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Title: With British Guns in Italy - A Tribute to Italian Achievement
Author: Dalton, Hugh, 1887-1962
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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WITH BRITISH GUNS IN ITALY
A TRIBUTE TO ITALIAN ACHIEVEMENT

BY

HUGH DALTON

SOMETIME LIEUTENANT IN THE ROYAL GARRISON ARTILLERY

WITH 12 ILLUSTRATIONS AND 3 MAPS


_First Published in 1919_


TO THE HIGH CAUSE OF ANGLO-ITALIAN FRIENDSHIP AND UNDERSTANDING


"Nella primavera si combatte e si muore, o soldato."

M. PUCCINI, _Dal Carso al Piave_.


"So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for
his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of
all sepulchres; not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a
home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to
speech or action as the occasion comes by. For the whole earth is the
sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone
over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol,
woven into the stuff of other men's lives."

_Funeral Speech of Pericles_.


"Dying here is not death; it is flying into the dawn."

MEREDITH, _Vittoria_.



PREFACE


So far as I know, no British soldier who served on the Italian Front has
yet published a book about his experiences. Ten British Batteries went
to Italy in the spring of 1917 and passed through memorable days. But
their story has not yet been told. Nor, except in the language of
official dispatches, has that of the British Divisions which went to
Italy six months later, some of which remained and took part in the
final and decisive phases of the war against Austria. Something more
should soon be written concerning the doings of the British troops in
Italy, for they deserve to stand out clearly in the history of the war.

This little book of mine is only an account, more or less in the form of
a Diary, of what one British soldier saw and felt, who served for
eighteen months on the Italian Front as a Subaltern officer in a Siege
Battery. But it was my luck to see a good deal during that time. Mine
had been the first British Battery to come into action and open fire on
the Italian Front. And, as my story will show, it was either the first
or among the first on most other important occasions, except in the
Caporetto retreat, and then it was the last.

I have camouflaged the names of all persons mentioned throughout the
book, except those of Cabinet Ministers, Generals and a few other
notabilities.

For permission to reproduce photographs, I wish to thank the
representatives in London of the Italian State Railways (12 Waterloo
Place, S.W.), and my friend and brother officer, Mr Stuart Osborn.

H. D.

LONDON, _February_ 1919



CONTENTS


PREFACE

PART I
INTRODUCTORY

  CHAPTER I
  THE ANGLO-ITALIAN TRADITION AND ITALY'S PART IN THE WAR


PART II
SOME EARLY IMPRESSIONS

  CHAPTER II
  FROM FOLKESTONE TO VENICE

  CHAPTER III
  FROM VENICE TO THE ISONZO FRONT

  CHAPTER IV
  THE WAR ON THE ISONZO FRONT

  CHAPTER V
  PALMANOVA

  CHAPTER VI
  AQUILEIA AND GRADO

  CHAPTER VII
  A GRAMOPHONE AND A CHAPLAIN ON THE CARSO

  CHAPTER VIII
  A FRONT LINE RECONNAISSANCE

  CHAPTER IX
  AN EVENING AT GORIZIA

  CHAPTER X
  A CEMETERY AT VERSA

  CHAPTER XI
  UDINE

  CHAPTER XII
  THE BRITISH AND THE ITALIAN SOLDIER

  CHAPTER XIII
  I JOIN THE FIRST BRITISH BATTERY IN ITALY


PART III
THE ITALIAN SUMMER OFFENSIVE, 1917

  CHAPTER XIV
  THE OFFENSIVE OPENS

  CHAPTER XV
  WE SWITCH OUR GUNS NORTHWARD

  CHAPTER XVI
  THE FALL OF MONTE SANTO

  CHAPTER XVII
  THE CONQUEST OF THE BAINSIZZA PLATEAU

  CHAPTER XVIII
  THE FIGHTING DIES DOWN

  CHAPTER XIX
  A LULL BETWEEN TWO STORMS


PART IV
THE ITALIAN RETREAT AND RECOVERY

  CHAPTER XX
  THE BEGINNING OF THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE

  CHAPTER XXI
  FROM THE VIPPACCO TO SAN GIORGIO DI NOGARA

  CHAPTER XXII
  FROM SAN GIORGIO TO THE TAGLIAMENTO

  CHAPTER XXIII
  FROM THE TAGLIAMENTO TO TREVISO

  CHAPTER XXIV
  THOUGHTS AFTER THE DISASTER

  CHAPTER XXV
  FERRARA, ARQUATA AND THE CORNICE ROAD

  CHAPTER XXVI
  REFITTING AT FERRARA


PART V
A YEAR OF RESISTANCE AND OF PREPARATION

  CHAPTER XXVII
  IN STRATEGIC RESERVE

  CHAPTER XXVIII
  THE FIRST BRITISH BATTERY UP THE MOUNTAINS

  CHAPTER XXIX
  THE ASIAGO PLATEAU

  CHAPTER XXX
  SOME NOTES ON NATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS

  CHAPTER XXXI
  ROME IN THE SPRING

  CHAPTER XXXII
  THE FIFTEENTH OF JUNE, 1918

  CHAPTER XXXIII
  IN THE TRENTINO

  CHAPTER XXXIV
  SIRMIONE AND SOLFERINO

  CHAPTER XXXV
  THE ASIAGO PLATEAU ONCE MORE


PART VI
THE LAST PHASE

  CHAPTER XXXVI
  THE MOVE TO THE PIAVE

  CHAPTER XXXVII
  THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST BATTLE

  CHAPTER XXXVIII
  ACROSS THE RIVER

  CHAPTER XXXIX
  LIBERATORI

  CHAPTER XL
  THE COMPLETENESS OF VICTORY

  CHAPTER XLI
  IN THE EUGANEAN HILLS

  CHAPTER XLII
  LAST THOUGHTS ON LEAVING ITALY



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


Italian Troops Crossing a Snowfield in the Trentino

Railway Bridge over the Isonzo Wrecked by Austrian Shell Fire

Italian Mule Transport on the Carso

No. 3 Gun of the First British Battery in Italy

Casa Girardi and Italian Huts

Some of Our Battery Huts near Casa Girardi

The Eastern Portion of The Asiago Plateau

Road Behind Our Battery Position Leading to Pria Dell' Acqua

Chapel at San Sisto and Italian Graves

Huts on a Mountain Side in the Trentino

Lorries Leaving Asiago after Its Liberation

Captured Austrian Guns in Val D'Assa



LIST OF MAPS


Map of Northern Italy

Map of the Isonzo Front

Map of Val Brenta and the Asiago Plateau

       *       *       *       *       *


WITH BRITISH GUNS IN ITALY



PART I

INTRODUCTORY


CHAPTER I

THE ANGLO-ITALIAN TRADITION AND ITALY'S PART IN THE WAR

Anglo-Italian friendship has been one of the few unchanging facts in
modern international relations. Since the French Revolution, in the
bellicose whirligig of history and of the old diplomacy's reckless dance
with death, British troops have fought in turn against Frenchmen and
Germans, against Russians and Austrians, against Bulgarians, Turks and
Chinamen, against Boers, and even against Americans, but never, except
for a handful of Napoleonic conscripts, against Italians. British and
Italian troops, on the other hand, fought side by side in the Crimea,
and, in the war which has just ended, have renewed and extended their
comradeship in arms in Austria and Italy, in France and in the Balkans.

During the nineteenth century Italy in her Wars of Liberation gained, in
a degree which this generation can hardly realise, the enthusiastic
sympathy and the moral, and sometimes material, support of all the best
elements in the British nation. There were poets--Byron and Shelley, the
Brownings, Swinburne and Meredith--who were filled with a passionate
devotion to the Italian cause.[1] There were statesmen--Palmerston, Lord
John Russell and Gladstone--who did good work for Italian freedom, and
Italians still remember that in 1861 the British Government was the
first to recognise the new Kingdom of United Italy, while the
Governments of other Powers were intriguing to harass and destroy it.
There were individual, adventurous Englishmen, such as Forbes, the
comrade of Garibaldi, who put their lives and their wealth at the
disposal of Italian patriots. But, beyond all these, it was the great
mass of the British people which stood steadily behind the Italian
people in its long struggle for unity and freedom.

[Footnote 1: Even Tennyson, who was not very susceptible to foreign
influences, invited Garibaldi to plant a tree in his garden.]

Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour, "the soul, the sword and the brain,"
which together created Modern Italy, all had close personal relations
with this country. Mazzini, driven from his own land by foreign
oppressors, lived a great part of his life in exile among us, and here
dreamed those dreams, which still inspire generous youth throughout the
world. When Garibaldi visited us in 1864, he was enthusiastically
acclaimed by all sections of the nation, by the Prince of Wales, the
Peerage and the Poet Laureate, no less than by the working classes. It
is recorded that, used as he was, as a soldier, to the roar of battle
and, as a sailor, to the roar of the storm, Garibaldi almost quailed
before the tumultuous roar of welcome which greeted him as he came out
of the railway station at Nine Elms. Cavour was a deep student and a
great admirer of British institutions, both political and economic, and
in a large measure founded Italian institutions upon them. And the first
public speech he ever made was made in London in the English tongue.
These great men passed in time from the stage of Italian public life,
and others took their places, but amid all the shifting complexities of
recent international politics, no shadow has ever fallen across the path
of Anglo-Italian friendship. And indeed during the Boer War Italy was
the only friend we had left in Europe.

Italy's membership of the Triple Alliance was always subject to two
conditions, first, that the Alliance was to be purely defensive, and
second, that Italy would never support either of her partners in war
against England. Thus, under the first condition, when Austria proposed
in 1913 that the Triple Alliance should combine to crush Serbia,
victorious but exhausted after the Balkan Wars, Italy at once rejected
the proposal. And, under the second condition, as German naval expansion
became more and more provocative and threatening to Britain, we were
able to transfer nearly all our Mediterranean Fleet to the North Sea,
secure in the knowledge that, whatever might befall, we should never
find Italy among our enemies.

       *       *       *       *       *

The part which Italy has played during the war just ended, the great
value of her contribution to the Allied cause, and the great sacrifices
which that contribution has involved for her, have been often and
admirably stated. But I doubt whether, even yet, these things are fully
realised outside Italy, and I will, therefore, very shortly state them
again.

When war broke out in August 1914, Italy declared her neutrality, on the
ground that the war was aggressive on the part of the Central Powers,
and that, therefore, the Triple Alliance no longer bound her. By her
declaration of neutrality, she liberated the whole French Army to fight
in Belgium and North-Eastern France, and rendered our sea communications
with the East substantially secure. Bismarck used to say that, under the
Triple Alliance, an Italian bugler and drummer boy posted on the
Franco-Italian frontier would immobilise four French Army Corps. The
Alliance disappointed the expectations of Bismarck's successors.

But if Italy had come in at this time on the German side, she might well
have tilted swiftly and irremediably against us that awful equipoise of
forces which, once established, lasted for more than four years. There
would have been small hope that France, supported only by our small
Expeditionary Force and faced with an Italian invasion in the
South-East, in addition to a German invasion in the North-East, could
have prevented the fall of Paris and the Channel Ports, while Austria,
freed from all fear on the Italian frontier, perhaps even reinforced by
part of the Italian Army, could have turned all her forces against
Russia. Or alternatively, part of the Italian Army might have attacked
Serbia through Austrian territory, with the probable result that Rumania
and Greece, as well as Bulgaria and Turkey, would have been brought in
against us in the first month of the war.

At sea our naval supremacy would have been strained to breaking point by
the many heavy tasks imposed upon it simultaneously in widely-separated
seas. Our communications through the Mediterranean would, indeed, have
been almost impossible to maintain.

Many bribes were offered to Italy at this time by the Central Powers in
the hope of inducing her to join them--Corsica, Savoy and Nice, Tunis,
Malta, and probably even larger rewards. But Italy remained neutral.

In May 1915 she entered the war on our side, in the first place to free
those men of Italian race who still lived outside her frontiers, under
grievous oppression, and whom Austria refused to give up to their Mother
Country, and, in the second place, because already many Italians
realised, as Americans also realised later, that the defeat of the
Central Powers was a necessary first step towards the liberation of
oppressed peoples everywhere and the building of a better world. Italy
entered the war at a time when things were going badly for us in Russia,
and looked very menacing in France, and when she herself was still
ill-prepared for a long, expensive and exhausting struggle. The first
effect of her entry was to pin down along the Alps and the Isonzo large
Austrian forces, which would otherwise have been available for use
elsewhere.

She entered the war nine months after the British Empire, but her
losses, when the war ended, had been proportionately heavier than ours.
According to the latest published information the total of Italian dead
was 460,000 out of a population of 35 millions. The total of British
dead for the whole British Empire, including Dominion, Colonial and
Indian troops, was 670,000, and for the United Kingdom alone 500,000.
The white population of the British Empire is 62 millions and of the
United Kingdom 46 millions. Thus the Italian dead amount to more than 13
for every thousand of the population, and the British, whether
calculated for the United Kingdom alone or for the whole white
population of the Empire, to less than 11 for every thousand of the
population. The long series of Battles of the Isonzo,--the journalists
counted up to twelve of them in the first twenty-seven months in which
Italy was at war,--the succession of offensives "from Tolmino to the
sea," which were only dimly realised in England and France, cost Italy
the flower of her youth. The Italian Army was continually on the
offensive during those months against the strongest natural defences to
be found in any of the theatres of war. On countless occasions Italian
heroes went forth on forlorn hopes to scale and capture impossible
precipices, and sometimes they succeeded. Through that bloody series of
offensives the Italians slowly but steadily gained ground, and drew ever
nearer to Trento and Trieste. Only those who went out to the Italian
Front before Caporetto, and saw with their own eyes what the Italian
Army had accomplished on the Carso and among the Julian Alps, can fully
realise the greatness of the Italian effort.

It must never be forgotten that Italy is both the youngest and the
poorest of the Great Powers of Europe. Barely half a century has passed
since United Italy was born, and the political and economic difficulties
of her national childhood were enormous. For many years, as one of her
own historians says, she was "not a state, but only the outward
appearance of a state." Her natural resources are poor and limited. She
possesses neither coal nor iron, and is still partially dependent on
imported food and foreign shipping. She is still very poor in
accumulated capital, and the burden of her taxation is very heavy.

From the moment of her entry into the war her economic problems became
very difficult, especially that of the provision of guns and munitions
in sufficient quantities, and the extent to which she solved this last
problem is deserving of the greatest admiration. Her position grew even
more difficult in 1917. After the military collapse of Russia she had to
face practically the whole Austrian Army, instead of only a part of it,
and a greatly increased weight of guns. The Austrians had 53 millions of
population to draw from, the Italians only 35. Moreover, just before
Caporetto, a number of German Divisions, with a powerful mass of
artillery and aircraft, were thrown into the Austrian scale, while from
the Italian was withdrawn the majority of that tiny handful of French
and British Batteries, which were all the armed support which, up to
that time, her Allies had ever lent her. Only five British Batteries and
a few French were left on the Italian Front. By the defeat of Caporetto
she lost a great quantity of guns and stores and practically the whole
of her Second Army, while half of Venetia fell into the hands of the
enemy, and remained in his possession for a year. The inferiority of the
Italian Army to its enemies, both in numbers and in material, was thus
sharply increased.

But the Italians held grimly on; they turned at bay on the Piave and in
the mountains, and checked the onrush of Austrians and Germans. Then,
supported by French and British reinforcements, but still inferior in
numbers, they continued for a year longer to hold up almost the whole
strength of Austria. That winter the poor were very near starvation in
the cities of Italy, and the peasants had to cut down their olive groves
for fuel. The following spring part of the French and British
reinforcements were withdrawn to France, together with an Italian
contingent which numerically balanced the French and British who
remained in Italy.

The Austrians also lost their German support and sent some of their own
troops to France, but they retained their numerical superiority on the
Italian Front. In June they launched a great attack on a seventy-mile
front, which was to have made an end of Italy; but the Italians beat
them back. Then four months later, after an intense effort of
preparation, Italy, still inferior in numbers and material, struck for
the last time and utterly destroyed the Austrian Army in the great
battle which will be known to history as Vittorio Veneto. The Austrians
lost twice as many prisoners and four times as many guns at Vittorio
Veneto as they had taken at Caporetto.

The war on the Italian Front was over, the Austrian Army was broken
beyond recovery, the Austrian State was dissolving into its national
elements, which only tradition, corruption and brute force had for so
long held together. Italy, heroic and constant, had endured to the end,
and with her last great gesture had both completed her own freedom, and
given their freedom to those who had been the instruments of her
enemies.



PART II

SOME EARLY IMPRESSIONS


CHAPTER II

FROM FOLKESTONE TO VENICE

On the 6th July, 1917, I arrived at Folkestone armed with a War Office
letter ordering my "passage to France for reinforcements for Siege
Artillery Batteries in Italy." I had a millpond crossing in the
afternoon, and that evening left Boulogne for Modane.

Next morning at 2 a.m. I was awakened from frowsy sleep by a French
soldier, laden with baggage, who stumbled headlong into the railway
carriage which I was sharing with three other British officers. We were
at Amiens. I was last here ten months before, when my Division was
coming back from rest to fight a second time upon the Somme. I did not
sleep again, but watched the sunrise behind an avenue of poplars, as we
passed through Creil, and the woods of Chantilly shining wonderfully in
the early morning light. I spent that day in Paris and left again in the
evening.

Next morning, the 8th, I awoke at Bourg in High Savoy. Here too the
poplar dominates in the valleys. We ran along the shores of Lake Bourget
and up the beautiful valley of the Arc in misty rain. We arrived at
Modane at 10 a.m., and I was booked through to Palmanova, a new name to
me at that time. The train left an hour later and, as we lunched, we
passed through the Mont Cenis tunnel and slid rapidly downwards through
Alpine valleys, charming enough but less beautiful than those on the
French side of the frontier. Very soon it became perceptibly warmer,
electric fans were set in motion and ice was served with the wine.

I found that I had six hours to wait at Turin before the train left for
Milan. My fleeting impression of Turin was of a very well-planned city,
its Corsi spacious and well shaded with trees, its trams multitudinous,
its many distant vistas of wooded hills and of the Superga Palace beyond
the Po a delight to the eye. But I found less animation there than I had
expected, except in a church, where a priest was ferociously declaiming
and gesticulating at a perspiring crowd, mostly women, who were
patiently fanning themselves in the stifling, unventilated heat. I was
an object of interest in the streets, where the British uniform was not
yet well known. Some took me for a Russian and some little boys ran
after me and asked for a rouble. A group of women agreed that I was
Spanish.

The train for Milan goes right through to Venice, so, being momentarily
independent of the British military authorities, I decided to spend a
few hours there on my way to the Front.

The carriage was full of Italian officers, chiefly Cavalry, Flying Corps
and Infantry. It is their custom on meeting an unknown officer of their
own or of an Allied Army to stand stiffly upright, to shake hands and
introduce themselves by name. This little ceremony breaks the ice. I
saw many of them also on the platforms and in the corridor of the train.
The majority, especially of their mounted officers, are very elegant and
many very handsome, and they have those charming easy manners which are
everywhere characteristic of the Latin peoples.

Nearly all Italian officers speak French. In their Regular Army French
and either English or German are compulsory studies, and a good standard
of fluent conversation is required. In these early days my Italian was
rather broken, so we talked mostly French. At Milan all my companions
except one got out, and a new lot got in. But I was growing sleepy, and
after the formal introductions I began to drowse.

       *       *       *       *       *

I woke several times in the night and early morning, and, half asleep,
looked out through the carriage window upon wonderful sights. A railway
platform like a terrace in a typical Italian garden, ornate with a row
of carved stone vases of perfect form, and vines in festoons from vase
to vase, and dark trees behind, and then a downward slope and little
white houses asleep in the distance. This I think was close to Brescia.
Then Desenzano, and what I took to be the distant glimmer of Lake Garda
under the stars. Verona I passed in my sleep, having now crossed the
boundary of Lombardy into Venetia, and Vicenza and Padua are nothing
from the train. At Mestre, the junction for the Front, all the Italian
officers got out, and I went on to Venice.

Except for three British Naval officers I was, I think, the only
foreigner there, and a priest, whom I met, took me for an American.
Everything of value in Venice, that could be, was sandbagged now for
fear of bombs, and much that was movable had been taken away. I spent
three hours in a gondola on the Grand Canal and up and down the Rii,
filled with a dreamy amazement at the superb harmonies of form and
colour of things both far away and close at hand. And even as seen in
war-time, with all the accustomed life of Venice broken and spoiled, the
spaciousness of the Piazza S. Marco, and the beauty of the buildings
that stand around it, and at night the summer lightnings, and a
rainstorm, and a café under the colonnade, where music was being played,
will linger always in my memory. All the big hotels were closed now, or
taken over by the Government as offices or hospitals, and the gondolas
lay moored in solitary lines along the Grand Canal, and even the motor
boats were few and, as a waiter said to me, "no one has been here for
three years, but the people are very quiet and no one complains."



CHAPTER III

FROM VENICE TO THE ISONZO FRONT

I left Venice next morning by the 5.55 train, and reached Palmanova at
half-past ten. As one goes eastward by this railway, there is a grand
panorama of hills, circling the whole horizon; to the north and
north-east the Carnic Alps and Cadore, their highest summits crowned
with snow even in the full heat of summer; eastward the Julian Alps,
beyond the Isonzo, stretching from a point north of Tolmino, down
behind the Carso, almost to Fiume in the south-east; and yet further
round the circle to the southward the mountains of Istria, running
behind Trieste and its wide blue gulf, whose waters are invisible from
this railway across the plain.

Of Palmanova I will write again. This was the Railhead and the
Ammunition Dump for the British Batteries. I stayed there that day
scarcely an hour, and then went on by motor lorry to Gradisca, the
Headquarters of "British Heavy Artillery, Italy." Here I lunched and was
well received by the Staff, who were expecting no reinforcements and
were astonished at my coming. It was decided, after some discussion, to
attach me temporarily to a Battery which had one officer in hospital,
slightly wounded by shrapnel. I continued my journey in another motor
lorry after lunch. Gradisca lies on the western bank of the Isonzo,
which is crossed close by at Peteano by a magnificent broad wooden
bridge, the work of Italian engineers. Gradisca had not been badly
damaged, the Austrians having made no great resistance here against the
Italian advance in May 1915, but Peteano had been laid absolutely flat
by Austrian twelve-inch guns. It had been utterly destroyed in half an
hour's intense bombardment some months before, and many Italian hutments
in the neighbourhood had been destroyed at the same time.

Within sight of this bridge, at a distance of a quarter of a mile, is
the confluence of the Vippacco with the Isonzo. From this point the road
follows the Vippacco to Rubbia, the Headquarters of Colonel Raven, who
commanded the Northern Group of British Batteries. which I was now
joining. The five Batteries of this Group, known as "B2," were all in
positions on or near the Vippacco, firing on the northern edge of the
Carso, and eastward along the river valley. The southern Group, "B1,"
were on the Carso itself and operating chiefly against the famous
Hermada, a position of tremendous natural strength, directly covering
Trieste. B2 had the more comfortable and better-shaded positions, but
B1, though their guns were among the rocks and in the full heat of the
sun, were in easy reach of the sea, and had a Rest Camp at Grado among
the lagoons.

Raven's Group, B2, formed part of an Italian Raggruppamento, or
collection of Groups, under the command of a certain Sicilian Colonel
named Canale, a dapper little man who generally wore white gloves, even
in the front line. He was a fearless and capable officer and did all in
his power for the comfort of our Batteries.

From Rubbia I drove in a car to the Battery. As I left the Group
Headquarters, a number of wooden huts at the foot of the wooded slopes
of Monte San Michele, which rise upwards from the road, I went under the
railway which in peace-time connects Gorizia with Trieste. It is useless
now, being within easy range of the Austrian guns, which have, moreover,
broken down the high stone bridge on which the line crosses the
Vippacco. A young Sicilian Sergeant accompanied me as a guide and
pointed out Gorizia, some six miles away to the north, a
widely-scattered town, very white in the sunlight, lying at the foot of
high hills famous in the history of the war on this Front, Monte
Sabotino, Monte Santo, Monte San Gabriele, of which there will be more
for me to say hereafter.

The gun positions of my new Battery were situated just outside the
little village of Pec, inhabited mostly by Slovene peasantry before the
war, now all vanished. The village had been much shelled, first by
Italian and then by Austrian guns, and there was not a house remaining
undamaged, though several had been patched up as billets and cookhouses
by British troops. Another of our Batteries had their guns actually in
the ruins of the village, but ours were alongside a sunken road, leading
down to the Vippacco. The guns themselves were concealed in thick bowers
of acacias, the branches of which had been clipped here and there within
our arc of fire. I doubt if anywhere, on any Front, a British Battery
occupied a position of greater natural beauty. The officers' Mess and
sleeping huts were a few hundred yards from the guns, right on the bank
of the Vippacco, likewise hidden from view and shaded from the sun by a
great mass of acacias, a luxuriant soft roof of fresh green leaves. Our
Mess, indeed, had no other roof than this, for there was seldom any
rain, and, as we sat at meals, we faced a broad waterfall, a curving
wall of white foam, stretching right across the stream, which was at
this point about seventy or eighty yards wide. Innumerable blue
dragon-flies flitted backwards and forwards in the sunlight. Though the
weather was warm, it was less hot than usual at this time of year, and
the surroundings of our Mess reminded me vividly of Kerry. In the first
days that followed I could often imagine myself back in beautiful and
familiar places in the south-west corner of Ireland. Only Italian
gunners coming and going, for several of their Battery positions were
close to ours, and the Castello di Rubbia across the water, slightly but
not greatly damaged, broke this occasional illusion.

