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Robert Merriman

American Robert Hale Merriman was the first combat commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (of the International Brigade). The popular story is Ernest Hemingway based his character Robert Jordan in ‘For whom the bell tolls’ on Merriman (others say it was Milton Wolff, the commander a year later).
SPmerriman.jpgI find Merriman a rather mysterious and puzzling figure. If you read his wife’s account in ‘American Commander in Spain’ Merriman was a humble student who advanced in 1932 to graduate school at the University of California at Berkley. Things then move very quickly. He gets involved in labour disputes, he impresses his university professors and he starts talking about going to Russia. By 1935 he and his wife are in Moscow with a scholarship to study agricultural problems.
This for me is the first mystery.

The trip to Russia seems to come from nothing and I can’t help thinking he was selected by the Russians as a suitable subject for advancing the communist ‘word’. The reverse may of course be true he may have been sent with the blessing of the US government for reasons we can only guess at. I am just having difficulty in buying the story he was purely motivated by the economics of growing wheat.
In 1936 he arrives in Spain and rapidly advances through the ranks – presumably because he spent 2 years in the Reserve officers training corps at the University of Nevada. By 1937 he is Commander but gets badly wounded in February. When he recovers he is transferred to the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion as Brigade chief of staff.

The second mystery revolves around an article I read that referred to him as ‘Robert Murderman’. This puzzled me as everything I read previously had praised him as a hero. William Herrick (ex ALB and a novelist) wrote that Merriman was incompetent, promoted for political reasons and whose mistakes had caused unnecessary deaths at Jarama.
On 27th February 1937, Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches Merriman was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived
So is the name ‘Murderman’ fair? Was he ordered by Copic to do an impossible task? Did his troops refuse to carry out his orders?

I guess there is even a further mystery – nobody really knows how he died. The popular story is he was killed at Gandesa along with Dave Doran in spring 1938. However there was no body and there is reasonably strong circumstantial evidence to suggest he was captured and imprisoned in Bilbao before being executed that summer. Certainly the US government suspected imprisonment but they had no influence (or for that matter any motivation as the ALB’s were seen by many US officials as an awkward nuisance) with the Nationalist forces. There is no grave or record.


Robert Merriman is on the far left.