Brunete and the Formation of the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion
Brunete: July 1937
The Western approaches to Madrid pass through a broad
valley 60 to 80 kilometers long and 15 to 25 kilometers wide. There are
a number of towns of which Brunete is the largest, giving its name to the
major battle that surged back and forth across the plain for 20 days in July
Since the previous November Franco's forces had occupied the towns on the
plain and the Heights of Romanillos that flanked it. The government planned
a major offensive against these forces mobilizing 10 divisions one of which
held the XIIIth and the XVth International Brigades.
On July 6 with 8 Republican divisions moved into position on the
hills overlooking the valley and descended onto the plain where they met
heavy fascist resistance. The XVth International Brigade composed of the
Abraham Lincoln, the George Washington, the Dimitroff and the British
Battalions was given the task of taking the village of Villanueva de la
Canada (a curious coincidence for the 70 odd Canadians who participated,
mostly in the Lincolns). They took the town after two days of heavy fighting.
From Villanueva de la Canada, the Internationals advanced toward
the Fascist positions on the Heights of Romanillos at a place called Mosquito
Hill. The Republicans had made a rapid advance across the plain but at the
foot of the Heights the advance stalled. With the Battalions on the low
ground and the Fascists dug in on the Heights attack after attack up the
slopes failed. On the 13th of July the attacks were abandoned and the two
International Brigades were ordered into support for Spanish republican units.
After another three days of heavy fighting they were sent to the rear to
Their respite didn't last long. On July 16th, the Fascists mounted a major
counter-offensive with 20,000 men, 100 tanks and 100 aircraft. The Internationals
were ordered back into battle as Franco's forces swarmed down onto the
plain forcing back the Republicans in a bitter action that lasted 8 days.
In Victor Hoar's description:
For a week the two forces fought desperately
across the Brunete valley, battalions colliding and bouncing off one another
to hurtle into another deadly engagement somewhere down the line - where
there was a line. More often than not the fights were conducted on the run
as athe combatants clawed their way up and down the barancas. Gradually, the southern part
of the Republican sector began to crumble. . . Brunete itself was captured
after barrages of artillery shells literally smashed the town to pieces.
On the 26th of July the Republicans withdrew their forces. The four Battalions
of in the XVth Brigade had taken heavy losses. The Lincolns' commander
was killed. The losses of the Lincolns and Washingtons was so great that
the two Battalions were merged into the Lincolns on July 16 and the Washingtons
(as it turned out) were never reformed. Of the 70 or so Canadians in the
battle, one-third were killed and two succesive leaders of the Canadian section
in the Lincolns fell in a three day period. A fourth leader would be needed
before the battle was ended.
While the Republicans had demonstrated their ability to deploy and
manoeuver at Army Corps level, the were simply unable to match Franco's
strength. They threw all of their forces into the battle on July 6 with
virtually no reserve while Fanco was able to maintain a steady supply of
fresh troops and armour and, in the middle of the battle, to stage a major
counter-offensive. The uneven distribution of men and materiel and the effectiveness
of German and Italian support to Franco had shown to disastrous effect.
In April 1937 a number of Canadians got together to discuss the
possible formation of a Canadian Battalion within the XVth International
Brigade. The name they proposed was the Mackenzie-Papineau, after the
English and French leaders of the 1837 rebellions against undemocratic
British colonial rule in Upper and Lower Canada. (It surely didn't hurt
that 1937 was the centenary of the rebellions.) Throughout the spring volunteers
were regularly arriving at Albacete and a new battalion was in fact formed
but the Americans wanted it to be named as a third American Battalion (in
addition to the Washingtons and the Lincolns). Their hope was that with three
battalions in the field, they could form an American brigade. As compensation
to the Canadians, who would not then see their own brigade, they offered
to provide an all Canadian company within the newly formed Battalion.
The Canadians mustered a number of arguments in support of their
own battalion. There were now (the Spring of 1937) over
500 Canadians in the field, about half as many volunteers as the US
although Canada then, as now, had only about one tenth the population.
There was also the argument that a Canadian Battalion would help to
publicize the war back home and aid in raising further support.
In the meantime, the newly formed and still unnamed battalion remained
continued to train and continued to be unnamed for reasons no longer known.
For whatever reason, the delay allowed the Canadian representations to
the International Brigade Command to proceed and Canadian proposal was
adopted by the Brigade command.
A.A. MacLeod who had travelled to Spain to arrange for the return
of Norman Bethune subsequently travelled to Tarazona in June to address
the massed Canadians and Americans of the new battalion. He spoke movingly
for two hours citing the founding of Canada, the war of 1812, the rebellions
of 1837 and the present situation in the world. Those who heard him were
roused by the speech and when asked if they would endorse the new battalion
name, did so unanimously, including the Americans who were not unhappy about
the new battalion - they thought the Canadians deserved it.
The new Battalion was not entirely Canadian at that point - in fact
Americans outnumbered the Canadians in the Battalion by two to one. As
new recruits continued to arrive in Albacete from Canada however they were
usually assigned to the Macpap Battalion. Even so, Canadians typically
accounted for about half of the members of the Battalion. Many Canadians
ended up in other Battalions - some in Slav Battalions where, because of
limited English language skills, they felt more comfortable or in artillary
batteries, transport units or medical units. Many had been killed or wounded
in the Canadian Section of the Lincolns before the Macpaps were formed
and many continued in the Lincolns. Nonetheless, the Mackenzie-Papineau
Battalion was to become the symbol of Canadian participation in Spain and
remains so today.
The best accounts of Brunete (and of the other major battles) are
to be found in the three general histories of the Canadian participation
in Spain. See Bibliography.
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