These Italians took us quite for granted now, and that evening I began
to learn about their Front. Things were pretty quiet at present on both
sides, but greater activity was expected soon. I made the acquaintance
of Venosta, an Italian Artillery officer attached to the Battery. He was
from Milan, a member of a well-known Lombard family, and had a soft and
quiet way with him and a certain supple charm. At ordinary times he
preferred to take things easily, and was imperturbable by anything which
he thought unimportant. But in crises, as I learned later on, he could
show much calm resource and energy.

       *       *       *       *       *

I woke next morning to the sound of the Vippacco waterfall, and the
following day I got my first real impression of this part of the Italian
Front. The Battery was doing a registration shoot and I went up in the
afternoon with our Second-in-Command to an O.P. on the top of the Nad
Logem to observe and correct our fire. It was a great climb, up a stony
watercourse, now dry, and then through old Austrian trenches,
elaborately blasted in the Carso rock and captured a year ago. The Nad
Logem is part of the northern edge of the Carso, and from our O.P. a
great panorama spread out north, east and west, with the sinuous
Vippacco in the foreground, fringed with trees. From here I had pointed
out to me the various features of the country. The play of light and
shade in the distance was very wonderful. Our target that afternoon was
a point in the Austrian front line on a long, low, brown hill lying
right below us, known officially as Hill 126. The Austrians some days
before had sent us an ironical wireless message, "We have evacuated Hill
94 and Hill 126 for a week so that the British Batteries may register on
them." They evidently knew something of our whereabouts and our plans!

Coming back we stopped at the foot of a hill on which stands the
shell-wrecked monastery of San Grado di Merna, a white ruin gaunt
against the darker background of the Nad Logem. Here a new Battery
position was being prepared for us, only three hundred yards behind the
Austrian front line, but admirably protected by the configuration of the
ground from enemy fire. An Italian drilling machine was at work here,
operated by compressed air, drilling holes in the rock for the insertion
of dynamite charges, and, by means of gradual blasting, gun pits and
cartridge recesses and dug-outs were being created in the stubborn rock.
Here a heavy thunderstorm broke and we sheltered in the Headquarters of
an Italian Field Artillery Brigade, likewise blasted out of the mountain
side. I returned with Venosta. I asked him to show me the famous
Bersagliere trot, and by way of illustration we doubled along the road
for about half a mile. On the British Front the spectacle of two
officers thus disporting themselves for no apparent reason would have
caused much remark and amusement. But the Italians, whom we passed,
seemed to see nothing remarkable in our behaviour. They are, perhaps,
more tolerant of eccentricity than we are.

It may be of interest at this point to say a few words about some of
the special characteristics of the Italian Army. Every modern Army has
adopted a distinctive colour for its war-time uniform, chosen with a
view to minimising visibility. Thus we wear khaki, the French
horizon-blue, the Germans field-grey. The Italians have adopted an olive
colour, commonly spoken of as "grigio-verde," or grey-green.

The various Italian Corps, Regiments and Brigades wear distinctively
coloured collars on their tunics which, except in the case of the
Arditi, fit closely round the neck. For example, the Granatieri, or
Grenadiers, who both in their high physical standards and military
prestige resemble our own Guards Battalions, wear a collar of crimson
and white. The colour of the Artillery is black with a yellow border,
that of the Engineers black with a red border. Of the Infantry, the
Alpini collars are green and the Bersaglieri crimson, the bands of
colour being shaped in each case like sharp-pointed flames turning
outwards. For this reason the Alpini are often called the "fiamme
verdi," or green flames, and the Bersaglieri "fiamme rosse," or red
flames. The Infantry Brigades of the line, who bear local names,--the
Avellino Brigade, the Como Brigade, the Lecce Brigade and so
forth,--have each their distinctively coloured collars.

These local names mean very little, for, as a matter of policy, men from
all parts of Italy are mixed indiscriminately together in each Brigade.
The Parma Brigade, for example, will contain only a few men from Parma,
and them by chance. One of the objects of this policy is to help to
break down those regional barriers, which still linger owing to
historical causes, between different districts of Italy. It is often
remarked that men from many parts of Italy know more of foreign
countries than of other parts of their own country, and most of the
numerous local dialects are hardly intelligible to men who live far from
the districts where they are spoken. Ordinary Italian, which is in fact
the local dialect of Rome, is, as it were, the _lingua franca_ of the
whole country, but the great majority of Italians speak not only Italian
but one, or sometimes several, local dialects, and the latter are used
by all classes in their own homes. Some of these dialects differ widely
from Italian. In many remote districts some of the peasants cannot speak
Italian at all.

The Alpini and the two Sardinian Brigades, Cagliari and Sassari, are
exceptions to the rule mentioned above. The Alpini are in peace-time
recruited entirely from the men who dwell in the Alps, though I believe
that during the present war a certain number of men from the Apennines
have also been included in Alpini Battalions. The Alpini are specially
used for warfare in the mountains. They wear in their hats a single long
feather. Closely attached to the Alpini are the Mountain Artillery,
armed with light guns of about the same calibre as our own
twelve-pounders. They too are recruited from the mountaineers and wear
the Alpino hat and single feather. The Alpini have a magnificent
regimental spirit and, in my judgment, are the equals of any troops in
the world.

The Cagliari and Sassari Brigades, two of the best in the Italian Army,
are composed entirely of Sardinians. When in the front line they use the
Sardinian dialect on the telephone. Even if the Austrians succeed, by
means of "listening sets," in overhearing them, it hardly matters, for
it is not likely that anyone in the Austrian front line will understand!

The Bersaglieri, another famous Italian Regiment, are recruited from all
parts of Italy, but only from men of high physical fitness. They
correspond roughly to the Light Infantry of other Armies, and always
drill and march to a very quick step, even when carrying machine guns on
their shoulders. Their hats decked with a mass of green cocks' feathers
are familiar in illustrations. The Bersagliere Cyclist Companies, used
for scouting purposes, form part of the Regiment. The Bersagliere
undress cap is a red fez with a blue tassel.

The Arditi, or Assault Detachments, correspond to the German
Sturmtruppen. They were instituted in the Italian Army in 1917. They
also consist of picked men, and undergo a special training to accustom
them to bomb-throwing at close quarters and to other incidents of the
assault. In the course of this training casualties often occur. Only
young unmarried men of exceptionally good physique can become Arditi.
They are only used in actual attacks and never for the purpose of merely
holding trenches. They therefore spend a large part of their time behind
the lines and receive, I believe, extra pay and rations. They are armed
with rifles and _pugnali_, or small daggers, and wear a low-cut tunic,
with a black knottie and a black fez. On each lapel of their tunic they
wear two black flames, similar to the crimson flames on the collars of
the Bersaglieri. They are, therefore, known as "fiamme nere," or black
flames.

A large proportion of Arditi are Sicilians, and their fighting quality
is very high. Certain detachments of Bersaglieri are also classified as
Assault Detachments and wear low-cut tunics like the Arditi.

The Italian Mountain and Field Artillery are excellent; their Heavy
Artillery is handicapped, in comparison with ours, by its smaller
ammunition supply and fewer opportunities for prolonged practice, but
its methods are scientific and its personnel very keen and capable. The
Italian Engineers have done much wonderful work, to which I shall refer
later.



CHAPTER IV

THE WAR ON THE ISONZO FRONT

From Monte Nero to the Adriatic the distance is, in a straight line,
some 35 miles. Allowing for the curves of the actual line, the length of
Front is between 40 and 50 miles. This portion of the Italian and
Austrian lines is commonly spoken of as the Isonzo Front. It is not like
the Front in the higher Alps, where, as on the Adamello, trenches are
cut in the solid ice, where the firing of a single gun may precipitate
an avalanche, where more Italians are killed by avalanches than by
Austrians, where guns have to be dragged up precipices and perched on
ledges fit only, one might think, for an eagle's nest, where food,
ammunition, reinforcements, wounded and sick have all to travel in small
cages attached to wire ropes, slung from peak to peak above sheer drops
of many thousand feet, where sentries have to stand rigidly stationary,
so as to remain invisible, and have to be changed every ten minutes
owing to the intense cold, where Battalions of Alpini charge down snow
slopes on skis at the rate of thirty miles an hour, where refraction and
the deceiving glare of the snow make accurate rifle fire impossible even
for crack shots,--the Isonzo Front is not so astounding and impossible a
Front as this, but it is yet a very different Front from any on which
British troops are elsewhere fighting in this war.

It is a country with a strange beauty of its own; it is, in its own
measure, rough and mountainous, and it is within sight of other and
loftier mountains to the north-west. At my first view of it I remembered
a speech of Carlo, the hero of Meredith's _Vittoria_, concerning Lombard
cities away on the other side of the Trentino, "Brescia under the big
Eastern hill which throws a cloak on it at sunrise! Brescia is always
the eagle's nest that looks over Lombardy! And Bergamo! You know the
terraces of Bergamo. Aren't they like a morning sky? Dying there is not
death; it's flying into the dawn. You Romans envy us. You have no Alps,
no crimson hills, nothing but old walls to look on while you fight.
Farewell, Merthyr Powys...." To me those words were always recurring on
the Italian Front. "Dying here is not death; it's flying into the dawn."
I would have liked to have them engraved on my tombstone, if Fate had
set one up for me in this land, whose beauty casts a spell on all one's
senses.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Isonzo Front is divided into two parts by the Vippacco river, which
flows roughly from east to west and joins the Isonzo at Peteano. Of
these two parts the northern is three times as long as the southern. The
northern part was held by the Italian Second Army, under General
Capello, the southern by the Italian Third Army, under the Duke of
Aosta. In the north the Isonzo runs through a deep ravine, with Monte
Nero rising on its eastern side. Monte Nero is some 6800 feet high. The
Alpini took it by a marvellous feat of mountain warfare in the first
year of the war. South of Monte Nero, also on the east bank of the
river, lies the town of Tolmino, the object of many fierce Italian
assaults, but not yet taken. Here the Isonzo bends south-westward and
continues to flow through a deep ravine past Canale and Plava, with the
Bainsizza Plateau rising on its eastern bank. This Plateau is of a
general height of about 2400 feet, and is continued south-eastward by
the Ternova Plateau, rising to a general height of about 2200 feet.
Bending again towards the south-east, the Isonzo flows out into the
Plain of Gorizia. Here stand Monte Sabotino and Monte Santo, the western
and eastern pillars of this gateway leading into the lower lands. East
of Monte Santo, along the southern edge of the Plateau, stand Monte San
Gabriele and Monte San Daniele. Here the Plateau falls precipitously
down to the Vippacco valley, only the long brown foothill of San Marco
breaking the drop.

Gorizia has scattered suburbs: Salcano to the north, in the very mouth
of the gorge, the fashionable suburb in days before the war; Podgora to
the west, on the other side of the Isonzo, industrial. The Isonzo Front
was the only possible field for an Italian offensive on a great scale,
and the possession of the Carso, of the Bainsizza and Ternova Plateaus
and of Monte Nero are as essential to the future security of the
Venetian Plain as the possession of the Trentino itself. The frontiers
of northern and north-eastern Italy were drawn according to the methods
of the old diplomacy after the war of 1866, when Bismarck, seeking to
keep Austria neutral in the next war on his schedule, that with France,
willingly sacrificed the interests of his Italian Allies. For half a
century Lombardy and Venetia have lived under the continual threat of an
Austrian descent from the mountains, both from the Trentino, thrust like
a wedge into the heart of Northern Italy, and across the Isonzo from the
east. Nor has this threat been remote. When Italy was plunged in grief
at the time of the Messina earthquake, the Austrian General Staff almost
persuaded their Government that the moment had come to strike her down
into the dust, and recover Lombardy and Venetia for Francis Joseph and
Rome for the Pope. And so to-day an Italian Army fighting on the Isonzo
Front fights in continual danger of having its line of communications
cut by an Austrian offensive from the Trentino.

The population of the Trentino is indisputably Italian. East of the
Isonzo the people are mainly Italian in the towns and mainly Slovene in
the country districts. It has been the deliberate policy of the Austrian
Government to plant new Slovene colonies here from time to time and to
render life intolerable for Italians. But, even so, the population is
still sparse, and all the country is infertile, except for the Vippacco
Valley, which, though wretchedly cultivated hitherto, would richly repay
the application of capital and modern methods. Here, I think, is a clear
case where strategic considerations, which are definite, must prevail
over racial considerations, which are dubious. These lands must be
Italian after the war, if, with even the dimmest possibility of war
remaining, Italians are to have peace of mind. Nor does a strong
defensive frontier for Italy here imply a weak defensive frontier for
her eastern neighbours. For the tangle of mountains continues for many
miles further east.

       *       *       *       *       *

Venosta told me that, when they took San Michele in July 1916, the
Italians lost 7000 in killed alone, seasoned soldiers of their old Army,
whom it has been hard to replace. But when San Michele fell, they swept
on and took Gorizia and all the surrounding plain at one bound, and, in
the same offensive, Monte Sabotino. This victory has a special
significance in modern Italian history, for it was the first time that
an Army composed of men from all parts of United Italy fought a pitched
battle against a great Army of Austria, Italy's secular enemy and
oppressor. Monte Cucco and Monte Vodice were taken in the offensive of
May 1917, and here, as at Monte Nero, the Alpini performed feats of arms
which, to soldiers accustomed to fighting on the flat, must seem all but
incredible. In one case twenty Alpini climbed up a sheer rock face at
night by means of ropes, and leaping upon the Austrian sentries killed
and threw them over the cliff without a sound, so that, when the main
body of Alpini, climbing by hardly less difficult paths, reached the
summit, they took the Austrian garrison in the rear and by surprise, and
the heights were theirs.

Monte Santo was still Austrian when I came, though the Italians held
trenches half-way up. On the summit the white ruins of a famous convent
were clearly visible. Here some of the bloodiest Infantry fighting of
the whole war took place in May 1917. The Italians were on the top once
in the full flood of that offensive, but could not hold it. Four gallant
Battalions charged up those steep slopes only to find that the Artillery
preparation had been insufficient and that the convent wall had not been
destroyed. Austrians poured out from deep caverns in the rock, where
they had taken refuge during the bombardment, and threw down bombs from
the top of the wall upon the Italians below. For these there was no way
round and no question of retreat, so they all died where they stood,
struggling to climb a wall thirty feet high, clambering upon one
another's shoulders.

South of the Vippacco we held the Volconiac and Dosso Faiti, but not
Hill 464, though this had been taken and lost again, nor yet the hills
further east, nor any of the northern foothills of the Carso, except
Hill 123. To the south again the Hermada had proved a great and bloody
obstacle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Three striking characteristics of the warfare on this Front impressed
themselves upon my mind--first, the shortage of ammunition; second, the
enormous natural strength of all the Austrian positions; third, the
work of the Italian Engineers.

Judged by the standards of warfare in France and Flanders, both Italians
and Austrians were very short of ammunition. For Italy, a young and poor
country, possessing neither coal nor iron and thrown largely on her own
resources for manufacturing munitions of war, this was no matter of
surprise. It was astonishing that the Italian Artillery was so well
supplied as it was. But, to bring out the contrast, one may note that,
whereas in Italy "fuoco normale" for Siege Artillery was six rounds per
gun per hour, in France at this time a British Siege Battery's
"ordinary" was thirty rounds per gun per hour. And one may note further
that the number of Siege Batteries on a given length of Front in France
was, even at this time, more than four times as great as the
corresponding number on the Italian Front. The Austrians to some extent
made up for their small quantity of guns and shells by a high proportion
of guns of large calibre. Their twelve-inch howitzers were disagreeably
numerous. It resulted, however, that neither Italians nor Austrians
could afford to indulge in continuous heavy bombardments, such as were
the rule in France. There was here on neither side a surplus of shell to
fire away at targets of secondary importance, and therefore there was
less destruction than in France of towns and villages near the lines.
Ammunition had to be accumulated for important occasions and important
targets. Thus battles were still separate and distinct in Italy, with
perceptible intervals of lull, less apt than in France to become one
blurred series of gigantic actions. So too counter-battery work on a
great scale was not practised on either side out here, partly for
reasons of ammunition supply, and partly for technical reasons connected
with the nature of the ground. For in a good _caverna_ one was perfectly
safe, though outside high explosive produced not only its own natural
effect, but also a shower of pieces of rock, thus combining the
unpleasant characteristics of high explosive and shrapnel. One of our
gunners had his ribs broken by a blow from a large piece of rock, though
standing three hundred yards away from where the shell burst. But often
after a heavy bombardment it was found that the enemy had been sitting
quietly in _caverne_, ready to emerge with his machine guns when the
attacking Infantry advanced. Aeroplanes also were less numerous than in
France. And, when I arrived, gas was not much employed on either side.

In the second place, I was deeply impressed with the natural strength of
the Austrians' positions. Almost everywhere they held high ground. On no
other Front in this war have stronger positions been carried by assault
than San Michele, Sabotino, Cucco, Vodice, Monte Nero, and, in the end,
Monte Santo. No one who has not seen with his own eyes the heights which
Italian Infantry have conquered, backed by no great Artillery support,
can realise the astounding things which the Italians have performed. The
Italian Infantry have died in masses, with high hearts and in the
exaltation of delirium, crumpled, rent and agonised, achieving the
impossible.

And in the third place I would say something of the work of their
Engineers. Italian Engineers are famous all the world over, but they
have done nothing more magnificent than their swift building of
innumerable roads, broad and well-laid and with marvellously easy
gradients, both in these inhospitable and undeveloped border lands
beside the Isonzo, and along the whole mountain Front. They have made
possible troop movements and a regular system of supply under the most
difficult conditions. It is a work worthy of the descendants of the old
Romans, who by their road building laid the foundations of civilisation
throughout Western Europe. And only second to their road making, I would
place the work of the Italian Engineers in blasting _caverne_ and gun
positions and trenches in the rock, an invaluable and unending labour.

We British Gunners spent our first Italian summer in khaki drill tunics
and shorts[1] and Australian "smasher hats." When these hats were first
issued, one Battery Commander declared them to be "unsoldierly" in
appearance and asked for permission to return them to the Ordnance. But
this was not allowed. The men stood the heat well, though at the
beginning, before they had got accustomed to the change of climate,
there was some dysentery. I myself, a few days after my arrival and
before I had a smasher hat, had a touch of the sun and lay about all day
cursing the flies. But next day I was all right again.

[Footnote 1: Next summer the introduction of mustard gas made it unsafe
to leave our knees uncovered.]

Our rations at this time were a special Anglo-Italian blend; less meat,
bacon, cheese and tea than in the British ration, but macaroni, rice,
coffee, wine and lemons from the Italian. It was a good ration and no
one suffered from eating a little less meat than at home. In order to
check the spread of dysentery, it was ordered by the medical authorities
that no meat was to be eaten at midday.

We were not doing a great deal of firing when I came, though we had
always to be prepared to come suddenly and quickly into action,
especially at night. Most of our prearranged daylight shoots were
observed from an O.P. in a ruined house at S. Andrea, on the plain just
outside Gorizia, where one had a fine view southwards of the Tamburo and
of the whole boundary ridge of the Carso from Dosso Faiti to the Stoll.
Observation was beautifully easy on these high hills and in this clear
air. What worlds away is this country with its wonderful cloudless
sunshine from the dismal flat lands of the Western Front! Said one
enthusiast of ours, "This is a gunner's heaven!" The Austrians fancied,
I think, that we had our O.P. in Vertoiba, which is north of S. Andrea,
for they shelled this frequently, but S. Andrea seldom. They shelled
Vertoiba heavily, I remember, all one afternoon, while I was on duty at
S. Andrea and while the Italian Staff were present in large numbers for
two hours to watch our shooting. I remember thinking what a fine bag
they would have got if they had lifted about four hundred yards! The
Italian Staff were always most complimentary and enthusiastic over the
work of our Batteries.

We had taken part in the Italian May offensive, the results of which had
been claimed by the _Daily Mail,_ with characteristic good taste and
sense of proportion, as a "great Anglo-Italian victory." Our part had
been more justly described by General Cadorna, who in a special Order of
the Day had said that "amid the roar of battle was clearly heard the
voice of British guns," and in his summary of the results of this
offensive, which lasted from May 12th to May 30th, after remarking that
the number of Austrians taken prisoners was 23,681 men and 604 officers,
and that, in addition, at least 100,000 Austrians had been put out of
action, continued as follows, "Our brave Infantry fought indefatigably
for eighteen days, without pause and without proper food supplies, on
difficult ground, in almost mid-summer heat, impetuous in attack and
tenacious in defence. Most effective at all times was the fraternal
co-operation of the Artillery, Siege, Field or Mountain, one Field
Battery not hesitating to push right up to the firing line. Excellent
help, too, was lent by ten Batteries of medium calibre of the British
Army and by the guns of the Italian Navy."

Cadorna had inspected our Batteries soon after their arrival in Italy,
and we had been visited and officially welcomed on behalf of the Italian
Government by the Minister Bissolati, perhaps the most vivid and vital
personality in Italian politics, and a wise counsellor, whose advice has
more than once been disastrously ignored.[1]

[Footnote 1: From the outbreak of war in August 1914, Bissolati strongly
advocated Italian intervention on the side of the Allies. When Italy
declared war, he enlisted in the ranks of the Alpini, although over
military age, was decorated for valour and seriously wounded. He then
became Minister for Military Supplies, and acted as a connecting link
between the Cabinet at Rome and the High Command.]

Addressing at Pec detachments from a number of British Batteries on the
29th of May, Bissolati had said: "Officers and men of the British Force,
I bring you the greetings of the Italian Government and the thanks of
the Italian people. I greet you not only as an Italian Minister, but as
a comrade in arms, for I consider it the greatest privilege of my life
to have been in this war a soldier like yourselves. Our hearts beat with
joy to see you here, because there is no Italian, however humble his
station, who does not know how great is the debt of Italy to Britain for
the brotherly help afforded her during the tragic vicissitudes of the
glorious story of her Resurrection. We all remember how your fathers
helped to create the Italian nation.... To-day we find ourselves
fighting side by side in the same campaign, we to redeem this territory
from the Austrian yoke, you to maintain the liberty of your national
existence from the German menace, both of us, moreover, to set the whole
world free from the peril of falling under the dominion of that race,
hard in temper as a granite rock, which finds in the Austro-Hungarian
Empire a willing ally in its rapes and aggressions. I am here, then, to
thank you, not only as an Italian, but as a man, and I am filled with
joy at the thought that the British, even as the Italians, are showing
themselves to be, now as always, the champions of justice, and the
defenders of liberty and right. The sacrifices which we are making
together, the mingling of our blood upon the battlefield, will render
even stronger the agelong, traditional friendship between our two
nations.

"Viva l'Inghilterra! Viva l'Italia!"



CHAPTER V

PALMANOVA

During my first month in Italy I lived a nomadic life. I was only
"attached" to a Battery, and really nobody's child. July 17th to 22nd I
spent at Palmanova in charge of an Artillery fatigue party which was
helping the Ordnance to load and unload ammunition, and from August 2nd
to 10th I was in charge of another working party of gunners at Versa, a
fly-bitten, dusty little village, which our medical authorities had
stupidly selected as a site for a Hospital, though there were many
suitable villas in more accessible and agreeable places not far away.
But in this first month I was lucky in being able to multiply and vary
my impressions of the Eastern Veneto.

       *       *       *       *       *

I rode down to Palmanova from Gradisca on a motor lorry. What a country!
The white houses, the white roads, the masses of fresh green foliage,
chiefly acacias, the tall dark cypresses, the cool blue water of the
Isonzo, the blue-grey mountains in the distance, and on their summits
the sunshine on the snow, which is hardly distinguishable from the
low-lying cloud banks in an otherwise cloudless sky.

Italian troops, dusty columns marching along the road, throw up at me an
occasional greeting as the lorry goes by. Long lines of transport pass
continually. "Sempre Avanti Savoia!" "Sempre Avanti Italia!" I find my
eyes wet with tears, for the beauty and the glory and the insidious
danger of that intoxicating war-cry; for the blindness and the
wickedness and the selfish greed that lurk behind it, exploiting the
generous emotions of the young and brave; for the irony and bitter
fatuity of _any_ war-cry in a world that should be purged of war.

       *       *       *       *       *

And so I came to Palmanova to supervise the loading of shell, in the
company of Captain Shield and another Ordnance officer. Shield had
travelled much and mixed with Italians on the borders of Abyssinia. He
told me that with no other European race were our relations in remote
frontier lands more harmonious. They and we have, he said, a perfect
code of written and unwritten rules to prevent all friction. He told me,
too, of a young Englishman out there, quite an unimportant person, who
had a bad attack of sun-stroke and whose life was in great danger. The
only hope was to get him through quickly to the coast, and the shortest
road lay through Italian territory. So application was made to the
Italian authorities for a right of passage, which they not only granted,
but mapped out his route for him, for it was difficult country and
unfamiliar to our people, and sent a guide, and had a mule with a load
of ice waiting for him at every halting-place along the road, and so
saved his life, treating him with as much consideration and tenderness
as they could have been expected to show to a member of their own Royal
Family.

       *       *       *       *       *

Palmanova lies just within the old Italian frontier, a little white town
surrounded by a moat, which in summer is quite dry, and by grassy
ramparts shaped like a star. It was first fortified by the Venetian
Republic four hundred years ago, and again by Napoleon. It can be
entered only through one of three gates, approached by bridges across
the moat, from the north, south-east and south,--the Udine Gate, the
Gradisca Gate and the Maritime Gate. Each gate is double, so that you
pass through a small square court, almost like a well, and at each gate
you can see the remains of an old portcullis and drawbridge. Each is
topped by two slender towers, and is wide enough to allow only one
vehicle to pass at a time, and at each there is a guard of Carabinieri
in their grey lantern-hats, to stop and examine all questionable
traffic.

From the ramparts you can see the Carnic and the Julian Alps, sweeping
round the Venetian plain in a great half circle. To the north the
mountains seem to rise sheer out of green orchards and maize fields, but
to the east there is a gradual slope of less fertile uplands, where the
Austrians in the first days of war on this Front would not face the
onrush of the Italians in the open, but fell back hurriedly to the more
difficult country behind. At night all the inhabitants sit out on the
ramparts, talking of the hot weather and the war, and watching the
searchlights winking on the hills.

