IT DOES NOT NEED an expert to distinguish the notes of the several Italian fronts. One picks them up a long way behind the lines, from the troops in rest or the traffic on the road. Even behind Browning’s lovely Asolo where, you will remember, Pippa passed, seventy-six years since, announcing that ‘All’s right with the world,’ one felt the tightening in the air.
The officer, too, explained frankly above his map:
‘See where our frontier west of the Dolomites dips south in this V-like spearhead. That’s the Trentino. Garibaldi’s volunteers were in full possession of it in our War of Independence. Prussia was our ally then against Austria, but Prussia made peace when it suited her – I’m talking of 1864 – and we had to accept the frontier that she and Austria laid down. The Italian frontier is a bad one everywhere – Prussia and Austria took care of that – but the Trentino section is specially bad.’
Mist wrapped the plateau we were climbing. The mountains had changed into rounded, almost barrel- shaped heights, steep above dry valleys. The roads were many and new, but the lorries held their pace; the usual old man and young boy were there to see to that. Scotch moors, red uplands, scarred with trenches and punched with shell-holes, a confusion of hills without colour and, in the mist, almost without shape, rose and dropped behind us. (1) They hid the troops in their folds – always awaiting troops – and the trenches multiplied themselves high and low on their sides.
We descended a mountain smashed into rubbish from head to heel, but still preserving the outline, like wrinkles on a forehead, of trenches that had followed its contours. A narrow, shallow ditch (it might have been a water-main) ran vertically up the hill, cutting the faded trenches at right angles.
‘That was where our men stood before the Austrians were driven back in their last push – the Asiago push, don’t you call it? (2) It took the Austrians ten days to work half-way down from the top of the mountain. Our men drove that trench straight up the hill, as you see. Then they climbed, and the Austrians broke. It’s not as bad as it looks, because, in this sort of work, if the enemy uphill misses his footing, he rolls down among your men, but if you stumble, you only slip back among your friends.’
‘What did it cost you?’ I whispered.
‘A good deal. And on that mountain across the gorge – but the mist won’t let you see it – our men fought for a week – mostly without water. The Austrians were the first people to lay out a line of twelve-inch shell-holes on a mountain’s side to serve as trenches. It’s almost a regulation trick on all the fronts now, but it’s annoying.’
He told tales of the long, bitter fight when the Austrians thought, till General Cadorna showed them otherwise, they had the plains to the south at their mercy. I should not care to be an Austrian with the Boche behind me and the exercitus Romanus in front.
It was the quietest of fronts and the least ostentatious of armies. It lived in great towns among forests where we found snow again in dirty, hollow-flanked drifts, that were giving up all the rubbish and refuse that winter had hidden. Labour battalions dealt with the stuff, and there were no smells. Other gangs mended shell- holes with speed; the lorries do not like being checked.
Another township, founded among stones, stood empty except for the cooks and a bored road-mender or two. The population was up the hill digging and blasting; or in wooded park-like hollows of lowland. Battalions slipped like shadows through the mists between the pines. When we reached the edge of everything, there was, as usual, nothing whatever, except uptorn breadths of grass and an ‘unhealthy’ house – the battered core of what had once been human – with rain-water dripping through the starred ceilings. The view from it included the sight of the Austrian trenches on pale slopes and the noise of Austrian guns – not lazy ones this time, but eager, querulous, almost questioning.
There was no reply from our side. ‘If they want to find out anything, they can come and look,’ said the officer.
One speculated how much the men behind those guns would have given for a seat in the car through the next few hours that took us along yet another veiled line of arms. But perhaps by now the Austrians have learned.
The mist thickened around us, and the far shoulders of mountains, and the suddenly-seen masses of men who loomed out of it and were gone. We headed upwards till the mists met the clouds, by a steeper road than any we had used before. It ended in a rock gallery (3) where immense guns , set to a certain point when a certain hour should come, waited in the dark.
‘Mind how you walk! It’s rather a sharp turn there.’
The gallery came out on a naked space, and a vertical drop of hundreds of feet of striated rock tufted with heath in bloom. At the wall-foot the actual mountain, hardly less steep, began, and, far below that again, flared outward till it became more reasonable slopes, descending in shoulders and knolls to the immense and ancient plains four thousand feet below.
