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|Geplaatst: 02 Mei 2009 22:31 Onderwerp: 'Fighting on the Roof of Europe'
|An American Journalist in Italy
The sun had scarcely shown itself above the snowy rampart of the Julian Alps when the hoarse throbbing of the big gray staff-car awoke the echoes of the narrow street on which fronts the Hotel Croce di Malta in Udine. Despite a leather coat, a fur-lined cap, and a great fleecy muffler which swathed me to the eyes, I shivered in the damp chill of the winter dawn. We adjusted our goggles and settled down into the heavy rugs, the soldier-driver threw in his clutch, the sergeant sitting beside him let out a vicious snarl from the horn, the little group of curious onlookers scattered hastily, and the powerful car leaped forward like a race-horse that feels the spur. With the horn sounding its hoarse warning, we thundered through the narrow, tortuous, cobble-paved streets, between rows of old, old houses with faded frescoes on their plastered walls and with dim, echoing arcades. And so into the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele — there is no more charming little square in Italy — with its fountain and its two stone giants and the pompous statue of an incredibly ugly King astride a prancing horse and a monument to Peace set up by Napoleon to commemorate a treaty which was the cause of many wars. At the back of the piazza, like the back-drop on a stage, rises a towering sugar-loaf mound, thrown up, so they say, by Attila, that from it he might conveniently watch the siege and burning of Aquileia. Perched atop this mound, and looking for all the world like one of Max-field Parrish's painted castles, is the Castello, once the residence of the Venetian and Austrian governors, and, rising above it, a white and slender tower. If you will take the trouble to climb to the summit of this tower you will find that the earth you left behind is now laid out at your feet like one of those putty maps you used to make in school.
Below you, like a vast tessellated floor, is the Friulian plain, dotted with red-roofed villages, checkerboarded with fields of green and brown, stretching away, away to where, beyond the blue Isonzo, the Julian and Carnic Alps leap skyward in a mighty, curving, mile-high wall. You have the war before you, for amid those distant mountains snakes the Austro-Italian battle-line. Just as Attila and his Hunnish warriors looked down from the summit of this very mound, fourteen hundred years ago, upon the destruction of the Italian plain-towns, so to-day, from the same vantage-point, the Italians can see their artillery methodically pounding to pieces the defenses of the modern Huns. A strange reversal of history, is it not?
Leaving on our right the Palazzo Civico, built two-score years before Columbus set foot on the beach of San Salvador, we rolled through the gateway in the ancient city wall, acknowledging the salute of the steel-helmeted sentry just as the mail-clad knights who rode through that same gateway to the fighting on the plain, long centuries ago, doubtless acknowledged the salute of the steel-capped men-at-arms. Down the straight white road we sped, between rows of cropped and stunted willows, which line the highway on either side like soldiers with bowed heads. It is a storied and romantic region, this Venetia, whose fertile farm-lands, crisscrossed with watercourses, stretch away, flat and brown as an oaken floor, to the snowy crescent of the Alps. Scenes of past wars it still bears upon its face, in its farmhouses clustered together for common protection, in the stout walls and loopholed watch-towers of its towns, record of its warlike and eventful past.
One must be prosaic indeed whose imagination remains unstirred by a journey across this historic plain, which has been invaded by Celts, Istrians, and Romans; Huns, Goths, and Lombards; Franks, Germans, and Austrians in turn. Over there, a dozen miles to the southward, lie the ruins of Aquileia, once one of the great cities of the western world, the chief outpost fortress of the Roman Empire, visited by King Herod of judea, and the favorite residence of Augustus and Diocletian. These fertile lowlands were devastated by Alaric and his Visigoths and by Attila and his Huns — the original Huns, I mean. Down this Very highroad tramped the legions of Tiberius on their way to give battle to the Illyrians and Pannonians. Here were waged the savage conflicts of the Guelphs, the Ghibellines, and the Scaligers. Here fought the great adventurer, Bartolommeo Colleoni; in the whitewashed village inn of Campo Formio, a far greater adventurer signed a treaty whereby he gave away the whole of this region as he would have given away a gold- piece; half a century later Garibaldi and his ragged redshirts fought to win it back.
For mile after mile we sped through a countryside which bore no suggestion of the bloody business which had brought me. So far as war was concerned, I might as well have been motoring through New England. But, though an atmosphere of tranquillity and security prevailed down here amid the villages and farmsteads of the plain, I knew that up there among those snow-crowned peaks ahead of us, musketry was crackling, cannon were belching, men were dying. But as we approached the front — though still miles and miles behind the fighting-line — the signs of war became increasingly apparent: base camps, remount depots, automobile parks, aviation schools, aerodromes, hospitals, machine-shops, ammunition-dumps, railway sidings chock-a- block with freight-cars and railway platforms piled high with supplies of every description. Moving closer, we came upon endless lines of motor-trucks moving ammunition and supplies to the front and other lines of motor-trucks and ambulances moving injured machinery and injured men to the repair-depots and hospitals at the rear.
We passed Sicilian mule-carts, hundreds upon hundreds of them, two-wheeled, painted bright yellow or bright red and covered with gay little paintings such as one sees on ice cream venders' carts and hurdy-gurdies, the harness of the mules studded with brass and hung with scarlet tassels. Then long strings of donkeys, so heavily laden with wine- skins, with bales of hay, with ammunition-boxes, that all that could be seen of the animals themselves were their swinging tails and wagging ears. We met convoys of Austrian prisoners, guarded by cavalry or territorials, on their way to the rear. They looked tired and dirty and depressed, but most prisoners look that. A man who has spent days or even weeks amid the mud and blood of a trench, with no opportunity to bathe or even to wash his hands and face, with none too much food, with many of his comrades dead or wounded, with a shell-storm shrieking and howling about him, and has then had to surrender, could hardly be expected to appear high-spirited and optimistic. Yet it has long been the custom of the Allied correspondents and observers to base their assertions that the morale of the enemy is weakening and that the quality of his troops is deteriorating on the demeanor of prisoners fresh from the firing-line.
Ambulances passed us, travelling toward the hospitals at the base, and sometimes wounded men, limping along on foot. The heads of some were swathed in blood-stained bandages, some carried their arms in slings, others hobbled by with the aid of sticks, for the Italian army is none too well supplied with ambulances and those who are able to walk must do so in order that the places in the ambulances may be taken by their more seriously wounded fellows. They were dog-tired, dirty, caked with mud and blood, but they grinned at us cheerfully — for were they not beating the Austrians ? Indeed, one cannot look at Italian troops without seeing that the spirit of the men is high and that they are confident of victory.
