WHEN ONE REACHED the great Venetian plain near Army Headquarters (1), the Italian fronts were explained with a clearness that made maps unnecessary.
‘We have three fronts,’ said my informant. (2) , ‘On the first, the Isonzo front, which is the road to Trieste, our troops can walk, though the walking is not good. On the second, the Trentino, to the north, where the enemy comes nearest to our plains, our troops must climb and mountaineer, you will see.’
He pointed south-east and east across the heat haze to some evil-looking ridges a long way off where there was a sound of guns debating ponderously. ‘That is the Carso, where we are going now,’ he said; then he turned north-east and north where nearer, higher mountains showed streaks of snow in their wrinkles.
‘Those are the Julian Alps,’ he went on. ‘Tolmino is behind them , north again (3). Where the snow is thicker – do you see? – are the Carnic Alps; we fight among them. Then to the west of them come the Dolomites, where tourists use to climb and write books. There we fight, also. The Dolomites join on to the Trentino and the Asiago Plateau, and there we fight. And from there we go round north till we meet the Swiss border. All mountains, you see.’
He picked up the peaks one after another with the ease of a man accustomed to pick up landmarks at any angle and any change of light. A stranger’s eyes could make out nothing except one sheer rampart of brooding mountains – ‘like giants at a hunting’ – all along the northern horizon.
The glass split them into tangled cross-chains of worsted hillocks, hollow-flanked peaks cleft by black or grey ravines, stretches of no-coloured rock gashed and nicked with white, savage thumbnails of hard snow thrust up above cockscombs of splinters , and behind everything an agony of tortured crags against the farthest sky. Men must be borne or broke to the mountains to accept them easily. They are too full of their own personal devils.
The plains around Udine are better – the fat, flat plains crowded with crops – wheat and barley patches between trim vineyards, every vine with her best foot forwards and arms spread to welcome spring. Every field hedged with old, strictly pollarded mulberry-trees for the silkworms, and every road flanked with flashing water-channels that talk pleasantly in the heart.
At each few score yards of road there was a neat square of limestone road-metal, with the water- channel led squarely round it. Each few hundred yards, and old man and a young boy worked together, the one with a long spade, the other with a tin pot at the end of a pole. The instant that any wear showed in the surface, the elder padded the hollow with a spoonful of metal, the youth sluiced it, and at once it was ready to bind down beneath the traffic as tight as an inner-tube patch.
There was curiously little traffic by our standards, but all there was moved very swiftly. The perfectly made and tended roads do most of the motor’s work. Where there are no bump there can be no strain, even under maximum loads. The lorries glide from railhead to their destination, return, and are off again without overhaul or delay. On the simple principle that transportation is civilisation, the entire Italian campaign is built, and every stretch of every road proves it.
But on the French front Providence does not supply accommodating river-beds whence the beautiful self-binding stuff can be shovelled ready-made into little narrow-gauge trucks all over the landscape. Nor have we in France solid mountains where man has but to reach out his hand to all the stone of all the pyramids. Neither, anywhere, have we populations expert from birth at masonry. To parody Macaulay, what the axe is to the Canadian, what the bamboo is to the Malay, what the snow-block is to the Esqimaux, stone and cement is to the Italian, as I hope to show later.