The mists obscured the northern views, but to the southward one traced the courses of broad rivers, the thin shadows of aqueducts, and the piled outlines of city after city whose single past was worth more than the future of all the barbarians clamouring behind the ranges that were pointed out to us through the observatory windows. The officer finished his tales of year-long battles and bombardments among them.
‘And that nick in the skyline to the right of that smooth crest under the clouds (4) is a mine we sprung,’ said he.
The observation shutter behind its fringe of heather-bells closed softly. They do everything without noise in this hard and silent land. The New Italy
Setting aside the incredible labour of every phase of the Italian war, it is this hardness that impresses one at every turn – from the stripped austerity of General Cadorna’s headquarters, which might be a monastery or a laboratory, down to the wayside muleteer, white with dust, but not a bead of sweat on him, working the ladder-like mountain trails behind his animal, or the single sentry lying-out like a panther pressed against a hump of rock, and still as the stone except for his shadowed eyes. There is no pomp, parade, or gallery play anywhere, nor even, as far as can be seen, a desire to turn the best side of things to the light. ‘Here,’ everybody seems to imply, ‘is the work we do. Here are the men and the mechanisms we use. Draw your own conclusions.’ No one is hurried or over-pressed, and the ‘excitable Latin’ of the Boche legend does not appear. One finds, instead, a balanced and elastic system, served by passionate devotion, which saves and spares in the smallest details as wisely and with as broad a view as it drenches the necessary position with the blood of twenty thousand men.
Yet it is not inhuman nor oppressive, nor does it claim to be holy. It works as the Italian, or the knife, works – smoothly and quietly, up to the hilt, maybe. The natural temperateness and open-air existence of the people, their strict training in economy, and their readiness to stake life lightly on personal issues have evolved this system or, maybe, their secular instinct for administration had been reborn under the sword.
When one considers the whole massed scheme of their work one leans to the first opinion; when one looks at the faces of their generals, chiselled out by war to the very cameos of their ancestors under the Roman eagles, one inclines to the second.
Italy, too, has a larger number than most countries of men returned from money-getting in the western republics, who have settled down at home again. (They are called Americanos. They have used the new world, but love the old.) Theirs is a curiously spread influence which, working upon the national quickness of mind and art, makes, I should imagine, for invention and faculty. Add to this the consciousness of the New Italy created by its own immense efforts and necessities – a thing as impossible as dawn to express in words or to miss in the air – and one begins to understand what sort of future is opening for this oldest and youngest among the nations. With thrift, valour, temperance, and an idea, one goes far.
They are fighting now, as all civilisation fights, against the essential devildom of the Boche, which they know better than we do in England, because they were once his ally.
To that end they give, not wasting or sparing, the whole of their endevour. But they are under no illusions as to guarantees of safety necessary after the War, without which their own existence cannot be secured. They fight for these also, because, like the French, they are logical and face facts to the end.
Their difficulties, general and particular, are many. But Italy accepts these burdens and others in just the same spirit as she accepts the cave-riddled plateaux, the mountains, the unstable snows and rocks and the inconceivable toil that they impose upon her arms. They are hard, but she is harder’.
Yet, what man can set out to judge anything? In an hotel waiting for a midnight train, an officer was speaking of some of d’Annunzio’s poetry that has literally helped to move mountains in this war. He explained an allusion in it by a quotation from Dante. An old porter, waiting for our luggage, dozed crumpled up in a chair by the veranda. As he caught the long swing of the verse, his eyes opened! His chin came out of his shirt-front, till he sat like a little hawk on a perch, attentive to each line, his foot softly following its cadence.
©Rudyard Kipling 1917
by Peter Lewis
1. A good description of the ascent from the Brenta valley near Marostica up to the Asiago plateau where, later in the year, British troops were in action. There are a number of British War Cemeteries in the area.
2. On 14 May 1916 the Austrian III and IV Armies attacked on a wide front in the Trentino, capturing Arsiero and Asiago. The Italians counter-attacked in July and recovered about half the territory lost.
3. Probably on Monte Cengio or the nearby Forte Punta Corbin. There are spectacular views of the Venetian Plain and the valley of the Astico.
4. This would have been Monte Cimone, near Tonezza, mined in September 1916.