Now the roads became crowded, but never blocked, with troops on the march: infantry of the line, short, sturdily built fellows wearing short capes of greenish gray and trench- helmets of painted steel; Alpini, hardy and active as the goats of their own mountains, their tight-fitting breeches and their green felt hats with the slanting eagle's feather making them look like the chorus of Robin Hood; Bersaglieri, the flower of the Italian army, who have preserved the traditions of their famous corps by still clinging to the flat- brimmed, rakish hat with its huge bunch of drooping feathers; engineers, laden like donkeys with intrenching, bridging, and mining tools; motor-cycle despatch riders, leather-jacketed and mud-bespattered, the light-horsemen of modern war; and, very occasionally, for their hour for action has not yet come, detachments of cavalry, usually armed with lances, their helmets and busbies linen-covered to match the businesslike simplicity of their uniform.
About the Italian army there is not much of the pomp and circumstance of war. It is as businesslike as a blued-steel revolver. In its total absence of swagger and display it is characteristic of a nation whose instincts are essentially democratic. Everything considered, the Italian troops compare very favorably with any in Europe. The men are for the most part shortish, very thick-set, and burned by the sun to the color of a much- used saddle. I rather expected to see bearded, unkempt fellows, but I found them clean- shaven and extraordinarily neat. The Italian military authorities do not approve of the poilu. Though the men are laden like pack-mules, they cover the ground at a surprisingly smart pace, while special corps, such as the Bersaglieri and the Alpini, are famous for the fashion in which they take even the steepest acclivities at the double. I was told that, though the troops recruited in the North possess the most stamina and endurance, the Neapolitans and Sicilians have the most élan and make the best fighters, these sons of the South having again and again advanced to the assault through storms of fire which the colder-blooded Piedmontese refused to face.
It is claimed for the Italian uniform that it is at once the ugliest and the least visible of any worn in Europe. "Its wearer doesn't even make a shadow," a friend of mine remarked. The Italian military authorities were among the first to make a scientific study of colors for uniforms. They did not select, for example, the "horizon blue" adopted by the French because, while this is less visible on the roads and plains of a flat, open, sunlit region, it would prove fatally distinct on the tree-clad mountain slopes where the Italians are fight- ing. The color is officially described as gray-green, but the best description of it is that given by a British officer: "Take some mud from the Blue Nile, carefully rub into it two pounds of ship-rat's hair, paint a roan horse with the composition, and then you will understand why the Austrians can't see the Italian soldiers in broad daylight at fifty yards." Its quality of invisibility is, indeed, positively uncanny.
While motoring in the war zone I have repeatedly come upon bodies of troops resting beside the road, yet, so marvellously do their uniforms merge into the landscape that, had not my attention been called to them, I should have passed them by unnoticed. The uniform of the Italian officer is of precisely the same cut and apparently of the same material as that of the men, and as the former not infrequently dispenses with the badges of rank, it is often difficult to distinguish an officer from a private. The Italian officers, particularly those of the cavalry regiments, have always been among the smartest in Europe, but the gorgeous uniforms which, in the happy, carefree days before the war, added such brilliant notes of color to the scenes on the Corso and in the Cascine, have been replaced by a dress which is as simple as it is serviceable.
The Italian Government has a stern objection to wasteful or unnecessary expenditure, and all the costly and superfluous trimmings so dear to the heart of the military have been ruthlessly pruned. But economy is not insisted upon at the expense of efficiency. Nothing is refused or stinted that is necessary to keep the soldiers in good health or that will add to the efficiency of the great fighting-machine. But the war is proving a heavy financial strain for Italy and she is determined not to waste on it a single soldo more than she can possibly help.
On the French and British fronts staff-officers are constantly dashing to and fro in motor- cars on errands of more or less importance. But you see nothing of that sort in the Italian war zone. The Comando Supremo can, of course, have all the motor-cars it wants, but it discourages their use except in cases of necessity. The officers are instructed that, whenever they can travel by railway without detriment to the interests of the service, they are expected to do so, for the trains are in operation to within a few miles of the front and with astonishing regularity, whereas tires and gasolene cost money. Returning at nightfall from the front to Udine, we were nearly always stopped by officers — majors, colonels, and once by a general — who would ask us to give them a lift into town. It has long been the fashion among foreigners to think of Italians, particularly those of the upper class, as late-rising, easy-going, and not particularly in love with work — a sort of dolce far niente people.
But the war has shown how unsafe are such generalizations. There is no harder worker on any front than the Italian officer. Even the highest staff-officers are at their desks by eight and frequently by seven. Though it is easier to get from the Italian front to Milan or Florence than it is to get from Verdun to Paris, or from the Somme to London, one sees little of the week-end travelling so common on the British front. Officers in the war zone are entitled to fifteen days' leave of absence a year, and from this rule there are no deviations.
Through the mud we came to the Judrio, which marked the line of the old frontier. We crossed the river by a pontoon bridge, for the Austrians had destroyed the other in their retreat.
"We are in Austria now, I suppose?" I remarked. "In Italia Redenta," my companion corrected me. "This region has always been Italian in everything but name, and now it is Italian in name also." The occupation by the Italian troops, at the very outset of the war, of this wedge of territory between the Judrio and the Isonzo, with Monfalcone, Cervignano, Cormons, Gradisca — old Italian towns all — did much to give the Italian people confidence in the efficiency of their armies and the ability of their generals.
Now the roads were filled with the enormous equipment of an army advancing. Every village swarmed with gray soldiers. We passed interminable processions of motor- lorries, mule-carts, trucks, and wagons piled high with hay, lumber, wine-casks, flour, shells, barbed wire; boxes of ammunition; pontoon-trains, balloon outfits, searchlights mounted on motor-trucks, wheeled blacksmith shops, wheeled post-offices, field- kitchens; beef and mutton on the hoof; mammoth howitzers and siege guns hauled by panting tractors; creaking, clanking field-batteries, and bright-eyed, brown-skinned, green-caped infantry, battalions, regiments, brigades of them plodding along under slanting lines of steel. All the resources of Italy seemed crowding up to make good the recent gains and to make ready for the next push. One has to see a great army on the march to appreciate how stupendous is the task of supplying with food the hungry men and the hungrier guns, and how it taxes to the utmost all the industrial resources of a nation.
Under all this traffic the roads remained hard and smooth, for gangs of men, with scrapers and steam-rollers were at work everywhere repairing the wear and tear. This work is done by peasants, who are too old for the army, middle-aged, sturdily built fellows who perform their prosaic task with the resignation and inexhaustible patience of the lower-class Italian. They are organized in companies of a hundred men each, called centurias, and the company commanders are called (shades of the Roman legions!) centurions. Italy owes much to these gray-haired soldiers of the pick and shovel who, working in heat and cold, in snow and rain, and frequently under Austrian fire, have made it possible for the armies to advance and for food to be sent forward for the men and ammunition for the guns.