In the centre of the town is a large Piazza, planted round with myrtles
which smell strong and sweet in the sun, and at midday an old woman sets
up a stall here and sells the newspapers of Rome and Milan, Bologna and
Venetia. In one corner of this Piazza is a restaurant, where one can
play billiards and dine well and cheaply. A youth serves here who has
been rejected for the Army because of defective eyesight. He speaks a
little French and a little German and a very little English, and in
moments of excitement words from all these languages come tumbling out
together, mixed up with Italian. He has, I am sure, an Italian-English
phrase book, which he consults hurriedly in the kitchen, for, whenever
he sets a new course before one, he shoots out some carefully prepared
and usually quite irrelevant sentence, and watches eagerly to see if one
understands. In another corner of the Piazza stands a campanile with a
peal of those absurd little jangling bells, which are among the most
characteristic charms of Italy. Down a side street is the Albergo Rosa
d'Oro, where for a week I was billeted. The padrone, a little round man,
is always smiling. He thinks the war will last three years more and
seems pleased at the prospect, for the town and the district round are
full of soldiers, and he must be making great profits. But his wife,
when one speaks of the war, says "it _must_ end soon; we must go on
hoping that it will end soon."

The station, where my fatigue party worked, lies outside the town. When
the Austrians provoked war in 1914, they had special trains waiting here
to carry away the Italian troops who, they hoped, would go and fight for
them against the Russians,--a poor fool's dream! In normal times it must
be a quiet place with little traffic. But now there is continual
movement, Infantry going up to the front line and often waiting for
hours at the station, and other Infantry coming back to rest, goods
trains of enormous length passing through, motor lorries loading and
discharging, driven very skilfully though sometimes very recklessly,
horse and mule transport in great variety, both military and civilian,
some of the horses wearing straw hats with two holes for the ears, and
carts drawn by stolid, slow-moving oxen. With all this coming and going,
and with a temperature of over a hundred degrees in the shade, the
Albergo della Stazione does a great trade in iced drinks!

I made the acquaintance of two families in this town. At Signor
Lazzari's any British officer was always welcome after dinner for music
and talk and light refreshments. An Italian General was billeted there
and two or three Italian officers of junior rank. A Corporal with a
magnificent voice, an operatic singer before the war, came in to sing
one night, and a Private from his Battalion played his accompaniment. In
Italy, as in France, the art of conversation and a keen joy in it, are
still alive, perhaps because Bridge is still almost unknown. Signor
Lazzari's handsome and charming daughter was an admirable hostess.

At Signor Burini's I was also most hospitably received and drank some
very excellent champagne. I used to talk to his three little girls in
the evenings on the ramparts. Signor Burini's mother remembered
Garibaldi's visit to Palmanova in 1867, the year after Venetia was
liberated from the Austrian yoke and added to United Italy. She was
speaking of this one evening to Shield and he said, "It rained very
heavily that day, didn't it?" Whereat the old lady, much astonished and
evidently suspecting him of some uncanny gift of second sight, replied
that indeed it did. But the truth was that he had been reading an
account of this historic occasion in a local guide book, which related
that, just as Garibaldi came out on a balcony to address the crowd, a
heavy thunderstorm broke and the Hero of the Two Worlds only said, "You
had all better go home out of the rain."

       *       *       *       *       *

It can still rain at Palmanova.

One day while I was there the temperature rose to 105 degrees in the
shade, but in the evening a cool breeze stirred the dust and I sat
outside the Albergo Rosa d'Oro, talking with various passers-by. About
nine o'clock bright lightning began to fill the sky, but, as yet, no
rain. And then about eleven, just after I had gone to bed, came a
tremendous drenching thunderstorm and a great whirlwind. And then, very
suddenly, all became quiet again, save for the rain-water pouring off
the roofs into the street below.



CHAPTER VI

AQUILEIA AND GRADO

On July 22nd, the day before I returned from Palmanova to my Battery,
Shield and I and two lorryloads of men made an expedition in the
afternoon to Aquileia and Grado. Aquileia, at the height of the old
Roman power, was a great and important city, on the main road eastwards
from the North Italian plain. It was destroyed and sacked by Attila and
his Huns in the year 452, and again in 568 by Alboin and his Lombards.
It was the fugitives from Aquileia and the neighbouring towns, who,
taking refuge in the lagoons along the coast, founded upon certain
mudbanks in the fifth century the city which was destined to be Venice.
And it was at Grado in the year 466 that the foundations of Venetian
constitutional history were laid by the election of tribunes to govern
the affairs of the community inhabiting the lagoons.

The two chief features of Aquileia to-day are a museum of Roman
antiquities, which I had not time to visit, and a large church, with a
bare interior, but with a magnificent eleventh century mosaic floor, one
of the best examples of its kind in Italy. The interior of the church
was decorated with flowers in shell cases, to signify its reconquest by
the Italians, who intend to make here a great national memorial when the
war is over. Beside the church, at its eastern end, stood a glorious
group of very tall cypresses, one of the best groups I have ever seen,
and opposite the western entrance was a charming little avenue of young
cypresses, planted since the reconquest. We stayed for half an hour at
Aquileia and then went on to Grado.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the way Shield told me the story of how the British Batteries came to
Italy. Our own War Office, as the habit of the tribe is, had wrapped the
whole thing up in mystery, and the Batteries were christened "the
British Mission" to a destination secret and unnamed. Passing through
the South of France and up the Arc Valley to the frontier, with the
gunners sitting on their guns in open trucks in the sunshine, the
trains were loudly cheered by the French who, in that part of the
country, had seen few of the sights of war. Once in Italy the official
attempts at mystification mystified nobody. The engine-drivers at Modane
hoisted Union Jacks on their engines and kept them flying all the way.
Everyone knew who we were and where we were going, and at every station
where the trains stopped there were official welcomes and immense crowds
cheering like mad. At Turin our guns were wreathed in flowers and at
Verona the station staff presented a bouquet to the General, on whose
behalf Shield made a suitable reply in Italian.

       *       *       *       *       *

Grado lies on several islands, in its own lagoons. The Austrians were
developing it, in a haphazard way, as a watering-place before the war,
and there are several large hotels and the beginnings of a Sea Front.
The canals are filled with fishing boats with brown sails, which seldom
put to sea now for fear of mines.

One approaches Grado by a steamer which starts from a little cluster of
houses on the mainland known as Belvedere, and takes one down a long
channel through a maze of 'wooded islands, one of which is now the
Headquarters of an Italian Seaplane Squadron. The islands are thickly
clothed with tamarisks and pollarded acacias and stone pines, and are
reputed to be somewhat malarial. There is a long beach at Grado, where
all the world bathes, and the water is deliciously warm, with a bottom
of hard sand. Lying in the water, I could see right round the Gulf of
Trieste as far as Capodistria, and straight opposite to me lay Trieste,
the Unredeemed City of Italy's Desire, very clear against a background
of hills. Through glasses I could even distinguish the trams running in
her streets. I could easily fancy her scarcely a mile away across that
sheet of blue sunlit sea. Thus must she often have appeared to Italians
fighting and dying by sea and land to reach her, who remained ever just
out of reach.



CHAPTER VII

A GRAMOPHONE AND A CHAPLAIN ON THE CARSO

The Battery moved up to its new position on the edge of the Carso on the
night of July 25th. The guns were drawn by Italian tractors. It was a
long business getting the guns out of their gun pits, as we had not much
room for turning, and a still longer one getting them into the new pits,
after unhooking the tractors, down a steep slope and round two
right-angle turns. Owing to our nearness to the front line no lights
could be used and the night was darker than usual. For hours the gun
detachments were at work with drag ropes, lowering, guiding and hauling,
and the monotonous cry, that every Siege Gunner knows so well, "On the
ropes--together--heave!" went echoing round those rocks till 2 a.m. next
morning.

       *       *       *       *       *

This new position of ours was only three hundred yards from the
Austrians, though we had between us and them the river Vippacco and a
high hill, a spur of that on which the ruined monastery of S. Grado di
Merna stood. The trenches here ran on either side of the Vippacco. An
Italian Trench Mortar Battery had been here before us and, it was said,
had been shelled out. But our gun pits, blasted out of the hillside,
were almost completely protected against hostile fire, except perhaps
from guns on S. Marco, which might, with a combination of good luck and
good shooting, have got us in enfilade. Only howitzers capable of
employing high-angle fire could usefully occupy such a position, and, as
it was, our shells could not clear the crest except at pretty large
elevations. It resulted that we could not hit any targets within a
considerable distance of the Austrian front line, but this, we were
told, did not matter. We were here, we were informed, "for a special
purpose" and for action against distant targets only. There was an
orchard on the flat just behind our guns, a little oasis of fertility in
that barren land, and wooden crosses marking the graves of some of the
Italian Trench Mortar Gunners, who had preceded us.

Italian Field Artillery were in position all around us, and were firing
a good deal by night. For the first few nights, with their guns popping
off all round, and with blasting operations in full swing, an almost
continuous echo travelled round and round the stony hillsides and made
me dream that I was sleeping beside a stormy sea breaking in endless
waves on a rocky coast. Blasting was going on all day and all night in
this neighbourhood. One of our officers was walking one morning on the
back of the Carso, out of view of the enemy and anticipating no danger,
save the stray shell which is always and everywhere a possibility in the
war zone, when suddenly the face of an Italian bobbed up from behind a
rock with the warning, in English, "Now shoots the mine!" and
disappeared again. The Englishman ran for his life and took shelter
behind the same rock, and a few seconds later there was a heavy
explosion, filling the air with flying fragments, unpleasantly jagged.

Our officers' Mess and sleeping huts were about two hundred yards from
the guns and a little higher up the hill, just above one of the
magnificent newly-made Italian war roads, along which supplies went up
to Hills 123 and 126 and the Volconiac and Dosso Faiti. Just outside our
huts and opening on to the road was a broad, natural terrace, with a
fine view backwards over the plain. Several times, during our first week
in this position, the Austrians shelled a British Battery at Rupa about
a mile in rear of us and an Italian Battery alongside it. It was very
hot and dry and they had been given away by the huge clouds of dust
raised by the blast of their guns firing. The Austrians shelled them
with twelve-inch and nine-four-fives, getting magnificent shell bursts,
which some of us photographed, great columns of brown-black smoke,
rising mountains high, in the shape of Prince of Wales' feathers, and
hanging for about ten minutes in the still air. But very little damage
was done, and after a short interval both Batteries opened fire again.

From this terrace of ours we had fine views of fighting in the air. On
August 2nd we saw an Austrian plane brought down by two Italians, who
dived down upon him from above, firing at him with machine guns as they
swept past him. The Austrian, who was flying high, gradually seemed to
lose his head and hesitate in what direction to fly, then he began to
turn over and over, recovered for a moment, but finally lost all control
and came down nose first into his own trenches, just across the river.
Another evening, about ten o'clock, a whole squadron of Austrian planes
came over, flying in regular formation and signalling to one another
with Morse lamps. They were going, it appeared, to bomb Gradisca. They
were heavily shelled by the "archies" as they came over us, and several
fragments of shell fell on our terrace. The night sky was full of starry
shell-bursts, and a dozen of our searchlights fussily got busy. Then
suddenly all our artillery, as it seemed, began to go off, and for about
five minutes there was a deafening burst of fire from guns of all
calibres. And then all grew suddenly quiet again. Perhaps it was a raid,
perhaps only the fear of one.

One day an Italian plane dropped some booklets into the Austrian
trenches, and some were blown back into our own lines. They contained
photographs of Austrian prisoners of war in Italian camps, very
contented apparently, and explanations in German, Magyar and various
Slav tongues, showing "men who yesterday were living from hour to hour
in peril of death, now waiting happily and calmly in perfect safety for
the war to end, when they shall return to their homes to embrace once
more their wives and little children. Here you will be able to recognise
many of your friends." A good propaganda to induce desertions and
surrenders! The Italians generally had the mastery over the Austrians
in the air. Their machines, and especially their Capronis, could always
be distinguished from the Austrians' by the deeper hum of their engines.

Venosta had a gramophone, which played most evenings after dinner on the
terrace, chiefly marches and martial music and Italian opera. Italy's
Libyan war, whatever else may be said of it, has produced one
magnificent marching song, "A Tripoli," which deserves to live for ever.
Fine, too, even on the gramophone, are the "March of the Alpini," the
"March of the Bersaglieri" and the famous "Garibaldi's Hymn." I met an
English doctor once, who had heard this last played in Rome on some
great occasion with some of the old Garibaldian veterans in their red
shirts marching in front of the band. He had felt a lump in his throat
that day, he said. When Venosta's gramophone played, the Italians
encamped near by clustered round the edge of the terrace in obvious
enjoyment, and sometimes one or two would dash indignantly down the road
to stop limbers and carts, which were making a rattle on the stones.

       *       *       *       *       *

Our Mess was a great centre for visitors, both English and Italian, we
being at this time the British Battery in the most advanced and
interesting position. Among our visitors, especially on Sundays, was a
Chaplain, whom I will call Littleton, who used to conduct our Church
Parades. In the British Army, and I believe in most others, the
principle of compulsory religious observance is still intermittently
enforced, when it does not interfere with the still more important
business of fighting. I liked Littleton very much in many ways, but
sometimes he infuriated me. He was lunching with us one day and
describing how for some months in France, during some murderous
fighting, he was attached to an Infantry Battalion. "I have never in my
life enjoyed myself more," he said, "than during those months." I could
not help asking, "What did you enjoy, seeing the poor devils getting
hit?" I told him afterwards that I knew he did not really delight in
spectacles of agony and bloodshed, but that "enjoy" seemed to me an
unfortunate word to use.

On another occasion I attended, in the capacity of Orderly Officer for
the day, one of Littleton's Church Parades and heard him preach. It was
clear that he was troubled by a suspicion that the war and the details
of its development had discredited in some minds some of the ideas of
which he was the professional exponent. He made a brave struggle,
however, against this tide of unreason. "God does not make things too
easy for us," he explained, "He gives us the opportunities, and if we
choose not to use them, that is our fault. A loving father sets up a
tremendously high standard for his son, and judges him severely, not in
spite of, but because of, his love for him. In God's sight, three or
four years of war may be tremendously worth while."

Then we sang a hymn. I felt inclined to sing instead a song, written by
a soldier who was wounded in France:--

   "The Bishop tells us, 'when the boys come back
   They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
   In a just cause: they led the last attack
   On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
   New right to breed an honourable race.
   They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'
   'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
   For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
   Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
   And Bert's gone syphilitic; you'll not find
   A chap who served there hasn't found _some_ change.'
   And the Bishop said 'The ways of God are strange!"

It was hard for such a limited intelligence as mine, especially in this
unending Italian sunshine, to imagine that it could seriously be worth
while to burn down a whole real world, in order to roast a probably
imaginary pig. I found it very hard to believe, with the Chaplains, that
the war was purifying everyone's character, and I was particularly
sceptical as regards some of the elderly non-combatants who were unable
to realise at first hand "the Glory of the Great Adventure."



CHAPTER VIII

A FRONT LINE RECONNAISSANCE

Every day, in our Group, some officer carried out a Front Line
Reconnaissance. This officer was chosen in rotation from the Group
Headquarters and the various Batteries. Colonel Raven, our Group
Commander, often carried out these Reconnaissances himself. Of all
British officers at this time serving in Italy, he had, I think, the
greatest understanding of the Italians. He had travelled in Italy in
peace-time and had studied Italian history. He fully appreciated the
difficulties against which the Italian Army had to contend, and its
military achievements in spite of them. He enjoyed social intercourse
with Italians, and his invariable and slightly elaborate courtesy was,
in an Englishman, remarkable. For, as Mazzini once said, an Englishman's
friendship, when once secured, holds very firm, but it is manifested
more by deeds than by words. But Colonel Raven had the gift of
sympathetic imagination, and he had also in full measure the Allied
spirit.

The purpose of these Reconnaissances was twofold: first, to report on
matters of military importance, any notable activity by the enemy, the
direction and nature of hostile fire upon our trenches, the effects of
our own fire, when not otherwise ascertainable, the precise position on
the map, especially after any action, of our own and of the enemy's
lines, including saps, advanced posts and the like; second, to maintain
a real contact and spirit of comradeship with the Italian Infantry and
to seek to give them confidence in the efficiency and promptitude of
British Artillery support. Under the first head, valuable information
was frequently brought back, and under the second I believe that, so far
at least as our Group was concerned, the personal relations between the
Artillery and the Infantry were exceptionally good. Hardly ever did we
receive complaints that our guns were firing short, though such
complaints are often made, and often quite groundlessly, when the
Infantry lack confidence in the Artillery behind them.

At one time thin-skinned persons among us used to complain that
Italians who passed them on the roads used to call out "imboscato!"
Imboscato is a term very frankly used in the Italian army, generally
though not necessarily as a term of reproach. It corresponds with the
French "embusqué," one who shelters in a wood, for which we in English
have no precise equivalent. It is used by an Italian to indicate one who
runs, or is thought to run, less risk of death than the speaker. It is
chiefly used of men in the non-combatant services or in posts well
behind the fighting front, including the Higher Staff and especially the
junior ranks attendant on them. It is used also in jest by Italian
patrols going out at night into No Man's Land, of their comrades, whom
they leave behind in the front line trenches. Personally I was never
called an imboscato, nor were any of my brother gunners, except once or
twice when riding in side-cars or motors miles in rear of our guns. And
to Infantry marching along dusty roads under an Italian sun there is
something very irritating in a motor car dashing past, with its
occupants reclining in easy positions, its siren hideously shrieking,
and blinding dust-clouds rising in its wake.

German propaganda was insidiously active in Italy throughout the war,
and spread many lying stories with the object of discrediting the
British. Among these was one, the details of which do not matter now,
concerning the fact that only British Artillery, and no British
Infantry, had at that time been sent to Italy. Our Reconnaissances,
involving our visible and daily presence among the gallant succession of
Italian Brigades, who held the blood-stained line on the Carso and
across the valley of the Vippacco, were the most fitting reply which we
could make to German propaganda.

       *       *       *       *       *

I made my first Front Line Reconnaissance on July 27th, two days after
we had moved forward to our new Battery position. That day I visited the
trenches on the Volconiac, starting in the early afternoon and getting
back at nightfall. I took with me as a guide a young Italian gunner, a
Neapolitan by birth, who had been a waiter in an Italian restaurant in
New York before the war. He had been in the Austrian offensive of 1916
in the Trentino, where all the guns of his Battery had been lost and
nearly all his comrades killed or captured.

From the Battery position we followed the road behind Hill 123, up a
glorious valley, whose sides were thickly wooded with pines, gradually
thinning under the destruction wrought by Austrian shell fire and the
Italian military need for timber. The only other vegetation here was a
little coarse grass. On the lee side of Hill 123, sheltered from
Austrian fire, was a whole village of wooden huts, admirably
constructed, capable of housing several Battalions. At the head of the
valley, the road, a good example of the war work of the Italian
Engineers, turned sharply up the hillside, securing tolerable gradients
by means of constant zigzags--tolerable that is to say for men on foot
and for pack mules, for wheeled transport could not proceed beyond this
point. It was a steep climb and I perspired most visibly right through
my thin tunic. Three-quarters of the way up we stopped and got a drink
of water from the Infantrymen in charge of the water barrels. There are
no springs or streams on the Volconiac or on Dosso Faiti. All water has
to be pumped up from below through pipes, and at the point where we
rested, water barrels were being continually filled from the pipes and
then hauled on by hand, on sleighs, for the remainder of the ascent.
Water was also carried up from this point by individual soldiers in the
fiaschi, or glass bottles encased in plaited straw, in which Italian
wine is sold.

Just below the crest we entered the trenches, which were held at this
time by the Florence Brigade. The construction of these trenches was
very interesting. They were all blasted in the rock, and many drilling
machines were at work as I passed along them, increasing the number of
_caverne_, or dug-outs, and deepening those already in existence. Here
and there, where the trenches were rather shallow, they were built up
with loose rocks and sandbags filled with stones.

One of my objects was to get a view of the Austrian trenches and barbed
wire on the Tamburo, in order to observe from closer quarters than was
possible from any of our O.P.'s the effects of our recent bombardments,
and to verify or disprove a report that certain new defensive works were
being constructed by the enemy at night. Our own trenches here were on a
higher level than the enemy's, and the bottom of the valley between the
Tamburo and this part of the Volconiac was in No Man's Land, as was a
relatively short slope on the Tamburo and a relatively long slope on the
Volconiac. The latter slope was very steep, but thickly clothed with
pines, most of which were now shattered by shell fire into mere dead
stumps. Even these stumps, however, made it difficult to get an
uninterrupted view of the Tamburo, and I had to go some miles along the
trenches, gazing through numerous peepholes, before I reached a point
from which I could satisfy myself that our bombardments had been
effective and that the reported new works were indeed real. Having got
this information, I smoked a pipe and talked with an Italian company
commander in a rocky dug-out, and then started to return.

Things were quiet on this sector of the Front that afternoon, though
Italian Field Guns were bursting shrapnel from time to time over the
Tamburo. As I went along the trenches I was several times greeted by
Italians who had been in America, "Hullo, John! How are you? How d'you
like this dam country?" This type brings back with it across the
Atlantic the frank, almost brutal, familiarity of a new and democratic
civilisation. It contrasts oddly with the quieter ways of those Italians
who have lived all their lives in Italy, amid one of the oldest and most
mature civilisations of the world.

On our way down the hill we passed a seemingly endless string of pack
mules coming up, laden with food and ammunition. Always at evening this
wonderful system of supply was visibly working, triumphing over
tremendous natural difficulties. We passed, too, a party of about fifty
men hauling up on long ropes a heavy drilling engine, the sort of labour
of which British fatigue parties have, luckily for themselves, no
experience. Mists came down from the mountains as we descended, and
rainstorms threatened, but did not break.



CHAPTER IX

AN EVENING AT GORIZIA

On the first day in August I had been doing some observation at S.
Andrea in the afternoon, and, this duty over, I got permission to walk
into Gorizia and visit the section of the British Red Cross stationed
there, several of whose members I knew. It is a longer walk than one
would think, for S. Andrea is practically a southern suburb of Gorizia,
which, however, straggles over a large area of country. The railway
bridge across the Isonzo is broken down by shell fire and so are two
other bridges,--all three of stone,--but these could be soon repaired,
if we made a big advance. It would be wasted labour to repair them now,
for the Austrians would only break them down again. The Italians have
run up a low, broad wooden bridge, sheltered from Austrian view behind
one of the broken stone bridges. From time to time the Austrians hit
this bridge, and then the Italians quickly make it good again. To be
able to cross the Isonzo at this point is a convenience, but not a
military necessity, for all movement of troops and supplies into Gorizia
can be carried out on the left bank of the river and across bridges some
miles further down-stream.

The suburbs of the town were badly knocked about, but the centre was not
at this time much damaged. Gorizia lies in a salient of the hills, with
the Austrians looking down upon it from the tops of most of them. But,
still hoping to win it back, they do not shell it heavily or often.
There are special reasons, too, for their forbearance. For Gorizia is a
sort of Austrian Cheltenham, whither Austrian officers retire in large
numbers to pass their last years in villas which they take over from one
another's widows. So the Austrian officer class has a sort of vested
interest in the preservation of the place. So also have certain Hebrew
Banks in Vienna, which hold mortgages on a great part of the land in and
around the city, which just before the war was being rapidly developed
as a fashionable Spa. It is a well laid out town, with large public
gardens and good buildings, architecturally very like the larger Italian
towns on the other side of the old frontier, Udine for example, but with
a certain element of a heavier and more _rococo_ style, the Viennese.
There is still a fairly large civilian population in the town, and one
restaurant still keeps open.

I found the British Red Cross in the Via Ponte Isonzo, in what had once
been a big boarding-house, with a large untidy garden behind. Most of
those stationed there were motor ambulance drivers, about twenty in
number, some too old to fight, some rejected for health, some Quakers,
unwilling to kill, but willing to risk their own lives on behalf of the
wounded, others again boys under military age, who go, as soon as they
can, to the Navy or the Flying Corps. It is brave and nervous work they
do, driving ambulances in the dark, without lights and under fire.

After dinner I sat out in the garden in the twilight and talked with an
old acquaintance of mine, who has had a large share in the organisation
and daily work of the British Red Cross in Italy. The Italians, he said,
are really beginning to feel their feet, as a united nation, in this
war. Men of all classes from all parts of Italy are meeting and mixing
with one another as they have never done before, and the old
_regionalismo_ is being rapidly undermined. He himself has almost ceased
to think critically of the past or speculatively of the future, but just
lives and works in the present. As to the state of the world after the
war, he is very confident, provided we go on fighting long enough.
Nothing that happens at home is of great importance, all the pressure is
on the Fronts. Everything is looking now in the direction of democracy.
Even Russia, in the long run unconquerable, has got her good out of the
war already, whatever miseries and transitory anarchy she may have yet
to undergo. In England and elsewhere many of the present political
leaders are vile, but we shall all know what we want the world to look
like, and to _be_ like, after the war, and new leaders will arise and
lead us. When the survivors of our smitten generation have grown old,
there must be a peace of hearts, as well as a peace of arms, between the
young of all lands. But our generation can never make personal
friendships again with Germans, seeing that they have killed nearly all
those who mattered most to us, and that we have to spend the rest of our
lives without them.

       *       *       *       *       *

He motored me back to the Vippacco bridge at Rubbia. When next I heard
of him it was a month later at the height of the Italian offensive. He
had been severely wounded on the Bainsizza Plateau.

The British Red Cross did splendid work in Italy and made a big
contribution to Anglo-Italian friendship and understanding. They began
their operations in Italy in September 1915, and were thus the first
Englishmen to "show the flag" on the Italian Front. Thousands of
Italians will gratefully and affectionately remember them till the end
of their lives. More even than the British fighting troops who came
after them, the British Red Cross will remain a historic legend in Italy
in the days to come.



