‘WE HAVE FINISHED with stones for a little,’ said the officer.
‘We are going to a mountain of mud. It is dry now, but this winter it never stayed quiet.’
An acre or so of the the climbing roadside was still uneasy, and had slid face-down in a splatter of earth and tree-roots which men were shovelling off.
‘It’s rather a fresh road. Altogether we have about four thousand miles of new roads – and old roads improved – on a front of about six hundred kilometres. But you see, our kilometres are not flat.’
The landscape, picked out in all the greens of spring, was that of early Italian holy pictures – the same isolated, scarred hummocks rising from enamelled meadows or drifts of bloom into the same elaborate entablatures of rock, crowned by a campanile or tufted with dark trees. On the white roads beneath us the lines of motors and mule transport strung out evenly to their various dumps. At one time we must have commanded twenty full miles, all working at once, but never could we spy a breakdown. The Italian transport system has been tried out by war long ago.
The more the road sunk to the plains, the more one realised the height of the mountains dominating us all round. Podgora (1), the mountain of mud, is a little Gibraltar about eight hundred feet high, almost sheer on one side, overlooking the town of Gorizia, which, in civil life, used to be a sort of stuffy Cheltenham for retired Austrian officers. Anywhere else, Podgora hill might be noticeable, but you could set down half-a-dozen Gibraltars among this upheaval of hills, and in a month the smooth Italian roads would overrun them as vine tendrils overrun rubbish-heaps. The lords of the military situation round Gorizia are the four- and five- thousand-foot mountains, crowded one behind the other, every angle, upland and valley of each offering or masking death.
The mountains are vile ground for aeroplane work, because there is nowhere to alight in comfort, but none the less the machines beat over them from both sides, and the anti-aircraft guns which are not impressive in the open plains fill the gorges with multiplied coughings more resembling a lion’s roar than thunder. The enemy fly high, over the mountains, and show against the blue like bits of whirling ash off a bonfire. They drop their bombs generously, and the rest is with fate – either the blind crack on blank rock and the long harmless whirr of slivered stone, or that ripe crash which tells that timber, men and mules have caught it full this time. If all the setting were not so lovely, if the lights, the leafage, the blossom, and the butterflies mating on the grassy lips of old trenches were not allowed to insult the living workmen of death, their work would be easier to describe without digressions.
When we had climbed on foot up and up and into the bowels of the mountain of mud, through galleries and cross-galleries, to a discreetly veiled observation-point, Gorizia, pink, white, and bluish, lay, to all appearance, asleep beneath us amid her full flowering chestnut-trees by the talking Isonzo. She was in Italian hands – won after furious fights – but the enemy guns from the mountains could still shell her at pleasure, and the next move, said our officer, would be to clear certain heights -‘Can you see our trenches creeping up to them?’ – from their menace. There and there, he pointed (2), the Italian troops would climb and crawl, while thus and thus would the fire of our guns cover them, till they came to that bare down and must make their rush – which is really a climb – alone. If that rush failed, then they must dig in among the rocks. And lie out under the bitter skyline, for this was war among the mountains where the valleys were death-traps and only heights counted.
Then we turned to the captured hills behind us that had lived so unconsidered since they were made , but now, because of the price paid for them, would stand forth memorable as long as Italy was remembered. The heathen mountains in front had yet to be baptized and entered on the roll of honour, and one could not say at that moment which one of them would be most honourable, or what cluster of herdsmen’s huts would carry the name of a month’s battle through the ages.
The studied repose that heralds a big push cloaked both lines. No one, except a few pieces who were finishing some private work, was saying anything. The Austrians had their own last touches to put in too. They were ranging on a convent up a hillside – one deliberate shell at a time. A big gun beneath us came lazily into the game on our side, shaking the whole mountain of mud, and then asking questions of its observing officer across the valley.
Suddenly a boy’s voice, that had been taking corrections, spoke quite unofficially at the receiver in the gloom under our feet. ‘Oh! Congratulations!’ it cried. ‘Then you dine with us to-night, and you’ll pay for the wine.’
Every one laughed.
‘Rather a long walk,’ said our guide and friend. ‘The observing officer – he is down near Gorizia – has just telephoned that he has been promoted to Aspirant – Sub-Lieutenant, don’t you say? He will have to climb up here to the artillery Mess tonight and stand drinks on his promotion.’
‘I bet he’ll come,’ some one said. There were no takers. So you see, youth is always immortally the same.
We dropped from Podgora into Gorizia by a road a little more miraculous than any we had yet found. It was in the nature of a toboggan-run, but so perfectly banked at the corners that the traffic could have slid down by itself if it had been allowed.
As we entered the town, men were mending the bridge across the river – for a reason. They do a great deal of mending in Gorizia. Austrians use heavy pieces on the place – twelve-inch stuff sometimes – dealt methodically and slowly from far back, out of the high hills. I tried to find a house that did not carry that monotonous stippling of shrapnel, but it was difficult. The guns reach everywhere.
There was no air in the still hollow where the place lay – hardly a whisper among the domed horse- chestnuts. Troops were marching through to their trenches far up the hillside beyond, and the sound of their feet echoed between the high garden-walls where the service wires were looped among pendants of wistaria in full flower.
There are several hundred civilians in the city who have not yet cared to move, for the Italian is as stubborn in these things as the Frenchman. In the main square where the house-fronts are most battered and the big electric-light standard bows itself to the earth, I saw a girl bargaining for some buttons on a card at a shop- door – hands, eyes, and gesture, all extravagantly employed, and the seller as intently absorbed as she. It must be less distracting than one thinks to live under the knowledge one is always being watched from above – breathed upon in the nape of the neck, so to speak, by invisible mouths.