When this war is over Italy will find herself with better roads, and more of them, than she ever had before. The hundreds of miles of splendid highways which have been built by the army in the Trentino, in the Carnia, and in Cadore will open up districts of extraordinary beauty which have hitherto been inaccessible to the touring motorist. The Italians have been fortunate in having an inexhaustible supply of road-building material close at hand, for the mountains are solid road metal and in the plains one has only to scratch the soil to find gravel. The work of the road-builders on the Upper Isonzo resembles a vast suburban development, for the smooth white highways which zigzag in long, easy gradients up the mountain slopes are bordered on the inside by stone-paved gutters and on the outside, where the precipice falls sheer away, by cut guard-posts. So extensive and substantial are these improvements that one instinctively looks for a real- estate dealer's sign: "This beautiful lot can be yours for twenty-five dollars down and ten dollars a month for a year." Climbing higher, the roads become steeper and narrower and, because of the heavy rains, very highly crowned, with frequent right-angle and hair- pin turns. Here a skid or a side-slip or the failure of your brakes is quite likely to bring your career to an abrupt and unpleasant termination. To motor along one of these military mountain highways when it is slippery from rain is as nerve-trying as walking on a shingled roof with smooth-soled shoes. At one point on the Upper Isonzo there wasn't enough room between our outer wheels and the edge of the precipice for a starved cat to pass.
Now we were well within the danger zone. I knew it by the screens of woven reeds and grass matting which had been erected along one side of the road in order to protect the troops and transport using that road from being seen by the Austrian observers and shelled by the Austrian guns. Practically all of the roads on the Italian side of the front are, remember, under direct observation by the Austrians. In fact, they command everything. Everywhere they are above the Italians. From the observatories which they have established on every peak they can see through their powerful telescopes what is transpiring down on the plain as readily as though they were circling above it in an airplane. As a result of the extraordinary advantage which the Austrians enjoy in this respect, it has been found necessary to screen certain of the roads not only on both sides but above, so that in places the traffic passes for miles through literal tunnels of matting. This road masking is a simple form of the art of concealment to which the French have given the name "camouflage," which has been developed to an extraordinary degree on the Western Front. That the Italians have not made a greater use of it is due, no doubt, to the wholly different conditions under which they are fighting.
Now the crowded road that we were following turned sharply into a narrow valley, down which a small river twisted and turned on its way to the sea. Though the Italian positions ran along the top of the hill slope just above us, and though less than a thousand yards away were the Austrian trenches, that valley, for many miles, was literally crawling with men and horses and guns. Indeed it was difficult to make myself believe that we were within easy range of the enemy and that at any instant a shell might fall upon that teeming hillside and burst with the crash that scatters death.
Despite the champagne-cork popping of the rifles and the basso prof undo of the guns, it was a scene of ordered, yes, almost peaceful industry which in no way suggested war but reminded me, rather, of the Panama Canal at the busiest period of its construction (I have used the simile before, but I use it again because I know none better), of the digging of the New York subway, of the laying of a transcontinental railway, of the building of the dam at Assuan. Trenches which had recently been captured from the Austrians were being cleared and renovated and new trenches were being dug, roads were being repaired, a battery of monster howitzers was being moved into ingeniously concealed positions, a whole system of narrow-gauge railway was being laid down, enormous quantities of stores were being unloaded from wagons and lorries and neatly stacked, soldiers were building great water-tanks on stilts, like those at railway sidings, giant shells were being lowered from trucks and flat-cars by means of cranes; to the accompaniment of saws and hammers a city of wooden huts was springing up on the reverse slope of the hill as though at the wave of a magician's wand.
As I watched with fascinated eyes this scene of activity, as city idlers watch the laborers at work in a cellar excavation, a shell burst on the crowded hillside, perhaps five hundred yards away. There was a crash like the explosion of a giant cannon-cracker; the ground leaped into flame and dust. A few minutes afterward I saw an ambulance go tearing up the road.
"Just a chance shot," said the staff-officer who accompanied me. "This valley is one of the few places on our front which is invisible to the Austrian observers. That's why we have so many troops in here. The Austrian aviators could spot what is going on here, of course, but our fliers and our anti-aircraft batteries have been making things so hot for them lately that they're not troubling us much. That's the great thing in this game — to keep control of the air. If the Austrian airmen were able to get over this valley and direct the fire of their guns we wouldn't be able to stay here an hour."
My companion had thought that it might be possible to follow the road down the valley to Monfalcone and the sea, and so it would have been had the weather continued misty and rainy. But the sun came out brightly just as we reached the beginning of an exposed stretch of the road; an Austrian observer, peering through a telescope set up in a monastery on top of a mountain ten miles away, caught sight of the hurrying gray insect which was our car; he rang up on the telephone a certain battery and spoke a few words to the battery commander ; and an instant later on the road along which we were travelling Austrian shells began to fall. Shells being expensive, that little episode cost the Emperor-King several hundred kronen, we figured. As for us, it merely interrupted a most interesting morning's ride.
Leaving the car in the shelter of a hill, we toiled up a steep and stony slope to a point from which I was able to get an admirable idea of the general lay of Italy's Eastern Front. Coming toward me was the Isonzo- — a bright blue stream the width of the Thames at New London — which, happy at escaping from its gloomy mountain defile, went rioting over the plain in a great westward curve. Turning, I could catch a glimpse, through a notch in the hills, of the white towers and pink roofs of Monfal-cone against the Adriatic's changeless blue. To the east of Monfalcone rose the red heights of the Carso, the barren limestone plateau which stretches from the Isonzo south into Istria. And beyond the Carso I could trace the whole curve of the mountains from in front of Trieste up past Gorizia and away to the Carnia. The Italian front, I might add, divides itself into four sectors: the Isonzo, the Carnia and Cadore, the Trentino, and the Alpine.
Directly below us, not more than a kilometre away, was a village which the Austrians were shelling. Through our glasses we could see the effects of the bombardment as plainly as though we had been watching a football game from the upper tier of seats in the Yale Bowl. They were using a considerable number of guns of various calibers and the crash of the bursting shells was almost incessant. A shell struck a rather pretentious building, which was evidently the town hall; there was a burst of flame, and a torrent of bricks and beams and tiles shot skyward amid a geyser of green-brown smoke. Another projectile chose as its target the tall white campanile, which suddenly slumped into the street, a heap of brick and plaster. Now and again we caught glimpses of tiny figures — Italian soldiers, most likely — scuttling for shelter.
Occasionally the Austrians would vary their rain of heavy projectiles with a sort of shell that went bang and released a fleecy cloud of smoke overhead and then dropped a parcel of high explosive that burst on the ground. It was curious to think that the guns from which these shells came were cunningly hidden away in nooks and glens on the other side of that distant range of hills, that the men serving the guns had little if any idea what they were firing at, and that the bombardment was being directed and controlled by an officer seated comfortably at the small end of a telescope up there on a mountain top among the clouds. Yet such is modern war. It used to be one of the artillerist's tenets that his guns should be placed in a position with a "commanding" range of view. But nowadays guns "command" nothing. Instead they are tucked away in gullies and leafy glens and excavated gun-pits, and their muzzles, instead of frowning down on the enemy from an eminence, stare. blindly skyward from behind a wall of hills or mountains.