CHAPTER X

A CEMETERY AT VERSA

I was at Versa, as I have already said, from the 2nd to the 10th of
August, to supervise a party working on the hospital. I walked one
evening down the village street, where in the light of the sunset an
Italian military band was playing to a mixed crowd of soldiers and
civilians. Just outside the village I came to the gates of a cemetery,
where six tall cypresses stand like sentinels on guard over the graves
of many hundreds of Italian dead. This was at first a civilian
graveyard, but all the dead have Italian names, except one Kirschner,
and even he was called Giuseppe and has an Italian inscription on his
tombstone. For this is Italia Redenta, in this one little corner of
which a great company of Italian youth have already laid down their
lives. And now the graves, in long straight rows, have filled one newly
added field, and begun to flow across a second, and soon from the Field
Hospitals in the village more dead will come.

Here, as in our war graveyards in France, no religious dogma or
supernatural hope intrudes upon the little wooden crosses. On these, for
the most part, you can read only the bare conventional attributes of
each little handful of dust, which has passed through its quivering
agony into the still sleep of decay,--its name and regiment, its
civilian home, the place and date of its death. A few have more than
this. Here lie the two brothers Bellina in one grave, with a cross at
their head and another, rougher and larger, at their feet, announcing
simply, "I due fratelli," "the two brothers." And here is a tombstone
engraved with an anchor, for one who, very early in the war, was hit
while fording the Isonzo in face of the enemy's fire. "Al Pontiere
Guazzaro Giuseppe che valorosamente sfidando le infide acque dell'
Isonzo cadeva colpito dal piombo nemico. 25 Giugno 1915."[1] And here is
another inscription, typical of that Latin sense of comradeship, which
is more articulate, though not necessarily more profound, than ours.
"Sottotenente Arcangeli Antonio, con commossa memoria," the officers of
his Battery, "il loro orgoglio infinite quì eternano." "In deeply moved
remembrance they here place upon eternal record their infinite pride in
him." It is poor stuff in English, but a vivid and quite natural tribute
in Italian.

[Footnote 1: "To the Sapper Giuseppe Guazzaro, who fell, while bravely
defying the treacherous waters of the Isonzo, struck down by an enemy
bullet, 25th June, 1915."]

Where the sun went down, the sky was a sea of rose red and golden green,
studded with little long islands of dark cloud, and on the edge of this
sea the evening star twinkled like a tiny illumined boat, dancing, a
blaze of light, upon the waves. To left and right the cloudbanks were a
deep purple blue, fast fading into the dim warm grey of an Italian
night. East and north the mountains that bound the plain, silent
witnesses of Italy's great struggle, were hidden in the dusk, and the
cypress sentinels stood up sharp and black against the darkening sky.
The band had ceased to play and one heard only the chirp of
grasshoppers, and across an orchard the soft sound of Italian speech,
and the distant song of two soldiers in the village street. But the warm
air, which just now was throbbing with a military march, seemed to be
throbbing still with an aching longing that happier days may come
swiftly to this land of beauty and pain, so that the sacrifice of all
these dead shall not be wholly waste.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not many miles away, as the sun was setting, an Austrian shell burst in
a British Battery, and three hours later through the dark under faint
stars an ambulance lorry brought to us the bodies of four British
gunners, whose dust will mingle with Italian dust, under Italian skies,
for ever.



CHAPTER XI

UDINE

I first saw Udine on the 5th of August. I was still on duty at Versa,
but the conversation in the R.A.M.C. Mess bored me, particularly at
meals; it was all sputum and latrines, gas gangrene and the relative
seniority of the doctors one to another. There was nothing to keep me at
Versa, for my gunner fatigue party did not in truth need any
supervision. So I determined to go to Udine. I started, walking, about
10 a.m. It was not too hot. I walked about three miles and then picked
up a lorry. One can generally get a ride on an Italian lorry if there is
any room, by waving one's stick at the driver, shouting out one's
destination, and looking agreeable. This one took me to Mogaredo and
then stopped. I then walked another three miles to a point near
Trevignano. Here I was within ten miles of Udine and picked up another
lorry which took me the rest of the way. It was driven by a Triestino
who, seeing what was coming, had left the Unredeemed City just before
Italy declared war. His face was very sad, and he made a gesture of
weeping, drawing his fingers downwards from his eyes across his cheeks,
though his eyes were dry. "How long?" he asked. "How long before Trieste
will be free?"

We approached Udine through a long avenue of plane trees, planted under
Napoleon. It is a gay little town, with arcaded streets, clustering
round a hill on the top of which stands a Castello, with a memorial
tower to the martyrs of 1848, and on the hill slopes public gardens full
of cypresses. Udine was at this time a nest of British newspaper
correspondents. I began to make their acquaintance in the afternoon.
First an Anglo-Italian lady from Rome, whom I met sitting out behind the
Hotel Grande d'Italia under the shade of trees. She was evidently
something of a figure here and received several callers, all ladies of
Udine, as we sat drinking coffee. One of these, on learning that I was a
gunner, took out a locket and handed it to me. It contained a picture of
a marvellously handsome boy. It was her eldest son, killed three months
before in Cadore, a Lieutenant in a Mountain Battery. He was only
nineteen. His mother began to weep as she handed me the locket, and it
was the lady from Rome who told me these things. Then the mother cried,
between her sobs, "E troppo crudele, la guerra!" And as I handed the
locket back, I thought of the unmarried childless parson in khaki who
considered that "three or four years of war may be tremendously worth
while."

       *       *       *       *       *

Later I met and dined with two of the male correspondents of the London
Press. Conversation, in the sense of a mere flow of talk, is never
difficult with newspaper men. They are among the most articulate of the
British, although much that they articulate is only patter. These two
had plenty of miscellaneous information, much of which I received in a
sceptical spirit, but I learned some interesting facts, which I verified
from other sources later on. Chief of these was the effect produced
upon Young Italy by the personal gallantry of the poet D'Annunzio, who,
when he is not flying at the head of the Italian bombing planes against
Pola, is making fiery orations to the Infantry in the front line and
distributing among them little tricolor flags bearing his own autograph.

Having talked till midnight, I found a bedroom at the Croce Malta, where
I slept for four hours. Then I got up and dressed and walked to the
railway station, where I drank coffee and ate biscuits. A train was due
to leave for Palmanova, the nearest station to Versa, at 5.30 a.m. As I
waited for it on the platform, I looked out at the station lights, a
dull orange under their dark shades, and at the red signals beyond, four
in a vertical line, and beyond again at the dim outlines of houses and
dark trees against a sky, at first a very deep dark blue, but slowly
lighting up with the beginning of the dawn. The train did not start till
nearly seven. By this time it was quite light, and the sun had turned
the distant Cadore into a ridge of pink grey marble, very sharply
outlined against the morning sky, and in the middle distance, just
across the maize fields which run beside the railway track, rose the
_campanile_ of some little village of Friuli, like a stick of shining
alabaster.



CHAPTER XII

THE BRITISH AND THE ITALIAN SOLDIER

The sending of ten British Batteries to Italy had something more than a
military significance. Otherwise the thing was hardly worth doing. It
was evident that here was an international gesture. An effort was being
made to promote a real Anglo-Italian understanding, to substitute for
those misty and unreal personifications--"England" to an Italian,
"Italy" to an Englishman--real personal knowledge and a sense of
individual comradeship in a great cause. Our task, in short, was not
only to fight, but also to fraternise. But would we fraternise
successfully? For it has been said, not without some truth, that
"England is an island and every Englishman is an island," and in the
early days I was doubtful what sort of personal effect we should
produce, and what sort of personal impressions our men would bring away.

When I got back to the Battery from Versa I began to take stock of my
own impressions so far, and to notice, in the letters which I had to
censor, the drift of general opinion. It was surprisingly satisfactory.

"Some of these Italians," writes one gunner, "are the finest fellows you
could wish to meet. Our men get on very well with them." "The Italians,"
writes another, "are very good soldiers and nice chaps. We get on well
together." "The other night," writes a third, "I was out laying
telephone wires in a graveyard. We saw some Italian soldiers carrying a
tombstone for their Lieutenant who had recently been killed. The
Italians look after their graves very well. A Sergeant, who had spent
most of his life in England, asked us in and gave us some coffee and
cognac which was jolly acceptable. He asked if we had any old English
papers, as he was forgetting all his English, as he had been away from
England for five years." And a fourth writes, "The great majority of
these Italians have been in different parts of America" (this of course
is a wild exaggeration!), "they are very delighted to have a chat. In
fact I think the Italian people are very sociable. Nearly all the boys
can begin to make themselves understood." These tributes are obviously
sincere. They occur in the midst of good-natured grumbles about the
heat, and the monotony of macaroni and rice and stew, and of requests
for "more fags" and of hopes that "this business will soon be over."

The fact that so many Italians, having lived in England and America, can
speak English and know something of us and our ways, accounts for much.
For a foreign language is the Great Barrier Reef against the voyages of
ordinary people towards international understanding. And the country
counts for something, too. Its natural obstacles compel admiration for
an Army which has achieved so much in spite of them. And I am sure that
no British gunner, however inarticulate, who has served in Italy, and
especially those young fellows who, when war broke out, stood only on
the threshold of their manhood, with their minds still wide open for new
impressions, has not felt some sort of secret thrill at the astounding
and incomparable beauty of this country, the very contemplation of
which sometimes brings one near to weeping.

I recall, for instance, a tough old Sergeant Major, with twenty-seven
years' service with our Artillery all over the world, an utterly
unromantic person. He and I were bringing back my working party on the
10th of August from Versa to Rubbia in a lorry. The men were singing
loudly, and greeted an Italian sentry on Peteano bridge with cheerful
cries of "Buona sera, Johnny!" And the Sergeant Major suddenly observed
to me that "this must be a fine country in peace-time," and went on to
praise the mountains, and the rivers, and the trees, especially the
cypresses, and the surface of the roads, and some town behind the lines,
Udine I think, which was "very pretty" and "quite all right." The
Italians, too, were "all right," which from him was most high praise.
And then, as though half ashamed of having said so much, he added,
rather hastily, "But there's nothing to touch the old country after all.
I think I shall settle down there when this war's over. I've had about
enough of foreign parts."

And what do the Italians think of us, I wonder? I only know that they
treat us always with great friendliness, and show great interest in our
guns and all our doings. So the international gesture has, I think,
begun already to succeed. And its success will grow. For those British
graves, which we shall leave behind us--some are dug and filled
already--will tell their own story to the future. They will be facts, if
only tiny facts, both in British and Italian history, and "far on in
summers that we shall not see," bathed in the warm brilliance of Italian
sunshine, they will bear witness to Anglo-Italian comradeship across
the years.



CHAPTER XIII

I JOIN THE FIRST BRITISH BATTERY IN ITALY

On the 15th of August arrived an operation order indicating our targets
in the first and second phases of the great Italian offensive, which had
been long expected, and also the objectives of the Infantry. The day on
which the offensive was to begin was not yet announced. Six more British
Siege Batteries, giving us now three British Heavy Artillery Groups, had
arrived on the Carso and in the Monfalcone sector about a fortnight
before. The French too had sent a number of Heavy Batteries, which were
in position on Monte Sabotino and elsewhere north of the Vippacco. But
the counsel of wise men had been disregarded, and no French or British
Infantry, no complete Allied Army Corps, had been sent to the Italian
Front, where a big military success could have been more easily obtained
and would have had greater military and political results at this time,
than anywhere else.

On this day I walked to and from S. Andrea, returning to the Battery in
the evening greatly perspiring but with an enormous appetite. Large
numbers of Infantry were going up the Vallone and the Volconiac in the
dusk. Italian Infantry march in twos on either side of a road, not in
fours on one side as ours do.

The Austrians shelled a good deal this evening, and put a lot of gas
shell into Merna.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 17th I was transferred to another Battery. It was the eve of the
offensive, and my new Battery was an officer short, while my old Battery
was again at full strength, the officer who had been in hospital
wounded, when I arrived in Italy, having now returned. I joined my new
Battery about midday. They were in position on the Vippacco, close to
the former position of my old Battery. I was destined to stay with them
for seventeen months, till after the war was won, and I came to identify
myself very completely with them, and to be proud to be one of them.

This had been the first of all the British Batteries to come into action
in Italy, and had fired the first British shell against Austria. The
Major in command had the reputation of being the most efficient British
Battery Commander in Italy, and, so far as my experience of others went,
he deserved it. He was a Regular soldier, and had served with a Mountain
Battery in India, a service which requires and breeds a power of quick
decision, by no means universal among Garrison Gunners of the Regular
Army. Personally he was a most delightful man, at his best a very
amusing talker, a pleasant companion and an excellent Commanding
Officer. Few officers whom I have met took as much thought and trouble
as he for the material welfare of his men. From his junior officers he
combined a demand for high efficiency with a sometimes wonderful
solicitude for their comfort, health and peace of mind. He never asked
any of us to do more, or even as much, as he did willingly himself, and
if anything went wrong in the Battery, which it seldom did, he never
hesitated, in dealing with higher authorities, to take all the blame. He
had been twice wounded already, once on the Somme and again in the
Italian May offensive. Later on he was wounded a third time.

Captain Jeune, the Second-in-Command, was also a Regular, but very
young. In mind and manner he was older than his years, and he knew his
work as a military professional extremely well. Some found him
truculent, but he never displayed any truculence to me.

On my arrival I became Senior Subaltern of the Battery. The three Junior
Subalterns, Darrell, Leary and Winterton, provided a variety of
companionship. Darrell was a man of business, a most capable officer, a
good Mess Secretary, and very easy to get on with. Leary was a
dark-haired Irishman, who had originated in the County Limerick. He was
a good mathematician, but in conversation was apt to be long-winded, and
had a wonderful capacity for making a simple matter appear complex. He
had been, by turns, a civil engineer and an actor, and had a fine
singing voice. As an officer he was infinitely laborious and
conscientious, but with a queer disconcerting streak of Irish
unaccountability. One never quite knew what he would do, if left alone
in charge of anything.

Winterton was a good-looking boy, who would have gone up to Cambridge in
1915, if there had been no war. Instead he enlisted in the Horse
Artillery, became a Corporal, and went to the Dardanelles as a Despatch
Rider. Having spent several months in hospital at Malta and nearly died
of dysentery, he came back to England and was given an Artillery
Commission. He was a gallant youth but just a little casual, with rather
a music-hall mind, but good company, if one was not left alone with him
too long.

There was also attached to the Battery at this time an Italian Artillery
officer, whom I will call Manzoni, a Southerner, small and very dark. He
had taught himself to speak excellent English though he had never been
in England. He was an intelligent observer and an amusing companion, and
we became great friends.

The personnel of the Battery was splendid, and I do not believe that in
any other Battery the spirit of the men was better, nor the personal
relations between officers and men on a sounder and healthier footing,
than with us.

Some Battery Commanders proceed on the principle that even the most
experienced N.C.O. cannot be trusted to perform the simplest duty,
except under the eye of an officer, however junior. The Battery in this
case becomes helplessly dependent on the officers. If they go out of
action, so does the whole Battery. Other Battery Commanders, of whom my
new Major was one, proceed on the principle that as many N.C.O.'s as
possible should be able to do an officer's work, so that the Battery
should be able to continue in action without any officers at all if
necessary, and also be able to adapt itself readily to a sudden change
from stagnant to open warfare. This principle is universally applied in
the French Artillery, where, apart from its evident wisdom, it has been
necessitated by the great shortage of officers. My own Major used to
train all our best N.C.O.'s with this object in view and, when satisfied
of their competence, used to give them in normal times considerable
responsibilities in the working of the Battery in action. The result was
that we had as capable and reliable a set of "Numbers One" and
"B.C.A.'s" as could be found anywhere.[1] The men thoroughly appreciated
the amount of trust reposed in them and never failed us. Furthermore,
when I joined the Battery there was hardly a man who was not a trained
specialist, either as a Signaller, Gunlayer or B.C.A.

[Footnote 1: A "Number One" is the Sergeant or other N.C.O. in charge of
a gun and its detachment when in action. A "B.C.A." (or Battery
Commander's Assistant) assists the officer on duty in the Command Post
in locating points on the map, in making numerical calculations, and in
other miscellaneous duties.]

Seventeen months later, only the Major, Leary and myself, out of the
officers in the Battery when I joined, still remained with it, and
death, wounds, sickness, promotion and commissions from the ranks had
taken from us many of our best N.C.O.'s and men. But through all the
varied experiences of those long months, there had been a continuity of
tradition and an unchanging spirit. We were still, for me and for many,
the First British Battery in Italy.


PART III

THE ITALIAN SUMMER OFFENSIVE, 1917


CHAPTER XIV

THE OFFENSIVE OPENS

On the 18th of August I got up at half-past four in the morning. There
was a mist in the air, which cleared away as the day grew warmer. The
big bombardment in what the journalists called the Twelfth Battle of the
Isonzo began at six o'clock and went on continuously all day. Once the
thing was started, I had little to do except to change occasionally the
rate of fire,--"_lento_," "_normale_," "_vivace_," "_celere_" and
"_double vivace_" by turns. The first part of the day I was in charge of
the Right Section of the Battery and sat most of the time on a wooden
bench at a table under a tarpaulin among the acacias. By my side sat a
telephonist in communication with the Battery Command Post, some four
hundred yards away to the left, beyond the Left Section. My only other
apparatus was a megaphone, a notebook and pencil, and a pipe.
Occasionally I would go and stand by one of the guns, to check the
gun-laying and to see that the guns were recoiling and coming up again
without undue violence. One had also to guard against a dust cloud being
raised by the blast of the guns, thus giving away our position to the
enemy. To prevent this, we formed a chain of men every half hour to pass
water-buckets from hand to hand, from the river just behind us down the
sunken road, to lay the dust in and around the gun pits. But under an
Italian August sun the ground soon grew parched and dusty again.

The Austrians did not shell much till the evening, when they nearly hit
our Mess and shell-shocked a man of another Battery in the road close
by. But the Italian bombardment all day was very heavy, and our guns and
theirs were to go on firing all night. Just before midnight I relieved
the Major in the Command Post, and he and the rest of the officers went
to bed. So I sat there wakefully among the acacias, awaiting any sudden
orders from the Group to switch or lift to new targets, or to vary the
rate of fire. Every now and then I took a walk round the Battery to see
that all was working correctly, and every hour the N.C.O.'s in charge of
each gun brought in their fired tubes to the Command Post and reported
how many rounds had been fired in the preceding hour and how many tubes
misfired.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a clear, starlight night, up above the multitudinous flashes of
British and Italian guns. At close quarters these flashes were
blindingly bright, and flung up showers of red sparks. In the intervals
of a few seconds between flashes, if one stood with one's eyes fixed on
the guns, the stars seemed blotted out in an utterly black darkness. A
long bombardment is one of the most boring things in the world by reason
of its intense monotony, and because in a queer half-unconscious way it
begins, after many hours, very slightly to fray the nerves. Listening
and watching in the small hours, and from time to time directing, I
found myself able, with almost discreditable elastic-mindedness, to call
up at will any of the aspects of modern war,--its utter and inherent
wickedness, its artistic and scientific majesty, its occasional moral
justification against the oppressor, its ultimate blank insanity. But I
would not have liked to be an Austrian yesterday or this morning. The
Italian Infantry attacked on our sector at 5.30 a.m. There was a
tremendous crescendo of gunfire at this time. The Major relieved me in
the Command Post at 5 o'clock, and urged me to go to bed, but I did not
feel inclined to sleep. Instead I went up about 6 o'clock through Pec
village to an O.P. on a hillside beyond, to see what could be seen. But
all the Front was hidden in a thick mist, made thicker by the smoke,
shot through with innumerable momentary flashes. All round us thousands
of guns were going off, filling the air with a deafening and continuous
roar. A telephonist was with me who had been through a good deal of the
Somme fighting, and had found the Italian Front, in times of lull, a
little uneventful. But this morning he was full of appreciation. "This
is something like it, isn't it, Sir?" he said. Being able to see
nothing, I went back to bed for some hours and spent the afternoon at a
Battery O.P., which had been specially arranged for this offensive, in
an Italian reserve trench just off the Pec-Merna road.

       *       *       *       *       *

The bombardment continued through the 19th and 20th and 21st of August,
now with guns firing independently, now with salvos or rounds of Battery
fire, now with individual guns being ranged afresh from some O.P., with
hardly an hour's interval of silence. How little the individual soldier
knows of what is happening at these times! Conflicting rumours of
varying credibility came in to us during those three days, rumours of
big advances both to the north and to the south. But on our own sector
we knew that no permanent advance had been made, for we were still
firing a good deal on old "Zone 15," one of our first day's targets, and
on that damned Hill 464, the most important of the first objectives of
the Infantry.

Before this offensive began I had slept in a hut above ground, but the
Major had now insisted that I should sleep in a small dug-out half-way
up a steep bank, at the bottom of which our Mess Hut stood in an orchard
stretching down to the river bank. The Austrians shelled us
intermittently, but without doing any damage. In the small hours of the
21st I was dozing in my dug-out, where I had been reading Lowes
Dickinson's _Choice Before Us_, a congenial book at such a time, with
nine-tenths of which I was in complete agreement. I then heard a series
of Austrian "4.2's" come sailing over my dug-out and burst just at the
foot of the bank. They made miserable bursts in the soft earth, so small
as to make me suspect gas shells for a moment, but this suspicion did
not worry me, for no one was sleeping at the bottom and gas cannot run
uphill. Next morning I found a shell hole fifteen yards from the Mess
Hut, another on the path and several others among the trees. They were
"double events," with a shrapnel and time fuse head and a high
explosive and percussion fuse tail, but neither head nor tail had been
of much effect. There was very heavy firing that morning, but less in
the afternoon. Great gloom prevailed on our sector, where we were back
again in most of our first positions. The Infantry were reported to be
unable to make headway against machine guns on Hill 464 and the Tamburo.
To the south, on the Carso, the ruins of the village of Selo had been
taken, but not much else.

But, though we did not know it then, the Italian Army in those first
three days had won magnificent successes to the north of us.



CHAPTER XV

WE SWITCH OUR GUNS NORTHWARD

On the 22nd of August we got for the first time definite news of the
Italian advance on the Bainsizza Plateau. The day was rather hotter than
usual, and on our own sector there was still no appreciable progress.
Hill 464 had been won and lost three times since yesterday morning, and,
to the south of it, Hill 368 also had been won and lost again. Up there
it must be a vain and shocking shambles. It was claimed for Cadorna's
communiqués, I think justly, that at this time no others were more
moderate and truthful. No point was claimed as won, until it was not
merely won but securely held.

The Italian Battery beside us were moving north that night to the
Tolmino sector and next day our Left Section was to move out into a
position in the open, in order to switch north and shell S. Marco, which
we could not reach from our present gun pits. S. Marco, being north of
the Vippacco, was in the area of the Italian Second Army, commanded by
Capello, which had been performing the great feats of these last days.
It was clear that, for the moment, the main Italian effort was being
made to the north.

Indeed by the 24th all the British guns of our Group were pointing
north-eastward, firing at S. Marco and neighbouring targets. British
casualties and those of the Italian Heavy Artillery had been very light,
the Austrian having concentrated practically all his Artillery fire, in
addition to his machine guns, on the Italian Infantry, amongst whom
there had been hideous slaughter.

But in the early morning of the 23rd an Austrian shell killed a Sergeant
and two men in one of our Batteries. The Sergeant was torn into several
pieces, one of which landed on the top of the Officers' Mess and another
in a gun pit 150 yards away. One of his legs could not be found, so they
had to bury what they could, an incomplete set of torn fragments. But
three or four days later the smell of the lost limb came drifting down a
ravine above their guns, and following the scent, they found it, black
with flies among the stones.

In my old Battery, too, four hundred cartridges went up with a direct
hit, and the Austrians then shelled the smoke with unpleasant effect. A
twelve-inch shell also burst very close to the Battery's Mess, killing
a number of Italian telephonists next door.

Throughout these days, periods of very heavy firing alternated with
periods of comparative quiet.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 25th a party of nearly thirty British officers and men, a
procession of two cars, three side-cars and twelve motor bicycles, went
up Podgora Hill. The Italian Second Army, to whom we were strangers,
watched us with interest as we went past in a cloud of dust. On the top
of Podgora Hill was a series of O.P.'s, known collectively as Maria
O.P., hollowed out of the rock, approached through rock passages, and in
front a wide rocky platform commanding a splendid panorama. At our feet
was a precipitous descent, clothed with acacias, at the bottom Podgora
with its gutted factories, then the broad stream of the Isonzo, and
Gorizia on the further side. To the left we could see the Isonzo winding
down out of the mountains, between Monte Sabotino and Monte Santo, the
latter hiding from our sight the Bainsizza Plateau. In the centre of our
view rose the great mass of San Gabriele; Italian patrols were out on
its southern slopes, clearly visible through field-glasses. Then Santa
Catarina and the long low brown hillside of San Marco. Away to the right
the flat lands of the Isonzo and Vippacco valleys, and beyond these
again the northern ridge of the Carso, from Dosso Faiti to the Stoll,
beautifully visible. On the right everything seemed quiet, but there was
tremendous Allied shelling of San Gabriele, Santa Catarina and San
Marco. French Gunners also were here with fifteen-inch guns firing on
San Marco, and two of their officers were at Maria O.P. that day. It
was symbolic that from this height, for the first time on the Italian
Front, Gunners of the three Western Allies were looking out eastward
together toward the Promised Land.

The enemy trenches on San Marco lay out of view behind the crest, and
our registration point, a white house on the top of the ridge, was
almost completely blown away by a big French shell while we were
watching, and waiting our turn to fire. We saw another shell burst in
the Isonzo just above Gorizia, causing a huge waterspout. Colonel Canale
arrived while we were firing. His white gloves were a little soiled, and
he seemed rather worried and more serious than usual. He was
disappointed at the stoppage of the offensive on the Carso.



