WITH BRITISH GUNS IN ITALY A TRIBUTE TO ITALIAN ACHIEVEMENT
SOMETIME LIEUTENANT IN THE ROYAL GARRISON ARTILLERY
WITH 12 ILLUSTRATIONS AND 3 MAPS
First Published in 1919
TO THE HIGH CAUSE OF ANGLO-ITALIAN FRIENDSHIP AND UNDERSTANDING
"Nella primavera si combatte e si muore, o soldato."
M. PUCCINI, Dal Carso al Piave.
"So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchres; not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or action as the occasion comes by. For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men's lives."
Funeral Speech of Pericles.
"Dying here is not death; it is flying into the dawn."
So far as I know, no British soldier who served on the Italian Front has yet published a book about his experiences. Ten British Batteries went to Italy in the spring of 1917 and passed through memorable days. But their story has not yet been told. Nor, except in the language of official dispatches, has that of the British Divisions which went to Italy six months later, some of which remained and took part in the final and decisive phases of the war against Austria. Something more should soon be written concerning the doings of the British troops in Italy, for they deserve to stand out clearly in the history of the war.
This little book of mine is only an account, more or less in the form of a Diary, of what one British soldier saw and felt, who served for eighteen months on the Italian Front as a Subaltern officer in a Siege Battery. But it was my luck to see a good deal during that time. Mine had been the first British Battery to come into action and open fire on the Italian Front. And, as my story will show, it was either the first or among the first on most other important occasions, except in the Caporetto retreat, and then it was the last.
I have camouflaged the names of all persons mentioned throughout the book, except those of Cabinet Ministers, Generals and a few other notabilities.
For permission to reproduce photographs, I wish to thank the representatives in London of the Italian State Railways (12 Waterloo Place, S.W.), and my friend and brother officer, Mr Stuart Osborn.
LONDON, February 1919
PART I INTRODUCTORY
CHAPTER I THE ANGLO-ITALIAN TRADITION AND ITALY'S PART IN THE WAR
PART II SOME EARLY IMPRESSIONS
CHAPTER II FROM FOLKESTONE TO VENICE
CHAPTER III FROM VENICE TO THE ISONZO FRONT
CHAPTER IV THE WAR ON THE ISONZO FRONT
CHAPTER V PALMANOVA
CHAPTER VI AQUILEIA AND GRADO
CHAPTER VII A GRAMOPHONE AND A CHAPLAIN ON THE CARSO
CHAPTER VIII A FRONT LINE RECONNAISSANCE
CHAPTER IX AN EVENING AT GORIZIA
CHAPTER X A CEMETERY AT VERSA
CHAPTER XI UDINE
CHAPTER XII THE BRITISH AND THE ITALIAN SOLDIER
CHAPTER XIII I JOIN THE FIRST BRITISH BATTERY IN ITALY
PART III THE ITALIAN SUMMER OFFENSIVE, 1917
CHAPTER XIV THE OFFENSIVE OPENS
CHAPTER XV WE SWITCH OUR GUNS NORTHWARD
CHAPTER XVI THE FALL OF MONTE SANTO
CHAPTER XVII THE CONQUEST OF THE BAINSIZZA PLATEAU
CHAPTER XVIII THE FIGHTING DIES DOWN
CHAPTER XIX A LULL BETWEEN TWO STORMS
PART IV THE ITALIAN RETREAT AND RECOVERY
CHAPTER XX THE BEGINNING OF THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE
CHAPTER XXI FROM THE VIPPACCO TO SAN GIORGIO DI NOGARA
CHAPTER XXII FROM SAN GIORGIO TO THE TAGLIAMENTO
CHAPTER XXIII FROM THE TAGLIAMENTO TO TREVISO
CHAPTER XXIV THOUGHTS AFTER THE DISASTER
CHAPTER XXV FERRARA, ARQUATA AND THE CORNICE ROAD
CHAPTER XXVI REFITTING AT FERRARA
PART V A YEAR OF RESISTANCE AND OF PREPARATION
CHAPTER XXVII IN STRATEGIC RESERVE
CHAPTER XXVIII THE FIRST BRITISH BATTERY UP THE MOUNTAINS
CHAPTER XXIX THE ASIAGO PLATEAU
CHAPTER XXX SOME NOTES ON NATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS
CHAPTER XXXI ROME IN THE SPRING
CHAPTER XXXII THE FIFTEENTH OF JUNE, 1918
CHAPTER XXXIII IN THE TRENTINO
CHAPTER XXXIV SIRMIONE AND SOLFERINO
CHAPTER XXXV THE ASIAGO PLATEAU ONCE MORE
PART VI THE LAST PHASE
CHAPTER XXXVI THE MOVE TO THE PIAVE
CHAPTER XXXVII THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST BATTLE
CHAPTER XXXVIII ACROSS THE RIVER
CHAPTER XXXIX LIBERATORI
CHAPTER XL THE COMPLETENESS OF VICTORY
CHAPTER XLI IN THE EUGANEAN HILLS
CHAPTER XLII LAST THOUGHTS ON LEAVING ITALY
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Italian Troops Crossing a Snowfield in the Trentino
Railway Bridge over the Isonzo Wrecked by Austrian Shell Fire
Italian Mule Transport on the Carso
No. 3 Gun of the First British Battery in Italy
Casa Girardi and Italian Huts
Some of Our Battery Huts near Casa Girardi
The Eastern Portion of The Asiago Plateau
Road Behind Our Battery Position Leading to Pria Dell' Acqua
Chapel at San Sisto and Italian Graves
Huts on a Mountain Side in the Trentino
Lorries Leaving Asiago after Its Liberation
Captured Austrian Guns in Val D'Assa
LIST OF MAPS
Map of Northern Italy
Map of the Isonzo Front
Map of Val Brenta and the Asiago Plateau
* * * * *
WITH BRITISH GUNS IN ITALY
THE ANGLO-ITALIAN TRADITION AND ITALY'S PART IN THE WAR
Anglo-Italian friendship has been one of the few unchanging facts in modern international relations. Since the French Revolution, in the bellicose whirligig of history and of the old diplomacy's reckless dance with death, British troops have fought in turn against Frenchmen and Germans, against Russians and Austrians, against Bulgarians, Turks and Chinamen, against Boers, and even against Americans, but never, except for a handful of Napoleonic conscripts, against Italians. British and Italian troops, on the other hand, fought side by side in the Crimea, and, in the war which has just ended, have renewed and extended their comradeship in arms in Austria and Italy, in France and in the Balkans.
During the nineteenth century Italy in her Wars of Liberation gained, in a degree which this generation can hardly realise, the enthusiastic sympathy and the moral, and sometimes material, support of all the best elements in the British nation. There were poets—Byron and Shelley, the Brownings, Swinburne and Meredith—who were filled with a passionate devotion to the Italian cause. There were statesmen—Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Gladstone—who did good work for Italian freedom, and Italians still remember that in 1861 the British Government was the first to recognise the new Kingdom of United Italy, while the Governments of other Powers were intriguing to harass and destroy it. There were individual, adventurous Englishmen, such as Forbes, the comrade of Garibaldi, who put their lives and their wealth at the disposal of Italian patriots. But, beyond all these, it was the great mass of the British people which stood steadily behind the Italian people in its long struggle for unity and freedom.
[Footnote 1: Even Tennyson, who was not very susceptible to foreign influences, invited Garibaldi to plant a tree in his garden.]
Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour, "the soul, the sword and the brain," which together created Modern Italy, all had close personal relations with this country. Mazzini, driven from his own land by foreign oppressors, lived a great part of his life in exile among us, and here dreamed those dreams, which still inspire generous youth throughout the world. When Garibaldi visited us in 1864, he was enthusiastically acclaimed by all sections of the nation, by the Prince of Wales, the Peerage and the Poet Laureate, no less than by the working classes. It is recorded that, used as he was, as a soldier, to the roar of battle and, as a sailor, to the roar of the storm, Garibaldi almost quailed before the tumultuous roar of welcome which greeted him as he came out of the railway station at Nine Elms. Cavour was a deep student and a great admirer of British institutions, both political and economic, and in a large measure founded Italian institutions upon them. And the first public speech he ever made was made in London in the English tongue. These great men passed in time from the stage of Italian public life, and others took their places, but amid all the shifting complexities of recent international politics, no shadow has ever fallen across the path of Anglo-Italian friendship. And indeed during the Boer War Italy was the only friend we had left in Europe.
Italy's membership of the Triple Alliance was always subject to two conditions, first, that the Alliance was to be purely defensive, and second, that Italy would never support either of her partners in war against England. Thus, under the first condition, when Austria proposed in 1913 that the Triple Alliance should combine to crush Serbia, victorious but exhausted after the Balkan Wars, Italy at once rejected the proposal. And, under the second condition, as German naval expansion became more and more provocative and threatening to Britain, we were able to transfer nearly all our Mediterranean Fleet to the North Sea, secure in the knowledge that, whatever might befall, we should never find Italy among our enemies.
