The War in the Mountains – IV

Only a few steps higher up

by Rudyard Kipling

FOR A SPECIAL JOB, specialists, but for all jobs, youth above everything! That portion of the Italian frontier where men must mountaineer as well as climb is held with the Alpine regiments. The corps is recruited from the people who inhabit, and know what is in the mind of, the mountains – men used to carry loads along eighteen-inch paths round thousand foot drops. Their talk is the slang of mountains, with a special word for every mood and state of snow, ice, or rock, as elaborately particular as a Zulu’s talk when he is describing his cattle. They wear a smash hat adorned with one eagle feather (worn down to an honourable stump, now); the nails upon their boots resemble, and are kept as sharp as, the fangs of wolves; their eyes are like our airman’s eyes; their walk on their own ground suggests the sea; and a more cheery set of hard-bitten, clean-skinned, steady-eyed young devils I have never yet had the honour to meet.

‘What do you do?’ I was foolish enough to demand of them from the security of a Mess-room seven thousand feet up among pines and snows. (1) For the moment, the forest cut off the oppression of the mountain view.

‘Oh, come and see,’ said these joyous children. ‘We are working a few steps higher up the road. It is only a few steps.’

They took me by car above the timber-line on the edge of the basin, to the steep foot of a dominant rock wall which I had seen approaching, for hours back, along the road. (2) Twenty or thirty miles away the pillared mass of it had looked no more than implacably hostile – much as Mont Blanc looks from the lake. Coming nearer it had grown steeper, and a wilderness of wrathful crags and fissures had revealed itself. At close range from almost directly below, the thing, one perceived, went up sheer, where it did not bulge outward, like a ship’ side at launching. Every monstrous detail of its face, etched by sunshine through utterly clear air, crashed upon the sight at once, overwhelming the mind as a new world might, wearying the eye as a gigantically enlarged photograph does.

It was hidden by a snow tunnel (3), wide enough for a vehicle and two mules. The tunnel was dingy brown where its roof was thick, and lighted by an unearthly blue glare where it was thin, till it broke into blinding daylight where the May heat had melted out the arch of it. But there was graded gravel underfoot all the way, and swilling gutters carried off the snow-drip on either side. In the open or in the dark, Italy, makes but one kind of road.

‘This is our new road (4), the joyous children explained. ‘It isn’t quite finished, so if you’ll sit on this mule (5), we’ll take you the last few steps, only a few steps higher.’

I looked up again between the towering snowbanks. There were not even wrinkles on the face of the mountain now, but horrible, smooth honey-coloured thumbs and pinnacles, clustered like candle-drippings round the main core of unaffected rock, and the whole framing of it bent
towards me.

The road was a gruel of gravel, stones, and working-parties. No one hurried; no one got in his neighbour’s way; there were very few orders; but even as the mule hoisted herself up and round the pegged-out turns of it, the road seemed to be drawing itself into shape.

There are little engine-houses at the foot of some of the Swiss bob-runs which, for fifty centimes, used to hoist sportsmen and their bob-sleds up to the top again by funicular. The same arrangement stood on a platform nicked out of rock with the very same smell of raw planks, petrol, and snow, and the same crunch of crampons on slushy ground. But instead of the cog-railway, a steel wire, supported on frail struts and carrying a 2steel-latticed basket, ran up the face of the rock at an angle which need not be specified. Qua railway, it was nothing – the merest grocery line, they explained – and, indeed, one had seen larger and higher ones in the valleys lower down; but a certain nakedness of rock and snow beneath, and side-way blasts of air out of funnels and rifts that we slid past, made it interesting.

At the terminus, four or five hundred feet overhead (we were more than two thousand feet above the Mess-house in the pines) (6), there was a system – it suggested the marks that old ivy prints on a wall after you peel it off – of legends and paths of slushy trampled snow, connecting the barracks, the cook-house, the Officers’ Mess and, I presume, the parade ground of the garrison. If the cook dropped a bucket, he had to go down six hundred feet to retrieve it. If a visitor went too far round a corner to admire the panoramas, he became visible to unartistic Austrians (7) who promptly loosed off a shrapnel. All this eagle’s nest of a world in two dimensions boiled with young life and energy, as the planks and girders, the packages of other stuff came up the aerial; and the mountain above leaned outward over it all, hundreds of feet yet to the top.