CHAPTER XVI

THE FALL OF MONTE SANTO

Even when our guns were turned against San Marco, we continued to man
Sant' Andrea O.P., for one could get good general observation to the
northward from the other side of the ruined house which was the old
O.P., and most of the trenches on San Marco were invisible except from
aeroplanes. I spent the night there several times during the August
offensive, watching by turns with one of our Bombardiers, to whom I
explained that wars were made by small groups of wicked men, generally
also rich, sitting and planning in secret. I proposed to him the need
to shell such groups, while they were yet forming, with the shrapnel of
public opinion.

It was also at Sant' Andrea that I met a young Lieutenant of Italian
Field Artillery, a Sardinian from Cagliari. He had still the face of a
child, and he had, too, that perfect self-possession and that wonderful,
soft charm which are so often found together in the Italian youth. I
think of him often with affection, and with an eager hope that he passed
unharmed through all the vicissitudes which were to follow.

He and I spent many hours together, watching those bloody, memorable
hills. I met him first on the 24th of August, and we drank a bottle of
Vermouth together, and discussed with enthusiasm many subjects. We even
worked out in detail a scheme for the interchange of students, for
periods of a year at a time, between Italian and British Universities
after the war. We then turned to modern history and I noticed that he
did not respond as much as I had expected to the name of Garibaldi. He
held the historical theory that, broadly speaking, there are no really
great men, but only lucky ones. He put forward in support of this view
the distribution of death, wounds and decorations in this war. This
theory of history has in it larger elements of wholesomeness and truth
than has, for instance, the pernicious bombast of Carlyle. I told my
Sardinian friend that I had once heard it said by a most learned man
that, if Rousseau had never lived, the world would not look very
different to-day, except that probably there would be no negro republic
in the island of Haiti. This saying pleased him and he was inclined to
think it plausible.

He told me that day that Monte Santo was reported taken, but the news
was not yet sure.

       *       *       *       *       *

I saw him again three days later and by then all the world knew that
Monte Santo had fallen. For Cadorna in his communiqué of the 25th had
cried: "Since yesterday our tricolour has been waving from the summit of
Monte Santo!" Already we could see the flashes of Italian Field Guns in
action near the summit. All day I was buoyant, exhilarated, and as
absorbed in the war as any journalist.

Victory has an intoxicating quality in this bright clear atmosphere, and
among these mountains, which it has, perhaps, nowhere else. All day
there seemed to be in the air a strange thrill, which at evening seemed
to grow into a great throbbing Triumph Song of the Heroes,--incomparable
Italians, living and dead. The emotion of it became almost unbearable.

"Our tricolour is waving from the summit of Monte Santo!"

Here on the night of the 26th there occurred a scene wonderfully, almost
incredibly, dramatic. The moon was rising. Shells passed whistling
overhead, some coming from beyond the Isonzo toward the Ternova Plateau,
others in the opposite direction from Ternova. Rifle shots rang out from
beneath Monte Santo, along the slopes of San Gabriele, where the Italian
and Austrian lines were very close together, where no word on either
side might be spoken above a whisper. Suddenly there crashed out from
the gloom the opening bars of the Marcia Reale, played with tremendous
_élan_ by a military band. The music came from Monte Santo. On the
summit of the conquered mountain, the night after its conquest, an
Italian band was playing amid the broken ruins of the convent, standing
around the firmly planted Italian flag. It was the Divisional Band of
the four Regiments which had stormed these heights. On the flanks of the
mountain, along the new lines in the valley beneath, along the trenches
half-way up San Gabriele, Italian soldiers raised a cry of startled joy.
Below the peak an Italian Regiment held the line within forty yards of
the enemy, crouching low in the shallow trenches. Their Colonel leaped
to his feet and his voice rang out, "Soldiers, to your feet! Attention!"
All along the trench the soldiers, with a swift thrill of emotion,
sprang to their feet. Then again the Colonel cried, "My soldiers, let us
cry aloud in the face of the enemy, 'Long live Italy! Long live the
King! Long live the Infantry!'" Loud and long came the cheers, echoing
and re-echoing from the rocks, taken up and repeated by others who heard
them, first near at hand, then far away, echoing and spreading through
the night, like the swelling waves of a great sea.

The Austrians opened fire on Monte Santo. But the music still went on.
The Marcia Reale was finished, but now in turn the Hymn of Garibaldi and
the Hymn of Mameli, historic battle songs of Italian liberty, pealed
forth to the stars, loud above the bursting of the shells. And many
Italian eyes, from which the atrocious sufferings of this war had never
yet drawn tears, wept with a proud, triumphant joy. And as the last
notes died away upon the night air, a great storm of cheers broke forth
afresh from the Italian lines. The moon was now riding high in the
heavens, and every mountain top, seen from below, was outlined with a
sharp-cut edge against the sky.

Four days after, not far from this same spot, General Capello, the
Commander of the Italian Second Army, decorated with the Silver Medal
for Valour some of the heroes of the great victory. Among these was a
civilian, a man over military age. It was Toscanini, Italy's most famous
musical conductor. It was he who, charged with the organisation of
concerts for the troops, had found himself in this sector of the Front
when Monte Santo fell, and, hearing the news, had demanded and obtained
permission to climb the conquered mountain. He reached the summit on the
evening of the 26th and, by a strange chance, found his way among the
rocks and the ruins of the convent, to the place where the band was
playing. His presence had upon the musicians the same effect which the
presence of a great General has upon faithful troops. They crowded round
him, fired with a wild enthusiasm. Then Toscanini took command of what
surely was one of the strangest concerts in the world, played in the
moonlight, in an hour of glory, on a mountain top, which to the Italians
had become an almost legendary name, to an audience of two contending
Armies, amid the rattle of machine guns, the rumble of cannon, and the
crashes of exploding shells.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Our tricolour is waving from the summit of Monte Santo!"

If the souls of poets be immortal and know what still passes in this
world, be sure that the soul of Swinburne sings again to-day, from hell
or heaven, the Song of the Standard.

   "This is thy banner, thy gonfalon, fair in the front of thy fight.
   Red from the hearts that were pierced for thee, white as thy
                                                       mountains are white,
   Green as the spring of thy soul everlasting, whose life-blood is light.
   Take to thy bosom thy banner, a fair bird fit for the nest,
   Feathered for flight into sunrise or sunset, for eastward or west,
   Fledged for the flight everlasting, but held yet warm to thy breast.
   Gather it close to thee, song-bird or storm-bearer, eagle or dove,
   Lift it to sunward, a beacon beneath to the beacon above,
   Green as our hope in it, white as our faith in it, red as our love."



CHAPTER XVII

THE CONQUEST OF THE BAINSIZZA PLATEAU

The Italian advance on the Middle Isonzo in the early days of the August
offensive reached a depth of six miles on a front of eleven miles. The
Italians had swept across the Bainsizza Plateau, and had gained
observation and command, though not possession, of the Valley of
Chiapovano, the main Austrian line of communication and supply in this
sector. This advance and the resumption of the war of movement raised,
for the moment, tremendous expectations, which were destined, alas, to
die away without fulfilment.

The passage of the Isonzo, here a deep cleft in the mountains, from
Plava to above Canale, had been accomplished by the combined skill and
valour of Infantry, Artillery and Engineers. The preliminary work of the
Engineers in roadmaking on the western side of the river had been, as
always, worthy of the highest praise. A great mass of bridging material
had had to be accumulated in the valley, alongside camouflaged roads.
The Austrians must have been on their guard, but it seems probable that
they did not expect a big attack to be made here. For they were fully
conscious of the natural strength of their positions.

First to cross the river on the night of the attack were boats carrying
Engineers and detachments of Arditi. As they crossed, the river gorge
was full of mist and they were not detected. But when the work of
bridging began, and sounds of hammering and the dragging of planks into
position could be clearly heard, suddenly all along the further bank the
Austrian machine guns began to spit fire, and red rockets went up
calling for the Artillery barrage. Many boats were hit and sank, and the
Bridging Detachments suffered severe casualties. One bridge, half built,
was set on fire, and one could see dark shadows, lit up by the glare
amid the darkness, darting forward to extinguish the flames. Fourteen
bridges were thrown across under heavy fire, and, as the Infantry began
to cross, Platoon after Platoon, the Austrian Machine Gunners fired at
the sound of their footsteps, and many Italians fell, especially
officers leading their men. But the crossing went on and, when dawn
broke, the attackers had a firm footing on the left bank of the river.
They swept round the flanks of those machine guns which had not yet been
put out of action, and making use of the subterranean passages which the
enemy had pierced in the cliffs for sheltered communication between the
higher and the lower levels of the mountain, began to pour forth upon
the crest of the ridge which overlooks the river. Then, as the advance
continued, the Austrian right wing above Canale gave way in confusion
and the Italians pressed forward on to the Bainsizza Plateau.

But their difficulties were tremendous. When they left the valley of the
Isonzo behind them, they entered a waterless land, without springs for
some four miles. In the early stages of the battle all water for the
troops had to be brought up by mules, and likewise all food, ammunition
and medical supplies, until the Engineers could get to work with
road-building on the left bank of the river. The Bainsizza Plateau
itself, lying amid a mass of barren mountains, contains woods, pastures,
springs, small villages, a few roads and many tracks. The Italians swept
over it on the 21st and 22nd of August, but soon found themselves once
more in difficult country. In the days that followed the advance was
slower and more spasmodic, but it still continued. By the 27th, 25,000
Austrian prisoners had been taken, together with a great quantity of
material, and several whole Austrian Divisions had ceased to exist.

It had been a wonderful feat of arms, finely conceived by the Staff,
magnificently executed by the rank and file. It opened out a great vista
of new possibilities, but, for the moment, it was over. Before any
further advance was practicable, the positions won had to be
consolidated, roads had to be built, dumps and stores of every kind to
be moved forward.

       *       *       *       *       *

In a village on the Bainsizza Plateau, half wrecked by shell fire, two
old peasants were sitting outside their house. Austrian shells whistled
through the air and burst a few hundred yards away. "These are not for
us," said one of the old men to an Italian soldier, "the shells and the
war are for the soldiers, not the civilians."



CHAPTER XVIII

THE FIGHTING DIES DOWN

On the 28th of August the offensive was really beginning again. We were
firing on San Marco at a slow rate from six a.m. for an hour, then
"vivace" from seven till noon, and at noon we lifted and continued
vivace. San Marco was not rocky, and the trenches there should be
bombardable into pulp. In the early morning from Sant' Andrea the hills
all round were clearly outlined, except where some long belts of
motionless, white, low-lying cloud partly hid the Faiti-Stoll range.
Later, with the sun up, a warm haze hid everything. Firing continued
heavy till six p.m., and then slowed down. The attack on San Marco had
failed.

Next day there was a good deal of shelling and some torrential showers.
We set fire to some woods on the lower slopes of San Daniele, with a
high wind blowing.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Battery's good luck continued. On the 30th, while my Gun Detachment
were at breakfast, a 5.9 burst in their shelter trench, at the moment
unoccupied, and covered every one with showers of loose earth. All the
breakfast vanished, and our shells were thrown about like driftwood in a
storm. But no ammunition was exploded and no one was hurt. Raven, who
had been up Sabotino that day, told us that "San Gabriele is tottering."
Our offensive seemed to have completely come to an end on the Carso and
in the Vippacco Valley. But we were still hammering away at San Marco
and San Gabriele, at intervals of a few days at a time. On the 2nd of
September San Gabriele was still "tottering," on the morning of the 4th
it was reported taken, on the 6th we heard that it had been taken, lost
and retaken, the Arno Brigade having distinguished themselves by some
wonderful bombing. Cadorna's objective now, it was said, was Lubiana,
and not Trieste. The Major and I both agreed that the Entente ought to
put every available man and tank on to this Front and go for Vienna. On
the 8th Raven told us that the top of San Gabriele was held, but not the
lower slopes nor Santa Catarina, which were still precariously supplied
from behind San Marco. A few days later we lost the top of San Gabriele,
and the attack upon it was not renewed.

Then followed quiet times, except for activity by Austrian Trench
Mortars against our trenches on Hill 126. We established direct
telephonic communication from the Battery to the Infantry Brigade
Headquarters in order to provide rapid retaliation, and we made several
Reconnaissances to try to locate Trench Mortars in the tangle of broken
ground through which the enemy line ran.

On the 17th we were warned to be ready to move at short notice to the
neighbourhood of Monfalcone, for a big push against the Hermada in three
weeks' time. Battery positions were chosen, but we never went. Instead a
rumour began to spread that all British Batteries were leaving Italy and
going East. It was said that the War Office had the wind up about the
Turks. An international tug of war was going on behind the scenes. On
the afternoon of the 28th we were told on high authority that our
movements were still undecided, but the Battery was inspected that day
by General Capello, the victor of Bainsizza, who looked like an Eastern
potentate, and was heard to say that he wanted as many British Batteries
as he could get, to increase the gun power of the Second Army. That
evening, however, our fate was said to be unofficially decided. We, with
the rest of Raven's Group, five Batteries in all, were to stay in Italy,
the other two Groups were to go away. It was not till the 3rd of October
that we received definite orders on the subject. The other Groups went
to Egypt and a couple of Batteries, after three months of doing nothing
in Cairo, came back to Italy again. They had at any rate found a little
employment for some of our surplus shipping and they had missed some
queer experiences in Italy meantime.

It was also announced that we were not moving down to Monfalcone, but
were probably remaining in our present positions for the winter. We
therefore began systematically to prepare winter quarters. The Italian
Corps Commander in a special Order of the Day expressed his satisfaction
that our Group was remaining under his command.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 5th I got up at four o'clock in the morning and carried out a
Front Line Reconnaissance with Sergeant Cotes, the No. 1 of my gun, and
Avoglia, an Italian Sergeant Major attached to our Battery, rather a
sleek person, who had been a _maître-d'hôtel_ at Brighton before the
war. We went along the front line trenches on Hill 126, recently
captured. These trenches ran beside the river and were now in fine
condition, great repairs and reconstruction having been carried out
during the past three weeks. It was here that Austrian Trench Mortars
were active. They were firing when we arrived and caused some
casualties. As it grew light, a strong Austrian patrol was seen moving
about in No Man's Land, and it was thought that a raid might be coming.
The order "Stand to" was given, and the Infantry came swarming out of
their dug-outs, a crowd of youths, some very handsome, with almost
Classical Roman features, and older men, sturdy and bearded. They
densely manned the parapet, with fixed bayonets and hand grenades. The
machine gun posts were also manned. But nothing happened!

A little later an Austrian was seen to emerge from cover in No Man's
Land, about a hundred yards away from us, and run towards our trenches,
throwing away his rifle and shouting some unintelligible words. He was
sick of the war and wanted to surrender. But a young Italian recruit, in
the trenches for the first time, quivering with excitement and eagerness
to distinguish himself, not realising the man's motive, fired at him
through a peephole. He missed, but the Austrian turned and doubled back
like a rabbit to his own lines, where I suppose he was shot, poor brute,
by his own people. I was standing quite close to the young recruit when
he fired. No one rebuked him, but a Corporal patiently explained things
to him. We smiled at one another, and I wished him "auguri" and went on
up the hill.

The Austrian snipers were busy, and another Italian standing close to
me, looking out slantwise through a peephole, was shot through the jaw.
He was bandaged up, profusely bleeding, and went stoically down the
hill, supported by a companion, leaving a red trail along the wooden
duck-boards that paved the trench.

I went down two saps which the Italians had pushed out, one to within
twenty yards, the other to within ten yards, of the Austrian front line.
Here every one spoke in a low whisper or by signs. They warned me to
keep well down, as the Austrians hated khaki worse even than
"grigio-verde," as one is always apt to hate third parties who butt in
against one in what one conceives to be a purely private quarrel.

But I went back armed with some useful information regarding the
position of those Austrian Trench Mortars.



CHAPTER XIX

A LULL BETWEEN TWO STORMS

From the beginning of October the Battery were hard at work on their
winter quarters. We had two large dining and recreation huts for the
men, one for the Right Section and one for the Left, fitted up with long
wooden tables and benches. These huts were dug into the bank, one on
either side of the road leading up from the Battery position to Pec
village. The dug-outs were improved and made watertight and the
Officers' Mess and sleeping huts were moved up from the river bank into
the Battery position itself. Everything was very comfortable and handy.

We maintained close relations with an Italian Battery next door
commanded by a certain Captain Romano. His men helped us in putting up
our huts, which were of Italian design, and we had frequent exchanges of
hospitality. Romano was a Regular officer, about 28 years old, with
twinkling brown eyes and a voice like a foghorn even when speaking from
a short distance away, but a fine singer. He had a wonderful collection
of photographs, was a good Gunner and popular with his men.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 9th I spent the night in Lecce O.P. on Hill 123, overlooking
Hills 126 and 94. It was named after the Lecce Brigade who made it, one
of the best Brigades in the Italian Army. When they were in front of
us, we saw a good deal of them. Now the Parma Brigade were holding the
line and the British officer in the O.P. used to take his meals at the
Brigade Headquarters. Things were rather active that evening. At
half-past five in the afternoon the enemy opened a heavy bombardment,
increasing to a pitch of great fury, on our front and support trenches.
Our own lines down below me were blotted out from sight by dense clouds
of crashing, flashing smoke. Just before six the Italian Brigadier asked
me for a heavy barrage from all the British Batteries. A big
counter-bombardment was now working up from our side. I spoke on the
telephone to Raven, who told me that all our Batteries were firing
"_double vivace_." At a quarter past six the Austrians attacked. There
was a terrific rattle of Italian machine gun fire, almost drowning the
sound of the heavier explosions, and a stream of rockets went up from
our front line calling for more barrage. The attack was beaten off by
machine guns and hand grenades. A few Austrians reached our parapet, but
none got into our trenches.

Firing died down about a quarter to seven, and the Brigadier came up to
the O.P., very pleased with the support we had rendered, and asked that
a slow rate of fire might be kept up. Later on an Austrian telephone
message was overheard, which suggested that the attack was to be renewed
just before dawn, after a gas attack. We kept on the alert, but nothing
happened. Two of our Batteries went on firing at a slow rate all night.
When dawn broke, it was evident that our bombardment had been very
destructive. The enemy's trenches were knocked to pieces; uprooted
trees, planks, sandbags and dead bodies lay about in confusion. It was
thought that owing to our fire some Austrian units, which were to have
taken part in the attack, could not, and others would not, do so, in
spite of a special issue of rum and other spirits. I saw also,
motionless amid the Austrian wire, a figure in Italian uniform, one of a
patrol who had gone out four nights before, and had not returned.

On the 12th I went out with a Sergeant, a Signaller and Corporal
Savogna, a Canadian Italian, on a Front Line Reconnaissance on the
northern side of the Vippacco, in the Second Army area. The day was
wonderfully clear and we could see the everlasting snows beyond Cadore.
We went through Rupa to Merna and, being evidently spotted, were shelled
with 4.2's and forced to proceed along a muddy communication trench knee
deep in water. At Raccogliano Mill we visited the Headquarters of the
Bergamo Brigade, which was holding the line. A guide took us along the
front line, which had been considerably advanced here in August and
September, and again by a successful local attack a few days before. We
went down one _Caverna_ in which, on the occasion of this last attack, a
Magyar officer and 25 men surrendered. The Austrian sentry, also a
Magyar, had been fastened by the leg to the doorpost outside the
entrance to the dug-out. In the Italian bombardment one of his feet was
blown away, but his own people had done nothing for him. Now his dead
body lay out in the open behind the new Italian front line.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 14th Jeune went on leave to England, no one having any
expectation that anything of importance was likely to happen in the
near future. In his absence I acted as Second-in-Command of the Battery.

On the 19th we heard that the Italian High Command was preparing another
big offensive from the Bainsizza against the Ternova Plateau, and the
same day the Intelligence Report contained the information that a series
of German Divisions had been seen detraining at Lubiana since the
beginning of October, and that, owing to the Russian collapse, a
thousand Austrian guns had been moved across from the Russian to the
Isonzo Front since the middle of September. We had noticed a perceptible
increase in the enemy's Artillery activity for some time, but this, we
thought at the time, was purely defensive. There had also been a week of
heavy rains, but the Vippacco, after rising rapidly and threatening to
flood us all out, fell eighteen inches in one night. It swept away a
number of Italian bridges, however, from Merna and Raccogliano further
up stream, and we saw pieces of these rushing past in the swift current.

On the 21st the Major and I motored to Palmanova and bought some winter
clothing at the Ordnance. An Austrian twelve-inch howitzer, whom we had
christened "Mr Pongo," was shelling all day at intervals, chiefly in the
back areas. An unpleasant beast, we agreed, who wanted smothering!

On the 22nd it was evident, from the Austrian shelling, that quite a
number of fresh heavy howitzers, both twelve- and fifteen-inch, had
appeared behind the Austrian lines. A few, no doubt, of those thousand
guns from Russia! Listening to their shells whistling over one's head
like express trains, and to their (happily distant) deep crashes on
percussion, one realised very vividly the immediate military effects of
the Russian collapse. We heard that the Italian offensive was not coming
off after all.

On the 23rd we heard that a big Austrian attack was expected last night
and might come that night instead. We received orders to clean up and
prepare, in case of necessity, the old position at Boschini on San
Michele, which the Battery had occupied when they first arrived in
Italy. This, I thought, seemed rather panic-stricken. Romano's Battery
had similar orders. It would be annoying to leave our present position
after all the work put into it to make it habitable for the winter. But
I noted that the atmosphere was tinged with apprehension.



PART IV

THE ITALIAN RETREAT AND RECOVERY


CHAPTER XX

THE BEGINNING OF THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE

On the morning of October 24th soon after nine o'clock the enemy
launched a big attack against the Third Army Front, especially violent
between Faiti and the Vippacco, and renewed it in the afternoon. But he
gained no ground. All through the previous night and all that day till
evening the bombardment on both sides was heavy. We had not fired during
the night but began at seven in the morning and went on throughout the
day. A message came in that the enemy would probably shell Batteries for
four hours with gas shell, starting with irritant gas and going on to
poison. He had already employed these tactics up north, as we learned
later. Gas alert was on all night and we were listening strainedly for
soft bursts. Heavy rain came down steadily all day, and everything was
drenched and dripping. The spaces between our huts filled with water,
and needed continual baling out. But when gas was expected, one welcomed
heavy rain[1] and high winds and loud explosions from bursting shells.

[Footnote 1: It was not till a later date that gases were employed, the
effects of which were increased by rain.]

Between nine and ten p.m. I heard a series of soft bursts just across
the river and arranged with Romano's Battery for mutual alarms if any
gas should come too near. An hour later I was relieved in the Command
Post and turned in. As I was undressing, I heard the wind rising again
and the telephonists next door baling out their dug-out. We were keeping
up a desultory fire all night to harass any further attacks that might
be attempted. The Major, who had been out on a Front Line Reconnaissance
that morning in the neighbourhood of Merna, had come in for some very
heavy shelling and returned very weary.

       *       *       *       *       *

The next day, the 25th, was at least fine; it was even rather sunny. We
did a little firing, but not much, between seven a.m. and two p.m. Enemy
planes came over continually, flying very low, about thirty in the
course of the morning. They attacked one of our observation balloons,
which descended rapidly as they approached, and I think got down safely.
Italian anti-aircraft guns brought down one of them. Whenever we shelled
Mandria, a little village up the valley, a plane came over. Evidently
they had something there as to which they were sensitive, perhaps a
General's Billet!

At half past ten the Italians ditched a lorry full of ammunition just at
the top of the road from the Battery position to Pec village, in full
view of the enemy on Hill 464. At this time the village was being
heavily shelled by 5.9's, and our cookhouse on the outskirts was all but
hit, shells bursting all round it in a circle. Showers of bricks and
lumps of earth and masonry rose high in the air. One shell hit the
Artillery Group Headquarters of Major Borghese and I saw all his office
papers going up, a cloud of shreds, shining in the sun. I laughed and
said to myself, "There goes a lot of red tape!" I saw Borghese himself
later in the day limping along with a stick; a chunk of one of his
office walls had fallen on his foot.

The enemy meanwhile had begun to shell the lorry, methodically as their
idiotic habit was, with one shell every five minutes. It was too near us
to be pleasant, so the Major took out a party and hauled it out of their
view under cover of a bank. But this took some time. Leary stood by with
a stopwatch calling out the minutes. At the end of every fourth minute,
the party ran for cover. Then a few seconds later we heard the next
shell coming. The Major was hit on the hand once by a shell splinter
which drew blood, but nothing more serious than this happened.

About two o'clock a big bombardment worked up again, and the Volconiac
and Faiti became a sea of smoke and flame. This went on till dusk, we
firing hard all the time. More enemy planes came over, one even after
dark, a most unusual thing, flying very low indeed, under a heavy fire
of anti-aircraft Batteries and machine guns from the ground. Our planes
had been very scarce all day. They had nearly all gone north. For the
time being we had quite lost the command of the air in this sector.

The two British Batteries who were furthest forward had orders to move
back that night to reserve positions on San Michele. The Italians were
going to horse their guns, for it was said that the majority of the
tractors had gone north too. This move looked rather panicky, I thought.

Many red rockets went up in the early evening from Volconiac and Faiti.
The enemy were making another attack. Then a little later tricolour
rockets, red, white and green, went up. This was the signal that the
attack had been beaten off and that the situation was quiet again. The
firing died down about seven. We fed and put up for the night an Italian
officer, whose Battery used to be here, but had moved north yesterday.
He had just come back from a gas course at Palmanova. From a newspaper
which he had I saw that a strong offensive had begun on the afternoon of
the 23rd to the north of the Bainsizza Plateau. Either the attacks here
were only holding attacks, or the attack to the north was a feint and
the real thing was to be here. Anyhow, I thought, it is their Last
Despairing Great Cry! I turned in just after midnight. The night was
still and there was a bright moon and stars. A thick mist lay along the
Vippacco, just behind the trees. The air was damp and cold. It seemed
pretty quiet for the moment all along the Front.