* * * * *
The part which Italy has played during the war just ended, the great value of her contribution to the Allied cause, and the great sacrifices which that contribution has involved for her, have been often and admirably stated. But I doubt whether, even yet, these things are fully realised outside Italy, and I will, therefore, very shortly state them again.
When war broke out in August 1914, Italy declared her neutrality, on the ground that the war was aggressive on the part of the Central Powers, and that, therefore, the Triple Alliance no longer bound her. By her declaration of neutrality, she liberated the whole French Army to fight in Belgium and North-Eastern France, and rendered our sea communications with the East substantially secure. Bismarck used to say that, under the Triple Alliance, an Italian bugler and drummer boy posted on the Franco-Italian frontier would immobilise four French Army Corps. The Alliance disappointed the expectations of Bismarck's successors.
But if Italy had come in at this time on the German side, she might well have tilted swiftly and irremediably against us that awful equipoise of forces which, once established, lasted for more than four years. There would have been small hope that France, supported only by our small Expeditionary Force and faced with an Italian invasion in the South-East, in addition to a German invasion in the North-East, could have prevented the fall of Paris and the Channel Ports, while Austria, freed from all fear on the Italian frontier, perhaps even reinforced by part of the Italian Army, could have turned all her forces against Russia. Or alternatively, part of the Italian Army might have attacked Serbia through Austrian territory, with the probable result that Rumania and Greece, as well as Bulgaria and Turkey, would have been brought in against us in the first month of the war.
At sea our naval supremacy would have been strained to breaking point by the many heavy tasks imposed upon it simultaneously in widely-separated seas. Our communications through the Mediterranean would, indeed, have been almost impossible to maintain.
Many bribes were offered to Italy at this time by the Central Powers in the hope of inducing her to join them—Corsica, Savoy and Nice, Tunis, Malta, and probably even larger rewards. But Italy remained neutral.
In May 1915 she entered the war on our side, in the first place to free those men of Italian race who still lived outside her frontiers, under grievous oppression, and whom Austria refused to give up to their Mother Country, and, in the second place, because already many Italians realised, as Americans also realised later, that the defeat of the Central Powers was a necessary first step towards the liberation of oppressed peoples everywhere and the building of a better world. Italy entered the war at a time when things were going badly for us in Russia, and looked very menacing in France, and when she herself was still ill-prepared for a long, expensive and exhausting struggle. The first effect of her entry was to pin down along the Alps and the Isonzo large Austrian forces, which would otherwise have been available for use elsewhere.
She entered the war nine months after the British Empire, but her losses, when the war ended, had been proportionately heavier than ours. According to the latest published information the total of Italian dead was 460,000 out of a population of 35 millions. The total of British dead for the whole British Empire, including Dominion, Colonial and Indian troops, was 670,000, and for the United Kingdom alone 500,000. The white population of the British Empire is 62 millions and of the United Kingdom 46 millions. Thus the Italian dead amount to more than 13 for every thousand of the population, and the British, whether calculated for the United Kingdom alone or for the whole white population of the Empire, to less than 11 for every thousand of the population. The long series of Battles of the Isonzo,—the journalists counted up to twelve of them in the first twenty-seven months in which Italy was at war,—the succession of offensives "from Tolmino to the sea," which were only dimly realised in England and France, cost Italy the flower of her youth. The Italian Army was continually on the offensive during those months against the strongest natural defences to be found in any of the theatres of war. On countless occasions Italian heroes went forth on forlorn hopes to scale and capture impossible precipices, and sometimes they succeeded. Through that bloody series of offensives the Italians slowly but steadily gained ground, and drew ever nearer to Trento and Trieste. Only those who went out to the Italian Front before Caporetto, and saw with their own eyes what the Italian Army had accomplished on the Carso and among the Julian Alps, can fully realise the greatness of the Italian effort.
It must never be forgotten that Italy is both the youngest and the poorest of the Great Powers of Europe. Barely half a century has passed since United Italy was born, and the political and economic difficulties of her national childhood were enormous. For many years, as one of her own historians says, she was "not a state, but only the outward appearance of a state." Her natural resources are poor and limited. She possesses neither coal nor iron, and is still partially dependent on imported food and foreign shipping. She is still very poor in accumulated capital, and the burden of her taxation is very heavy.
From the moment of her entry into the war her economic problems became very difficult, especially that of the provision of guns and munitions in sufficient quantities, and the extent to which she solved this last problem is deserving of the greatest admiration. Her position grew even more difficult in 1917. After the military collapse of Russia she had to face practically the whole Austrian Army, instead of only a part of it, and a greatly increased weight of guns. The Austrians had 53 millions of population to draw from, the Italians only 35. Moreover, just before Caporetto, a number of German Divisions, with a powerful mass of artillery and aircraft, were thrown into the Austrian scale, while from the Italian was withdrawn the majority of that tiny handful of French and British Batteries, which were all the armed support which, up to that time, her Allies had ever lent her. Only five British Batteries and a few French were left on the Italian Front. By the defeat of Caporetto she lost a great quantity of guns and stores and practically the whole of her Second Army, while half of Venetia fell into the hands of the enemy, and remained in his possession for a year. The inferiority of the Italian Army to its enemies, both in numbers and in material, was thus sharply increased.
But the Italians held grimly on; they turned at bay on the Piave and in the mountains, and checked the onrush of Austrians and Germans. Then, supported by French and British reinforcements, but still inferior in numbers, they continued for a year longer to hold up almost the whole strength of Austria. That winter the poor were very near starvation in the cities of Italy, and the peasants had to cut down their olive groves for fuel. The following spring part of the French and British reinforcements were withdrawn to France, together with an Italian contingent which numerically balanced the French and British who remained in Italy.
The Austrians also lost their German support and sent some of their own troops to France, but they retained their numerical superiority on the Italian Front. In June they launched a great attack on a seventy-mile front, which was to have made an end of Italy; but the Italians beat them back. Then four months later, after an intense effort of preparation, Italy, still inferior in numbers and material, struck for the last time and utterly destroyed the Austrian Army in the great battle which will be known to history as Vittorio Veneto. The Austrians lost twice as many prisoners and four times as many guns at Vittorio Veneto as they had taken at Caporetto.
The war on the Italian Front was over, the Austrian Army was broken beyond recovery, the Austrian State was dissolving into its national elements, which only tradition, corruption and brute force had for so long held together. Italy, heroic and constant, had endured to the end, and with her last great gesture had both completed her own freedom, and given their freedom to those who had been the instruments of her enemies.
SOME EARLY IMPRESSIONS
FROM FOLKESTONE TO VENICE
On the 6th July, 1917, I arrived at Folkestone armed with a War Office letter ordering my "passage to France for reinforcements for Siege Artillery Batteries in Italy." I had a millpond crossing in the afternoon, and that evening left Boulogne for Modane.
Next morning at 2 a.m. I was awakened from frowsy sleep by a French soldier, laden with baggage, who stumbled headlong into the railway carriage which I was sharing with three other British officers. We were at Amiens. I was last here ten months before, when my Division was coming back from rest to fight a second time upon the Somme. I did not sleep again, but watched the sunrise behind an avenue of poplars, as we passed through Creil, and the woods of Chantilly shining wonderfully in the early morning light. I spent that day in Paris and left again in the evening.
Next morning, the 8th, I awoke at Bourg in High Savoy. Here too the poplar dominates in the valleys. We ran along the shores of Lake Bourget and up the beautiful valley of the Arc in misty rain. We arrived at Modane at 10 a.m., and I was booked through to Palmanova, a new name to me at that time. The train left an hour later and, as we lunched, we passed through the Mont Cenis tunnel and slid rapidly downwards through Alpine valleys, charming enough but less beautiful than those on the French side of the frontier. Very soon it became perceptibly warmer, electric fans were set in motion and ice was served with the wine.
I found that I had six hours to wait at Turin before the train left for Milan. My fleeting impression of Turin was of a very well-planned city, its Corsi spacious and well shaded with trees, its trams multitudinous, its many distant vistas of wooded hills and of the Superga Palace beyond the Po a delight to the eye. But I found less animation there than I had expected, except in a church, where a priest was ferociously declaiming and gesticulating at a perspiring crowd, mostly women, who were patiently fanning themselves in the stifling, unventilated heat. I was an object of interest in the streets, where the British uniform was not yet well known. Some took me for a Russian and some little boys ran after me and asked for a rouble. A group of women agreed that I was Spanish.
The train for Milan goes right through to Venice, so, being momentarily independent of the British military authorities, I decided to spend a few hours there on my way to the Front.
