The War in the Mountains – III

A Pass a King and a Mountain

by Rudyard Kipling

A FALCON SWOOPED off the hill-top and hung below us searching the valley at the head of the pass, which was a broad grassy funnel dipping out into space, exactly like the Muttianee behind Simla. The usual roughly paved caravan track led over it between hummocks of board, rock, and earth, whence it seemed only right that Hillmen would presently come out with brick-tea. But it was a gunner with kindly offers of coffee – a weather- worn commander whose eyes were set to views of very distant horizons. He and his guns lived up there all the year, and on the highest grazing-grounds on either side of his lair were black shell-holes by the score, where the enemy had hunted for him. The snow had just gone, neatly turning in the winter-killed grass-stems around the edge of the older shell-holes as it melted away. This Commandant, like the others, controlled an observation post. When he clicked back its shutter, we looked down as the falcons do, into an Austrian town (1) with a broken bridge over a river, and lines of Italian trenches, crawling towards it across river flats – all laid out mapwise, three thousand feet below. The town waits – as Gorizia waits – while decisions of which it knows nothing are being taken overhead, whether it shall live or die. Meanwhile, the Commandant pointed out its beauties, for it was his possession, you see, by right of eminent domain, and he dispensed the high, the low, and the middle justice over it.

When we were at coffee, a subaltern came with word that the Austrians, ten thousand metres away, were shifting some-thing that looked like a gun. (Guns take all sorts of shapes when they have to be moved.) The Commandant excused himself, and the telephones called up observers laid out somewhere among the tangled steeps and hanging woods below.

‘No,’ he said presently, shaking his head, ‘it’s only a cart – not worth a shot just now.’

There was much bigger game afoot elsewhere, and I fancy that the orders were not to flush it too soon.

The keen wind whooped over the grass and drummed on the boards of the huts. A soldier at a bench fitted nails into his boot, and crooned to himself as he tapped. A blast or two exploded somewhere down the new-made screened road along which we had come (2), and the echoes clamoured through the valley. Then a motor-horn with a distinctive note rang fierce and piercing.

‘That’s the King’s bugle,’ some one said. ‘He may be coming here. Listen. No… he’s going on to look at some of the new batteries. You never know where he’ll turn up, but he’s always somewhere along the line, and he never leaves anything unseen’. (3)

The remark was not addressed to the private with the boot, but he grinned as men do at the name of a popular general. Many pleasant tales are current in his armies concerning the King of Italy. The gist of them all is that he is very much of a man as well as a statesman. Kings and ammunition-dumps are fair targets for aeroplanes, but, if the tale be true, and it squares with all the others, there is one King at least who shoots back and shoots straight. No fear or circumstance distinguish him from any other general in field kit, down to the single ribbon that testifies to a year’s war service. He moves temperate, loyal, keen, in stark simplicity among his men and full hazards of war.

All that day a triangular snow peak had risen like a master wave, now to one side, now to the other, of our road. On the steepest slopes of its topmost snows it carried a broad, open V, miles long on either limit, which appeared in the changing lights like a faint cattle-brand, or giant ski-tracks, or those dim canals of Schiaparelli which mark the face of the red planet Mars. That was Monte Nero (4), and the mark was the line of the Italian trenches on it. They are cut through snow that melts, into packed snow that never melts, into packed snow that never softens; and where the snow cannot lie on the sheer rocks, they are blasted in and out among the frost-ridden rubbish of the mountain crest. Up there, men fight with field-guns, machine-guns, and rifles, and more deadly shoots of stones heaped together and sent sliding down at the proper time. Up there, if a man is wounded and bleeds only a little before he is found, the cold kills him in minutes, not hours. Whole companies can be frostbitten and crippled even while they lie taking cover in the pauses of a rush, and the wandering mountain gusts take sentries from under the lee of their rock as they stand up to be relieved, and flick them into space.

The mountain draws its own supplies and troops for miles and miles back, over new roads that break off from the main arteries of traffic and split into mule-trails and man-tracks, emerging, at last, against the bare rocks, as thin and threadlike as the exposed roots of a botanical diagram to illustrate capillary attraction. There has never been a greater work of invention, preparation, and endurance among fantastic horrors than the winning and holding of this one post. And it has passed almost unnoticed by nations, each absorbed in its own hell.

