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British in Italy in WWI.

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Geregistreerd op: 11-6-2007
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BerichtGeplaatst: 20 Jul 2008 11:57    Onderwerp: British in Italy in WWI. Reageer met quote

A ‘forgotten army’ of British troops served on the Italian Front in World War I and faced Austria’s last offensive.

The first British troops to enter the territory of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) during World War I did so not on the Western Front but from Italy. During 1917-18 an average of no fewer than 78,477 British troops were in Italy to bolster up the Italian Army which had been fighting Austria-Hungary with little success and staggering losses since May 1915.

On the declaration of war the Italian Army raced for the Austrian frontier. There the line followed a vast three-quarter circle from near Trieste north, west and SW to Lake Garda and was largely in the Alps usually at 4,000ft and frequently higher. Good positions were secured and the army settled down. On the far eastern sector along the River Isonzo, and on the plateau of the Carso, 11 successive battles were fought. By 1917 the only results of the two years fighting were a few dents on the Austrian line and a million Italian casualties. Apart from these periodic affrays the front remained static, each side watching its opponent, the longest period of inactivity and stagnation on any front in either of the two world wars.

Throughout 1916 and 1917 unrest had been growing in the great industrial city of Turin. In an attempt to stamp it out many of the agitators were conscripted into the army and after training posted to a division recruited from that area. This division was holding the line a mile or so beyond the little town of Caporetto. It was not a high grade division, there had already been ill-discipline and it had been sent to this sector as a punishment. The Austrians by lucky patrolling identified this weak division in front of them and, with German help, launched an offensive on 23 October 1917. The offensive met with mediocre success far to the left of Caporetto but those divisions opposite Caporetto and the weak division had a great victory. Italian intelligence, often faulty, failed to detect the impending onslaught, no preparations whatever had been made to meet the offensive and this low-grade division was completely overrun in a few hours. Divisions on either side crumbled and soon some 60,000 Austrians, having taken 265,000 prisoners, 3,152 guns, 1,732 mortars and 3,000 MGs, found on the River Piave between themselves and the rich Venetian Plain.

In November General Sir Herbert C. O. Plumer with his Second Army HQ from Ypres on the Western Front took five divisions, the 5th, 7th, 23rd, 41st and 48th, to help Italy’s morally defeated army. Four French divisions were sent as well. On arrival Plumer called on the Italian C-in-C, General Armando Diaz, asking for orders. He was told that Italian Army having by then reached the line of the Piave would withdraw a few days later to the Brenta and, after a pause there, to the line of the Adige and thence to the Po. On General Plumer saying that in his opinion these further withdrawals were quite unnecessary and that he would stay on the present line of the Piave, the C-in-C replied that if the British and French were not going to withdraw he too would stay. In fact the Allies made no further withdrawals throughout the campaign.

The 48th (South Midland) Division, in which I was serving as a Second Lieutenant in the 145th Brigade Machine-Gun Company, was commanded by Major-General Sir Robert Fanshawe, KCB, DSO. It was composed exclusively of Royal Warwicks, Gloucesters, Worcesters, Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and Royal Berks, all territorial battalions, and it eventually concentrated in reserve around Vicenza. Our train journey via Paris, where regrettably we did not stop, the Riviera, and Genoa took six days. We had the greatest fun. The men were six to a 2nd class carriage and were as fascinated with the new scenery and people as we were. Some brilliant staff officer at Movement Control had provided one baggage wagon as a cook-house for each train, but the trouble was to know how long the train would stop and whether it was safe to sound ‘Cook-House’. The engine-driver never knew, I don’t remember a guard, but I do remember two scrambles for a meal twice a day, often quite unnecessary.

The billets for the division in reserve were excellent. In that area of the Venetian Plain there are numbers of Palladian villas. Gems of architecture, sizeable and usually with considerable out-houses, barns and stables, they provided excellent accommodation for half a battalion, battery of artillery, or MG company and life therein was very pleasant. There was little agriculture and most units quickly found training areas, parade grounds and football fields. Life quickly resumed an almost peace-time routine, with parades, physical training, route marches, lectures, with the afternoons off. Sundays, except for a periodic church parade, were entirely free, and were easily filled with football, exploring and fraternizing with the Italian peasants. Occasional evenings in Vicenza and Padua with their quite good shops and hotels were very welcome and Italian restaurant cooking proved as popular as French. With the cold, dry, sunny, bracing weather coupled with recent memories of Passchendaele there were no complaints.