The Italians evidently grew tired of letting the Austrians have their way with the town, for presently some batteries of heavy guns behind us came into action and their shells screamed over our heads. Soon a brisk exchange of compliments between the Italian and Austrian guns was going on over the shattered roofs of the town. We did not remain overlong on our hillside and we were warned by the artillery officer who was guiding us to keep close to the ground and well apart, for, were the Austrians to see us in a group, using maps and field-glasses, they probably would take us for artillery observers and would send over a violent protest cased in steel.
On none of the European battle-fronts is there a more beautiful and impressive journey than that from Udine up to the Italian positions in the Carnia. The Carnia sector connects the Isonzo and Trentino fronts and forms a vital link in the Italian chain of defense, for, were the Austrians to break through, they would take in flank and rear the great Italian armies operating on the two adjacent fronts. West of the Carnia, in Cadore, the Italians are campaigning in one of the world's most famous playgrounds, for, in the days before the Great War, pleasure-seekers from every corner of Europe and America swarmed by the tens of thousands in the country round about Cortina and in the enchanted valleys of the Dolomites. But now great grav guns are emplaced in the shady glens where the honey-mooners used to stroll; on the terraces of the tourist hostelries, where, on summer afternoons, men in white flannels and women in dainty frocks chattered over their tea, now lounge Italian officers in field uniforms of gray; the blare of dance music and the popping of champagne corks has been replaced by the blare of bugles and the popping of rifles.
If you have ever gone, in a single day, from the sunlit orange groves of Pasadena up to the snow-crowned peaks of the Coast Range, you will have as good an idea as I can give you of the journey from the Isonzo up to the Carnia. Down on the Carso the war is being waged under a sky of molten brass and in summer the winds which sweep that arid plateau are like blasts from an open furnace-door. The soldiers fighting in the Carnia, on the other hand, not infrequently wear coats of white fur to protect them from the cold and to render them invisible against the expanses of snow. When I was on the Italian front they told me an incident of this mountain warfare. There was desperate fighting for the possession of a few yards of mountain trenches and a half-battalion of Austrian Jaegers — nearly five hundred men — were enfiladed by machine-gun fire and wiped out. That night there was a heavy snowfall and the Austrian corpses sprawled upon the mountainside were soon buried deep beneath the fleecy flakes. The long winter wore along, the war pursued its dreary course, to five hundred Austrian homes the Austrian War Office sent a brief message that the husband or son or brother had been "reported missing." Then the spring came, the snow melted from the mountainsides, and the horrified Italians looked on the five hundred Austrians, frozen stiff, as meat is frozen in a refrigerator, in the same attitudes in which they had died months before.
With countless hair-pin, hair-raising turns, our road wound upward, bordered on one hand by the brinks of precipices, on the other by bare walls of rock. It was a smooth road, splendidly built, but steep and terrifyingly narrow — so narrow in places that it was nothing more than a shelf blasted from the sheer face of the cliff. Twice, meeting motor- lorries downward bound, we had to back along that narrow shelf, with our outer wheels on the brink of emptiness, until we came to a spot where there was room to pass. It was a ticklish business.
At one point a mountain torrent leaped from the cliff into the depths below. But the water- power was not permitted to go to waste; it had been skilfully harnessed and was being used to run a completely equipped machine-shop where were brought for repair everything from motor-trucks to machine-guns. That was one of the things that impressed me most — the mechanical ability of the Italians. The railways, cable - ways, machine - shops, bridges, roads, reservoirs, concrete works that they have built, more often than not in the face of what would appear to be unsurmountable difficulties, prove them to be a nation of engineers.
Up to the heights toward which we were climbing so comfortably and quickly in a motor- car there was before the war, so I was told, nothing but a mule-path. Now there is this fine military road, so ingeniously graded and zigzagged that two-ton motor-trucks can now go with ease where before a donkey had difficulty in finding a footing. When these small and handy motor-trucks come to a point where it is no longer possible for them to find traction, their loads are transferred to the remarkable wire-rope railways, or tele]ericas, as they are called, which have made possible this campaign in cloudland. Similar systems are in use, all over the world, for conveying goods up the sides of mountains and across chasms. A wire rope running over a drum at each side of the chasm which has to be crossed forms a double line of overhead railway. Suspended on grooved wheels from this overhead wire are "cars" consisting of shallow iron trays about the length and width of coffins, one car going up as the other comes down. The floors of the cars are perforated so as to permit the draining off of water or blood — for men wounded in the mountain fighting are frequently brought down to the hospitals in them — and the sides are of latticework, and, I might add, quite unnecessarily low.
Nor is the prospective passenger reassured by being told that there have been several cases where soldiers, suddenly overcome by vertigo, have thrown themselves out while in mid-air. If the cars are properly loaded, and if there is not a high wind blowing, the teleferica is about as safe as most other modes of conveyance, but should the cars have been carelessly loaded, or should a strong wind be blowing, there is considerable danger of their coming into collision as they pass. In such an event there would be a very fair chance of the passenger spattering up the rocks a thousand feet or so below. There is still another, though a rather remote possibility: that of being shelled while in mid-air, for certain of the telefericas run within view of the Austrian positions. And sometimes the power which winds the drum gives out and the car and its passengers are temporarily marooned in space. Aviation, motor-racing, mountain-climbing, big-game hunting, all seem commonplace and tame compared with the sensation of swinging helplessly in a shallow bathtub over half a mile of emptiness while an Austrian battery endeavors to pot you with shrapnel, very much as a small boy throws stones at a scared cat clinging to a limb.
Yet over these slender wires has been transported an army, with its vast quantities of food, stores, and ammunition, and by the same method of transportation have been sent back the wounded. Without this ingenious device it is doubtful if the campaign in the High Alps could ever have been fought. But the cables, strong though they are, are yet too weak to bear the weight of the heavy guns, some of them weighing forty and fifty tons, which the Italians have put into action on the highest peaks. So, by the aid of ropes and levers and pulleys and hundreds of brawny backs and straining arms, these monster pieces have been hauled up slopes as steep as that of the Great Pyramid, have been hoisted up walls of rock as sheer and high as those of the Flatiron Building. You question this? Well, there they are, great eight and nine inch monsters, high above the highest of the wire roads, one of them that I know of at a height of ten thousand feet above the sea. There is no doubting it, incredible as it may seem, for they speak for themselves — as the Austrians have found to their cost.
The most advanced positions in the Carnia, as in the Trentino, are amid the eternal snows. Here the guns are emplaced in ice caverns which can be reached only through tunnels cut through the drifts; here the men spend their days wrapped in shaggy furs, their faces smeared with grease as a protection from the stinging blasts, and their nights in holes burrowed in the snow, like the igloos of Esquimaux. On no front, not on the sun- scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Ma-iurian marshes, nor in the blood- soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world. I remember standing with an Italian officer in an observatory in the lower mountains. The powerful telescope was trained on the snow- covered summit of one of the higher peaks.
"Do you see that little black speck on the snow at the very top?" the officer asked me.
I told him that I did.
"That is one of our positions," he continued. "It is held by a lieutenant and thirty Alpini. I have just received word that, as the result of yesterday's snow-storm, our communications with them have been cut off. We will not be able to relieve them, or get supplies to them, much before next April."