‘Our real work is a little higher up – only a few steps,’ they urged.

But I recalled that it was Dante himself who says how bitter it is to climb up and down other people’s stairs. Besides, their work was of no interest to any one except the enemy round the corner. It was just the regular routine of these parts. They outlined it for the visitor.

You climb up a fissure of a rock chimney – by shoulder or knee work such as mountaineers understand – and at night for choice, because, by day, the enemy drops stones down the chimney, but then they had to carry machine-guns, and some other things, with them. (‘By the way, some of our machine-guns are of French manufacture, so our Machine Gun Corps’ souvenir – please take it, we want you to have it – represents the heads of France and Italy side by side.’) (8)

And when you emerge from your chimney – which it is best to do in a storm or a gale, since nailed boots on rock make a noise – you find either that you command the enemy’s post on the top, in which case you destroy him, or cut him off from supplies by gunning the only goat-path that brings them; or you find the enemy commands you from some unsuspected cornice or knob of rock. Then you go down again – if you can – and try elsewhere. And that is how it is done all along that section of frontier where the ground does not let you do otherwise.

Special work is somewhat different. You select a mountain- top which you have reason to believe is filled with the enemy and all his works. You effect a lodgement there with your teeth and toe-nails; you mine into the solid rock with compressed-air drills for as many hundred yards as you calculate may be necessary. When you have finished, you fill your galleries with nitroglycerine and blow the top off the mountain. Then you occupy the crater with men and machine-guns as fast as you can. Then you secure your dominating position from which you can gain other positions, by the same means.

‘But surely you know all about this. You’ve seen the Castelletto,’ some one said. (9)

It stood outside in the sunshine, a rifted bastion crowned with peaks like the roots of molar-teeth. The largest peak had gone. A chasm, a crater and a vast rock slide took its place.

Yes, I had seen the Castelletto, but I was interested to see the men who had blown it up.

‘Oh, he did that. That’s him.’ (10)

A man with the eyes of a poet or musician laughed and nodded. Yes, he owned, he was mixed up in the affair of the Castelletto – had written a report on it, too. They had used thirty-five tons of nitroglycerine for that mine. They had brought it up by hand – in the old days when he was a second lieutenant and men lived in tents, before the wire-rope railways were made – a long time ago.

‘And your battalion did it all?’

‘No – no: not at all, by any means, but – before we’d finished with the Castelletto we were miners and mechanics and all sorts of things we never expected to be . That is the way of this war.’

‘And this mining business still goes on?’

Yes: I might take it that the mining business did go on.

And now would I, please, come and listen to a little music from their band? (11) It lived on the rock ledges – and it would play the Regimental and the Company March; but – one of the joyous children shook his head sadly – ‘those Austrians aren’t really musical. No ear for music at all.’

Given a rock wall that curves over in a sounding-board behind and above a zealous band, to concentrate the melody, and rock ribs on either side to shoot the tune down a thousand feet on to hard snowfields below, and thunderous echoes from every cranny and cul de sac along half a mile of resonant mountain-face, the result, I do assure you, reduces Wagner to a whisper. That they wanted Austria was nothing – she was only just round the corner – but it seemed to me that all Italy must hear them across those gulfs of thin air. They brayed, they neighed, and they roared; the bandsmen’s faces puckered with mirth behind the brasses, and the mountains faithfully trumpeted forth their insults all over again.

The Company March did not provoke any applause – I expect the enemy had heard it too often. We embarked on national anthems. The Marsellaise was but a success d’estime, drawing a perfunctory shrapnel or so, but when the band gave them and the whole accusing arch of heaven the Brabanconne the enemy were much moved.

‘I told you they had no taste,’ said a young faun on a rock shelf; ‘still, it shows the swine have a conscience.’

But some folk never know when to stop; besides, it was time for the working-parties to be coming in off the roads. So an announcement was made from high overhead to our unseen audience that the performance was ended and they need not applaud any longer. It was put a little more curtly than this, and it sounded exactly like ears being boxed.

The silence spread with the great shadows of the rock towers across the snow: there was tapping and clinking and an occasional stone-slide far up the mountain side; the aerial railway carried on as usual; the working parties knocked off, and piled tools, and the night shifts began.