The carriage was full of Italian officers, chiefly Cavalry, Flying Corps and Infantry. It is their custom on meeting an unknown officer of their own or of an Allied Army to stand stiffly upright, to shake hands and introduce themselves by name. This little ceremony breaks the ice. I saw many of them also on the platforms and in the corridor of the train. The majority, especially of their mounted officers, are very elegant and many very handsome, and they have those charming easy manners which are everywhere characteristic of the Latin peoples.
Nearly all Italian officers speak French. In their Regular Army French and either English or German are compulsory studies, and a good standard of fluent conversation is required. In these early days my Italian was rather broken, so we talked mostly French. At Milan all my companions except one got out, and a new lot got in. But I was growing sleepy, and after the formal introductions I began to drowse.
* * * * *
I woke several times in the night and early morning, and, half asleep, looked out through the carriage window upon wonderful sights. A railway platform like a terrace in a typical Italian garden, ornate with a row of carved stone vases of perfect form, and vines in festoons from vase to vase, and dark trees behind, and then a downward slope and little white houses asleep in the distance. This I think was close to Brescia. Then Desenzano, and what I took to be the distant glimmer of Lake Garda under the stars. Verona I passed in my sleep, having now crossed the boundary of Lombardy into Venetia, and Vicenza and Padua are nothing from the train. At Mestre, the junction for the Front, all the Italian officers got out, and I went on to Venice.
Except for three British Naval officers I was, I think, the only foreigner there, and a priest, whom I met, took me for an American. Everything of value in Venice, that could be, was sandbagged now for fear of bombs, and much that was movable had been taken away. I spent three hours in a gondola on the Grand Canal and up and down the Rii, filled with a dreamy amazement at the superb harmonies of form and colour of things both far away and close at hand. And even as seen in war-time, with all the accustomed life of Venice broken and spoiled, the spaciousness of the Piazza S. Marco, and the beauty of the buildings that stand around it, and at night the summer lightnings, and a rainstorm, and a cafe under the colonnade, where music was being played, will linger always in my memory. All the big hotels were closed now, or taken over by the Government as offices or hospitals, and the gondolas lay moored in solitary lines along the Grand Canal, and even the motor boats were few and, as a waiter said to me, "no one has been here for three years, but the people are very quiet and no one complains."
FROM VENICE TO THE ISONZO FRONT
I left Venice next morning by the 5.55 train, and reached Palmanova at half-past ten. As one goes eastward by this railway, there is a grand panorama of hills, circling the whole horizon; to the north and north-east the Carnic Alps and Cadore, their highest summits crowned with snow even in the full heat of summer; eastward the Julian Alps, beyond the Isonzo, stretching from a point north of Tolmino, down behind the Carso, almost to Fiume in the south-east; and yet further round the circle to the southward the mountains of Istria, running behind Trieste and its wide blue gulf, whose waters are invisible from this railway across the plain.
Of Palmanova I will write again. This was the Railhead and the Ammunition Dump for the British Batteries. I stayed there that day scarcely an hour, and then went on by motor lorry to Gradisca, the Headquarters of "British Heavy Artillery, Italy." Here I lunched and was well received by the Staff, who were expecting no reinforcements and were astonished at my coming. It was decided, after some discussion, to attach me temporarily to a Battery which had one officer in hospital, slightly wounded by shrapnel. I continued my journey in another motor lorry after lunch. Gradisca lies on the western bank of the Isonzo, which is crossed close by at Peteano by a magnificent broad wooden bridge, the work of Italian engineers. Gradisca had not been badly damaged, the Austrians having made no great resistance here against the Italian advance in May 1915, but Peteano had been laid absolutely flat by Austrian twelve-inch guns. It had been utterly destroyed in half an hour's intense bombardment some months before, and many Italian hutments in the neighbourhood had been destroyed at the same time.
Within sight of this bridge, at a distance of a quarter of a mile, is the confluence of the Vippacco with the Isonzo. From this point the road follows the Vippacco to Rubbia, the Headquarters of Colonel Raven, who commanded the Northern Group of British Batteries. which I was now joining. The five Batteries of this Group, known as "B2," were all in positions on or near the Vippacco, firing on the northern edge of the Carso, and eastward along the river valley. The southern Group, "B1," were on the Carso itself and operating chiefly against the famous Hermada, a position of tremendous natural strength, directly covering Trieste. B2 had the more comfortable and better-shaded positions, but B1, though their guns were among the rocks and in the full heat of the sun, were in easy reach of the sea, and had a Rest Camp at Grado among the lagoons.
Raven's Group, B2, formed part of an Italian Raggruppamento, or collection of Groups, under the command of a certain Sicilian Colonel named Canale, a dapper little man who generally wore white gloves, even in the front line. He was a fearless and capable officer and did all in his power for the comfort of our Batteries.
From Rubbia I drove in a car to the Battery. As I left the Group Headquarters, a number of wooden huts at the foot of the wooded slopes of Monte San Michele, which rise upwards from the road, I went under the railway which in peace-time connects Gorizia with Trieste. It is useless now, being within easy range of the Austrian guns, which have, moreover, broken down the high stone bridge on which the line crosses the Vippacco. A young Sicilian Sergeant accompanied me as a guide and pointed out Gorizia, some six miles away to the north, a widely-scattered town, very white in the sunlight, lying at the foot of high hills famous in the history of the war on this Front, Monte Sabotino, Monte Santo, Monte San Gabriele, of which there will be more for me to say hereafter.
The gun positions of my new Battery were situated just outside the little village of Pec, inhabited mostly by Slovene peasantry before the war, now all vanished. The village had been much shelled, first by Italian and then by Austrian guns, and there was not a house remaining undamaged, though several had been patched up as billets and cookhouses by British troops. Another of our Batteries had their guns actually in the ruins of the village, but ours were alongside a sunken road, leading down to the Vippacco. The guns themselves were concealed in thick bowers of acacias, the branches of which had been clipped here and there within our arc of fire. I doubt if anywhere, on any Front, a British Battery occupied a position of greater natural beauty. The officers' Mess and sleeping huts were a few hundred yards from the guns, right on the bank of the Vippacco, likewise hidden from view and shaded from the sun by a great mass of acacias, a luxuriant soft roof of fresh green leaves. Our Mess, indeed, had no other roof than this, for there was seldom any rain, and, as we sat at meals, we faced a broad waterfall, a curving wall of white foam, stretching right across the stream, which was at this point about seventy or eighty yards wide. Innumerable blue dragon-flies flitted backwards and forwards in the sunlight. Though the weather was warm, it was less hot than usual at this time of year, and the surroundings of our Mess reminded me vividly of Kerry. In the first days that followed I could often imagine myself back in beautiful and familiar places in the south-west corner of Ireland. Only Italian gunners coming and going, for several of their Battery positions were close to ours, and the Castello di Rubbia across the water, slightly but not greatly damaged, broke this occasional illusion.
These Italians took us quite for granted now, and that evening I began to learn about their Front. Things were pretty quiet at present on both sides, but greater activity was expected soon. I made the acquaintance of Venosta, an Italian Artillery officer attached to the Battery. He was from Milan, a member of a well-known Lombard family, and had a soft and quiet way with him and a certain supple charm. At ordinary times he preferred to take things easily, and was imperturbable by anything which he thought unimportant. But in crises, as I learned later on, he could show much calm resource and energy.
* * * * *
I woke next morning to the sound of the Vippacco waterfall, and the following day I got my first real impression of this part of the Italian Front. The Battery was doing a registration shoot and I went up in the afternoon with our Second-in-Command to an O.P. on the top of the Nad Logem to observe and correct our fire. It was a great climb, up a stony watercourse, now dry, and then through old Austrian trenches, elaborately blasted in the Carso rock and captured a year ago. The Nad Logem is part of the northern edge of the Carso, and from our O.P. a great panorama spread out north, east and west, with the sinuous Vippacco in the foreground, fringed with trees. From here I had pointed out to me the various features of the country. The play of light and shade in the distance was very wonderful. Our target that afternoon was a point in the Austrian front line on a long, low, brown hill lying right below us, known officially as Hill 126. The Austrians some days before had sent us an ironical wireless message, "We have evacuated Hill 94 and Hill 126 for a week so that the British Batteries may register on them." They evidently knew something of our whereabouts and our plans!