In the line there were two contrasting types of terrain. On the left the Piave racing through the last gorge before debouching into the plain was practically impassable. The British front line on the right bank of the river ran along the north face of the Montello, a whale-back feature 600ft high and seven miles long heavily covered with low trees and scrub. The side facing the enemy across the river was steep and no continuous trenches were possible. Infantry and MG section posts were sited to fire along the river while the artillery completely hidden in the cover on the main feature had probably the most perfect observation imaginable. The ground was soft and good shelters and HQs could be built. Across the very deep and fast river, about 500 yards wide, the enemy held similar positions. Little movement could be seen and his camouflage was most skilful.

On the right sector the Piave, having emerged from the mountains, spread out into a vast river bed three-quarters of a mile wide. During the winter, after the snow melted by the summer had long since passed down, the river ran in four or five lesser streams between shingle banks often 50 yards wide. The speed of the water had naturally dropped though the main stream, nearest to the right bank, was still going at six knots, and was 4-5ft deep. On the right bank the river was contained by a massive sea-wall, in the winter 10ft clear of the water. Its front face was thickly festooned in barbed wire with a racing stream at its foot. An enemy trying to cross the river would not only have to negotiate five sizeable streams but also four obstructive shingle banks with their inevitable noise and finally, carrying scaling ladders, climb the wired wall. It was these two sectors that General Diaz had intended to give up without a fight.

By the end of March the weather was getting noticeably warmer promising extreme heat by the summer and the British medical authorities, fearing the onset of hot-weather diseases to which the British territorials would not be accustomed, advised a move up to the Asiago Plateau. On relief by the Italians, the British and French troops spent four or five days marching up. In no time the weather changed, rapidly getting colder, cloud was widespread and soon the snow line was reached. On the plateau, most units went into rest billets. These were empty Italian Army huts, mostly built on stilts, very cold and bare, lying in the thick pine woods. There was no level ground for parades or training, no special provision for cooking, no amenities and Very rough going everywhere. Wet, soft snow fell daily for several hours usually followed by a drizzling rain, and the sun was rarely seen.

The Asiago Plateau, nowadays a popular Italian winter sports center, is a shallow depression 3,500ft up. Its southern lip, closely covered by trees, slopes gradually down into the more open plateau where there are rolling downs, several villages, four or five wooded ravines carrying the summer snow to the Brenta, and the town of Asiago itself. Four miles to the north of the town heavily wooded hills rise again steeply and soon become the Dolomites and Austria.

The trenches ran along the forward edge of the southern lip overlooking the plateau itself. Fields of fire onto the Downs were excellent and the Italians, masters of civil engineering, had constructed magnificent trenches, dugouts, gun positions and HQs. Digging as such was almost impossible and the trenches had apparently been blown by explosives out of the rock. On such terrain the inevitable small valleys and folds in the ground provided cover for all sorts of installations, and considerable ‘trench-comfort’ was possible. Concealment came from the vast numbers of pine and fir trees running right down the inner lip to the more level ground and movement by day was always possible. It was not realized that while the British faced north in the woods with, in the summer, the sun behind them, the enemy were always looking into the sun and the shadows. Only on looking back at the final advance during the Armistice was it realized that the enemy could have seen no movement at all.

By May the weather improved, the sun came out, and life became much more pleasant. Patrolling became a popular pastime. Folds in the downs, clearly defined villages, and the steep ravines made direction finding by night simple and the infantry battalions holding the front line ranged at will over the vast No Man’s Land of 1,500 yards, quite dominating it.

Early in April 1918 the 5th and 41st Divisions had been withdrawn to France and Lieutenant-General Frederic R. Lambart, the Earl of Cavan, became C-in-C with the 7th, 23rd and 48th Divisions. The spring and summer, always magnificent in the Alps, proceeded peacefully. The division out of the line usually went down to the plains to rest, reporting on its return that the heat there had become intense and that the cool and pleasant air and not uncomfortable life of the trenches on the plateau were perhaps preferable.