       *       *       *       *       *

I had a troubled night. In the early morning we were bombarded with gas
shell and had to wear respirators from a quarter to three till four
o'clock. We were firing from five till six and again steadily from a
quarter past seven onwards. We got orders to move back that night to
Boschini, on San Michele. I thought this a great mistake. Later in the
day our move was cancelled, as the two forward Batteries which pulled
out last night would not be in action on San Michele till to-morrow.
They had been last heard of stuck fast in a crush of traffic at the
bottom of the hill at Peteano. A strong team of horses were straining
their guts out in vain attempts to pull an Italian twelve-inch mortar up
the hill. It was this which had caused the block. Those two forward
Batteries _might_ have lost their guns in a quick retreat, I thought,
but hardly we. It seemed to be feared, however, that the two bridges
across the Vippacco might go.

That day we were shelled heavily with every kind of weapon, from
fifteen-inch downwards, especially the Left Section in the afternoon. We
had, as usual, marvellously good luck, and only had one casualty, and
that a slight wound. The spirit and endurance of the men were wonderful.
Enemy planes were over all day; we counted twenty-two between daybreak
and four p.m. Some hovered overhead and ranged their guns on us. Several
times we put our detachments under cover and ceased fire owing to the
shelling. My own gun was half buried by a great shower of earth kicked
up by a 9.45, which pitched right on top of the bank in front of us. But
Cotes, my Sergeant, and myself, crouching under cover of the girdles,
were quite unhurt. The rest of the detachment had been ordered down into
their dug-out. Another time the enemy neatly bracketed our Command Post
with twelve-inch, and several of us within were uncomfortably awaiting
the next round. But luckily for us he switched away to the right.

We had to fire hard most of the day, especially in the afternoon and
evening. It had been exhausting and almost sleepless work for the
detachments for several days past, for Darrell and a working party of
forty were away preparing the reserve position on San Michele, and we
had hardly any reliefs for the guns. The Major, too, looked very tired
and frayed, but, whenever our eyes met, he gave me a smile of
encouragement and leadership. That evening, during a short break in the
firing, he asked me, since he himself could not leave the Command Post,
to go round and "buck the men up" and thank them on his behalf for the
way in which they had behaved. "So long as the Major's pleased, we're
satisfied," said one man. Another, a Bombardier who afterwards got a
Commission, and had been with Darrell on a reconnaissance on Faiti a few
days before and had nearly been killed on the journey, said, "Well, Sir,
we were thinking of the boys in the Front Line today." And well he
might, for it had been a hellish bombardment up there. After delivering
my message to the men, I walked up and down the road in front of the
guns for a few moments in the short silence, realising how the Alliance
of Britain and Italy was burning itself more deeply than ever into our
hearts in these days of trial.

That night the enemy attacked again, and we lost Faiti and Hill 393, and
had to fire on them. I heard afterwards from the Group that Colonel
Canale, when he gave the order to fire on 393, was almost weeping on the
telephone. Next day we counter-attacked and retook Faiti, but 393
remained in Austrian hands. Rumours and denials of rumours came in from
the north. It was said that we had lost Monte Nero and Caporetto, and
that German Batteries had kept up a high concentration of gas for four
hours on our lines in the Cadore. And we knew that the Italian gas masks
were only guaranteed to last for an hour and a half in such conditions,
and that each man only carried one.



CHAPTER XXI

FROM THE VIPPACCO TO SAN GIORGIO DI NOGARA

On the 27th the rumours became bad. The German advance to the north was
said to be considerable and rapid. Orders came that all the British
Batteries were to pull out and park that night at Villa Viola, behind
Gradisca, "for duty on another part of the Front." Probably, we thought,
we were going north. "The gun concentration up there must be awful,"
said the Major. I told Cotes that we were probably going into the thick
of it, and his eyes shone with pride. He was a fine fellow. That day the
sun was shining, and the Italian planes in this sector seemed to have
regained command of the air. For the moment there was a little lull in
the firing, but we felt that some big fate was looming over us. I went
away to my hut for five minutes and wrote in my diary, "I here put it on
record once more that I am proud to fight in and for Italy. I repeat
that dying here is not death, it is flying into the dawn! If I die in
and for Italy, I would like to think that my death would do something
for Anglo-Italian sympathy and understanding."

In the early afternoon the Major went down to Headquarters. He rang me
up from there to say that two guns were to be pulled out at once, and
the other two to double their rate of fire. No. 4 gun was now engaging
two different targets with alternate rounds and different charges.

When the Major came back, he called all the men together and said. "I am
not going to conceal anything from you. The situation is serious. The
Italians have had a bad reverse up north. But there is no need for
anyone to get panicky. We shall pull out and go back to-night. That is
all I know at present. When I know more, I will tell you more. One gun
will remain in action till the last. No. 2 is the easiest to get out, so
I have chosen her for the post of honour." As the men scattered, I heard
several saying, "Good old No. 2!"

The Major told me that the Austrians were almost in Cividale, staggering
news. Tractors and lorries were to come and take away our guns and
stores in the evening. But the number of tractors was very limited and
Raven was doubtful if enough would come in time. The whole Third Army
was retreating, and three British Batteries, ourselves, the Battery in
Pec village and the Battery at Rupa, would be the last three Batteries
of Medium or Heavy Calibre left on this part of the Front.

All through the afternoon and evening Italian Infantry and Artillery
were retreating through Pec. Some looked stolid, others depressed,
others merely puzzled. But a little later a Battalion came along the
road the other way, going up to be sacrificed on Nad Logem. They halted
to rest by the roadside, full of gaiety and courage. They cheered our
men on No. 2 gun, who were pumping out shells as fast as they could.
"Bravi inglesi!" cried the Italians, and some of our men replied, "Good
luck, Johnny!" Unknown Italians were always "Johnny."

As the dark came on, ammunition dumps began to go up everywhere; the
Italians were deliberately exploding them, and great flashes of light,
brighter than even an Italian noonday, lit up the whole sky for minutes
at a time. Romano's Battery next door to us threw the remains of their
ammunition into the river, and pulled out and away about 6.30. They were
horse-drawn and did not need to wait for tractors. We wished each other
good-bye, and hoped we might meet again some better day. We too got
orders to destroy all ammunition we could not fire, as there would be no
transport to take it away. So we gave No. 2 a generous ration and heaved
the rest into the waters of the Vippacco.

No. 2 went on firing ceaselessly. So did one gun of the Battery in the
village, and one gun at Rupa. That Battery, being the furthest forward,
was in the greatest danger of the three. About 7 o'clock our first
tractor arrived and took away No. 1 gun with Winterton and Manzoni.
Enemy bombing planes came over frequently. One came right over us and
then turned down the Vallone, and there was a series of heavy
explosions, and great clouds of brownish smoke leapt up beneath her
track.

Why, I kept asking myself, didn't the fools shell Pec village, where a
crowd of men and guns were waiting for transport? Why didn't they put
over gas shell? Why didn't they bomb us? Evidently there were no Germans
_here_! About a quarter to nine No. 2 finished her ammunition, and we
pulled her out. The other three guns had gone now and the other two
British Batteries were clear, all but two lorries. Just after nine
o'clock our last tractor came along and took off No. 2, with Darrell in
charge of her. How the Italians had managed to get all these lorries and
tractors for us, I don't know, for, in the Third Army as a whole, they
were terribly short of transport. Many made the criticism that we should
have kept out in Italy our own transport. But the Italians certainly did
us very handsomely, at the cost of losing some bigger guns of their own.

After the last British gun had ceased to fire there was for about five
minutes an eerie stillness, as though all our Artillery had gone and
theirs was holding its fire. And then an Italian Field Battery opened
again on the right of Pec. For over an hour now I had been expecting,
minute by minute, to see the enemy Infantry come swarming along the Nad
Logem in the dusk, cutting off our retreat, for I knew we had nothing
but rear-guards left up there. But they did not come!

Only the Major and I and about forty men were left now, and we had been
told that there would be no more transport. So we destroyed everything
that we had been unable to get away, and the Major informed Headquarters
of the situation and then disconnected the telephone and the men fell in
and we marched away. We were just in time to see an Italian Field
Battery come into Pec at the gallop, the gunners all cheering, unlimber
their guns, take up position and open fire. It was a smart piece of
work, done with a real Latin gesture. How enfuriating it was to be
leaving these wooden huts of ours and these good positions, on which
had been spent so many hours of labour, where we could have passed such
a comfortable winter, going forth now none knew whither! Old Natale, one
of the Italians attached to us, chalked up in German on the entrance to
one of the huts, "You German pigs, we shall soon be back again!" But at
that moment I did not feel so sure. Natale was afterwards lost in the
retreat, and was reported by us as "missing." But one of our men saw him
again six months later with an Italian Battery and said he looked
several years younger!

We passed Campbell, the Medical Officer, standing outside his dug-out on
the road. He was waiting for the last of the other Batteries' parties to
get away. He told me afterwards that we were out only just in time.
Within half an hour of our going, the Austrians fairly plastered the
position with shells of all calibres. They shelled the road a little as
we went along, but not too much. As we passed the railway embankment at
Rubbia, we saw and spoke to some Italian machine-gunners in position,
whose orders were to hold up the enemy till the last possible moment.
They were quite calm and determined, those boys, knowing perfectly well
that, by the time the enemy came, the Isonzo bridges would have been
blown up behind them. I dragged myself on with an aching heart. One who
retreats cuts a poor figure beside a rear-guard that stays behind and
fights.

We crossed the Isonzo at Peteano, and took a short cut across the fields
to Farra. In the crowd and the dark we were jostled by some Italian
Infantry. We hailed them and found that they were our old friends, the
Lecce Brigade. The Major made our men stand back. "Pass, Lecce," he
said. "Good luck to you!" We marched on through Farra to Gradisca, both
blazing in the night. The towns and villages everywhere in this sector
had been deliberately fired by the retreating Italians, in addition to
the ammunition dumps. The whole countryside was blazing and exploding. I
thought of Russia in 1812, and the Russian retreat before Napoleon, and
Tchaikovsky's music.

It began to rain, but that made no difference to the burning. In
Gradisca burning petrol was running about the streets. Earlier in the
evening there had been a queer scene here. The Headquarters of the
British Staff had been at Gradisca, and the Camp Commandant had made a
hobby of fattening rabbits for the General's Mess. When the time had
come that day to pack up and go, it was found that the lorries provided
were fully loaded with office stores, Staff officers' bulky kit and
20,000 cigarettes, which the General was specially proud of having saved
from his canteen. There was no room for the Camp Commandant's rabbit
hutches, so these were opened and the fat inmates released, to the
delight of the civilians and Italian soldiery in Gradisca, who knocked
them over or shot them as they ran. I heard this from a gunner, who was
officer's servant to one of the Staff and witnessed the scene.

A few miles away, at the Ordnance Depôt at Villa Freifeldt, thousands of
pounds' worth of gun stores stood ready, packed in crates, to be
removed. But no transport came for them, and they were abandoned and
fell into Austrian hands. For lack of them, our Batteries were
afterwards kept out of action for several weeks. Whoever ordered these
things seems to have thought it more important to save the Staff's kit
and the General's cigarettes.

Just before we entered Gradisca, we passed a Battalion of the
Granatieri, the Italian Grenadiers, all six foot tall, with collar
badges of crimson and white, coming up from reserve to fight a
rear-guard action. I had seen them a few days before in rest billets and
admired their appearance. And in their march that night and in their
faces was scorn for fugitives and contempt for death. The Major said to
me, as they swung past us, that _that_ Battalion could be trusted to
fight to the end. And they did. Some of our men met a few of their
survivors at Mestre a week later. Nearly the whole Battalion had been
killed or wounded, but they had held up the Austrian advance for several
hours.

On the further side of Gradisca we passed a great platform, which had
been erected a few weeks before for the Duke of Aosta's presentation of
medals for the Carso offensive. It was here that the Major had received
the Italian Silver Medal for Valour. The platform looked ironical that
night, still decked with bunting, limp and drenched now by the rain, and
lit up by the flames of the burning town. We reached Villa Viola about
11.30 p.m. It was to have been a rendezvous, but there was no one there.
Only the rain still falling. About midnight we entered an empty house,
and threw ourselves down upon the floor to sleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

We had slept for less than an hour, when we were hurriedly awakened. The
Italians had orders to set fire to the house. Meanwhile Savogna, our
Canadian Italian Corporal, had just returned from scouting for us, and
reported that parties from the other Batteries were in a house half a
mile away. We marched off again through pouring rain, our path lit up by
the flames, which in places thrust their long tongues right across the
road. The wind blew clouds of smoke in our faces. The air was full of
the roaring of the fires, the crackle of blazing woodwork, the crash of
houses falling in, the loud explosions of ammunition dumps and petrol
stores, which now and again for a few seconds lighted up the whole night
sky for miles around with a terrific glare, and then died down again.
Far as the eye could reach the night was studded with red and golden
fires. Everywhere behind the front of the retreating Third Army a
systematic destruction was being carried out. The Third Army was
retreating in good order, unbroken and undefeated, retreating only
because its northern flank was in danger of being turned. The Third Army
was proving to the enemy that its movements were deliberate and governed
by a cool purpose. The enemy should advance into a wilderness.

Again I seemed to hear in the air the music of "1812," and the bells of
burning Moscow ringing out loud and clear above the triumph song of the
invader.

       *       *       *       *       *

Our men marched doggedly on, some looking puzzled and full of wonder,
others tired but cheerful, others with expressionless, uncomprehending
faces. But in the faces of a few I read a consciousness of the
tremendous tragedy of which we formed a tiny part. We found the other
Batteries in a house not yet marked down for burning. The house was
crowded out already and all the best places taken, such as they were.
There were pools of water everywhere on the floor. Officers of the Group
were there, knowing nothing, awaiting the appearance of Colonel Raven.
All our party got in somehow and lay down to sleep. But half an hour
later we were roused again. Raven had come and ordered that all should
push on to Palmanova.

Some of our men were sleeping very heavily and were hard to waken. When
we started it was still raining. The roads were crowded with traffic,
including many guns. Our own went by with the rest, Winterton, Darrell,
Leary and Manzoni with them. Each Battery party marched independently,
the easier to get through blocks in the traffic. The Square at Palmanova
had been fixed as the next rendezvous.

The stream of refugees with their slow-moving wagons drawn by oxen, or
their little donkey carts, or trudging on foot carrying bundles, became
gradually thicker and more painful. For we were back now in country that
yesterday or the day before had fancied itself remote from the battle
zone. I remember one elderly peasant woman, tall and erect as a young
girl, with white hair and a face like Dante, calm, beautiful and stern.
She was alone, tramping along through the mud. And she had the walk of a
queen.

At Versa we halted for a few minutes at the Hospital. All the wounded
had been evacuated.[1] Campbell was lying on a bed in one of the empty
wards, snatching a little rest. He had seen the last British troops away
from Pec and had then followed on a motor-bicycle. I went into the old
R.A.M.C. Mess to see if any food or drink was left. The question of food
was beginning to be serious for the whole retreating Army. Italian
troops were clearing out everything. I found a wine bottle half full,
and took a deep drink. It was vinegar, but it bucked one up. I handed
the bottle to an Italian, and told him it was "good English wine." He
drank a little, saw the joke, smiled and passed it on to an unsuspecting
companion. I got a little milk which I shared with the Major and some of
our men. Then we resumed the march.

[Footnote 1: One wounded British soldier, who had been in an Italian
Field Hospital which was not evacuated in time, was taken prisoner by
the Austrians. He told me, when he was released a year later, that the
Austrians bayoneted the Italian wounded whom they found in this
hospital, but spared the British, and, on the whole, treated them well.]

We reached Palmanova about 7 a.m. It was now the 28th of October. We met
Raven in the Square, where were also collected a British General and his
Staff officers. They were standing about, with a half lost look on their
faces. There was no evidence of decision or any plan. The General was
smiling, as his habit was. The Staff Captain was telling someone, in a
hopeless voice, that he had heard that the Italians were going back to
the Tagliamento. Just as we arrived, the Italians began to set fire to
the town. Dense clouds of black smoke, fanned by a strong wind, began to
pour over our heads. Flames were soon roaring round houses, where three
months ago I had been a guest. But the inmates had all gone now. Food
and drink was being sold in the shops at knock-down prices. The Italian
military authorities were requisitioning all bread, and issued some to
us. The Major ordered it to be kept in reserve.

I went round the town and into the Railway Station looking for our guns.
But there was no sign of them. I came back and slept for an hour amid
some rubble under the archway inside one of the town gates. The town was
burning furiously. Our men, wet to the skin, sheltered themselves from
the smoke and the cold wind in the dry moat outside the walls.

Then the order came to move on. We formed up and started with the rest.
Nobody knew whither. Some said Latisana, but no one knew how far off
this was. The men had no rations except the bread obtained at Palmanova,
and no prospect, apparently, of getting any. The Supply Officers of the
A.S.C. might as well have gone to Heaven, for all the use they were to
us during those days of retreat. It was raining again and the roads were
blocked. We proceeded slowly for a mile or two, and were then turned off
the road into a damp, open field, which someone said was a "strategic
point." Here a number of different Battery parties collected. We were to
wait for the guns. The downpour steadily increased, the field rapidly
became a marsh, and there was no shelter anywhere. Raven walked up and
down, puffing at this pipe, taking the situation with admirable calm. It
was at this time that I personally touched my bedrock of misery, both
mental and physical. For there seemed to be nothing to be done, and,
what most irked me, there were so many senior officers present that I
myself could take no decisions. Then some of our guns arrived, and were
halted at the side of the road to wait for the rest. But this made the
traffic block worse, and they had to move forward again, and the idea
of getting them all together was abandoned.

Raven then gave the order to the rest of us to move on. There were some
vacant places in various cars and lorries at this point and some
footsore men were put in. The Major insisted, in spite of my protests
that I preferred to walk, that I should get into one of the cars, which
I shared with Littleton, the Chaplain who had thought that war "might be
tremendously worth while" and three junior officers from Raven's
Headquarters. I was, in truth, pretty done at this stage, chiefly
through want of sleep, compared to which I always found want of food a
trifling inconvenience. It was now about 4 p.m. and we could only make
very slow progress. A rendezvous had been fixed by Raven at Foglie,
where rations were to have been distributed. But there was no one and no
rations there, and it seemed that Raven had taken the wrong road. The
enemy were said to be advancing from the north at right angles to our
only possible line of retreat, and the chances seemed strongly in favour
of our all being cut off.

An Italian doctor ran out into the road and stopped our car, almost
beside himself with despair. He had been left in charge of a number of
severely wounded cases, without any food, medical necessities or
transport. But we had no food and could do nothing to help him, except
promise to try to have transport sent back to him from San Giorgio di
Nogara.



CHAPTER XXII

FROM SAN GIORGIO TO THE TAGLIAMENTO

We reached San Giorgio about 9 p.m. and here I got out of the car, which
two of Raven's Staff took on to try and arrange for transport to be sent
back for the Italian wounded. Having slept for an hour or two in the
car, I felt quite a different being and fit for anything. Stragglers
were coming in from the various Batteries' dismounted parties, and I
collected nearly a hundred of these men into a hall on the ground floor
of an Italian Field Hospital. They lay about on the stone floor,
sleeping like logs. Upstairs a panic had spread among the wounded that
they would be abandoned. Men were crying with terror and struggling to
get out of bed. Campbell, who had now joined us, went up and helped the
Italian medical personnel. Soon afterwards ambulances of both the
Italian and British Red Cross began to arrive, and the hospital was
quickly cleared. From one British Red Cross Driver I got a large box of
Cabin biscuits, which I distributed among our men, some of whom were
ravenously hungry. I also found a tap of good drinking water in the main
street and here we refilled all available water bottles, including those
of several men who were too fast asleep to waken.

The question then arose what to do with these stragglers. I went to the
station, but found that no more trains were running. Latisana was said
to be only "a few kilometres" away. It was in fact more than twenty. I
discovered that it was on the Tagliamento and I supposed that, once
across the river, we should be momentarily safe from risk of capture,
and, if ammunition was forthcoming, our Batteries might once more come
into action. Meanwhile we should push on as soon as possible. On the
other hand the men were very tired, having been marching for twenty-four
hours, with only a few short breaks. A few hours' sleep now might be
worth a lot to them later on.

Several civilians came up to me and asked when the Germans would be
here. "This is my house," one old man explained, pointing to a small
house near the Hospital, "and I shall have to leave everything if I go
away. But I cannot stay....," and he began to cry.

In the early hours of the 29th I put some of our most footsore
stragglers on to lorries going in the direction of Latisana. The rest
marched off under Henderson, one of the officers from Raven's
Headquarters, who had come with me in the car to San Giorgio. Meanwhile
I was keeping a look-out for our guns in the dense columns of traffic
slowly crawling past. I saw guns belonging to other Batteries, and was
told that some of ours were further behind. It was just getting light,
when a tractor appeared drawing two of our guns and one belonging to
another British Battery, which we had picked up on the road a long way
back with only three gunners in charge of it, and which would certainly
have been lost, if we had not taken it in tow. But, as the result of
this additional load, our tractor had been breaking down all the way
along, and had fallen almost to the rear of the retreating column. It
had a damnable and useless accumulator, but there was no means of
changing this. With the tractor and guns were Winterton, Darrell, and
Leary, also the Battery Quartermaster Sergeant and two of our lorries.
They told me Manzoni was well on ahead with the other two guns and I
told them that the Major and the bulk of the dismounted party must also
be a good distance ahead, as stragglers from this party had appeared
here many hours before.

We were now the last British guns on the road, a post of honour which we
continued to hold. I was delighted to find that I was now entitled, by
reason of seniority, to take command. I sent on the two lorries with
Winterton and Darrell, to get in touch as soon as possible with the two
guns in front and the Major's party. Leary and I remained behind with
the tractor and its load. We had about thirty men with us and a small
quantity of rations, including a little tea. We moved on slowly and got
stuck in a bad block of traffic at San Giorgio cross roads. Here we had
to remain stationary for several hours. The dawn was breaking and we
made some tea.

About 5 a.m. I got tired of sitting still and walked about half a mile
down the road to find out the cause of the block. I began to control and
jerrymander the traffic and at first annoyed an Italian officer, who was
there with the same object as myself; but I persuasively pointed out to
him the benefits to both of us, if we could only succeed in getting a
move on, and he then calmed down and began to help me. In the end we
both manoeuvred our own transport into a moving stream, and went
forward smiling.

We went along at a fine pace for several miles and then our tractor
stopped and wouldn't start up again. Whereupon there came to our
assistance a young man named Rinaldo Rinaldi, a skilled and resourceful
mechanic, who was driving a tractor in rear of us. He patched up our
engine and got us going again. But we kept on breaking down after
intervals never very long. Time after time Rinaldo Rinaldi came running
up, smiling and eager to help. He patched us up and got us going six
times. But at last he had to pass us and go on. For he, too, was drawing
guns. I shall never forget Rinaldo Rinaldi and the cheerful help he gave
us. In the end he left us an accumulator, but it was not much better
than our own.

Enemy planes now began to appear in the sky, some scouting only, others
dropping bombs. They did more damage to the wretched refugees than to
the military. What chances they missed that day! Once or twice, when we
were stationary, I gave the order to scatter in the fields to left and
right of the road. But they never came very near to hitting us. They
flew very high and their markmanship was atrocious.

Atrocious also was our tractor! Finally, when it broke down and we had
no fresh accumulator, we had to unlimber the front gun, attach drag
ropes to the tractor, haul vigorously on the ropes until the engine
started up, then back the tractor and front limber back to the guns,
limber up, cast off the ropes and go ahead again. We did this three or
four times in the course of an hour, and enjoyed the sense of
triumphing over obstacles. But it was very laborious, and the intervals
between successive breakdowns grew ominously shorter and shorter. And
the last time the trick didn't work, though we had all heaved and heaved
till we were very near exhaustion. We were fairly stuck now, half
blocking the road. Great excitement, as was only natural, developed
among those behind us.

I sent forward an orderly with a message to the Major, describing our
plight and asking that, if possible, another tractor might be sent back
from Latisana to pull us. This message never reached the Major, but was
opened by another Field officer, who sent back this flatulent reply. "If
you are with Major Blinks, you had better ask him whether you may use
your own discretion and, if necessary, remove breech blocks and abandon
guns." I was not with Major Blinks, and I neither knew nor cared where
he might be. Nor had I any intention of abandoning the guns. I
determined, without asking anyone's permission, to use my discretion in
a different way.

I saw, a little distance in front, an Italian Field Artillery Colonel in
a state of wild excitement. He was rushing about with an unopened bottle
of red wine in his hand, waving it ferociously at the heads of refugees,
and driving them and their carts off the road down a side track. A queer
pathetic freight some of these carts carried, marble clocks and
blankets, big wine flasks and canaries in cages. The Colonel had driven
off the road also a certain Captain Medola, of whom I shall have more to
say in a moment, and who was sitting sulkily on his horse among the
civilian carts. The Colonel's object, it appeared, was to get a number
of Field Batteries through. He had cleared a gap in the blocked traffic
and his Field Guns were now streaming past at a sharp trot. But he was
an extraordinary spectacle and made me want to laugh. Treading very
delicately, I approached this enfuriated man, and explained the helpless
situation of our guns, pointing out that we were also unwillingly
impeding the movements of his own. I asked if he could order any
transport to be provided for us. He waved his bottle at me, showed no
sign of either civility or comprehension, only screaming at the top of
his voice, "Va via, va via!"[1]

[Footnote 1: "Away with you, away with you!"]