Coming back we stopped at the foot of a hill on which stands the shell-wrecked monastery of San Grado di Merna, a white ruin gaunt against the darker background of the Nad Logem. Here a new Battery position was being prepared for us, only three hundred yards behind the Austrian front line, but admirably protected by the configuration of the ground from enemy fire. An Italian drilling machine was at work here, operated by compressed air, drilling holes in the rock for the insertion of dynamite charges, and, by means of gradual blasting, gun pits and cartridge recesses and dug-outs were being created in the stubborn rock. Here a heavy thunderstorm broke and we sheltered in the Headquarters of an Italian Field Artillery Brigade, likewise blasted out of the mountain side. I returned with Venosta. I asked him to show me the famous Bersagliere trot, and by way of illustration we doubled along the road for about half a mile. On the British Front the spectacle of two officers thus disporting themselves for no apparent reason would have caused much remark and amusement. But the Italians, whom we passed, seemed to see nothing remarkable in our behaviour. They are, perhaps, more tolerant of eccentricity than we are.
It may be of interest at this point to say a few words about some of the special characteristics of the Italian Army. Every modern Army has adopted a distinctive colour for its war-time uniform, chosen with a view to minimising visibility. Thus we wear khaki, the French horizon-blue, the Germans field-grey. The Italians have adopted an olive colour, commonly spoken of as "grigio-verde," or grey-green.
The various Italian Corps, Regiments and Brigades wear distinctively coloured collars on their tunics which, except in the case of the Arditi, fit closely round the neck. For example, the Granatieri, or Grenadiers, who both in their high physical standards and military prestige resemble our own Guards Battalions, wear a collar of crimson and white. The colour of the Artillery is black with a yellow border, that of the Engineers black with a red border. Of the Infantry, the Alpini collars are green and the Bersaglieri crimson, the bands of colour being shaped in each case like sharp-pointed flames turning outwards. For this reason the Alpini are often called the "fiamme verdi," or green flames, and the Bersaglieri "fiamme rosse," or red flames. The Infantry Brigades of the line, who bear local names,—the Avellino Brigade, the Como Brigade, the Lecce Brigade and so forth,—have each their distinctively coloured collars.
These local names mean very little, for, as a matter of policy, men from all parts of Italy are mixed indiscriminately together in each Brigade. The Parma Brigade, for example, will contain only a few men from Parma, and them by chance. One of the objects of this policy is to help to break down those regional barriers, which still linger owing to historical causes, between different districts of Italy. It is often remarked that men from many parts of Italy know more of foreign countries than of other parts of their own country, and most of the numerous local dialects are hardly intelligible to men who live far from the districts where they are spoken. Ordinary Italian, which is in fact the local dialect of Rome, is, as it were, the lingua franca of the whole country, but the great majority of Italians speak not only Italian but one, or sometimes several, local dialects, and the latter are used by all classes in their own homes. Some of these dialects differ widely from Italian. In many remote districts some of the peasants cannot speak Italian at all.
The Alpini and the two Sardinian Brigades, Cagliari and Sassari, are exceptions to the rule mentioned above. The Alpini are in peace-time recruited entirely from the men who dwell in the Alps, though I believe that during the present war a certain number of men from the Apennines have also been included in Alpini Battalions. The Alpini are specially used for warfare in the mountains. They wear in their hats a single long feather. Closely attached to the Alpini are the Mountain Artillery, armed with light guns of about the same calibre as our own twelve-pounders. They too are recruited from the mountaineers and wear the Alpino hat and single feather. The Alpini have a magnificent regimental spirit and, in my judgment, are the equals of any troops in the world.
The Cagliari and Sassari Brigades, two of the best in the Italian Army, are composed entirely of Sardinians. When in the front line they use the Sardinian dialect on the telephone. Even if the Austrians succeed, by means of "listening sets," in overhearing them, it hardly matters, for it is not likely that anyone in the Austrian front line will understand!
The Bersaglieri, another famous Italian Regiment, are recruited from all parts of Italy, but only from men of high physical fitness. They correspond roughly to the Light Infantry of other Armies, and always drill and march to a very quick step, even when carrying machine guns on their shoulders. Their hats decked with a mass of green cocks' feathers are familiar in illustrations. The Bersagliere Cyclist Companies, used for scouting purposes, form part of the Regiment. The Bersagliere undress cap is a red fez with a blue tassel.
The Arditi, or Assault Detachments, correspond to the German Sturmtruppen. They were instituted in the Italian Army in 1917. They also consist of picked men, and undergo a special training to accustom them to bomb-throwing at close quarters and to other incidents of the assault. In the course of this training casualties often occur. Only young unmarried men of exceptionally good physique can become Arditi. They are only used in actual attacks and never for the purpose of merely holding trenches. They therefore spend a large part of their time behind the lines and receive, I believe, extra pay and rations. They are armed with rifles and pugnali, or small daggers, and wear a low-cut tunic, with a black knottie and a black fez. On each lapel of their tunic they wear two black flames, similar to the crimson flames on the collars of the Bersaglieri. They are, therefore, known as "fiamme nere," or black flames.
A large proportion of Arditi are Sicilians, and their fighting quality is very high. Certain detachments of Bersaglieri are also classified as Assault Detachments and wear low-cut tunics like the Arditi.
The Italian Mountain and Field Artillery are excellent; their Heavy Artillery is handicapped, in comparison with ours, by its smaller ammunition supply and fewer opportunities for prolonged practice, but its methods are scientific and its personnel very keen and capable. The Italian Engineers have done much wonderful work, to which I shall refer later.
THE WAR ON THE ISONZO FRONT
From Monte Nero to the Adriatic the distance is, in a straight line, some 35 miles. Allowing for the curves of the actual line, the length of Front is between 40 and 50 miles. This portion of the Italian and Austrian lines is commonly spoken of as the Isonzo Front. It is not like the Front in the higher Alps, where, as on the Adamello, trenches are cut in the solid ice, where the firing of a single gun may precipitate an avalanche, where more Italians are killed by avalanches than by Austrians, where guns have to be dragged up precipices and perched on ledges fit only, one might think, for an eagle's nest, where food, ammunition, reinforcements, wounded and sick have all to travel in small cages attached to wire ropes, slung from peak to peak above sheer drops of many thousand feet, where sentries have to stand rigidly stationary, so as to remain invisible, and have to be changed every ten minutes owing to the intense cold, where Battalions of Alpini charge down snow slopes on skis at the rate of thirty miles an hour, where refraction and the deceiving glare of the snow make accurate rifle fire impossible even for crack shots,—the Isonzo Front is not so astounding and impossible a Front as this, but it is yet a very different Front from any on which British troops are elsewhere fighting in this war.
It is a country with a strange beauty of its own; it is, in its own measure, rough and mountainous, and it is within sight of other and loftier mountains to the north-west. At my first view of it I remembered a speech of Carlo, the hero of Meredith's Vittoria, concerning Lombard cities away on the other side of the Trentino, "Brescia under the big Eastern hill which throws a cloak on it at sunrise! Brescia is always the eagle's nest that looks over Lombardy! And Bergamo! You know the terraces of Bergamo. Aren't they like a morning sky? Dying there is not death; it's flying into the dawn. You Romans envy us. You have no Alps, no crimson hills, nothing but old walls to look on while you fight. Farewell, Merthyr Powys...." To me those words were always recurring on the Italian Front. "Dying here is not death; it's flying into the dawn." I would have liked to have them engraved on my tombstone, if Fate had set one up for me in this land, whose beauty casts a spell on all one's senses.
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The Isonzo Front is divided into two parts by the Vippacco river, which flows roughly from east to west and joins the Isonzo at Peteano. Of these two parts the northern is three times as long as the southern. The northern part was held by the Italian Second Army, under General Capello, the southern by the Italian Third Army, under the Duke of Aosta. In the north the Isonzo runs through a deep ravine, with Monte Nero rising on its eastern side. Monte Nero is some 6800 feet high. The Alpini took it by a marvellous feat of mountain warfare in the first year of the war. South of Monte Nero, also on the east bank of the river, lies the town of Tolmino, the object of many fierce Italian assaults, but not yet taken. Here the Isonzo bends south-westward and continues to flow through a deep ravine past Canale and Plava, with the Bainsizza Plateau rising on its eastern bank. This Plateau is of a general height of about 2400 feet, and is continued south-eastward by the Ternova Plateau, rising to a general height of about 2200 feet. Bending again towards the south-east, the Isonzo flows out into the Plain of Gorizia. Here stand Monte Sabotino and Monte Santo, the western and eastern pillars of this gateway leading into the lower lands. East of Monte Santo, along the southern edge of the Plateau, stand Monte San Gabriele and Monte San Daniele. Here the Plateau falls precipitously down to the Vippacco valley, only the long brown foothill of San Marco breaking the drop.
