Review: Alvah Bessie’s Spanish Civil War Notebooks, edited by Dan Bessie

by Rebeca on July 13, 2009

Alvah Bessie's Spanish Civil War Notebooks, edited by Dan BessieAlvah Bessie’s Spanish Civil War Notebooks
Edited by Dan Bessie
The University Press of Kentucky
156 pages

This historical and valuable first-hand personal account presents the war in Spain through the eyes of writer and volunteer soldier Alvah Bessie. Edited by Dan Bessie, Alvah’s son, Alvah Bessie’s Spanish Civil War Notebooks are a daily record of activities, which he jotted down in four notebooks (and incidentally are kept for the general public to view and read if they can decipher Bessie’s scrawl at New York University’s Tamiment Library in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives) when he was in Spain from February 3rd to December 1st 1938.

As Bessie fils writes, these four pocket notebooks were filled with details of his father’s arrival in Spain (via Paris, for it was illegal to travel to Spain at that time), his training, his battlefield experiences and his work for the Lincolns’ newspaper The Volunteer for Liberty and his departure from Spain.
These notebooks are the foundation for Bessie’s brilliant memoir Men in Battle, first published in 1939 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. These events covered in the notebooks are fully detailed in Men in Battle, but the beauty of the notebooks is actually reading what happened at the given moment or as Dan Bessie writes, “…have an immediacy that reflects the fast pace of a soldier in training and combat, jotting down impressions while on the move.”

Bessie provides a two page chronology of his father’s arrival to Spain and his departure and then kicks it off with Notebook 1. This section includes diagrams of infantry formations, letters from his children and his ex-wife, and drawings. Entries are succinct, yet descriptive. In one, he aptly illustrates fear (dated April 10, [1938]):

Fear: men who have experienced avion attacks show greatest demoralization. One man carries a stick in his mouth to prevent his teeth from chattering and equalize pressure between inner ear and outside. Others noticeably jittery when “avion” is called.

Bessie starts Notebook 2 on April 16, 1938. About the same time period that his iconic photograph at Darmos, Catalonia was taken [and is shown in the About Alvah’s Books page—editor]. In this notebook, Bessie includes a list of Spanish expressions and slang frequently used by soldiers, he writes of his budding friendship with poet Edwin Rolfe, and introduces his company commander Aaron Lopoff, a young man who will be like a close brother to Bessie and will leave a lasting mark as reflected in the writer’s work.

Bessie was a prolific letter writer and on numerous occasions he drew several panoramic diagrams of his location. These letters were met with exasperation from military censors. On May 15th, Bessie received this handwritten letter from the Anglo-American sector of the Brigades stationed in Barcelona:

May 15 – 1938 SR 20E – C333 – Barcelona

Comrade Bessie –

This is just to inform you that thereafter your correspondence that contains any diagrams – calculations or similar items necessary for regular communication will be detained indefinitely and possible cause you some individual inconvenience. I believe you are a reliable comrade but, please use your intelligence and don’t complicate the necessary work of the censorship. 

[Signature illegible]
Anglo-American Sector
Censura Militar 

Bessie would receive several of these handwritten reprimands.

Notebook 3 starts in late July 1938; the entries are longer with more details of battles. He is close to Gandesa and is part of the Ebro Offensive. In a brief section on August 17th Bessie notes that Lopoff is wounded in the head with expectations to recover. On August 19th, he writes:

The worst day so far, of this life. Hell broke loose at 12:30 pm . . . . artillery and mortars, preparation for a fascist attack. For 7-1/2 hours we were shelled, the shells covering practically every inch of our parapets and the barranco behind our hill. The strain, unbearable, the shells, thousands, falling in groups of 3, 4 at second intervals. . . . Whitney, translator for the company, 1-1/2 years here, scared as a rabbit, nearly hysterical with fear for weeks now, severely wounded two feet from me, together with telephonist who occupied the same shallow refugio . . . the sight of Whiney, his buttocks nearly torn off, hold them, his face dead yellow, covered with rock dust, screaming…

August 24: Word last night that Lopoff’s wound is worse than thought. At first – 3 m.g. (?) bullets in the head, which apparently destroyed the eye and may result in the loss of the other.

September 8: Tte. Aaron Lopoff, we learn, died of his wounds received on hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols the night of August 17, leading a night attack against fascist positions. He received 3 m.g. bullets in the head, which destroyed one eye. Report that meningitis set in.

Notebook 4 is the shortest of all. Here, Bessie writes of the retreat of the Brigades and his return to Barcelona and then to Paris. The journal ends on December 1st, yet Bessie continues to make entries until December 4. His last entry is:

PS: We sailed on the Paris from Cherbourg, after going there by train. Were back in New York before Christmas. At New York we were held aboard the ship for six hours before disembarking, out passports were taken away from us. But there was a terrific welcoming committee of thousands who stood in the bitter cold from 6 a.m. (when the ship docked) till noon, when we came off.

For Bessie, Spain, was a turning point in his life and these notebooks were the first of many letters, speeches, short stories, articles and books about his time with the Lincolns and fighting to save the Spanish Republic. In 1980, Bessie commented in Peter Wedyn’s The Passionate War:

 This is the most important experience of my life, and it always has remained so, and I have never regretted it for a moment.

Thanks to his experience and his notebooks, historians and readers of the Spanish Civil War have a priceless source to add to their libraries.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Randall Radic July 13, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Very nice review. Excellent, in fact. You gave me a taste of what his experience was like.

Ray Hoff January 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I think Alvah Bessie is in this photo from the Steamship Paris which departed Cherbourg December 7, 1938.

Rebeca January 7, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Alvah’s not in that pic, but he was on the SS Paris. He’s in this photograph:

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