And it was then only the middle of December!
In the Carnia and on the Upper Isonzo one finds the anomaly of first-line trenches which are perfectly safe from attack. I visited such a position. Through a loophole I got a little framed picture of the Austrian trenches not five hundred yards away, and above them, cut in the mountainside, the square black openings within which lurked the Austrian guns. Yet we were as safe from anything save artillery fire as though we were in Mars, for between the Italian trenches and the Austrian intervened a chasm half a thousand feet deep and with walls as steep and smooth as the side of a house. The narrow strip of valley at the bottom of the chasm was a sort of no man's land, where forays, skirmishes, and all manner of desperate adventures took place nightly between patrols of Jaegers and Alpini.
As with my field-glasses I was sweeping the turmoil of trench-scarred mountains which lay spread, below me, like a map in bas-relief, an Austrian battery quite suddenly set up a deafening clamor, and on a hillside, miles away, I could see its shells bursting in clouds of smoke shot through with flame. They looked like gigantic white peonies breaking suddenly into bloom. The racket of the guns awoke the most extraordinary echoes in the mountains. It was difficult to believe that it was not thunder. Range after range caught up the echoes of that bombardment and passed them on until it seemed as though they must have reached Vienna. For half an hour, perhaps, the cannonade continued, and then, from an Italian position somewhere above and behind us, came a mighty bellow which drowned out all other sounds. It was the angry voice of Italy; bidding the Austrians be still.
The Road to Trieste
In order to appraise the Italian operations on the Carso at their true value, it is necessary to go back to May, 1916, when the Archduke Frederick launched his great offensive from the Trentino. Now it must be kept constantly in mind, as I have tried to emphasize in preceding chapters, that when the war opened, the Italians had always to go up while the Austrians needed only to come down. The latter, intrenched high on that tremendous natural rampart formed by the Rhaetian and Tyrolean Alps, the Dolomites, the Carnic, Julian, and Dinaric ranges, had an immense superiority over their enemy on the plains below. The Austrian offensive in the Trentino was dictated by four reasons: first, to divert the Italians from their main objective, Trieste; second, to lessen the pressure which General Cadorna was exerting against the Austrian lines on the Isonzo; third, to smash through to Vicenza and Verona, thus cutting, off and compelling the capitulation of the Italian armies operating in Venetia; and fourth, to so thoroughly discourage the Italians that they would consent to a separate peace.
The story of how this ambitious plan was foiled is soon told. By the first week in May the Austrians had massed upon the Trentino front a force of very nearly 400,000 men with 2,000 guns. Included in this tremendous accumulation of artillery were 26 batteries of 12-inch guns and several of the German giants, the famous 42-centimetre pieces, which brought down the pride of Antwerp and Namur. By the middle of May everything was ready for the onset to begin, and this avalanche of soldiery came rolling down the Asiago plateau, between the Adige and the Brenta. Below them, basking in the sunshine, stretched the alluring plains of Venetia, with their wealth, their women, and their wine. Pounded by an immensely superior artillery, overwhelmed by wave upon wave of infantry, the Italians sullenly fell back, leaving the greater part of the Sette Communi plateau and the upper portion of the Brenta valley in the hands of the Austrians.
At the beginning of June a cloud of despondency and gloom hung over Italy, and men went about with sober faces, for it seemed all but certain that the enemy would succeed in breaking through to Vicenza, and by cutting the main east-and-west line of railway, would force the armies operating on the Isonzo and in the Carnia to surrender. But the soldiers of the Army of the Trentino, though outnumbered in men and guns, determined that the Austrians should pay a staggering price for every yard of ground they gained. They fought as must have fought their ancestors of the Roman legions. And, thanks to their tenacity and pluck, they held their opponents on the five-yard line. Then, just in the nick of time, the whistle blew. The game was over. The Austrians had to hurry home.
They had staked everything on a sudden and overwhelming onslaught by which they hoped to smash the Italian defense and demoralize the Italian armies in time to permit at least half their eighteen divisions and nearly all of their heavy guns being withdrawn in a few weeks and rushed across Austria to the Galician front, where they were desperately needed to stay the Russian advance.
By the beginning of the last week in June the Austrian General Staff, recognizing that its plan for the overwhelming of northern Italy had failed disastrously, issued orders for a general retreat. The Austrians had planned to fall back on the positions which had been prepared in advance in the mountains and to establish themselves, with greatly reduced numbers, on this practically impregnable line, while the transfer of the divisions intended for the Carpathians was effected. But General Cadorna had no intention of letting the Austrians escape so easily. In less than a week he had collected from the garrisons and training camps and reserve battalions an army of 500,000 men. It was one of the most remarkable achievements of the war.
From all parts of Italy he rushed those half million men to the Trentino front by train — and despite the immense strain put upon the Italian railways by the rapid movement of so great a body of troops, the regular passenger service was suspended for only three days. (At that same time the American Government was attempting to concentrate a force of only 150,000 men on the Mexican border; a comparison of Italian and American efficiency is instructive.) He formed that army into brigades and divisions, each complete with staff and supply trains and ammunition columns. He organized fresh bases of supply, including water, of which there is none on the Asiago plateau. He provided the stupendous quantity of stores and ammunition and equipment and transport required by such an army. (It is related how Cadorna's Chief of Transport wired the Fiat Company of Turin that he must have 545 additional motor-trucks within a week, and how that great company responded by delivering in the time specified 546 — one over for good measure.)
Almost in a night he transformed the rude mule-paths leading up onto the plateau into splendid military roads, wide enough and hard enough to bear the tremendous traffic to which they were suddenly subjected. And finally he rushed his troops up those roads in motor-cars and motor-trucks, afoot and on horse-back and astride of donkeys and flung them against the Austrians. So sudden and savage was the Italian onset that the Austrians did not dare to spare a man or gun for their Eastern Front — and meanwhile the Muscovite armies were pressing on toward the Dniester. It is no exaggeration to assert that the success of Brussiloff's offensive in Galicia was due in no small measure to the Italian counter-offensive in the Trentino. That adventure cost Austria at least 100,000 dead and wounded men.
But not for a moment did the Italians permit the Austrian offensive in the Trentino to distract them from their real objectives: Gorizia, the Car so, and Trieste. The "military experts," who from desks in newspaper offices tell the public how campaigns ought to be conducted, had announced confidently that Italy had so taxed her strength by her efforts in the Trentino that, for many months at least, nothing need be expected from her. But Italy showed the public that the "military experts" didn't know what they were talking about, for in little more than a month after the Italian guns had ceased to growl amid the Tyrolean peaks and passes, they were raining a storm of steel upon the Austrian positions on the Carso. Imagine a vast limestone plateau, varying in height from 700 to 2,500 feet, which is as treeless and waterless as the deserts of Chihuahua, as desolate and forbidding as the Dakota Bad Lands, with a surface as torn and twisted and jagged as the lava beds of Utah, and with a summer climate like that of Death Valley in July. That is the Carso.