I gave him up as hopeless, and went back to my guns, intending to wait
till he had disappeared and things had quieted down again, and then to
look for help elsewhere. But the Latin mind often follows a thread of
order through what an Anglo-Saxon is apt to mistake for a mere hurricane
of confused commotion. Within five minutes Captain Medola came up to me
and said that the Colonel had ordered him to drag our tractor and guns.
Medola was in command of a Battery of long guns, and had one of these
attached to a powerful tractor on the road in front of us. To this long
gun, therefore, we now attached our tractor, useless as a tractor but
containing valuable gun stores, and our three guns. It was a tremendous
strain for one tractor, however strong, to pull, and we decided a little
later to abandon our own tractor and most of its contents.

Medola, having handed over his horse to an orderly, who was to ride on
ahead and arrange for a fresh supply of petrol for his tractors, of
which there were three, mounted the front of the leading tractor and I
got up beside him. He rendered us most invaluable help in a most willing
spirit and at considerable risk to himself. For he undoubtedly had to go
much more slowly with us in tow than he could have gone if he had been
alone.

We saw another Battery of Italian heavy guns going along the road,
heavier than either ours or Medola's. They were an ancient type, which
we had seen sometimes on the Carso, and not of very high military value.
But their gunners took a regimental and affectionate pride in those old
guns. They had neither tractors nor horses, but they had dragged their
beloved pieces for thirty miles from the rocky heights of the Carso,
along good roads and bad, up and down hill, through impossible traffic
blocks, down on to the plains as far as Palmanova, with nothing but long
ropes and their own strong arms. They had forty men hauling on each gun.
At Palmanova new hauling parties had been put on, who dragged the guns
another thirty miles to the far side of the Tagliamento at Latisana. And
as they hauled, they sang, until they were too tired to go on singing,
and could only raise, from time to time, their rhythmical periodic cry
of "Sforza!... Sforza!"[1]

[Footnote 1: "Heave!... Heave!"]

As we passed through Muzzano, the town and road were heavily bombed. The
bell in the campanile jangled wildly and weeping women crowded into the
church, as though thinking to find sanctuary there. Others stood gazing
helplessly up into the sky. Here I saw some Italian Infantry, mostly
young, who were delighted to be retreating. "Forward, you militarists!"
they cried to us as we passed. "This is your punishment! How much longer
do you think the war is going to last? What about Trieste now?" They
spoke with joyful irony, as though the conquest of Trieste had been a
slaves' task, imposed upon unwilling Italy by foreign imperialists. They
were the only Italian troops I saw during the retreat, who showed any
sign of being under the influence of "defeatist" or German propaganda.

The stream of refugees steadily thickened on the roads. More than once I
got down and ran on ahead, calling out with monotonous refrain to the
drivers of civilian carts to keep well over to the right of the road, so
as to let the guns pass. They all did their best to obey, poor brutes,
and we gained some useful ground in that endless column.

At nightfall we were still eight or nine kilometres from Latisana. The
traffic block grew worse and worse, and there were too few Carabinieri
to exercise proper control. We stuck for hours at a time, with nothing
moving for miles, three motionless lines of traffic abreast on the road,
all pointing in the same direction. Tired men slept and wakeful men
waited and watched and cursed at the delay. Behind us, far off, we could
hear the booming of the guns, which seemed from hour to hour to come a
little nearer, and flashes of distant gunfire flickered in the night
sky. Back there the rear-guards were still fighting, and brave men were
dying to give us time to get away. It seemed just then that their
sacrifice might be in vain. What a haul the Austrians would have here!

And behind and around us burning villages were still flaming in the
dark, and throwing up the sharp black outlines of the trees.

       *       *       *       *       *

Afterwards I heard of some of the deeds that had been done "back there."
I heard of the charges of the Italian Cavalry, of the Novara Lancers and
the Genoa Dragoons, crack regiments, full of the best horsemen in Italy,
who had been waiting, waiting, all the war through, for their chance to
come. Their chance had come at last, the chance to die, charging against
overwhelming odds, in order that Italy, or at least the glory of her
name, might live for ever. One commanding officer called all his
officers around him and said, "The common people of Italy have betrayed
our country's honour, and now we, the gentlemen of Italy, are going to
save it!" and then he led the charge, and fell leading it. It was a
fine, aristocratic gesture, though the prejudices of his class partly
blinded him.

Near Cervignano Italian Cavalry charged the massed machine guns of the
enemy and, when the horses went down, the men went on, and then the men
went down, all but a few, and those few for a moment broke the line and
held up the advance, and gave to the mass of the retreating troops just
that little space of extra time, which spans the gulf between escape and
destruction.

And away up north on Monte Nero, left behind when the rest of the Army
retired, Alpini and Bersaglieri resisted for many days, and aeroplanes
flew back and dropped food and ammunition from the skies for them. And
when their ammunition was all shot away, that garrison came down into
the plains, and a few survivors fought their way through with bombs and
bayonets back to the Italian lines.

And many other such deeds were surely done that will never be known,
because the men that did them died out of sight of any of their comrades
who survived.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the small hours of the 30th of October, I left our guns in Leary's
charge and determined to walk on to Latisana, to see if I could not find
some person in authority and get something done to move things on. I had
only gone a little way when I met Bixio, a Captain of Mountain
Artillery, attached to Raven's Headquarters. He had come back to see how
far behind our rearmost guns were. I saw him several times during the
retreat. He did fine work more than once in creating order out of
confusion. He looked a magnificent, almost a Mephistophelian, figure,
with his dark features, his flashing angry eyes, his air of decision,
his sharp gestures, his tall body enveloped in a loose cloak, his Alpino
hat, with its long single feather. He told me that all traffic along
this road into Latisana had been stopped for the past three hours, in
order to let traffic from the north get on, for it was from that
direction that the advance of the enemy was most threatening.

I walked on and found a British Red Cross Ambulance stuck in the block.
I talked for a few moments to the driver, who gave me a piece of cake
and some wine. When I reached Latisana, I found traffic pouring through
along the road from the north. I crossed the bridge over the Tagliamento
and looked down at the broad swift current, glistening beneath. Hope
leapt again within me at the sight. Here, at last, I said to myself, is
a fine natural obstacle. We shall turn here and stand at bay, and the
invader will come no further.

I had been told that there were some huts on the right hand side, just
over the bridge, where our men would be, where the A.S.C. would have
delivered rations and the Staff had fixed a rendezvous. I, therefore,
expected to find the Major and our dismounted party, or at least someone
from another Battery, or some of either Raven's or the General's Staff.
But there was nothing there; no British troops, no rations, and no
Staff! Only the never ending rain, and a confused stream of Italian
troops, chiefly Field Guns, hurrying across the bridge.

There was nothing to do but to go back. The sentries on the bridge tried
to stop me, but I insisted that I must see some Artillery officer in
authority. They directed me to the Square, where I found Colonel Canale,
controlling the movements of Batteries, looking straight before him out
of uncomprehending, heavy eyes, like one crushed under a weight of
bitter humiliation. He asked where our guns were. I told him they were
getting near now, but stuck fast in the traffic. He said it was
forbidden to let through traffic on that road at present, but he would
do what he could. I asked if there were any new orders. "No," he said,
"only forward across the bridge, and then push on as fast as possible to
Portogruaro." I left him, and found three of our stragglers from the
Major's party, asleep on the floor of a forge. I told them to cross the
river and wait on the Portogruaro road for myself and the guns. I asked
an Italian Corporal if there was anywhere in Latisana where one could
get a drink. He said he thought not, but gave me a bottle full of cold
coffee, brandy and sugar in about equal proportions. It was a splendid
drink, but a little too sweet.

I walked back along the road towards the guns. Some houses on the
outskirts of the town were burning furiously. The traffic was beginning
to move forward along our road, very slowly and with frequent halts. I
had two overcoats with me when we started from Pec. Both were long ago
wet through, and I was wearing over my shoulders at this time a blanket
lent to me by Medola. This, too, was thoroughly drenched by now. In the
fields on either side of the road Infantry were lying out in the rain,
asleep, dreaming, perhaps, of Rome or Sicily or the Bay of Naples. The
dawn of another day was breaking, cold, damp and miserable, symbolic of
this great weary tragedy.

       *       *       *       *       *

I had not gone far when I met four of our men carrying on a stretcher
the dead body of the Battery Staff Sergeant Artificer. He had dropped
asleep on one of the guns and, as the tractor moved on, he had fallen
forward, head downwards, beneath the gun wheel, which had passed over
him, along the whole length of his body, crushing him to death. They
said he died before they could get him out. He was a good man and a very
skilled worker, full of pluck and spirit. The last thing he had done for
me was to get everything ready for rendering the guns unserviceable in
case we should have to abandon them. There was no chance of decent
burial for him here, but I had his body placed upon an empty trench
cart, which was being towed by a lorry of another Battery, and put two
of our men in charge of it. They buried him the next day or the day
after in a cemetery near Portogruaro.

About 7 a.m., as I was still making my way back through the traffic
towards our guns, it was reported that enemy cavalry patrols had been
seen to the north of the road, and that shots had been exchanged. For a
moment there was some panic and confusion, but a scheme of defence was
quickly organised. No one had supposed that they could yet be so near. I
found Bixio rallying some Infantrymen, with eloquent words and great
gestures, and an Italian Infantry Major, calm and smiling, was putting
out a screen of machine gunners and riflemen across the road itself and
along a hedge five hundred yards to the north of it. All was in
readiness for putting our guns completely out of action. There would be
nothing else to do, if the enemy appeared, for we had no gun ammunition,
and it was impossible to get on, until the whole traffic block in front
of us had been shifted forward. But I told Bixio that I should do
nothing to the guns, unless there was some evidence that the enemy was
really approaching with a superiority of force over our own.

The enemy, however, did not at that time reappear and the best bit of
hustling traffic management that I had yet witnessed during the retreat,
now took place. The northern road was at last clear at Latisana, and the
authorities turned their attention to us. A breakdown gang appeared and
a number of new tractors and lorries with refills of petrol. Civilian
carts whose drivers remained, were ordered to drive on, those which had
been abandoned were overturned to one side into the ditches, and dead
horses and wreckage due to bombing or the brief moments of panic were
likewise thrust off the road. Relays of fresh drivers took over all the
lorries and tractors which would still go. The rest went into the ditch
on top of the dead horses and derelict carts. The heavier loads which
single tractors had been pulling were split up between two or more. In a
surprisingly short time the whole mass began to move.

Here I parted from Medola, who had been a very good friend to us. Our
three guns got a new tractor to themselves and I got up beside the
driver. And so at last we entered Latisana. Our new driver was immensely
enthusiastic, but very excited. He told me that he had had two brothers
killed in the war and had applied, when the retreat began, to be
transferred from Mechanical Transport to the Infantry. That morning, he
said, he had heard General Pettiti, who was our Army Corps Commander,
give the order that all the British Batteries must first be got across
the river and only then the Italian. I said that I saw no good reason
for this preference, but that anyhow he was driving the last three
British guns. This pleased him tremendously. By now I was wrapped up in
a new and dry Italian blanket, which I had taken from an abandoned cart
by the roadside.

Our tractor, less enthusiastic than its driver, broke down continually.
It was rumoured that the bridge had been blown up already, and there
were wild screams of despair from a crowd of women, who came running
past us. At last we turned the last corner and came in sight of the
Tagliamento. The bridge was still intact. Italian Generals were rushing
to and fro, gesticulating, giving orders. General Pettiti sent a
special orderly to ask me if mine were the last British guns. I told him
yes. Our tractor broke down three times on the bridge itself. But at
last we were over. One of our party had an Italian flag and waved it and
cried "Viva l'Italia!" Not long after, the bridge went up, with an
explosion that could be heard for miles around.



CHAPTER XXIII

FROM THE TAGLIAMENTO TO TREVISO

I heard later that the Major and his party had reached Latisana the
previous day. Winterton had joined them near Muzzano. They had marched
for forty-eight hours practically without food and with only some three
hours' rest in stray halts. They had been magnificent, but they were
utterly done, and the Major, who had been most done of all, told me
afterwards that it had made him cry to watch them hobbling along,--some
of them men too old or of too low a medical category to have passed for
the Infantry,--and to hear them singing,

   "What's the use of worrying?
    It never was worth while.
    So pack up your sorrows in your old kit bag,
    And smile, smile, smile!"

The spirit of the men in the retreat from Mons was not finer than the
spirit of those men of ours.

At Latisana they got on board a train for Treviso. It was about the
last train that was running.

       *       *       *       *       *

My party, though they were longer on the road, were at least able to
ride a great part of the way on the tractors and guns.

Once across the Tagliamento, our tractor not only continued to break
down every few hundred yards, but also developed the unpleasant habit of
catching fire. Twice we put the fire out with the squirts and chemicals
provided for the purpose, and a third time with mud. I determined not to
risk a fourth time, and so pulled on to the side of the road and halted.
I sent on the Battery Sergeant Major on a passing lorry to Portogruaro
with a note to the Major asking that another tractor might be sent back,
and I also sent Avoglia to the nearest Italian Headquarters to see if he
could raise a tractor there. We were halted at the top of a hill on the
road running along the western bank of the river. We were indeed
literally "across," but we should have provided a splendid target for
enemy Artillery advancing on the further side. A good system of trenches
ran alongside the road, and these were now manned in force by Italian
Infantry. Field Guns also had come into position behind them. Our men
took advantage of the enforced halt to collect fuel, light fires and
make tea. We were still halted here at nightfall.

Soon after dark some Italians came up and told us that we were blocking
the road, which was not true, as we were well to the side. However, as
neither Avoglia nor the Sergeant Major had yet returned with a new
tractor, and as the Italians said that they would pull us on, I
cordially agreed to the attempt being made. They attached a tractor with
a heavy lorry in tow to our inflammatory tractor and our three guns.
They asked that an attempt should be made to start up our tractor also,
but I succeeded in persuading them that this was inexpedient. They then
started up their own tractor only. To my great surprise, we began to
move. It was a magnificent machine, and forged ahead splendidly,
contrary to all the laws limiting its capacity, rumbling and backfiring
under the unwonted strain, for miles through the gloom.

Then the moon began to rise. The night, for the first time since the
retreat began, was fine and clear. We could only go slowly and broke
down now and then. But all went pretty well, until we swung our long
train a little too sharply round a corner in the road, and the last two
guns got ditched. While we were trying to get them out, a British Major,
whom I will call Star, appeared on the scene. He came from Portogruaro
with the news that five new tractors were on their way back, and that
some other British guns were ditched further ahead. I therefore thanked
the officer in charge of the Italian tractor and lorry for all he had
done for us and advised him now to go on and leave us, as our position
was tiresome but no longer critical. This he did.

The moonlight was now bright as day, and one of Star's promised tractors
arrived and finally succeeded in getting out our ditched guns.

       *       *       *       *       *

Star had painted a bright picture of Portogruaro. All the British guns,
he said, were parked together in the Piazza and there was a large
granary close by, full of happy men with plenty of rations and straw.
So, it seems, some imaginative person had told him. We reached
Portogruaro in the small hours of the 31st of October. The moon had set
and it was very dark. Several of us made a most careful search in the
Piazza. But there were no British guns there, no granary, no straw, no
rations. I halted the guns just outside the gate of the town and told
the men to turn in and sleep. Soon after daybreak we all woke feeling
very hungry. I issued practically all that remained of our rations, a
little bully, a little biscuit and a very little tea.

Wanting a wash and, still more urgently, a shave, I went into a house
and asked for the loan of some soap and a towel. A number of terrified
old women gathered round me, in doubt whether to fly or to stay. I
advised them to stay, for I took for granted at this time that the
Tagliamento line would hold. They pressed upon me coffee and bread, and
I heard them repeating over and over again to one another my assurances
that the enemy was still far away and would never get as far as
Portogruaro. It was hard not to cry.

Star arrived during the morning and took charge. There was no need, he
said, to hurry on. We had better rest here for a day. He arranged for us
all to draw rations from the Italian Comando di Tappa. Treviso was to be
our next stopping place. We were disturbed a little during the morning
by enemy planes dropping bombs on the town, but none fell very near us.

In the afternoon we moved on and parked our guns near the station along
with those of the other British Batteries, which had arrived before us.
Bombing raids continued and were more serious that afternoon than in the
morning. One bomb fell on a house, which was full of men from one of the
other Batteries, and caused a number of casualties. It was only by good
luck that a number of my own men were not in that house at the time.
Fortunately I had had words, as two tired men will, with one of the
officers of the other Battery, about the joint use of the kitchen, and
my men, when I asked them, had decided that they preferred, as always,
to "run their own show" and not "pig in with other Batteries." To that
attitude of independence some of them probably owe their lives.

In the afternoon Raven turned up, and said that he had arranged for us
to go on to Treviso by train. We loaded our guns on to trucks, and
waited several hours in the station yard for the promised train. It was
cold and wet and more bombers came over us. They had bombed the station
for the last three nights, I heard. But nothing hit it while we were
there. The train left at 9.30 p.m. Leary and another officer and I tried
to share one wet blanket. We were too wet and cold to sleep. I walked up
and down the carriage trying to get warm. They bombed the railway
several times during our journey, and once, when a bomb fell near our
train, there was a rumour that the engine driver had gone away and left
us standing. But it was quite untrue. We crawled along, with many stops.
It seemed a quite interminable journey. But at 8 o'clock next morning,
the 1st of November, we came to Treviso.



CHAPTER XXIV

THOUGHTS AFTER THE DISASTER

We hung about for a while in the station, nobody knowing what was to
happen next. Then Leary and I went off to try to find some food. We had
been living just lately on ration biscuits and a tin of Australian peach
jam. There was not much left at the Buffet, where we found Bixio, but we
got a little salami and some eels and wine and coffee. Meanwhile our
train had gone on to Mestre, owing to a mistake between two railway
officials, and had to return next day. Leary's feet were so bad that he
could hardly walk. I got them dressed for him by the Italian Red Cross,
but he could walk no better afterwards. The Villa Passi, the British
Headquarters, was several miles off. An enemy plane came over and bombed
Treviso, when we were in the station square, trying in vain to find a
conveyance. But none of the bombs fell very close to us. At last we
hailed a British lorry, which took us to Villa Passi, and then on to
Carbonera, where odds and ends of Batteries had been turning up for
several days past. The Major was very delighted to see us, a rumour
having got about that we and the last guns had been left on the wrong
side of the Tagliamento, when the bridge went up. He had almost given up
hope of seeing us again.

Then I went to bed and slept for hours and hours. Next morning from my
window I could see the Alps lying very low on the horizon, like a ball
of fluffy snow. The sun was shining and a fountain was playing in the
garden. I could hardly realise that we had reached, for a moment at
least, a place of peace, where there was no more fighting or retreating.
Our men were worn out, most of them, and slept like logs. They had been
sorely tried. Their pluck and endurance had been splendid. But they got
no message of thanks or praise from the British General who at that time
nominally commanded us. This distinguished man I had last seen in the
Square at Palmanova, amid the smoke and flames, with his car standing
close at hand ready to push off, and he had arrived at Treviso in good
time. He was now comfortably installed at the Villa Passi, and the day
some of our footsore men limped into Treviso, he was lunching with his
Staff, all bright and polished and sleek, in the Hotel Stella d'Oro.

We all expected, for days, that he would call a parade and address the
men who had saved what he used to call "his guns," or at least that he
would send some message. But he made no sign, except to open a canteen
for the sale of the 20,000 cigarettes, which some intelligent
subordinate had saved in preference to valuable gun stores now in
Austrian hands.

       *       *       *       *       *

The day after my arrival I read a newspaper for the first time for over
a week, but the news was very bad and the retreat still continuing. The
Austrians were across the Tagliamento in strong force at several points.
I tried to reason and make distinctions, but my brain was still too
tired to answer the helm, so I left it. We ate hot polenta and drank
wonderful coffee, having established our Battery Mess in the porter's
lodge at the entrance to the Villa Lebreton, and persuaded the porter's
wife to cook for us. All the Battery had discovered the polenta at the
porter's lodge and our men crowded the kitchen at all hours of the day.
We all appreciated good food after the short rations of the retreat.

Conversation was intensely depressing when not utterly trivial. I
remember walking round and round the vegetable garden at the back of the
Villa with an Italian friend of mine, trying both to face the facts and
to draw some comfort from them. It was an impossible task. My friend was
full of despair and bitterness. "The fruits of thirty months of war all
lost in two days," he said, "and much more lost besides! What will all
the mothers think, who have lost sons on San Michele and Monte Santo? It
is a common thing in Italy now for families to have lost four or five
sons. What will the mothers of Italy think of this? Would not any of
them be justified in shooting Cadorna? The Third Army should not have
been ordered to retire. They should have counter-attacked instead. But
now would it not be better to make peace at once? Is there no man who
will rise up and say, 'Stop, stop, stop this bloody business now, before
it gets any worse?' Some of our soldiers looked quite pleased to be
retreating. Poor children! They thought the war was over and they were
going home. There is a frightful danger that the leaders,--the generals
and the politicians at Rome,--will say 'fight on!' but the rank and file
will go on breaking. 'We are fighting for Trento and Trieste!' they used
to say, and now they say 'we are organising the defence of the Piave
line!' The Regular soldiers never want the war to end. And soon they
will be distributing medals for the retreat. Medals!"

I could find no words worth saying to him in reply. "What will they be
saying about us now in London and Paris?" he went on. "They will be
saying," I replied, "that help must be sent to you," but my answer I
know sounded flat and empty. "Yes," he said bitterly, "perhaps _now_ you
will send some of your generals and your troops to Italy. And so you
will put us under orders and under obligations to you, and we shall
become your slaves. Italians are used to being looked upon as the slaves
of other nations." "No," I said, "all that is over. Those of us who know
the facts, know what Italy has done and suffered for the Alliance in
this war. It will not be forgotten. Moments of supreme crisis such as
this test the value and the depth of an Alliance. And ours will stand
the test."

But that day he was inconsolable. For Italy was wounded and bleeding,
and the dramatic swiftness and horror of the disaster had bent her pride
and almost broken it. But, though the future seemed black as a night
without stars, the hope of a coming daybreak remained strong in the
hearts of a few. But the struggle ahead would be cruelly hard. What had
Italy left to offer those who would still fight in her defence? Still,
as of old,

   "Only her bosom to die on,
    Only her heart for a home,
    And a name with her children to be,
    From Calabrian to Adrian Sea,
    Mother of cities made free."

Yet this was a rich reward when, a year later, the dawn broke in all
its glory.

       *       *       *       *       *

I turned over and over in my mind in the weeks and months that followed,
as fresh evidence accumulated, the meaning and the causes of the
disaster of Caporetto, and gradually I came to definite and clear cut
conclusions. It was the Second Army that had been broken, and in the
course of the retreat had almost disappeared. It was a common thing to
hear the Second Army spoken of as a whole Army of cowards and
"defeatists." Many foreign critics, with minds blankly ignorant of
nearly all the facts, seemed to think that the whole business could be
accounted for by a few glib phrases about German and Socialist
propaganda, or the supposed lack of fighting qualities in the Italian
race. Yet it was this same Second Army, which in those now distant days
in August had conquered the Bainsizza Plateau, amid the acclamations of
all the Allied world. Whole Armies do not change their nature in a
night, even when worn out with fighting and heavy casualties. The thing
was not so simple as that.

       *       *       *       *       *

In fixing responsibility for Caporetto, one must draw a sharp
distinction between responsibility for the original break in a narrow
sector of the line, and responsibility for not making good that break,
before the situation had got hopelessly out of hand. In the former case
the responsibility must rest partly upon the troops and subordinate
Staff charged with holding that narrow sector and partly upon the High
Command; in the latter case the chief responsibility, and a far graver
one, must rest upon the dispositions of the High Command. This was the
view apparently taken by the Commission appointed by the Italian
Government to investigate the whole question, for the three chief
Generals concerned were not only removed from their commands, but given
no further employment and placed upon half-pay.

The original break was due to many causes. The great mass of German
Divisions and Artillery was concentrated in the Caporetto sector. This
fact should have been known to the High Command, and if the Italian
troops holding the line at this point were, for various reasons, of poor
quality, this also should have been known to the High Command, whose
duty it is to know the comparative fighting power of different units.
The High Command, when the battle started, claimed that they had known
beforehand when and where the blow was coming, that all preparations had
been made and that they were fully confident of the result. Such boasts
have been made by other High Commands on other Fronts, on the eve of
other disasters, and even after them. They greatly deepen the
responsibility of those who make them.

The German Batteries on the Italian Front had a much larger supply of
ammunition than the Austrians, including a large quantity of "special
gas" shell. Many Italian troops, both Infantry and Artillery, subjected
to prolonged gas bombardment, found the gas masks provided by the High
Command quite inadequate. It was left for General Diaz some months later
to order the equipment of the whole Italian Army with the British box
respirator.

The number of guns lost by the Second Army was very great. I am told
that one reason for this was the fact that the High Command had for some
weeks been preparing a further big offensive against the Plateau of
Ternova, had concentrated an abnormal number of Batteries on the Second
Army Front, and had pushed the majority of the guns much further up than
would have been justified, if an enemy offensive had been expected.
Then, having made these preparations, the High Command hesitated and
began to change its mind. But the disposition of the forward Batteries,
thoroughly unsound for defensive purposes, was not appreciably altered,
and a quite small enemy advance sufficed to make enormous captures of
guns.

When the attack developed, some of the troops in the Caporetto sector
unquestionably turned and ran, as troops of every great Army in this war
have at times turned and run, under conditions of greater or less
provocation. Then the High Command apparently lost its head, and
attempted to issue to the world a communiqué of a character unparalleled
in the history of this war, naming and cursing, as traitors to their
country, certain particular Infantry Brigades. This document was very
properly suppressed by the Italian Government.