Gorizia has scattered suburbs: Salcano to the north, in the very mouth of the gorge, the fashionable suburb in days before the war; Podgora to the west, on the other side of the Isonzo, industrial. The Isonzo Front was the only possible field for an Italian offensive on a great scale, and the possession of the Carso, of the Bainsizza and Ternova Plateaus and of Monte Nero are as essential to the future security of the Venetian Plain as the possession of the Trentino itself. The frontiers of northern and north-eastern Italy were drawn according to the methods of the old diplomacy after the war of 1866, when Bismarck, seeking to keep Austria neutral in the next war on his schedule, that with France, willingly sacrificed the interests of his Italian Allies. For half a century Lombardy and Venetia have lived under the continual threat of an Austrian descent from the mountains, both from the Trentino, thrust like a wedge into the heart of Northern Italy, and across the Isonzo from the east. Nor has this threat been remote. When Italy was plunged in grief at the time of the Messina earthquake, the Austrian General Staff almost persuaded their Government that the moment had come to strike her down into the dust, and recover Lombardy and Venetia for Francis Joseph and Rome for the Pope. And so to-day an Italian Army fighting on the Isonzo Front fights in continual danger of having its line of communications cut by an Austrian offensive from the Trentino.
The population of the Trentino is indisputably Italian. East of the Isonzo the people are mainly Italian in the towns and mainly Slovene in the country districts. It has been the deliberate policy of the Austrian Government to plant new Slovene colonies here from time to time and to render life intolerable for Italians. But, even so, the population is still sparse, and all the country is infertile, except for the Vippacco Valley, which, though wretchedly cultivated hitherto, would richly repay the application of capital and modern methods. Here, I think, is a clear case where strategic considerations, which are definite, must prevail over racial considerations, which are dubious. These lands must be Italian after the war, if, with even the dimmest possibility of war remaining, Italians are to have peace of mind. Nor does a strong defensive frontier for Italy here imply a weak defensive frontier for her eastern neighbours. For the tangle of mountains continues for many miles further east.
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Venosta told me that, when they took San Michele in July 1916, the Italians lost 7000 in killed alone, seasoned soldiers of their old Army, whom it has been hard to replace. But when San Michele fell, they swept on and took Gorizia and all the surrounding plain at one bound, and, in the same offensive, Monte Sabotino. This victory has a special significance in modern Italian history, for it was the first time that an Army composed of men from all parts of United Italy fought a pitched battle against a great Army of Austria, Italy's secular enemy and oppressor. Monte Cucco and Monte Vodice were taken in the offensive of May 1917, and here, as at Monte Nero, the Alpini performed feats of arms which, to soldiers accustomed to fighting on the flat, must seem all but incredible. In one case twenty Alpini climbed up a sheer rock face at night by means of ropes, and leaping upon the Austrian sentries killed and threw them over the cliff without a sound, so that, when the main body of Alpini, climbing by hardly less difficult paths, reached the summit, they took the Austrian garrison in the rear and by surprise, and the heights were theirs.
Monte Santo was still Austrian when I came, though the Italians held trenches half-way up. On the summit the white ruins of a famous convent were clearly visible. Here some of the bloodiest Infantry fighting of the whole war took place in May 1917. The Italians were on the top once in the full flood of that offensive, but could not hold it. Four gallant Battalions charged up those steep slopes only to find that the Artillery preparation had been insufficient and that the convent wall had not been destroyed. Austrians poured out from deep caverns in the rock, where they had taken refuge during the bombardment, and threw down bombs from the top of the wall upon the Italians below. For these there was no way round and no question of retreat, so they all died where they stood, struggling to climb a wall thirty feet high, clambering upon one another's shoulders.
South of the Vippacco we held the Volconiac and Dosso Faiti, but not Hill 464, though this had been taken and lost again, nor yet the hills further east, nor any of the northern foothills of the Carso, except Hill 123. To the south again the Hermada had proved a great and bloody obstacle.
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Three striking characteristics of the warfare on this Front impressed themselves upon my mind—first, the shortage of ammunition; second, the enormous natural strength of all the Austrian positions; third, the work of the Italian Engineers.
Judged by the standards of warfare in France and Flanders, both Italians and Austrians were very short of ammunition. For Italy, a young and poor country, possessing neither coal nor iron and thrown largely on her own resources for manufacturing munitions of war, this was no matter of surprise. It was astonishing that the Italian Artillery was so well supplied as it was. But, to bring out the contrast, one may note that, whereas in Italy "fuoco normale" for Siege Artillery was six rounds per gun per hour, in France at this time a British Siege Battery's "ordinary" was thirty rounds per gun per hour. And one may note further that the number of Siege Batteries on a given length of Front in France was, even at this time, more than four times as great as the corresponding number on the Italian Front. The Austrians to some extent made up for their small quantity of guns and shells by a high proportion of guns of large calibre. Their twelve-inch howitzers were disagreeably numerous. It resulted, however, that neither Italians nor Austrians could afford to indulge in continuous heavy bombardments, such as were the rule in France. There was here on neither side a surplus of shell to fire away at targets of secondary importance, and therefore there was less destruction than in France of towns and villages near the lines. Ammunition had to be accumulated for important occasions and important targets. Thus battles were still separate and distinct in Italy, with perceptible intervals of lull, less apt than in France to become one blurred series of gigantic actions. So too counter-battery work on a great scale was not practised on either side out here, partly for reasons of ammunition supply, and partly for technical reasons connected with the nature of the ground. For in a good caverna one was perfectly safe, though outside high explosive produced not only its own natural effect, but also a shower of pieces of rock, thus combining the unpleasant characteristics of high explosive and shrapnel. One of our gunners had his ribs broken by a blow from a large piece of rock, though standing three hundred yards away from where the shell burst. But often after a heavy bombardment it was found that the enemy had been sitting quietly in caverne, ready to emerge with his machine guns when the attacking Infantry advanced. Aeroplanes also were less numerous than in France. And, when I arrived, gas was not much employed on either side.
In the second place, I was deeply impressed with the natural strength of the Austrians' positions. Almost everywhere they held high ground. On no other Front in this war have stronger positions been carried by assault than San Michele, Sabotino, Cucco, Vodice, Monte Nero, and, in the end, Monte Santo. No one who has not seen with his own eyes the heights which Italian Infantry have conquered, backed by no great Artillery support, can realise the astounding things which the Italians have performed. The Italian Infantry have died in masses, with high hearts and in the exaltation of delirium, crumpled, rent and agonised, achieving the impossible.
And in the third place I would say something of the work of their Engineers. Italian Engineers are famous all the world over, but they have done nothing more magnificent than their swift building of innumerable roads, broad and well-laid and with marvellously easy gradients, both in these inhospitable and undeveloped border lands beside the Isonzo, and along the whole mountain Front. They have made possible troop movements and a regular system of supply under the most difficult conditions. It is a work worthy of the descendants of the old Romans, who by their road building laid the foundations of civilisation throughout Western Europe. And only second to their road making, I would place the work of the Italian Engineers in blasting caverne and gun positions and trenches in the rock, an invaluable and unending labour.
We British Gunners spent our first Italian summer in khaki drill tunics and shorts and Australian "smasher hats." When these hats were first issued, one Battery Commander declared them to be "unsoldierly" in appearance and asked for permission to return them to the Ordnance. But this was not allowed. The men stood the heat well, though at the beginning, before they had got accustomed to the change of climate, there was some dysentery. I myself, a few days after my arrival and before I had a smasher hat, had a touch of the sun and lay about all day cursing the flies. But next day I was all right again.
[Footnote 1: Next summer the introduction of mustard gas made it unsafe to leave our knees uncovered.]
Our rations at this time were a special Anglo-Italian blend; less meat, bacon, cheese and tea than in the British ration, but macaroni, rice, coffee, wine and lemons from the Italian. It was a good ration and no one suffered from eating a little less meat than at home. In order to check the spread of dysentery, it was ordered by the medical authorities that no meat was to be eaten at midday.
We were not doing a great deal of firing when I came, though we had always to be prepared to come suddenly and quickly into action, especially at night. Most of our prearranged daylight shoots were observed from an O.P. in a ruined house at S. Andrea, on the plain just outside Gorizia, where one had a fine view southwards of the Tamburo and of the whole boundary ridge of the Carso from Dosso Faiti to the Stoll. Observation was beautifully easy on these high hills and in this clear air. What worlds away is this country with its wonderful cloudless sunshine from the dismal flat lands of the Western Front! Said one enthusiast of ours, "This is a gunner's heaven!" The Austrians fancied, I think, that we had our O.P. in Vertoiba, which is north of S. Andrea, for they shelled this frequently, but S. Andrea seldom. They shelled Vertoiba heavily, I remember, all one afternoon, while I was on duty at S. Andrea and while the Italian Staff were present in large numbers for two hours to watch our shooting. I remember thinking what a fine bag they would have got if they had lifted about four hundred yards! The Italian Staff were always most complimentary and enthusiastic over the work of our Batteries.