On 14 June I was with my MG platoon at company HQ. That afternoon I was ordered to take Corporal Gear 600 yards out into No Man’s Land where I was to post him with his powerful Barr and Stroud range-finder to observe a building in the Austrian lines suspected of being a battalion HQ. I was to return before daylight, returning to bring him in after dark the next evening. We left the company about 0300 on the 15th and passing the HQ 1st Battalion, 5th Gloucestershire Regiment, were about to cross the front line and go out through our wire, into the night.

Suddenly with no previous warning that enemy action was anticipated, the whole line of hills on the north side of the plateau burst into a sheet of flame and an intense barrage including gas shells came down on our front line trench and for some way back, especially up the numerous little valleys. It was the unheralded last great Austrian offensive — to last only two days and to leave them back where they had started. I realized that a massive attack was imminent, that Cp. Gear and I could not possibly reach his previously selected hide-out, and that no good could be gained by going on. We turned for home. With our gas masks on, feeling our way through the barbed wire, and in utter darkness only momentarily relieved by bursting shells all round as we had a nightmare journey back to the company.

Research shows that Italian GHQ did in fact have some days’ warning of the attack (although we in the front line noticed nothing unusual or aggressive) and that Lord Cavan told both 23rd and 48th Divisional commanders on the afternoon of the 14th that an attack was to be expected. Battalions of 48th Division holding the line somehow received no warning and this caused units in the forward area to be taken completely by surprise and in some cases over-run. To the grief of everyone in the Division, its very popular GOC, Major-General Sir Robert Fanshawe, KCB, DSO, was removed.

The Austrian attack came over at 0700, its right coinciding with the British left, the 48th Division, which, being in the grip of flu, had most of its 12 battalions down to 400 or 500 all ranks. To the left of the Division the Italians, heavily shelled but not attacked, withdrew silently leaving a substantial gap. This took some time to fill but fortunately the enemy did not discover it. Two or three minor penetrations were made in the front of 23rd Division on the right but local counter-attacks at mid-day restored the situation and by 1400 the front line of that division was reoccupied.

The 48th Division, however, had rough handling. The 1st Battalion, 4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment on the extreme right at the Division’s junction with the 23rd had both flanks surrounded by seven Austrian battalions, was driven back 300 yards and lost 176 men out of 552. In this battalion was a remarkable company commander, Captain Graham Greenwell. He had joined the battalion in August 1914 as a junior second lieutenant and served with the 4th Oxfords throughout the war apart from leave, a course or two, and two brief spells in hospital. He was a company officer for 31 years, won a Military Cross and had a charmed life in action. It is probable that no officer in the British infantry spent so long as a platoon or company commander. His name was a byword in 48th Division, not only because of his long survival but also on account of his remarkably youthful appearance. He is 81 at the time of writing and is rather lame.

The next battalion, the 5th Gloucesters, also of 145th Brigade had an even worse time, “D’ Company being completely overwhelmed, all ranks being killed or captured. The company commander had a 28 days’ leave warrant for next day in his pocket. The remainder of the battalion was driven back 1,000 yards badly disorganized and only the timely arrival of the reserve battalion, the Bucks, prevented a disaster. The Gloucesters that day lost 11 officers killed or wounded with six missing while 202 other ranks we’re casualties of whom 114 were missing, over half of the battalion’s strength.

On the left the 1st Battalion, 5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment were holding the whole of the 143rd Brigade front. This unit too had several penetrations made in its lines and suffered severely. In the early stages of the attack its battalion HQ was surrounded, the CO and intelligence officer being killed and the adjutant being taken prisoner.

Regimental Sergeant-Major R. Townley took command and mustered every cook, orderly, telephonist and batman he could find and organized an all-round defensive post. He held on for six hours, until relieved, completely disorganising the otherwise successful Austrian advance. RSM Townley was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Several British batteries of artillery, brought forward to support a projected attack a week later, were also overrun.

On reaching company rear areas and reserve battalions the Austrians found themselves in very difficult country. The ground was sharply uphill and very rocky, the morning was very misty and the closely-growing pine trees often reduced visibility to 50 or 60 yards. The defenders too could see little of their mutually supporting sub-units and control by both sides above platoon level became impossible. The noise of battle prevented shouted orders being heard, signals could not be seen and the infantry section (squad) became the main tactical formation. One MG of 48th Division was later found with all its crew dead, every round in every belt expended and a circle of Austrian corpses round it. It was indeed a corporal’s battle.