A little later I was being told confidentially by some English woman (3) among a garden of irises, who owned a radiographic installation and a couple of shrapnel-dusted cars, that they had been promised, when the push came, that they and their apparatus might go into Gorizia itself, to a nice underground room, reasonably free from shells which disconcert the wounded and jar the radiograph, and ‘wasn’t it kind of the authorities?’
The Ridge of the Waiting Guns
The amazing motor-lorries were thicker on the more amazing road than they had been. Our companion apologised for them. ‘You see, we have been taking a few things up to the Front in this way in the last few days,’ he said.
‘Are all Italians born driving motors?’ I demanded, as a procession of high-hooded cars flopped down the curve we were breasting, pivoted on its outside edge, their bonnets pointing over a four-hundred-foot drop, and slid past us with a three-inch clearance between hub and hub.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘But we, too, have been at the game a long time. I expect all the bad chauffeurs have been killed.’
‘And bad mules?’ One of them was having hysterics on what I thought – till I had climbed a few thousand higher – was the edge of a precipice. ‘Oh, you can’t kill a mule,’ and sure enough, when the beast had registered its protest, it returned to the dignity of its sires. The muleteer said not a word.
We bored up and into the hills by roads not yet mapped, but solid as lavish labour can make them against the rolling load of the lorries, and the sharp hoofs of the mule, as well as the wear and tear of winter, who is the real enemy. Our route ran along the folded skirts of a range not more than three or four thousand feet high, more or less parallel with the Isonzo in its way from the north (4). Rivers that had roared level beside us dropped and shrunk to blue threads half visible through the forest. Mountains put forward hard shaly knees round which we climbed in a thousand loops that confused every sense of direction. Then, because the enemy seven miles off (5), could see, stretches of the crowded road (6) were blinded with reed mats while torn holes above or below us proved that he had searched closely.
After that, the colossal lap of a mountain alive with dripping waters would hide us in greenery and moisture, till the sight of a cautious ash-tree still in bud – her sister ten minutes ago had been clothed from head to foot – told us we had risen again to the heights of the naked ridge. And here were batteries upon batteries of the heaviest pieces, so variously disposed and hidden that finding one gave you no clue to the next. Elevens, eights, fours – sixes, and elevens again, on caterpillar wheels, on navy mountings adapted for land work, disconnected from their separate tractors, or balanced and buttressed on their own high speed motors, were repeated for mile after mile, with their ammunition caves, their shops, and the necessary barracks for their thousand servants studded or strung out on the steep drop behind them. Obscure pits and hollows hid them pointing to heaven, and how they had been brought up to be lowered there passed imagination as they peeped out of the merest slits in green sod. They stood back under ledges and eaves of the ground where no light could outline them, or became one with a dung-heap behind a stable. They stalled themselves in thick forest growth, like elephants at noon, or, as it were, crawled squat on their bellies to the very bows of crests overlooking seas of mountains, They, like the others down the line, were waiting for the hour and the order (7). Not half-a-dozen out of a multitude opened their lips.
When we had climbed to a place appointed, the shutter of an observation-post opened upon the world below. We saw the Isonzo almost vertically beneath us, and on the far side were the Italian trenches that painfully climbed to the crest of the bare ridges where the infantry live, who must be fed under cover of night until the Austrians are driven out of their heights above.
‘It is just like fighting a burglar across housetops,’ said the officer. You can spot him from a factory chimney, but he can spot you from the spire of the cathedral – and so on.’
‘Who sees those men down yonder in the trenches?’ I asked.
‘Everybody on both sides, but our guns cover them . That is the way in our war. Height is everything.’
He said nothing of the terrific labour of it all, before a man or a gun can come into position – nothing of the battle that was fought in the gorge below when the Isonzo was crossed and the Italian trenches clawed and sawed their red way up the hillside, and very little of the blood-drenched snout of the height called the Sabotino (8) that was carried, lost and recarried most gloriously in the old days of the War, and now lay out below as innocent-seeming as a mountain pasture. (9)
They are a hard people, these Latins, who have had to fight the mountains and all that is in them, metre by metre, and are thankful when their battlefields do not slope at more than forty-five degrees.
©Rudyard Kipling 1917
by Peter Lewis
1.On the west bank of the Isonzo, overlooking Goritzia. On Italian maps shown as Piedimonte di Calvary.
2.Probably indicating the trenches on Monte Santo (Sveta Gora) and Monte Gabriele.
3. The Countess Helena Gleichen, who commanded the 4th or Radiographic British Red Cross Unit housed in the Villa Zucco in Cormons. She was the daughter of Prince Hohenlohe-Langenberg and the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria’s half sister. She was a sculptor and a painter and painted some battle scenes on the Isonzo. Earlier she had provided some illustrations for Landon’s book on the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet in 1903-1904. In her memoirs Contacts and Contrasts (Murray, London 1940) she records that “Mr Rudyard Kipling and Perceval Landon came to see us”.
4. This was probably the road which runs along the western slopes of the Monte Sabotino ridge.
5. The Austrian lines were, east of, and parallel to, the Isonzo running along the slopes of Monte Santo, Monte Vodice and Monte Kuk. These features were to be captured in the 10th Battle of the Isonzo, which began two days after Kipling was in the area and lasted until 5 June. The Italian forces had been formed into the Goritzia Army Group, underr the command of general Capello for the attack. See Oesterreiches-Ungarns letzer Krieg, Vol 6,Page 134.
6. Probably the main road supplying the Italian bridgehead at Plava, the scene of the main action in the forthcoming battle.
7. See Note 6.