This great tableland of rock, which begins at Gorizia, approaches close to the shores of the Adriatic between Monfalcone and Trieste, and runs southeastward into Istria, links the Alpine system with the Balkan ranges. Its surface of naked, sun-flayed rock is broken here and there with gigantic heaps of piled stone, with caves and caverns, with sombre marshes which sometimes become gloomy and forbidding lakes, and with peculiar crater-like depressions called dolinas, formed by centuries of erosion. Such scanty vegetation as there is, is confined to these dolinas, which form the only oases in this barren and thirsty land. The whole region is swept by the Bora, a wind which is the enemy alike of plant and man. Save for the lizards that bask upon its furnace-like floors, the Carso is as lifeless as it is treeless and waterless. No bird and scarcely an insect can find nourishment over vast spaces of this sun-scorched solitude; even the hardy mountain grass withers and dies of a broken heart. So powerful is the sun that eggs can be cooked without a fire. Metal objects, such as rifles and equipment, when left exposed, quickly become too hot to touch. The bodies of the soldiers who fall on the Carso are not infrequently found to have been baked hard and mummified after lying for a day or two on that oven-like floor of stone.
The Carso is probably the strongest natural fortress in the world. Anything in the shape of defensive works which Nature had overlooked, the Austrians provided. For years before the war began the Austrian engineers were at work strengthening a place that already possessed superlative strength. The whole face of the plateau was honeycombed with trenches and tunnels and dugouts and gun emplacements which were blasted and drilled out of the solid rock with machinery similar to that used in driving the Simplon and the St. Gothard tunnels. The posts for the snipers were armored with inch-thick plates of steel cemented into the rock. The dolinas were converted into machine-gun pits and bomb-proof shelters. In one of these curious craters I saw a dugout — it was really a subterranean barracks — electrically lighted and with neatly whitewashed walls which had sleeping accommodation for a thousand men. To supply these positions, water was pumped up by oil-engines, but the Austrians took care to destroy the pipelines as they retired.
At the northern end of the Carso, in an angle formed by the junction of the Wippach and the Isonzo, the snowy towers and red-brown roofs of Gorizia rise above the foliage of its famous gardens. The town, which resembles Homburg or Baden-Baden and was a popular Austrian resort before the war, lies in the valley of the Wippach (Vippacco, the Italians call it), which separates the Carso from the southernmost spurs of the Julian Alps. Down this valley runs the railway leading to Trieste, Laibach, and Vienna. It will be seen, therefore, that Gorizia is really the gateway to Trieste, and a place of immense strategic importance.
On the slopes of the Carso, four or five miles fo the southwest of the town, rises the enormously strong position of Monte San Michele, and a few miles farther down the Isonzo, the fortified hill-town of Sagrado. On the other side of the river, almost opposite Gorizia, are the equally strong positions of Podgora and Monte Sabotino. Their steep slopes were slashed with Austrian trenches and abristle with guns which commanded the roads leading to the river, the bridge-heads, and the town. To take Gorizia until these positions had been captured was obviously out of the question. Here, as elsewhere, Austria held the upper ground. In a memorandum issued by the Austrian General Staff to its officers at the beginning of the operations before Gorizia, the tremendous advantage of the Austrian position was made quite clear: "We have to retain possession of a terrain fortified by Nature. In front of us a great watercourse; behind us a ridge from which we can shoot as from a ten-story building."
The difficulties which the Italians had to overcome in their advance were enormous.
From their mountain nests the Austrian guns were able to maintain a murderous fire on the Italian lines of communication, thus preventing the bringing up of men and supplies. It therefore became necessary for the Italians to build new roads which would not be thus exposed to enemy fire, and in cases where this was impossible, the existing roads were masked for miles on end with artificial hedges and screens of grass matting. In many places it was found necessary to screen the roads overhead as well as on the sides, so that the Italians could move up their heavy guns without attracting the attention of the enemy's observers stationed on the highest mountain peaks, or of the Austrian airmen. But this was not all, or nearly all. An army is ever a hungry monster, so slaughterhouses and bakeries and field-kitchens, to say nothing of incredible quantities of food-stuffs, had to be provided. Fighting being a thirsty business, it was necessary to arrange for piping up water, for great tanks to hold that water, and for water-carts, hundreds and hundreds of them, to peddle it among the panting troops. A prize-fighter cannot sleep out in the open, on the bare ground, and keep in condition for the ring, and a soldier, who is likewise a fighting-man but from a different motive, must be made comfortable of nights if he is to keep in fighting-trim. So millions of feet of lumber had to be brought up, along roads already overcrowded with traffic, and that lumber had to be transformed into temporary huts and bar-rackments — a city of them.
But the preparations did not end even there. To insure the co-ordination and co- operation of the various divisions of the army, an elaborate system of field telegraphs and telephones had to be installed, and, in order to provide against the lines being cut by shell-fire and the whole complex organism paralyzed, the wires were laid in groups of four. Then there had to be repair-stations for the broken machinery, and other repair- stations — with Red Cross flags flying over them — for the broken men. So in the rear of the sector where the Italians planned to give battle on a front of thirty miles, a series of great base hospitals were established, and, nearer the front, a series of clearing- hospitals, and, still closer up, field-hospitals, and in the immediate rear of the fighting- line, hundreds of dressing-stations and first-aid posts were located in dugouts and bomb-proof shelters.
And along the roads stretched endless caravans of gray ambulances, for it promised to be a bloody business. In other words, it was necessary, before the battle could be fought with any hope of success, to build what was to all intents and purposes a great modern city, a city of half a million inhabitants, with many miles of macadamized thoroughfares, with water and telephone and telegraph systems, with a highly efficient sanitary service, with railways, with huge warehouses filled with food and clothing, with more hospitals than any city ever had before, with butcher-shops and bakeries and machine-shops and tailors and boot-menders — in fact, with everything necessary to meet the demands of 500,000 men. Yet Mr. Bryan and his fellow-members of the Order of the Dove and Olive- Branch would have us believe that all that is necessary in order to win a modern battle is to take the trusty target-rifle from the closet under the stairs, dump a box of cartridges into our pockets, and sally forth, whereupon the enemy, decimated by the dead-liness of our fire, will be only too glad to surrender.
The most formidable task which confronted the Italians was that of constructing the vast system of trenches through which the troops could be moved forward in comparative safety to the positions from which would be launched the final assault. This presented no exceptional difficulties in the rich alluvial soil on the Isonzo's western bank, but once the Italians had crossed the river they found themselves on the Carso, through whose solid rock the trenches could be driven only with pneumatic drills and dynamite. All of the Italian trenches that I saw showed a very high skill in engineering. Instead of keeping the earthen walls from crumbling and caving by the use of the wicker-work revetments so general on the Western Front, the Italians use' a sort of steel trellis which is easily put in place, and is not readily damaged by shell-fire. Other trenches which I saw (though not on the Carso, of course) were built of solid concrete with steel shields for the riflemen cemented into the parapets.