‘We climbed! We climbed! We carried the approaches. Now we are up there, and the Austrians are a little to the right just above that sinking cloud under that cliff. When they are dislodged we get full command of that height,’ etc., etc. The officer spoke without emotion. He and a few million others had been goaded out of their known life to achieve the incredible. They had left the faculty of wonder at home with the pictures and the wallpapers and the unfit.

Armies and Avalanches

‘But if you make a road, you must make a road,’ the officer insisted.

‘Admitted. But can all these tremendous works be necessary?’

‘Believe me, we do not lay one stone more than we have to. You are seeing the roads in spring. We make them for winter in the mountains. They must be roads to stand everything.’

They clung to the hillside on hanging arches of concrete, they were riveted and sheathed thirty or forty feet down with pointed masonry; protected above by stonewallings that grew out of the rock itself, and above that again, by wing walls to part and divert uneasy snow-slides or hopping stones a quarter of a mile uphill. They were pierced by solid bridges and culverts at every turn where drainage might gather, or flanked with long aprons of pitched stone, where some mountain’s soaked side slid down in broad fans of stony trash which, when the snows melt, delivers sudden blasts of racing pebbles and water.

Every few hundred yards on the road were the faithful old man and the boy, the stone-heap and the spade, and the twenty-mile-an-hour lorries rolled as smoothly over the flawless surface as they had in the plains.

We passed a Touring Club notice, of peace times, bidding people ‘pay attention’ to avalanches. A tangle of pines, snapped like straws underneath one drunken boulder about the size of a house, underlining the warning.

‘Yes, before the War, people used to whisper and hold their breath when they passed some of these corners in winter. And now! Hear what a noise that string of cars makes in these gorges! Imagine it in winter! Why, a single motor-bus sometimes would start an avalanche! We’ve lost many men that way. But transport can’t stop for snow.’

It did not. We ran, as the lorries ran, into patches of melting snow, fringed with gentian clumps, heath, and crocus! These patches thickened to sheets, till at the head of a pass we found ten foot of packed snow, all newly shovelled back from the dry, perfectly graded road-bed. It trailed after us brokenly, through villages whose gutters danced with bright water, and closed up abreast of us in sheets once more when we reached Cortina.

This was an ex-health and pleasure resort, which of late belonged to the Austrians, who filled it with ‘new-art’ hotels (5), each more villainous in design than its neighbour. To-day, as the troops and transport come and go, the jigsaw and coloured-glass atrocities look like bedizened ladies , standing distracted in the middle of a police raid. The enemy do not shell the hotels much, because they are owned by Austrian heyducs who hope to come back and resume their illustrious trade. (6)

In the old days, whole novels were written about Cortina. The little-used mountains round made an impressive background for love-tales and climbing adventures. Love has gone out of this huge basin of the Dolomites now, and the mountaineering is done by platoons in order to kill men, not by individuals who read papers before Alpine Clubs.

On most of the other Fronts war is waged in hot contact with all man’s work and possessions. The slayer and the slain keep each other company at least in a world that they themselves created. But here one faces the immense scorn of the hills preoccupied with their own affairs; for between frost, snow, and undermining waters, the hills are always busy. Men, mules, and motors are busy too! The roads are alive with them. They inhabit cities inside dim forests of pine whose service paths are cut through stale snow and whose aisles ring with machinery! They march out, marshal, and distribute themselves among the snowfields above, by whole regiments and arsenals at a time. Take your eye off them for an instant, and they are swallowed up in the vastness of things long before they reach the upthrusting rock walls where the mountains and the fighting begin.

