481 known as ‘the pim­ple’ overlooking Gandesa.

Both Straney and O'Hanlon, although both strong Socialists had been active members of the IRA in the Short Strand before volunteering for Spain. Both mixed their Socialist beliefs with strong Republican ideals. This was not uncommon in Belfast despite the IRA's pure nationalistic ideology at the time.