During these weeks of preparation the Italian aviators, observers, and spies had been busy collecting information concerning the strength of the Gorizia defenses and the disposition of the Austrian batteries and troops. By means of thousands of photographs taken from airplanes, enlarged, and then pieced together, the Italians had as accurate and detailed a map of the Austrian lines of defense as was possessed by the Austrian General Staff itself. Thanks to the data thus obtained, the Italian gunners were able to locate their targets and estimate their ranges with absolute precision. They knew which building in Gorizia was the head-quarters of the Austrian commander; they had discovered where his telephone and telegraph stations were located; and they had spotted his observation posts. Indeed, so highly developed was the Italian intelligence service that the Austrians were not able to transfer a battalion or change the position of a battery without the knowledge of General Cadorna.
Now the Austrians, like the newspaper experts, were convinced that the Italians had their hands full in the Trentino without courting trouble on the Isonzo. And if there was to be an attack along the Isonzo front — which they doubted — they believed that it would almost certainly develop in the Monfalcone sector, next the sea. And of this belief the Italians took care not to disabuse them. Here again was exemplified the vital necessity of having control of the air. If, during the latter half of July, the Austrian fliers had been able to get over the Italian lines, they could not have failed to observe the enormous preparations which were in progress, and when the Italians advanced, the Austrians would have been ready for them. But the Italians kept control of the air (during my entire trip on the Italian front I can recall having seen only one Austrian airplane) , the Austrians had no means of learning what was impending, and were, therefore, quite unprepared for the attack when it came — and Gorizia fell.
By the 4th of August, 1916, all was ready for the Big Push. On the morning of that day brisk fighting began on the Monf alcone sector. Convinced that this was the danger- point, the Austrian commander rushed his reserves southward to strengthen his threatened line. This was precisely what the Italians wanted. They had succeeded in distracting his attention from their real objective — Gorizia. Now the battle of Gorizia was really not fought at Gorizia at all. What happened was the brilliant and bloody storming of the Austrian positions on Podgora and Monte Sabotino, a simultaneous crossing of the Isonzo opposite Gorizia and at Sagrado, and a splendid rush up to and across the plateau of the Carso which culminated in the taking of Monte San Michele. Gorizia itself was not organized for defense, and so astounded was its garrison at the capture in rapid succession of the city's defending positions, which had been deemed impregnable, that no serious resistance was offered.
On the morning of August 6 a hurricane of steel suddenly broke upon Gorizia. But the Italian gunners had received careful instructions, and instead of blowing the city off the map, as they could easily have done, they confined their efforts to the destruction of the enemy's headquarters, observation posts, and telephone-stations, thus destroying his means of communication and effectually disrupting his entire organization. Other batteries turned their attention to the railway-station, the railway-yards, and the roads, dropping such a curtain of shell-fire behind the town that the Austrians were unable to bring up reinforcements. Care was taken, however, to do as little damage as possible to the city itself, as the Italians wanted it for themselves.
The most difficult, as it was the most spectacular, phase of the attack was the storming of the Sabotino, a mountain two thousand feet high, which, it was generally believed, could never be taken with the bayonet. The Italians, realizing that no troops in the world could hope to reach the summit of those steep slopes in the face of barbed wire, rifles, and machine-guns, had, unknown to the enemy, driven a tunnel, a mile and a quarter long, into the very heart of this position. When the assault was ordered, therefore, the first lines of Italian infantry suddenly appeared from out of the ground within a few yards of the Austrian trenches. Amid a storm of vivas the gray wave, with its crest of glistening steel, surged up the few remaining yards of glacis, topped the parapet, and over- whelmed the defenders. Monte Sabotino, the key to the bridge-head and the city, was in the hands of the Italians.
But the Austrians intrenched on Hill 240, the highest summit of the Podgora range, still held out, and it took several hours of savage fighting to dislodge them. This last stronghold taken, the gray-clad infantry suddenly debouched from the sheltering ravines and went swarming down to the Isonzo. Almost simultaneously another division crossed the river several miles below, at Sagrado. Into the stream they went, their rifles held high above their heads, chanting the splendid hymn of Garibaldi. The Austrian shrapnel churned the river into foam, its waters turned from blue to crimson, but the insistent bugles pealed the charge, and the lines of gray swept on. Pausing on the eastern bank only long enough to re-form, the lines again rolled forward. White disks carried high above the heads of the men showed the Italian gunners how far the infantry had advanced and enabled them to gauge their protecting curtain of fire. Though smothered with shells, and swept by machine-guns, nothing could stop them. "Avanti Savoia!" they roared. "Viva! E viva Italia!"
Meanwhile, under a heavy fire, the Italian engineers were repairing the iron bridge which carried the railway from Milan and Udine across the Isonzo to Gorizia and so to Trieste and Vienna. The great stone bridge over the river had been destroyed the day before beyond the possibility of immediate repair. In an amazingly short time the work was done and the Italian field-batteries went tearing over the bridge at a gallop to unlimber on the opposite bank and send a shower of shrapnel after the retreating Austrians. Close behind the guns poured Carabinieri, Alpini, Bersa-glieri, infantry of the line and squadron after squadron of cavalry riding under thickets of lances. A strong force of Carabinieri were the first troops to enter the city, and not until they had taken complete possession and had assumed the reins of the local government, were the line troops permitted to come in.
The fighting continued for three days, the Austrians, though discouraged and to some extent demoralized, making a brave resistance. In one dolina which had been fortified, an officer and a handful of men fought so pluckily against overwhelming odds that, when at length the survivors came out and surrendered, the Italians presented arms to them as a mark of respect and admiration. By the evening of the 9th of August the attack, "one of the most important and violent onslaughts on fortified positions that the European War has yet seen," had been completely successful, and the city of Gorizia, together with the heights that guarded it, including the northern end of the Carso plateau, were in Italian hands. The cost to Italy was 20,000 dead men. It was a high price but, on the other hand, she captured 19,000 prisoners, 67 pieces of artillery, and scores of trench mortars and machine-guns. The moral and' strategic results were of incalculable value. The first line of the Austrian defense, deemed one of the strongest on any front, had collapsed beneath the Italian assaults; though the crest of the Carso still remained in Austrian hands, the gateway to Trieste had been opened; and most important of all, the Italian people had gained the self-confidence which they had long lacked and which comes only from military achievement.
In order to reach Gorizia we had to motor for some miles along a road exposed to enemy fire, for the hills dominating the city to the south and east were still in Austrian hands. The danger was minimized as much as possible by screening the roads in the manner I have already described, so, as the officer who accompanied me took pains to explain, if we happened to be hit by a shell, it would be one fired at random. I could see no reason, however, why a random shell wouldn't end my career just as effectually as a shell intended specially for me. Although, thanks to the tunnels of matting, the Austrians cannot see the traffic on the roads, they know that it must cross the bridges, so on them they keep up a continuous rain of projectiles, and there you have to take your chance. The Gorizia bridge-head was not a place where I should have eared to loiter.