We had taken part in the Italian May offensive, the results of which had been claimed by the Daily Mail, with characteristic good taste and sense of proportion, as a "great Anglo-Italian victory." Our part had been more justly described by General Cadorna, who in a special Order of the Day had said that "amid the roar of battle was clearly heard the voice of British guns," and in his summary of the results of this offensive, which lasted from May 12th to May 30th, after remarking that the number of Austrians taken prisoners was 23,681 men and 604 officers, and that, in addition, at least 100,000 Austrians had been put out of action, continued as follows, "Our brave Infantry fought indefatigably for eighteen days, without pause and without proper food supplies, on difficult ground, in almost mid-summer heat, impetuous in attack and tenacious in defence. Most effective at all times was the fraternal co-operation of the Artillery, Siege, Field or Mountain, one Field Battery not hesitating to push right up to the firing line. Excellent help, too, was lent by ten Batteries of medium calibre of the British Army and by the guns of the Italian Navy."
Cadorna had inspected our Batteries soon after their arrival in Italy, and we had been visited and officially welcomed on behalf of the Italian Government by the Minister Bissolati, perhaps the most vivid and vital personality in Italian politics, and a wise counsellor, whose advice has more than once been disastrously ignored.
[Footnote 1: From the outbreak of war in August 1914, Bissolati strongly advocated Italian intervention on the side of the Allies. When Italy declared war, he enlisted in the ranks of the Alpini, although over military age, was decorated for valour and seriously wounded. He then became Minister for Military Supplies, and acted as a connecting link between the Cabinet at Rome and the High Command.]
Addressing at Pec detachments from a number of British Batteries on the 29th of May, Bissolati had said: "Officers and men of the British Force, I bring you the greetings of the Italian Government and the thanks of the Italian people. I greet you not only as an Italian Minister, but as a comrade in arms, for I consider it the greatest privilege of my life to have been in this war a soldier like yourselves. Our hearts beat with joy to see you here, because there is no Italian, however humble his station, who does not know how great is the debt of Italy to Britain for the brotherly help afforded her during the tragic vicissitudes of the glorious story of her Resurrection. We all remember how your fathers helped to create the Italian nation.... To-day we find ourselves fighting side by side in the same campaign, we to redeem this territory from the Austrian yoke, you to maintain the liberty of your national existence from the German menace, both of us, moreover, to set the whole world free from the peril of falling under the dominion of that race, hard in temper as a granite rock, which finds in the Austro-Hungarian Empire a willing ally in its rapes and aggressions. I am here, then, to thank you, not only as an Italian, but as a man, and I am filled with joy at the thought that the British, even as the Italians, are showing themselves to be, now as always, the champions of justice, and the defenders of liberty and right. The sacrifices which we are making together, the mingling of our blood upon the battlefield, will render even stronger the agelong, traditional friendship between our two nations.
"Viva l'Inghilterra! Viva l'Italia!"
During my first month in Italy I lived a nomadic life. I was only "attached" to a Battery, and really nobody's child. July 17th to 22nd I spent at Palmanova in charge of an Artillery fatigue party which was helping the Ordnance to load and unload ammunition, and from August 2nd to 10th I was in charge of another working party of gunners at Versa, a fly-bitten, dusty little village, which our medical authorities had stupidly selected as a site for a Hospital, though there were many suitable villas in more accessible and agreeable places not far away. But in this first month I was lucky in being able to multiply and vary my impressions of the Eastern Veneto.
* * * * *
I rode down to Palmanova from Gradisca on a motor lorry. What a country! The white houses, the white roads, the masses of fresh green foliage, chiefly acacias, the tall dark cypresses, the cool blue water of the Isonzo, the blue-grey mountains in the distance, and on their summits the sunshine on the snow, which is hardly distinguishable from the low-lying cloud banks in an otherwise cloudless sky.
Italian troops, dusty columns marching along the road, throw up at me an occasional greeting as the lorry goes by. Long lines of transport pass continually. "Sempre Avanti Savoia!" "Sempre Avanti Italia!" I find my eyes wet with tears, for the beauty and the glory and the insidious danger of that intoxicating war-cry; for the blindness and the wickedness and the selfish greed that lurk behind it, exploiting the generous emotions of the young and brave; for the irony and bitter fatuity of any war-cry in a world that should be purged of war.
* * * * *
And so I came to Palmanova to supervise the loading of shell, in the company of Captain Shield and another Ordnance officer. Shield had travelled much and mixed with Italians on the borders of Abyssinia. He told me that with no other European race were our relations in remote frontier lands more harmonious. They and we have, he said, a perfect code of written and unwritten rules to prevent all friction. He told me, too, of a young Englishman out there, quite an unimportant person, who had a bad attack of sun-stroke and whose life was in great danger. The only hope was to get him through quickly to the coast, and the shortest road lay through Italian territory. So application was made to the Italian authorities for a right of passage, which they not only granted, but mapped out his route for him, for it was difficult country and unfamiliar to our people, and sent a guide, and had a mule with a load of ice waiting for him at every halting-place along the road, and so saved his life, treating him with as much consideration and tenderness as they could have been expected to show to a member of their own Royal Family.
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Palmanova lies just within the old Italian frontier, a little white town surrounded by a moat, which in summer is quite dry, and by grassy ramparts shaped like a star. It was first fortified by the Venetian Republic four hundred years ago, and again by Napoleon. It can be entered only through one of three gates, approached by bridges across the moat, from the north, south-east and south,—the Udine Gate, the Gradisca Gate and the Maritime Gate. Each gate is double, so that you pass through a small square court, almost like a well, and at each gate you can see the remains of an old portcullis and drawbridge. Each is topped by two slender towers, and is wide enough to allow only one vehicle to pass at a time, and at each there is a guard of Carabinieri in their grey lantern-hats, to stop and examine all questionable traffic.
From the ramparts you can see the Carnic and the Julian Alps, sweeping round the Venetian plain in a great half circle. To the north the mountains seem to rise sheer out of green orchards and maize fields, but to the east there is a gradual slope of less fertile uplands, where the Austrians in the first days of war on this Front would not face the onrush of the Italians in the open, but fell back hurriedly to the more difficult country behind. At night all the inhabitants sit out on the ramparts, talking of the hot weather and the war, and watching the searchlights winking on the hills.
In the centre of the town is a large Piazza, planted round with myrtles which smell strong and sweet in the sun, and at midday an old woman sets up a stall here and sells the newspapers of Rome and Milan, Bologna and Venetia. In one corner of this Piazza is a restaurant, where one can play billiards and dine well and cheaply. A youth serves here who has been rejected for the Army because of defective eyesight. He speaks a little French and a little German and a very little English, and in moments of excitement words from all these languages come tumbling out together, mixed up with Italian. He has, I am sure, an Italian-English phrase book, which he consults hurriedly in the kitchen, for, whenever he sets a new course before one, he shoots out some carefully prepared and usually quite irrelevant sentence, and watches eagerly to see if one understands. In another corner of the Piazza stands a campanile with a peal of those absurd little jangling bells, which are among the most characteristic charms of Italy. Down a side street is the Albergo Rosa d'Oro, where for a week I was billeted. The padrone, a little round man, is always smiling. He thinks the war will last three years more and seems pleased at the prospect, for the town and the district round are full of soldiers, and he must be making great profits. But his wife, when one speaks of the war, says "it must end soon; we must go on hoping that it will end soon."
The station, where my fatigue party worked, lies outside the town. When the Austrians provoked war in 1914, they had special trains waiting here to carry away the Italian troops who, they hoped, would go and fight for them against the Russians,—a poor fool's dream! In normal times it must be a quiet place with little traffic. But now there is continual movement, Infantry going up to the front line and often waiting for hours at the station, and other Infantry coming back to rest, goods trains of enormous length passing through, motor lorries loading and discharging, driven very skilfully though sometimes very recklessly, horse and mule transport in great variety, both military and civilian, some of the horses wearing straw hats with two holes for the ears, and carts drawn by stolid, slow-moving oxen. With all this coming and going, and with a temperature of over a hundred degrees in the shade, the Albergo della Stazione does a great trade in iced drinks!
I made the acquaintance of two families in this town. At Signor Lazzari's any British officer was always welcome after dinner for music and talk and light refreshments. An Italian General was billeted there and two or three Italian officers of junior rank. A Corporal with a magnificent voice, an operatic singer before the war, came in to sing one night, and a Private from his Battalion played his accompaniment. In Italy, as in France, the art of conversation and a keen joy in it, are still alive, perhaps because Bridge is still almost unknown. Signor Lazzari's handsome and charming daughter was an admirable hostess.