There is no scale to lay hold on. The largest shells make a smudge no bigger than a midge in a corner of a fold of a swell on the edge of a snowfield’s bank. A barracks for two hundred men is a swallow’s nest plastered beneath the overhanging eaves, only visible when the light is good – the same light that reveals the glancing spider-web of steel wire strung across the abysses, which is the aerial railway feeding that post. Some of these lines work only by night when travelling cradles that hang from the wires cannot be shrapnelled. Others spin and whisper busily all day , against rifts and chimneys of the rock, with their loads of building material, food, ammunition, and the blessed letter from home, or a still burden of wounded, two at a time, slung down after some fight on the very crest itself. From the wire rope and its cradle, to the mule who carries two hundred pounds, to the five-ton lorry or the cart, to the rail-head, is the way of it for every ounce of weight that travels up or down this battle-front. Except the big guns. They arrive at their proper place by the same means that Rome was built.

Men explained and re-explained their transport to me, giving weights, sizes, distances, and average allowance per head of troops. Their system is not like ours. It seems to lack our abundance of forms and checks, as well as palaces full of khakied clerks initialling bits of paper in quadruplicate.

‘Oh, but we have forms and paper enough,’ they protested. ‘Any amount of forms. You’ll find them in the cities. They don’t grow well in the snow here.’

‘That sounds reasonable,’ I replied, ‘but it is the infinite labour imposed on you by your mere surroundings that impresses me most of all. Everything you handle seems to end in a two-hundred-pound package taken up the side of a house, and yet you have heavy artillery on the edge of glaciers. It’s a new convention.’

‘True. But these are our surroundings, and our people are used to them. They are used to getting load up and down hill; used to handling things and straps and gears and harness and beasts and stones all their lives; besides, we’ve been at it for two years. That is why the procession moves.’

Yet I came on one ghastly break in it, nevertheless.

There had been a battery with guns, mules, barracks, and stables complete, established on a mountain side, till it had seemed good to the mountain to brush them away as a woman brushes off snow from her skirt. ‘Ninety are down below in the valley with the mules and the rest. Those we shall never find. How did it happen? A very little thing starts an avalanche when the snow is ripe for it. Perhaps a rifle-shot. And yet,’ he added grimly, ‘we must go on and shake all this atmosphere with our guns. Listen!’

There was nothing doing, at the moment, on this front any more than the others – only a hidden piece here or there answering its opponent. Sometimes the discharge sounded like a triumphant whoop across the snows! Then like the fall of trees far off in the thick woods! But it was most awful when it died down to a dumbed beat no louder than the pulse of blood in one’s ears after a climb, or that hint which a mountain-slide might give before it chose to move into action on its own

©Rudyard Kipling 1917



by Peter Lewis

1. They were probably on the Jeza-Hlevnik-Kuk ridge looking down on Tolmino and the Austrian bridgehead near S.Daniele.
2. Probably along the Kolovrat ridge from the south, through Lig and Srednje.
3. The “small King in the large Fiat”, commented on by most journalists visiting the Front.
4. Monte Nero (Krn in Slovene) 2245m. In June 1915 the Alpini under General Etno took the peak at great cost. The ‘triangular peak’ is the end face of a ridge which runs to the north-west; the Alpini approached along this ridge, seizing the two lower peaks (2138m and 2133m) before surprising the Hungarian troops on the peak itself. The Italians held the peak until the retreat after the Battle of Caporetto.
5. Cortina was (and still is) a very fashionable Austrian (now Italian) resort and the Baedeker of 1914 lists many starred hotels. Perhaps Kipling was referring to the newer ones built in the Style Moderne. Not easy to identify the particular hotel today as they all appear rather handsome and rather the sort of hotels at which the Kipling family liked to stay.
6. The town is quite spread out and would not have been a profitable target for artillery, particularly when every round had to be carried by mule, truck or aerial ropeway. The use of the term ‘heyducs’ is baffling ; it is used in various contexts to describe bandits in the Tatra mountains, peasant farmers of the Danubian plain east of Budapest and a wide variety of Balkan brigands, often celebrated in the folklore of the lower Danube – not the sort of people to be found running hotels in fashionable mountain resorts. Kipling was perhaps trying to find an equivalent to the use of “Boche” as a pejorative description of Germans , but it was impossible as the Austrian Empire embraced fifteen or more languages and ethnic groups and was more like India. (Conan Doyle tried ‘Austria-Goths and ‘Kaiserlics’, but these words never caught on).