It is not a simple matter to obtain permission to visit Gorizia (it is much easier to visit Verdun), for the city is shelled with more or less regularity, and to have visitors about under such conditions is a nuisance. Hence, one cannot get into Gorizia unless bearing a special pass issued by the Comando Supremo. So rigid are the precautions against unauthorized visitors that, though accompanied by two officers of the Staff and travelling in a staff-car, we were halted by the Carabinieri and our papers examined seven times. To this famous force of constabulary has been given the work of policing the occupied regions, and indeed, the entire zone of the armies. With their huge cocked hats, which, since the war began, have been covered with gray linen, their rosy faces, so pink-and- white that they look as though they had been rouged and powdered, and their little upturned waxed mustaches, the Carabinieri always remind me of the gendarmes in comic operas.
But the only thing comic about them is their hats. They are the sternest and most uncompromising guardians of the law that I know. You can expostulate with a London bobbie, you can argue with a Paris gendarme, you can on occasion reason mildly with a New York policeman, but not with an Italian carbineer. To give them back talk is to invite immediate and serious trouble. They are supreme in the war zone, for they take orders from no one save their own officers and have the authority to turn back or arrest any one, no matter what his rank.
Our chauffeur, who, being attached to the Comando Supremo, had become so accustomed to driving generals and cabinet ministers that he blagued the military sentries, and quite openly sneered at the orders of the Udine police, would jam on his brakes so suddenly that we would almost go through the wind-shield if a carbineer held up his hand. Gorizia is, or was before the war, a place of some 40,000 inhabitants. It has broad streets, lined by fine white buildings and lovely gardens, and outside the town are excellent medicinal baths. It will, I think, prove a very popular summer resort with the Italians. Though for many months prior to its capture it was within range of the Italian guns, which could have blown it to smithereens, they refrained from doing so because it was desired, if possible, to take the place intact.
That, indeed, has been the Italian policy throughout the war: to do as little unnecessary damage as possible. Now the Austrians, who look down on their lost city from the heights to the eastward, refrain from destroying it, as they easily could do, because they cling to the hope that they may get it back again. So, though the bridge-heads are shelled constantly, and though considerable damage has been inflicted on the suburbs, no serious harm has been done to the city itself. By this I do not mean to imply that the Austrians never shell it, for they do, but only in a desultory, half-hearted fashion. During the day that I spent in Gorizia the deserted streets echoed about every five minutes to the screech-bang of an Austrian arrive or the bang-screech of an Italian depart.
Finding that the big Hotel du Pare, which is the city's leading hostelry, was closed, we lunched at the more modest Hotel de la Poste. Our luncheon was served us in the kitchen, as, shortly before our arrival, the dining-room had been wrecked by an Austrian shell. Though this had naturally somewhat upset things, we had a really excellent meal: minestrone, which, so far as I could discover, is the only variety of soup known to the Italians, mutton, vegetables, a pudding, fruit, the best coffee I have had in Europe since the war began, and a bottle of fine old Austrian wine, which, like the German vintages, is no longer procurable in the restaurants of civilized Europe. While we ate, there was a brisk exchange of compliments between the Italian and Austrian batteries in progress above the roofs of the town. The table at which we sat was pushed close up against one of the thick masonry columns which supported the kitchen ceiling. It probably would not have been much of a protection had a shell chanced to drop in on us, but it was wonderfully comforting.
Geregistreerd op: 11-6-2007
|Geplaatst: 02 Mei 2009 22:34 Onderwerp:
|I was accompanied on my visit to Gorizia by Signor Ugo Ojetti, the noted Florentine connoisseur who has been charged with the preservation of all the historical monuments and works of art in the war zone. About this charming and cultured gentleman I was told a characteristic story. In the outskirts of Gorizia stands the chateau of an Austrian nobleman who was the possessor of a famous collection of paintings. Now it is Signor Ojetti's business to save from injury or destruction all works of art which are worth saving, and, after ticketing and cataloguing them, to ship them to a place of safety to be kept until the war is over, when they will be restored to their respective owners.
Though the chateau in question was within the Italian lines, the windows of the ballroom, in which hung the best of the pictures, were within easy range of the Austrian snipers, who, whenever they saw any one moving about inside, would promptly open a brisk rifle fire. Scarcely had Ojetti and his assistant set foot within the room when ping came an Austrian bullet through the window, shattering the crystal chandelier over their heads. Then was presented the extraordinary spectacle of the greatest art critic in Italy crawling on hands and knees over a ballroom floor, taking care to keep as close to that floor as possible, and pausing now and then to make a careful scrutiny of the canvases that hung on the walls above him. "That's probably an Allori," he would call to his assistant. "Remember to take that down after it gets dark. The one next to it is good too — looks like a B or done, though I can't be certain in this light. But don't bother about that picture over the fireplace — it's only a copy and not worth saving. Let the Austrians have it if they want it."
And they told me that through it all he never once lost his dignity or his monocle.
Another interesting figure Avho joined our little party in Gorizia was a monk who had served as a regimental chaplain since the beginning of the war. He was a broad- shouldered, brown-bearded fellow and, had it not been for the scarlet cross on the breast of his uniform, I should have taken him for a fine type of the Italian fighting man. I rather suspect, though, that when the bugles pealed the signal for the attack, he quite forgot that the wearers of the Red Cross are supposed to be non-combatants. During the Austrian offensive in the Trentino, an Italian army chaplain was awarded the gold medal for valor, the highest military decoration, because he rallied the men of his regiment after all the officers had fallen and led them in the storming of an Austrian position held by a greatly superior force. Another chaplain who had likewise assumed command of officerless troops was awarded the silver medal for valor.
As the duties of the army chaplains are supposed to be confined to giving the men spiritual advice, the doubt arose as to whether they were justified in actually fighting, thus risking the loss of their character as non-combatants. This puzzling question was, therefore, submitted to the Pope, who decided that chaplains assuming command of troops who had lost their officers in battle were merely discharging their duty, as they encouraged the men to resist in self-defense. In addition to the regimental chaplains there are, so I was told, thousands of priests and monks serving in the ranks of the Italian armies. Whether, after leading the exciting and adventurous life of a soldier, these men will be content to resume the sandals and the woollen robe, and to go back to the sheltered and monotonous existence of the monastic orders, I very strongly doubt. In any event, their sympathies will have been deepened and their outlook on life immensely broadened.
It rained in torrents during my stay in Gorizia, but, as we recrossed the Isonzo onto the Friulian plain, the sinking sun burst through a rift in the leaden clouds and turned into a huge block of rosy coral the red rampart of the Carso. Beyond that wall, scarce a dozen miles as the airplane flies, but many times that distance as the big gun travels, lies Trieste. It will be a long road, a hard road, a bloody road which the Italians must follow to attain their City of Desire, and before that journey is ended the red rocks of the Carso will be redder still. But they will finish the journey, I think. For these iron-hard, brown-faced men, remember, are the stuff from which was made those ever-victorious legions that built the Roman Empire — and it is the dream of founding another Empire which is beckoning them on.
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