By mid-day the attack had petered out and the enemy seemed to have lost all initiative. No attempt was made to exploit the successes on the front of 48th Division or in the gap on its left. British reserve battalions were coming up, the defense was stiffening hourly, and the enemy had clearly ’shot his bolt’. Later several of his dead were found with bullet wounds in their backs and it seems possible that they had been encouraged forward by their own MGs from behind. The reserve brigade, the 144th, counter-attacked at dusk on the evening of the 15th and at 0700 on the 16th and by 0900 the whole division was back in its original trenches. It had suffered 922 casualties during the two days, took 728 prisoners and buried 576 Austrians.

Seven days later 7th Division came up to relieve the 48th and the Division, after a fortnight of normal trench warfare, then 36 hours of action followed by seven days and seven sleepless nights of ’standing-to’ with rumors every night of a renewed enemy attack, marched down to the plains, very tired. For the remainder of the summer the enemy was so low as a result of his repulse on 15 June that domination of No Man’s Land was complete. Normal operations such as patrolling, raids, harassing fire, and pinpointed bombardments became more of a sport rather than offensive operations of war. Patrols of perhaps a sergeant and four men with blackened faces and hands, steel helmets, almost unarmed except for entrenching tool handles, would bring in a dozen or twenty of the enemy usually without a shot being fired. On one occasion a platoon of 25 men of the Royal Warwicks went out in two single-file columns led respectively by the officer and his sergeant, 400 yards apart. After crossing the enemy’s front trench the officer blew his whistle the columns turned towards each other and on meeting turned for home driving the enemy encountered in front of them. The ‘bag’ was 125 unwounded Austrians with no British casualties.

Early in October the 7th and 23rd Divisions from the Asiago Plateau went to the Piave. Here they took part in the final advance across that river and in the victories of Grave de Papodopoli and Vittorio Veneto. The 48th Division remained at Asiago and became part of the Italian 12th Corps, thus becoming one of the very few British divisions in either of the world wars to form part of a foreign Army Corps.

Prisoners must salute their captors.
In the evening of 29 October a patrolling platoon of the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion (Ox & Bucks LI) of 145th Brigade found the enemy trenches on its front unoccupied and that night the battalion occupied Asiago. At dawn on 1 November the Division advanced on a four-battalion front, the Bucks and 4th Royal Berkshire Regiment of 145th Brigade leading on the right with the 1/4th and the 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiments of 144th Brigade on the left. The chaos behind the Austrian front line was widespread and on the steep and narrow roads almost choked by the retreating enemy an organized advance was impossible. Units had three major problems, getting food and ammunition up, clearing the roads of abandoned enemy transport, and disposal of a vast number of prisoners. In the chaotic drive forward one subaltern of the 145th MG Company with his section somehow got in front of the Gloucesters and came across an Austrian Corps HQ complete with its general who immediately surrendered. The subaltern accepted the surrender on the condition that the general and his staff ‘marched past’ the British troops, saluting.

After six days the Division reached the town of Trento, the capital of the Tyrol, but after surrounding the town it was ordered to stand fast and not to enter. Two days later the Italian Army marched up with bands playing, colours flying, and entered the town as ‘liberators’. During this mad rush forward the Division captured 23,000 prisoners, losing 125 men killed and wounded and seven missing. On 4 November the Austrian Government surrendered, and soon after 48th Division started its eight-day march back to the plains.

Today there is much to be seen on the Asiago Plateau. The trenches, having been hewn or blown out of the rock, are still very clear. Vickers MG emplacements and Lewis gun posts are to be seen, and the excellent fields of fire from most of them are evident. In natural shelters formed by clusters of rocks can be seen the remains of company HQ, and similar installations, and in one case at least the smoke-blackened rock clearly indicates a trench cook house. A few yards away, under pine needles, moss and fir cones, bully beef tins from 1918 were found in 1959. On one smooth rock can be seen, faintly, ‘D’ Coy, Gloucesters’.
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