The last I saw of the joyous children was a cluster of gnome-like figures a furlong overhead, standing, for there was no visible foothold, on nothing. They separated, and went about their jobs as single dots, moving up or sideways on the face of the rock, till they disappeared into it like ants. Their real work lay ‘only a few steps higher up’ where the observation-posts, the sentries, the supports and all the rest live on ground compared with which the baboon-tracks round the Mess and the barracks are level pavement. Those rounds must be taken in every weather and light; that is, made at eleven thousand feet, with death for company under each foot, and the width of a foot on each side, at every step of the most uneventful round. Frosty glazed rock where a blunt- nailed boot slips once and no more; mountain blasts round the corner of ledges before the body is braced to them; a knob of rotten shale crumbling beneath the hand; an ankle twisted at the bottom of a ninety-foot rift; a roaring descent of rocks loosened by snow from some corner the sun has undermined through the day – these are a few of the risks they face going from and returning to the coffee and gramophones at the Mess, ‘in the ordinary discharge of their duties.’

A turn of the downward road shut them and their world from sight – never to be seen again by my eyes, but the hot youth, the overplus of strength, the happy, unconsidered insolence of it all, the gravity, beautifully maintained over the coffee cups, but relaxed when the band played to the enemy, and the genuine, boyish kindness, will remain with me. But, behind it all, fine as the steel wire ropes, implacable as the mountain, one was conscious of the hardness of their race.

©Rudyard Kipling 1917


by Peter Lewis

1. The Mess-room was probably in the barracks complex at the foot of the Tofane di Rozes massif, east of the Col di Rozes at an altitude of 7,000ft.
2.This would have been the Tofane di Rozes, one of the three peaks of the Le Tofane massif which dominates the landscape. It lies about 15km west of Cortina, on Route No.48 leading to the Passo di Falzarego. Kipling would have seen it as he approached Cortina along Route No.51 from Pieve di Cadore and Udine.
3.Austrian intelligence maps for April 1917 show a communications road, partly tunnelled , leading from the barracks complex to the service areas for the front line positions up on the bastion of the Col dei Bois.
4.The end of the communications road was near the top station of an aerial ropeway which led from the main road on the floor of the valley up to the heavily fortified positions on the Col dei Bois.
5.This suggests that either the new road did not quite reach the ropeway terminus, or more likely,it was being built to supplement the limited capacity of the ropeway to support the more forward positions.
6.The Col dei Bois positions were about 6,000ft above the end of the road and the ropeway terminus; they were also served by three smaller ropeways.
7.It seems likely that Kipling was taken up one of the shorter ropeways and into the artillery and machine gun positions on the plateau on top of the Col. The Austrian positions were on the mountain side of the Laguzoi, a very short distance across the Forcella di Travenantes.
8. Machine guns were essential to mountain warfare and both the British and French governments had sent a number in the previous year.
9. This was Kipling’s second view of the Castelletto (Schreckenstein on Austrian and Punta di Bois on Italian maps), a rock outcrop with shear walls separated from the west wall of Tofana I (or Tofana di Rozes) by a narrow saddle. It was often referred to as “Tofana’s little brother”. The Castelletto was a natural fortress and an initial Italian attack in 1915 had failed to dislodge the small Austrian garrison. It dominated the entrance to the Val Travantes and gave the Austrians a vantage point overlooking the Italian positions in the Falzarego valley. In April 1916, the Italians under Lieutenant Luigi Malvessi began work on a tunnel running from the galleries in the Tofana to a large mine chamber under the Austrian positions. The mine was exploded on 17 July 1916, with the King and General Cadorna watching from Mt. Averau. After the explosion, the Italians launched several costly assaults in strength and the Austrians were compelled to withdraw to positions on the eastern slopes of Laguzoi. The positions changed little until the general Italian withdrawal in November 1917.
10.The names of Lieutenants Malvessi, Caetano and Tissi are connected with the mining of the Castelletto, but a German expert on mine warfare thinks that these officers were out of the area on the day of Kipling’s visit.
11. Front Line Band Concerts were very much an Italian speciality; the best known being one conducted by Toscanini on the Isonzo Front (he got a medal for it).