They are a hard people habituated to handling hard stuffs, and, I should imagine, with a sense of property as keen as the Frenchman’s. The innumerable grey-green troops in the bright fields moved sympathetically among the crops and did not litter their surroundings with rubbish. They have their own pattern of steel helmet, which differs a little from ours, and gives them at a distance a look of Roman Legionaires on a frieze of triumph. The infantry and, to a less extent, other arms are not recruited locally but generally, so that the men from all parts come to know each other, and losses are more evenly spread. But the size, physique, and, above all, the poise of the men struck one at every step. They seem more supple in their collective movements and less loaded down with haberdashery than either French or British troops. But the indescribable difference lay in their tread – the very fall of their feet and the manner in which they seemed to possess the ground they covered. Men whose life runs normally in the open own and are owned by their surroundings more naturally than those whom climate and trade keep housed through most of the year. Space, sunlight, and air, the procession of life under vivid skies, furnish the Italian with a great deal of his mental background, so when, as a soldier, he is bidden to sit down in the clean dust and be still as the hours while the shells pass, he does so as naturally as an Englishman draws a chair to the fire. The Belly of Stones
‘And that is the Isonzo River (4),’ said the officer, when we reached the edge of the Udine plain. It might have come out from Kashmir with its broad sweeps of pale shoals that tailed off downstream into dancing haze. The milky jade waters smelt of snow from the hills as they plucked at the pontoon bridges’ moorings which were made to allow for many feet rise and fall. A snow-fed river is as untrustworthy as a drunkard.
The flavour of mules, burning fuels, and a procession of high-wheeled Sicilian carts, their panels painted with Biblical stories, added to the Eastern illusion. But the ridge (5) on the far side of the river that looked so steep, and was in reality only a small flattish mound among mountains, resembled no land on earth. If the Matoppos had married the Karroo they might have begotten some such abortion of stone-speckled, weather- hacked dirt. All along the base of it, indifferent to the thousands of troops around, to the scream of mules, the cough of motors, the whirr of machinery and the jarring carts, lay in endless belts of cemeteries those Italian dead who had first made possible the way to the heights above.
‘We brought them down and buried them after each fight,’ said the officer. ‘There were many fights. Whole regiments lie there – and there – and there. Some of them died in the early days when we made war without roads, some of them died afterwards, when we had the roads but the Austrians had the guns. Some of them died at the last when we beat the Austrians. Look!’
As the poet says, the battle is won by the men who fall. God knows how many mothers’ sons sleep along the river before Gradisca in the shadow of the first ridge of the wicked Carso. They can hear their own indomitable people always blasting their way towards the east and Trieste. The valley of the Isonzo multiplies the roar of the heavy pieces around Goritzia and in the mountains to the north, and sometimes enemy aeroplanes scar and rip up their resting-places. They lie, as it were, in a giant smithy where the links of the new Italy are being welded under smoke and flame and heat – heat from the dry shoals of the river-bed before, and heat from the dry ridge behind them.
The road wrenched itself uphill among the dead trenches, through wire entanglements red-rusted on the ground – looking like ‘harrows fit to reel men’s bodies out like silk’- between the usual mounds of ruptured sand-bags, and round empty gun-pits softened at their angles by the passage of the seasons.
Trenches cannot be dug, any more than water can be found, on the Carso, for a spade’s depth below the surface the unkindly stone turns to sullen rock, and everything must be drilled and blasted out. For the moment, because spring had been wet, the stones were greened over with false growth of weeds which wither utterly in the summer, leaving the rocks to glare and burn alone. As if all this savagery were not enough, the raw slopes and cusps of desolation were studded with numberless pits and water-sinks, some exquisitely designed by the Devil for machine-gun positions, others like small craters capable of holding eleven-inch howitzers, which opened at the bottom through rifts into dry caverns where regiments can hide – and be dug out.
We wound under the highest rise of the ridge and came out on its safest side, on to what the Arabs would call a belly of stones. There was no pretence of green – nothing but rock, broken and rebroken, as far as the eye could carry, by shell-fire, as though it were the far end of Lydd ranges. Earth, however battered, one can make some sort of shift to walk on, but here there was no more foothold than in a nightmare. No two splinters were the same size, and when a man stumbled on the edge of a shell-crater, its sides rolled down with the rattle of a dried tongue in the mouth. Great communal graves were heaped up and walled down their long sides with stone, and on one such stack of death’s harvest some one had laid an old brown thigh-bone. The place shivered with ghosts in the hot daylight as the stones shivered in the heat. Dry, ragged points, like a cow’s hips, rose along the ridge which we had overlooked. One of them only a few feet lower than we stood had been taken and lost six times. ‘They cleared us out with machine-guns from where we are now,’ said the officer, ‘so we had to capture this higher point first. It cost a good deal.’