At Signor Burini's I was also most hospitably received and drank some very excellent champagne. I used to talk to his three little girls in the evenings on the ramparts. Signor Burini's mother remembered Garibaldi's visit to Palmanova in 1867, the year after Venetia was liberated from the Austrian yoke and added to United Italy. She was speaking of this one evening to Shield and he said, "It rained very heavily that day, didn't it?" Whereat the old lady, much astonished and evidently suspecting him of some uncanny gift of second sight, replied that indeed it did. But the truth was that he had been reading an account of this historic occasion in a local guide book, which related that, just as Garibaldi came out on a balcony to address the crowd, a heavy thunderstorm broke and the Hero of the Two Worlds only said, "You had all better go home out of the rain."
* * * * *
It can still rain at Palmanova.
One day while I was there the temperature rose to 105 degrees in the shade, but in the evening a cool breeze stirred the dust and I sat outside the Albergo Rosa d'Oro, talking with various passers-by. About nine o'clock bright lightning began to fill the sky, but, as yet, no rain. And then about eleven, just after I had gone to bed, came a tremendous drenching thunderstorm and a great whirlwind. And then, very suddenly, all became quiet again, save for the rain-water pouring off the roofs into the street below.
AQUILEIA AND GRADO
On July 22nd, the day before I returned from Palmanova to my Battery, Shield and I and two lorryloads of men made an expedition in the afternoon to Aquileia and Grado. Aquileia, at the height of the old Roman power, was a great and important city, on the main road eastwards from the North Italian plain. It was destroyed and sacked by Attila and his Huns in the year 452, and again in 568 by Alboin and his Lombards. It was the fugitives from Aquileia and the neighbouring towns, who, taking refuge in the lagoons along the coast, founded upon certain mudbanks in the fifth century the city which was destined to be Venice. And it was at Grado in the year 466 that the foundations of Venetian constitutional history were laid by the election of tribunes to govern the affairs of the community inhabiting the lagoons.
The two chief features of Aquileia to-day are a museum of Roman antiquities, which I had not time to visit, and a large church, with a bare interior, but with a magnificent eleventh century mosaic floor, one of the best examples of its kind in Italy. The interior of the church was decorated with flowers in shell cases, to signify its reconquest by the Italians, who intend to make here a great national memorial when the war is over. Beside the church, at its eastern end, stood a glorious group of very tall cypresses, one of the best groups I have ever seen, and opposite the western entrance was a charming little avenue of young cypresses, planted since the reconquest. We stayed for half an hour at Aquileia and then went on to Grado.
* * * * *
On the way Shield told me the story of how the British Batteries came to Italy. Our own War Office, as the habit of the tribe is, had wrapped the whole thing up in mystery, and the Batteries were christened "the British Mission" to a destination secret and unnamed. Passing through the South of France and up the Arc Valley to the frontier, with the gunners sitting on their guns in open trucks in the sunshine, the trains were loudly cheered by the French who, in that part of the country, had seen few of the sights of war. Once in Italy the official attempts at mystification mystified nobody. The engine-drivers at Modane hoisted Union Jacks on their engines and kept them flying all the way. Everyone knew who we were and where we were going, and at every station where the trains stopped there were official welcomes and immense crowds cheering like mad. At Turin our guns were wreathed in flowers and at Verona the station staff presented a bouquet to the General, on whose behalf Shield made a suitable reply in Italian.
* * * * *
Grado lies on several islands, in its own lagoons. The Austrians were developing it, in a haphazard way, as a watering-place before the war, and there are several large hotels and the beginnings of a Sea Front. The canals are filled with fishing boats with brown sails, which seldom put to sea now for fear of mines.
One approaches Grado by a steamer which starts from a little cluster of houses on the mainland known as Belvedere, and takes one down a long channel through a maze of 'wooded islands, one of which is now the Headquarters of an Italian Seaplane Squadron. The islands are thickly clothed with tamarisks and pollarded acacias and stone pines, and are reputed to be somewhat malarial. There is a long beach at Grado, where all the world bathes, and the water is deliciously warm, with a bottom of hard sand. Lying in the water, I could see right round the Gulf of Trieste as far as Capodistria, and straight opposite to me lay Trieste, the Unredeemed City of Italy's Desire, very clear against a background of hills. Through glasses I could even distinguish the trams running in her streets. I could easily fancy her scarcely a mile away across that sheet of blue sunlit sea. Thus must she often have appeared to Italians fighting and dying by sea and land to reach her, who remained ever just out of reach.
A GRAMOPHONE AND A CHAPLAIN ON THE CARSO
The Battery moved up to its new position on the edge of the Carso on the night of July 25th. The guns were drawn by Italian tractors. It was a long business getting the guns out of their gun pits, as we had not much room for turning, and a still longer one getting them into the new pits, after unhooking the tractors, down a steep slope and round two right-angle turns. Owing to our nearness to the front line no lights could be used and the night was darker than usual. For hours the gun detachments were at work with drag ropes, lowering, guiding and hauling, and the monotonous cry, that every Siege Gunner knows so well, "On the ropes—together—heave!" went echoing round those rocks till 2 a.m. next morning.
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This new position of ours was only three hundred yards from the Austrians, though we had between us and them the river Vippacco and a high hill, a spur of that on which the ruined monastery of S. Grado di Merna stood. The trenches here ran on either side of the Vippacco. An Italian Trench Mortar Battery had been here before us and, it was said, had been shelled out. But our gun pits, blasted out of the hillside, were almost completely protected against hostile fire, except perhaps from guns on S. Marco, which might, with a combination of good luck and good shooting, have got us in enfilade. Only howitzers capable of employing high-angle fire could usefully occupy such a position, and, as it was, our shells could not clear the crest except at pretty large elevations. It resulted that we could not hit any targets within a considerable distance of the Austrian front line, but this, we were told, did not matter. We were here, we were informed, "for a special purpose" and for action against distant targets only. There was an orchard on the flat just behind our guns, a little oasis of fertility in that barren land, and wooden crosses marking the graves of some of the Italian Trench Mortar Gunners, who had preceded us.
Italian Field Artillery were in position all around us, and were firing a good deal by night. For the first few nights, with their guns popping off all round, and with blasting operations in full swing, an almost continuous echo travelled round and round the stony hillsides and made me dream that I was sleeping beside a stormy sea breaking in endless waves on a rocky coast. Blasting was going on all day and all night in this neighbourhood. One of our officers was walking one morning on the back of the Carso, out of view of the enemy and anticipating no danger, save the stray shell which is always and everywhere a possibility in the war zone, when suddenly the face of an Italian bobbed up from behind a rock with the warning, in English, "Now shoots the mine!" and disappeared again. The Englishman ran for his life and took shelter behind the same rock, and a few seconds later there was a heavy explosion, filling the air with flying fragments, unpleasantly jagged.
Our officers' Mess and sleeping huts were about two hundred yards from the guns and a little higher up the hill, just above one of the magnificent newly-made Italian war roads, along which supplies went up to Hills 123 and 126 and the Volconiac and Dosso Faiti. Just outside our huts and opening on to the road was a broad, natural terrace, with a fine view backwards over the plain. Several times, during our first week in this position, the Austrians shelled a British Battery at Rupa about a mile in rear of us and an Italian Battery alongside it. It was very hot and dry and they had been given away by the huge clouds of dust raised by the blast of their guns firing. The Austrians shelled them with twelve-inch and nine-four-fives, getting magnificent shell bursts, which some of us photographed, great columns of brown-black smoke, rising mountains high, in the shape of Prince of Wales' feathers, and hanging for about ten minutes in the still air. But very little damage was done, and after a short interval both Batteries opened fire again.
From this terrace of ours we had fine views of fighting in the air. On August 2nd we saw an Austrian plane brought down by two Italians, who dived down upon him from above, firing at him with machine guns as they swept past him. The Austrian, who was flying high, gradually seemed to lose his head and hesitate in what direction to fly, then he began to turn over and over, recovered for a moment, but finally lost all control and came down nose first into his own trenches, just across the river. Another evening, about ten o'clock, a whole squadron of Austrian planes came over, flying in regular formation and signalling to one another with Morse lamps. They were going, it appeared, to bomb Gradisca. They were heavily shelled by the "archies" as they came over us, and several fragments of shell fell on our terrace. The night sky was full of starry shell-bursts, and a dozen of our searchlights fussily got busy. Then suddenly all our artillery, as it seemed, began to go off, and for about five minutes there was a deafening burst of fire from guns of all calibres. And then all grew suddenly quiet again. Perhaps it was a raid, perhaps only the fear of one.
One day an Italian plane dropped some booklets into the Austrian trenches, and some were blown back into our own lines. They contained photographs of Austrian prisoners of war in Italian camps, very contented apparently, and explanations in German, Magyar and various Slav tongues, showing "men who yesterday were living from hour to hour in peril of death, now waiting happily and calmly in perfect safety for the war to end, when they shall return to their homes to embrace once more their wives and little children. Here you will be able to recognise many of your friends." A good propaganda to induce desertions and surrenders! The Italians generally had the mastery over the Austrians in the air. Their machines, and especially their Capronis, could always be distinguished from the Austrians' by the deeper hum of their engines.
Venosta had a gramophone, which played most evenings after dinner on the terrace, chiefly marches and martial music and Italian opera. Italy's Libyan war, whatever else may be said of it, has produced one magnificent marching song, "A Tripoli," which deserves to live for ever. Fine, too, even on the gramophone, are the "March of the Alpini," the "March of the Bersaglieri" and the famous "Garibaldi's Hymn." I met an English doctor once, who had heard this last played in Rome on some great occasion with some of the old Garibaldian veterans in their red shirts marching in front of the band. He had felt a lump in his throat that day, he said. When Venosta's gramophone played, the Italians encamped near by clustered round the edge of the terrace in obvious enjoyment, and sometimes one or two would dash indignantly down the road to stop limbers and carts, which were making a rattle on the stones.
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Our Mess was a great centre for visitors, both English and Italian, we being at this time the British Battery in the most advanced and interesting position. Among our visitors, especially on Sundays, was a Chaplain, whom I will call Littleton, who used to conduct our Church Parades. In the British Army, and I believe in most others, the principle of compulsory religious observance is still intermittently enforced, when it does not interfere with the still more important business of fighting. I liked Littleton very much in many ways, but sometimes he infuriated me. He was lunching with us one day and describing how for some months in France, during some murderous fighting, he was attached to an Infantry Battalion. "I have never in my life enjoyed myself more," he said, "than during those months." I could not help asking, "What did you enjoy, seeing the poor devils getting hit?" I told him afterwards that I knew he did not really delight in spectacles of agony and bloodshed, but that "enjoy" seemed to me an unfortunate word to use.
On another occasion I attended, in the capacity of Orderly Officer for the day, one of Littleton's Church Parades and heard him preach. It was clear that he was troubled by a suspicion that the war and the details of its development had discredited in some minds some of the ideas of which he was the professional exponent. He made a brave struggle, however, against this tide of unreason. "God does not make things too easy for us," he explained, "He gives us the opportunities, and if we choose not to use them, that is our fault. A loving father sets up a tremendously high standard for his son, and judges him severely, not in spite of, but because of, his love for him. In God's sight, three or four years of war may be tremendously worth while."
Then we sang a hymn. I felt inclined to sing instead a song, written by a soldier who was wounded in France:—
"The Bishop tells us, 'when the boys come back They will not be the same; for they'll have fought In a just cause: they led the last attack On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought New right to breed an honourable race. They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.' 'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply. For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind; Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die; And Bert's gone syphilitic; you'll not find A chap who served there hasn't found some change.' And the Bishop said 'The ways of God are strange!"
It was hard for such a limited intelligence as mine, especially in this unending Italian sunshine, to imagine that it could seriously be worth while to burn down a whole real world, in order to roast a probably imaginary pig. I found it very hard to believe, with the Chaplains, that the war was purifying everyone's character, and I was particularly sceptical as regards some of the elderly non-combatants who were unable to realise at first hand "the Glory of the Great Adventure."
A FRONT LINE RECONNAISSANCE
Every day, in our Group, some officer carried out a Front Line Reconnaissance. This officer was chosen in rotation from the Group Headquarters and the various Batteries. Colonel Raven, our Group Commander, often carried out these Reconnaissances himself. Of all British officers at this time serving in Italy, he had, I think, the greatest understanding of the Italians. He had travelled in Italy in peace-time and had studied Italian history. He fully appreciated the difficulties against which the Italian Army had to contend, and its military achievements in spite of them. He enjoyed social intercourse with Italians, and his invariable and slightly elaborate courtesy was, in an Englishman, remarkable. For, as Mazzini once said, an Englishman's friendship, when once secured, holds very firm, but it is manifested more by deeds than by words. But Colonel Raven had the gift of sympathetic imagination, and he had also in full measure the Allied spirit.
The purpose of these Reconnaissances was twofold: first, to report on matters of military importance, any notable activity by the enemy, the direction and nature of hostile fire upon our trenches, the effects of our own fire, when not otherwise ascertainable, the precise position on the map, especially after any action, of our own and of the enemy's lines, including saps, advanced posts and the like; second, to maintain a real contact and spirit of comradeship with the Italian Infantry and to seek to give them confidence in the efficiency and promptitude of British Artillery support. Under the first head, valuable information was frequently brought back, and under the second I believe that, so far at least as our Group was concerned, the personal relations between the Artillery and the Infantry were exceptionally good. Hardly ever did we receive complaints that our guns were firing short, though such complaints are often made, and often quite groundlessly, when the Infantry lack confidence in the Artillery behind them.
At one time thin-skinned persons among us used to complain that Italians who passed them on the roads used to call out "imboscato!" Imboscato is a term very frankly used in the Italian army, generally though not necessarily as a term of reproach. It corresponds with the French "embusque," one who shelters in a wood, for which we in English have no precise equivalent. It is used by an Italian to indicate one who runs, or is thought to run, less risk of death than the speaker. It is chiefly used of men in the non-combatant services or in posts well behind the fighting front, including the Higher Staff and especially the junior ranks attendant on them. It is used also in jest by Italian patrols going out at night into No Man's Land, of their comrades, whom they leave behind in the front line trenches. Personally I was never called an imboscato, nor were any of my brother gunners, except once or twice when riding in side-cars or motors miles in rear of our guns. And to Infantry marching along dusty roads under an Italian sun there is something very irritating in a motor car dashing past, with its occupants reclining in easy positions, its siren hideously shrieking, and blinding dust-clouds rising in its wake.
German propaganda was insidiously active in Italy throughout the war, and spread many lying stories with the object of discrediting the British. Among these was one, the details of which do not matter now, concerning the fact that only British Artillery, and no British Infantry, had at that time been sent to Italy. Our Reconnaissances, involving our visible and daily presence among the gallant succession of Italian Brigades, who held the blood-stained line on the Carso and across the valley of the Vippacco, were the most fitting reply which we could make to German propaganda.
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I made my first Front Line Reconnaissance on July 27th, two days after we had moved forward to our new Battery position. That day I visited the trenches on the Volconiac, starting in the early afternoon and getting back at nightfall. I took with me as a guide a young Italian gunner, a Neapolitan by birth, who had been a waiter in an Italian restaurant in New York before the war. He had been in the Austrian offensive of 1916 in the Trentino, where all the guns of his Battery had been lost and nearly all his comrades killed or captured.
From the Battery position we followed the road behind Hill 123, up a glorious valley, whose sides were thickly wooded with pines, gradually thinning under the destruction wrought by Austrian shell fire and the Italian military need for timber. The only other vegetation here was a little coarse grass. On the lee side of Hill 123, sheltered from Austrian fire, was a whole village of wooden huts, admirably constructed, capable of housing several Battalions. At the head of the valley, the road, a good example of the war work of the Italian Engineers, turned sharply up the hillside, securing tolerable gradients by means of constant zigzags—tolerable that is to say for men on foot and for pack mules, for wheeled transport could not proceed beyond this point. It was a steep climb and I perspired most visibly right through my thin tunic. Three-quarters of the way up we stopped and got a drink of water from the Infantrymen in charge of the water barrels. There are no springs or streams on the Volconiac or on Dosso Faiti. All water has to be pumped up from below through pipes, and at the point where we rested, water barrels were being continually filled from the pipes and then hauled on by hand, on sleighs, for the remainder of the ascent. Water was also carried up from this point by individual soldiers in the fiaschi, or glass bottles encased in plaited straw, in which Italian wine is sold.
Just below the crest we entered the trenches, which were held at this time by the Florence Brigade. The construction of these trenches was very interesting. They were all blasted in the rock, and many drilling machines were at work as I passed along them, increasing the number of caverne, or dug-outs, and deepening those already in existence. Here and there, where the trenches were rather shallow, they were built up with loose rocks and sandbags filled with stones.
One of my objects was to get a view of the Austrian trenches and barbed wire on the Tamburo, in order to observe from closer quarters than was possible from any of our O.P.'s the effects of our recent bombardments, and to verify or disprove a report that certain new defensive works were being constructed by the enemy at night. Our own trenches here were on a higher level than the enemy's, and the bottom of the valley between the Tamburo and this part of the Volconiac was in No Man's Land, as was a relatively short slope on the Tamburo and a relatively long slope on the Volconiac. The latter slope was very steep, but thickly clothed with pines, most of which were now shattered by shell fire into mere dead stumps. Even these stumps, however, made it difficult to get an uninterrupted view of the Tamburo, and I had to go some miles along the trenches, gazing through numerous peepholes, before I reached a point from which I could satisfy myself that our bombardments had been effective and that the reported new works were indeed real. Having got this information, I smoked a pipe and talked with an Italian company commander in a rocky dug-out, and then started to return.