He told us tales of regiments wiped out, reconstituted and wiped out anew, who achieved, at their third or fourth resurrection, what their ancestors had set out to win. He told us of enemy dead in multitudes put away somewhere beneath the ringing stones, and of a certain Austrian Honved division (6) which by right of blood claim that this section of the Carso is specially theirs to defend. They, too, appear out of the rocks, perish, and are born again to be slain.
‘If you come into this shell-hole – I don’t think I should stand up too much – I’ll try to show you what we want to do at our next push,’ the officer said. ‘We’re just getting ready for it’ – and he explained with a keen forefinger how it was intended to work along certain hills that dominate certain roads which lead, at last, towards the head of the Adriatic – one could see it, a patch of dull silver to the southward – under some dark, shadowy hills that covered Trieste itself.
A sun-warmed water-pipe crossed our shell-hole at about the height of one’s chin, and the whirr of a distant shell. The officer’s explanation was punctuated by the grumble of single big guns on the Italian side, ranging in anticipation of the serious work to come. Then the ground hiccupped a few yards in front of us, and stones – the poisonous edged stones of the Carso – whirred like partridges. ‘Mines,’ said the officer serenely, while the civils automatically turned up their collars. ‘They are working up the steep side of the ridge, but they might have warned us!’
The mines exploded in orderly line, and it being impossible to run away over the stones, one had to watch them with the lively consciousness that those scores of thousands of dead beneath and around and behind were watching too. A pneumatic drill chattered underground, as teeth chatter.
‘I didn’t know there were so many loose stones in the world,’ I said.
‘They are not all loose. We wish they were. They’re very solid. Come and see!’
Out of the ginning sunshine we walked into a great rock-cut gallery with rails running underfoot and men shovelling rubbish into trucks. Half-a-dozen embrasures gave light through thirty feet of rock. ‘These are some of the new gun-positions,’ said the officer. ‘For six-inch guns perhaps! Perhaps for eleven.’
‘And how’d you get eleven-inch guns up here?’ I asked.
He smiled a little – I learned the meaning of that smile up in the mountains later.
‘By hand,’ said he, and turned to the engineer in charge to reprove him for exploding the mines without warning.
We came off the belly of stones, and when we were on the flat lands beyond the Isonzo again, looked back at it across its girdling line of cemeteries. It was the first obstacle Italy found at her own threshold, after she had forced the broad uneasy Isonzo, ‘where troops can walk, though the walking is not good.’ It seemed enough.
©Rudyard Kipling 1917
by Peter Lewis
1. The Headquarters was at Udine. The King, as Commander-in-Chief, also lived there and was seldom in Rome.
2. The informant was probably Colonel Pirelli, son of the tyre manufacturer. He accompanied Kipling and Landon on their tour of the battlefields.
3. From where Kipling was standing, the Julian Alps lie behind Tolmino.
4. They would have crossed the river by the wooden bridge at Peteano. In a letter to his wife, Kipling mentions going through the village of San Martino del Carso. Probably the military censor prevented him from reporting that British howitzers (which he had seen passing through Modane a few days earlier) had just been deployed nearby.These were the guns of the XCIV and XCV Artillery Groups, attached to the Italian Army (2nd Heavy Artillery). See Dalton With British Guns to Italy.
5. The letter of May10 identifies this as the ridge running NE-SW comprising Monte St.Michele, Hill 197 and Hill 143; features which barred the way to Trieste. The sector was fought over with huge losses (Kipling describes it as ‘their Ypres and Hill 60’) on both sides until the Italians finally prevailed in August 1916.
6. A Hungarian militia division.