But where were the reserves which the High Command should have had ready
to repair the broken line? And where were the plans for retreating to
prepared positions only a short distance behind? It was well known, and
indeed it used to be another boast of the High Command, that a local
reverse would be of no great importance, seeing that there were no less
than twelve prepared lines between the Front, as it then ran, and Udine.
I have seen some of those lines with my own eyes. I know what great and
patient labour went to the making of them, and I know how strong they
were. But, when the moment came to make use of them, no one outside the
charmed circle of the High Command was in possession of the plans for
their defence, and for falling back upon them in an orderly and
systematic manner. It has been said that these plans could not have been
made known beforehand to the Subordinate Commands for fear they should
fall into the hands of spies. That would have been a small misfortune
compared to what actually befell.[1]

[Footnote 1: In fairness to General Capello, the Second Army Commander,
who had been highly and deservedly praised for the Bainsizza victory in
August, and who was one of the generals removed from his command after
Caporetto, it should be stated that on the latter occasion he was away
from the Front on leave.]

When, owing to the omissions of the High Command, the break in the line
was swiftly widened and the whole defensive scheme of the Second Army
collapsed, it is true that confusion and panic began to spread through
the Second Army like fire through dry grass. But it is not within the
power of common soldiers, and especially of simple unlettered peasantry,
such as most of these soldiers were, to repair the blunders of bad Staff
work, and to make for themselves, on the spur of the moment and in face
of deadly peril, plans which trained brains should have elaborated long
before, at leisure and in safe secluded places. When leadership fails,
the best troops fail too. But let one who comes of a nation, none of
whose troops have ever acted as those troops of the Italian Second Army
acted in those dreadful days, throw the first stone at Italy. That
nation will be hard to find. It is not of this world.  Those who know
the Italian soldier know that no soldier in the world responds more
readily to loyal trust, to common kindliness and to efficient and
inspiring leadership. British and French officers, who have had
opportunities of judging, know this as well as Italians. But the Italian
High Command denied these things to the Italian soldier.[1] It is due to
him and to the good name of Italy, which has been damnably traduced by
prejudiced and ignorant men, that the truth should be spoken.

[Footnote 1: Among other charges which may be brought against the High
Command at this time are, first, their failure to make adequate
provision for the amusement and relaxation of the troops when in rest,
such as the Y.M.C.A. and various concert parties provided for British
troops, to combat inevitable war-weariness; second, failure to increase
the most inadequate scale of rations; and, third, the attempt to apply,
with strange disregard of the very different spirit of the Italian
people, some of the worst and most brutal traditions of German
discipline. All this was altered later by General Diaz and the Orlando
Ministry.]

The dark and tragic story of the Italian retreat is lit up by many deeds
of heroism, wherein the Italian soldier showed all his accustomed
valour. And it was only by the valour of the Italian soldier that the
retreat was stayed on the Piave line, which the High Command pronounced
to be untenable and wished to abandon, but which the Cabinet at Rome,
pinning their faith to the qualities of the Italian soldier rather than
to the opinions of the High Command, ordered to be held at all hazards.
And the Cabinet at Rome was right. The Italian line stiffened and stood
upon the Piave, while the Allied reinforcements were still on the
further side of the Alps. If only Lloyd George and Bissolati had had
their way, and these reinforcements had been sent a few months earlier,
if only we had been able to put a British Army Corps, with its full
complement of aircraft, guns and shells, against the Hermada, if only we
had had half a dozen tanks to send down the Vippacco Valley, what a
different story there would have been to tell!

       *       *       *       *       *

We ourselves were out of the first stages of that great defence. We had
no ammunition, and we were terribly short of gun stores, though the bare
guns had all been saved. And our men were very short of steel helmets
and box respirators, and the boots and clothing of many were in a
pitiful condition. But a small supply of ammunition came through from
France, and it was decided to send one Section of the Battery into
action on the Piave and the remainder back to Ferrara to refit. All gun
stores and men's equipment were to be pooled, and those going back were
to be stripped for the benefit of those going forward. I remember very
vividly our Battery parade on the morning of the 4th of November, when
we had to take from some men their greatcoats and even their caps,
tunics and boots, in order to make up some sort of equipment for the
Right Section which was going forward with the Major. I was put in
command of the Left Section, stripped bare for its journey to Ferrara.

The evening before our departure I walked up and down the avenue outside
our Villa and talked with Venosta, who had done splendid work in the
retreat. He had heard from the survivors of a Cavalry Regiment, who had
passed back along the road an hour before, that a Turkish Division was
in Udine, and Turkish cavalry in Palmanova. Bulgarians also were said to
be on this Front, raping, after Serbs, Greeks and Rumanians, Italians
also. It was said that Turks had been on Faiti and Volconiac at the end.
I had no sure evidence of this, but, if it was true, the Turks'
notorious incapacity for an offensive would help to explain our
surprising escape. What we had needed, all through the days of the
retreat, was enough rain to swell the rivers and make heavy the roads.
What we had got, after the first three days, was brilliant sunshine. The
stars in their courses seemed to be fighting against Italy. "Dio uno ed
unno!" said one Italian bitterly.



CHAPTER XXV

FERRARA, ARQUATA AND THE CORNICE ROAD

We reached Ferrara at 5 a.m. and drove in lorries from the railway
station past the Castello of the d'Estes to the Palestro Barracks, the
Depôt of the 14th Regiment of Italian Field Artillery. Here we were to
be lodged by the Italian military authorities. We were received with
every consideration and great hospitality. Our men had excellent
quarters in the Barracks. Our officers were invited to have their meals
in the Italian Artillery officers' Mess, which was a large and
comfortable place and where the food was not only good, but very much
cheaper than could have been got outside. The Colonel also offered to
put riding horses at the disposal of any of us who should care to ride.
I was much struck by the sensible lack of ceremony of this Italian Mess,
by comparison with similar Depôt Messes in our own Army. There was no
waiting in the anteroom for senior officers who were late, no asking
permission of senior officers to leave the table early. Within the hours
fixed for meals everyone came in and out as they pleased. There was no
special table for the Staff, no rule against bringing evening papers
into dinner, no aloofness, no pomposity. The only un-English formalities
were the habit of turning and bowing as one left the Mess, if a number
of officers were still present, and the universal Italian custom by
which a newcomer at his first appearance would walk round and shake
hands in turn with all those whom he did not know and introduce himself
to them by name.

We were also invited to become members during our stay of the Circolo
Negozianti, or Merchants' Club, of Ferrara. This Club had spacious
premises in an old Palazzo, and was the warmest place in the town,
having a most efficient system of central heating.

Ferrara is spread over a large area relatively to its population; it has
broad streets and very few slums. But it has come down in the world
since the Renaissance. Degenerate descendants of the d'Estes of that
time stripped many of the Palazzi of their artistic beauties and sold
them to help pay their debts. Ferrara is a city of old Palazzi, street
after street of them, inhabited mainly now by well-to-do peasants, who
take a pride in keeping up their exteriors. One of the most interesting
sights in the city is the Palazzo Schifanoia, now used as a museum and
containing frescoes by Cossa and Cosimo Tura. But what most appealed to
me was the superb western façade of the Cathedral.

In peace time Ferrara is prosperous, though a little isolated from the
main currents of Italian life. It is the chief centre of food
distribution for this part of the country, and is well known for its
bakeries. It is also an important centre for the hemp export trade.

After two days at Ferrara I was chosen to go to Arquata Scrivia, a
little town on the main line north of Genoa. This had been selected as
the Base for the British Forces in Italy, and I was to get in touch with
the Ordnance people there, to give them a list of our really urgent
requirements and try to hasten their delivery, so as to get us back into
action as soon as possible. Siramo, an Italian Artillery officer who was
attached to us for _liaison_, accompanied me.

The ordinary passenger train for Bologna was three and a half hours
late. Special trains were coming through every ten minutes from Treviso
and Venice packed with refugees, going southwards. The organisation of
the Italian railways at this time for clearing the refugees from the
righting zone was exceedingly good. Siramo thought that, if Venice had
to be abandoned, the Germans and Austrians would not damage it. I felt
no such security. That night we stopped at Milan. Wild stories of
"tradimento" were in the air. It was being said, for instance, that two
Generals of the Second Army had been marched through their troops in
handcuffs under a guard of Carabinieri. It was also officially
announced that Diaz had replaced Cadorna in command of the Italian
Armies.

Next day we reached Arquata amid the tumble of the Ligurian Hills, whose
sides were clothed with chestnuts and oaks and vine terraces. We found
British Staff, Sanitary Sections and Ordnance already in possession. The
Ordnance were occupying a large villa just outside the town. My old
friend Shield, whom I had known at Palmanova, was there, but most of the
others were new arrivals from France. They were surprisingly full of
cheerfulness, as _imboscati_ are often apt to be, even when things are
going badly at the Front. The Italian disaster evidently meant very
little to them; they hardly realised it at all. They were the first
cheerful people I had seen since the retreat began, and it was no doubt
good for Siramo and myself to be cheered up. But it grated on both of us
a little.

At my first interview I got the impression that the Ordnance were
surprisingly efficient and would be very prompt in giving us what we
wanted. But I gradually discovered that they really possessed very
little of what they first promised me, and that nothing was known for
certain as to when further stores would arrive. I telephoned to Ferrara
that the immediate prospects were poor, and was told in reply to wait
three or four days and see how much turned up. Having pestered various
Ordnance officers to the limit of their endurance, I therefore decided
to go away for two days.

Siramo went for two days to his family at Turin and I took the train to
Genoa, arriving in the early afternoon. After lunch I set out to walk
eastwards along the Cornice Road. It was a relief to my thoughts and
feelings to be quite alone. The day was windy and sunless and rather
cold, but the warm and audacious colouring of the Villas and the little
fishing villages seemed almost to draw sunshine out of the dull sky. I
stopped at Sturla and drank two cups of coffee and ate some biscuits,
and decided to walk on to Nervi. It was now near the hour of sunset and
the sun, having kept invisible all day, half broke through the clouds,
turning them first red and then golden. So the sky was when I came to
Quarto dei Mille, with its monument looking out to sea, that historic
place whence Garibaldi and the Thousand set sail for their great
adventure, the liberation of Sicily and Naples, and the unification of
Italy, with British warships following them, some say by chance, so that
the enemies of Italy dared not interrupt their passage.

Then said I to myself, standing all alone at Quarto, "Italy will not be
defeated, nor even mainly saved from defeat by foreign aid. The
strongest and best of her children will pull her through, even though
they be not all the nation. But the rest will do their share also, and
will follow, when the bravest lead. How young, and how uncertain of
herself as yet, is Italy! And yet, how lovable, how well worth serving!"
The Germans with their "special gas" and with other factors in their
favour, counted on breaking, not only the line of the Second Army, but
the morale of the Italian people. For a moment they seemed to have
succeeded. In the darkest days I talked with many whose stuffing seemed
all gone. But then, with the promise of Allied help, with the sight of
even a handful of new French and British uniforms, and under the spell
of the oratory of their statesmen and their journalists, things began to
change and Italian hearts grew brave again.

The Italians are a mercurial people. If they are more easily cast down
by defeat than we British, they are more easily encouraged by even the
distant prospect of victory, and they react to influences that would
leave us unmoved. The coarse insults of the enemy press were everywhere
angrily quoted, and the national spirit rose to a red glow of passion.
The Socialists Turati and Treves,--the latter the author of the famous
phrase, "nessuno in trincee quest' inverno,"[1]--who before Caporetto
had criticised the war as aggressive, imperialist and unnecessary, said
now that all Italians must unite and fight on to drive back the invader
from Italian soil. And cool brains, such as Nitti and Einaudi,
reinforced all this with logical demonstrations of the economic
impossibility of a separate peace, with the enemy Powers strained to the
utmost by the blockade and Italy dependent on the Allies for shipping,
food and coal. The Germans would have done far more wisely, if, instead
of attacking, they had aimed only at holding the Italian Army along its
old line.

[Footnote 1: "No one in the trenches this winter."]

I walked on from Quarto to Nervi and, as it was getting dark, I decided
to take a tram for the last few kilometres. But all the trams were
standing still, the current having been switched off for several hours.
So I stood on the step of a tram and talked to the conductor about the
war, and tried to cheer him up by telling him that the Germans were on
their last legs, and were making their last great effort, and that the
Allies had only to hold together a little longer, and throw sufficient
force against the enemy here in Italy, in order to see a far bigger and
more precipitate and disastrous retreat than Caporetto, and next time in
the other direction. All this I not only said, but firmly believed (and
it all came true within a year). At first he was very despondent, but he
warmed up as I proceeded, and began to gesticulate again and regain
animation and compliment me on my Italian. And then the current also was
restored, and the tram moved on, and we came to Nervi, where I dined
well and slept at the Albergo Cristoforo Colombo. I am not in general an
admirer of palm trees, but they are sometimes impressive in the dusk,
towering over one's head, as they do at Nervi, in the long mixed avenue
of palms and orange trees which leads down to the station from the town.

Next morning I got up early and walked back towards Genoa along the Via
Marina. The sun was shining on the sea and the dark rocks, the stone
pines and the great aloes and the brightly coloured villas. There was an
exhilaration in the air and I was in the midst of beauty, and, for the
first time for many days, I was for a little while really happy. Later
on I took a tram back to Genoa, and walked up to the tall lighthouse on
the further side of the town, and looked westward at the great curve of
the shore, beyond the breakwater and the sands.

In some of the stations along the line were placards, "Long live great
old England," "Welcome to the valiant British Army," "Vive la France,"
"Vive la victorieuse Armée de Verdun." The first of the Allied
reinforcements were arriving.

At Arquata station I met an advance party of the Northumberland
Fusiliers. They told me that they had been quite moved by their
wonderful welcome on the way through Italy and by all the hospitality
shown to their officers and men at the stations where they had stopped.
It gave me a queer thrill to see British Infantrymen again after many
months, and this time on Italian soil.

       *       *       *       *       *

After various orders and counter-orders I left Arquata for Ferrara on
the 16th, with two truckloads of stores. But this was only a very small
proportion of the minimum which we required.



CHAPTER XXVI

REFITTING AT FERRARA

I got back to Ferrara on the evening of November 17th, and shared a
bedroom with Jeune, who had returned from leave in England, having
missed all our most unpleasant experiences. Our brother officers of the
Italian Field Artillery were very hospitable and courteous to us through
those weeks of waiting. We could do nothing till the Ordnance sent us
gun stores from Arquata, and these dribbled in very slowly, a few odds
and ends at a time.

I often went out riding on the Piazza d'Arme and along the ramparts and
in the country round Ferrara with Italian officers. Days were still very
anxious, and the news from the Front not always good, and one rather
avoided talking about the war. But one evening at dinner I succeeded in
piercing the polite reserve of a little Captain who was sitting next to
me. "Italy should have made it a condition of her intervention," he
said, "that the other Allies should have sent troops to the Italian
Front. Also more guns and war material. Italy, at the beginning of her
war, had many heroes but few guns. The other Allies, equally with Italy,
are without statesmen. Your Lloyd George is energetic, but----! The
British are not really at war with Austria. They have soft sentiments
towards her and don't want her to lose too much. The Jugo-Slav
propaganda was at its height, and was being encouraged in Paris and
London, at the very moment when Italy was being pressed by the French
and British to enter the war.

"We have made too many offensives on our own, unaided. Cadorna should
have refused, but he went on and on. He sacrificed thousands of lives
uselessly. He demanded too much of his troops. He did not understand
them. This last disaster was caused by Croats and Bulgarians, who spoke
Italian perfectly, having lived among us and taken degrees at our
Universities, getting through our lines in the first confusion, dressed
in Italian uniform, and sending false telephone messages and signals in
our own cipher, ordering a general retreat.[1] It was men from ----,[2]
who first ran away at Rombon and Tolmino. It has been often proved in
the history of our country that those men have no courage. Italians have
too little unity."

[Footnote 1: I heard this story many times and I believe this was one of
the causes of the rapid increase of the first confusion. The Austrians
had tried this trick without success against the Third Army on the
Carso, as had the Germans against us in France. There must obviously be
a certain amount of confusion already existing, if the trick is to have
any chance of succeeding.]

[Footnote 2: A certain province in Italy, not his own.]

He went on to speak of economic difficulties. "Italy is poor," he said,
"and the Allies are rich. Yet coal costs four times as much in Italy as
in France, and shipping is hardly to be had. Our Government has never
driven hard enough bargains with the other Allies. After all, Italy came
into the war as a volunteer, and not under the conscription of old
treaties. But the Allies give her no credit for this. The French, since
the war began, have recovered all their old 'blague.' They talk
incessantly of what they have done, and despise everyone else. But look
how unstable they are politically! They change their ministries, as
often as some men change their mistresses. The Pope, too, is an enemy of
Italy and a friend of Austria. He aims at the restoration of his
temporal power. Many of the priests went about, both before and after
Caporetto, trying to betray their country. Some told the soldiers that
God had sent the disaster of Caporetto to show them the folly and the
sinfulness of loving their corruptible country here below in poor
earthly Italy, better than the incorruptible country of all good
Catholics, God's eternal kingdom in the skies!"

He spoke bitterly, as was not unnatural.

I made the acquaintance also in the Mess of a Medical Officer, named
Rossi, in peace time a University Professor of Nervous Pathology, who
was now in charge of a hospital for "nervosi," or shell-shock cases,
four miles outside the town. One afternoon Jeune and I accepted an
invitation to visit this hospital. We drove out to it in a carrozza,
accompanied by Rossi and a young woman, who went there daily to teach
some of the illiterate patients to read and write.

No one can begin to understand what modern war means without some
personal acquaintance with shell-shock cases. They are, especially for
non-combatants, the most instructive of all the fruits of war, much more
instructive than dead bodies or men without limbs. And then, having
watched and talked or tried to talk with a variety of these still living
creatures, let any man, even a profiteer or a theologian, look into his
heart and ask himself whether he really agrees with the Chaplain, whom I
have already quoted, that "three or four years of war may be
tremendously worth while."

It needs a greater pen than mine to do justice to all we saw that
afternoon, for we went through all the wards and saw all the sights
there were to see. We saw a young Lieutenant, with large staring eyes,
sitting up in bed. When we approached him, he jumped round in his bed
very violently, as though his body had been shot out of a gun, and went
on staring at us, speechless and with eyes full of wild terror. We saw
two soldiers in the corner of a ward, their heads wobbling in perfect
rhythm, ceaselessly from side to side, like the pendulum of a clock,
with dead expressionless faces. We saw men cowering beneath their bed
clothes, trembling with an endless terror. We saw a man who for months
had quite lost his speech, and was now just able to whisper, almost
inaudibly, "papa" and "mama," a middle-aged man with a beard. We saw a
man with frightened eyes, like a child in a nightmare, with many of the
outward signs of having been gassed, struggling for breath,
gesticulating feebly, trying to ward off some imaginary blow. He had not
been gassed, but wounded in the head. He was alone in a blue ward, where
all our faces looked yellow. We saw a youth lying asleep, white as a
sheet and with hardly any flesh left on his bones. He had been asleep
for two months without ever waking. We saw a splendid, tall, bearded
man, a Cavalry Captain, with a deep voice and a firm handgrip, who could
realise the present, but had forgotten all the past. We saw a multitude
of minor "tremblers," and men undergoing electrical treatment for
paralysis and stiffness of various limbs. One little man, another
University Professor, who was almost paralysed in both legs, tried to
advance to meet us and nearly fell forward on the ground at our feet. I
spoke also to a young man with a paralysed back and left arm. I said I
hoped he would soon be better. "Yes," he said, "I hope soon to go back
to the Front." For a moment I thought this was irony addressed to a
countryman of Mr Lloyd George. But it wasn't. He really meant it. We
went into the Convalescents' Mess. There were about twenty present,
smiling and very gentle and quiet, like men who were not yet quite sure
of the world. One elderly man, a Medical Captain, said to me, very
softly, that it was a great pleasure to see visitors from the outside,
"especially our Allies." At that moment I could easily have wept. Such
sights as I had seen did not physically sicken, nor even much horrify,
me. They just tautened all my nerves and made me feel that all my
questions were impertinent, and all my good wishes flat and empty, and
that I resembled a visitor to a Zoo.

On the way back to Ferrara we talked of literature and Rossi, basing
himself chiefly on Wells and Kipling, said that the English, judged by
their modern writers, seemed to be a race "logical, but a little
isolated."

Two days later the Major and the Right Section of the Battery came to
Ferrara, being replaced on the Piave by a section of another Battery. On
the 1st of December British Infantry, belonging to the XIVth Corps,
moved into the lines for the first time, taking over the Montello
sector, to the south of the Italian Fourth Army. This sector was to be
held by British troops for four months, but it is worth while again to
emphasise the fact that nearly a month had now elapsed since the great
Retreat had been brought to an end by the unaided effort of Italian
troops. The situation now seemed well in hand, and a further break not
at all likely.

There had been a striking scene in the Italian Chamber about this time,
when the Prime Minister, Orlando, announced that high military opinion
had been opposed to the holding of the Piave line, recommending a
further retreat to the line of the Mincio, or the Adige, or even the Po,
which would have involved the surrender of Venice, Padua, Vicenza and
Verona. But the Cabinet at Rome had rejected these recommendations and
ordered that the Piave line should be held at all costs, and the valour
of the Italian common soldier had triumphed over the forebodings of the
generals.

On the 8th, our re-equipment being at last complete, we were warned to
join the XIth British Corps on the arrival of our transport. The end of
our stay at Ferrara was now in sight, and our last days were full of
partings. The Major told me how one morning a little old man, apparently
an artisan, ran after him down the road and, speaking excellent French,
said how fine the British soldiers looked, and how splendid the news of
the capture of Jerusalem was, and then insisted on his going into a café
and drinking a glass of vermouth with him and, on parting, held his hand
for several moments, gazing into his eyes with a look of affection and
pride.

On the 9th a little ceremony took place in the Artillery Mess, where the
British officers presented a silver cup, suitably inscribed, to their
brother officers of the Italian Artillery. There was a large gathering.
My own Major, who was in command of British troops at Ferrara, made the
presentation, and the Italian Commandant made an eloquent reply.

On the 10th I told the page boy at the Circolo that the future of the
world was in the hands of himself and the rest of the young, and that
they must see to it that there were no more wars. This speech made him
open his big brown eyes a bit wider! I had often talked to this boy
before, and he was, I think, rather interested in me, thinking me no
doubt a queer and unusual sort of person. He used to steal moments to
come and enter into conversation with me when none of the older club
servants were in sight. If any of them appeared in the distance, he used
to pretend that I had called him for the purpose of ordering a drink,
and bolt to the bar.

On the 11th another presentation ceremony took place, this time at the
Circolo. Those of us who had enjoyed honorary membership here presented
to the Club two small silver clocks. The Major again made a short speech
and the President of the Club replied, expressing the hope that the
hours might be short, which these clocks would record before the hour of
final victory. The cordiality of all the members of the Club at this
meeting was very memorable. One old gentleman of 76 years of age told me
that I was the very image of his son who was serving at the front in the
Artillery, and with tears in his eyes kissed me on both cheeks. "Permit
this sign of affection," he said, "seeing that here we are in the midst
of friends."

That afternoon a few of us had tea for the last time at Finzi's, a
favourite haunt of mine between the Castello and the Cathedral. After I
had said a few words of farewell, Signor Finzi said to me, in one of
those perfectly turned compliments which Italians always pay to
foreigners endeavouring to speak their language, "Lei parla la lingua di
Dante,"[1] and Signora Finzi gave to each of us a small Italian flag.

[Footnote 1: "You speak the language of Dante."]

That night our transport arrived, and our departure was fixed for the
following morning. The 12th of December was a day that I shall vividly
remember for the rest of my life. We left Ferrara about 1 p.m. after
one of the most enthusiastic demonstrations I have ever seen. That
morning the town had been placarded far and wide with the following
poster:--

_Comitato di Preparazione Civile._[1]

CITTADINI,

Stamane alle ore undici e trenta (11.30) gli Artiglieri inglesi
muoveranno dal Quartiere Palestro diretti alia Stazione Ferroviaria.
Essi partono verso il fronte, per difendere cogli eroici soldati
d'Italia e di Francia il conteso e sacro suolo della patria, per
combattere la barbaria tedesca, che tenta invano di avanzare contro il
baluardo offerto dai petti dei soldati di tre nazioni.

CITTADINI,

Vi invitiamo ad accorrere ed a portare il vostro saluto ai fedeli e
valorosi Alleati. Essi debbono sentire che i vostri cuori palpitano, con
loro, di speranza e di fede.

FERRARA. 11-12 dicembre 1917,
IL PRESIDENTE AVOGLI.

[Footnote 1: _Committee of Civilian Preparation._

FELLOW CITIZENS,

This morning at 11.30 a.m. the British Gunners will march out from the
Palestro Barracks to the Railway Station. They are leaving for the
Front, to defend alongside of the heroic soldiers of Italy and France
the disputed and sacred soil of our country, and to combat the German
barbarians, who strive in vain to advance against the rampart which is
formed by the breasts of the soldiers of three nations.

FELLOW CITIZENS,

We invite you to be present and to salute our brave and faithful Allies.
They should be made to feel that your hearts, in unison with theirs,
throb with hope and faith.]

By eleven o'clock a large crowd was already gathering outside the
Barracks. At half-past we marched out into the street. In front of us
went the municipal brass band, gay with cocks' feathers, and
school-children carrying four banners on long flagstaffs. There was
tumultuous cheering and clapping from a dense crowd. Flowers were
showered upon us, and a very handsome girl gave me a bouquet of red
roses. The band played impossible march music, so that we weren't able
to keep much of a step.

But the enthusiasm was intense. Spectators thronged all the windows
overlooking our route, and the cheering crowd stretched thick and
unbroken along both sides of the street all the way. I noticed a
specially enthusiastic group on the steps of the Castello, and several
busy photographers. In between the efforts of the band our men sang.
Outside the station we marched past the Italian General Commanding the
District. Then we were halted and the General made a speech. I happened
to look round, and found standing beside me, looking up at me, wide-eyed
and wondering, the page boy from the Circolo, whom I had harangued on
the destiny of the world's youth, and afterwards tipped. The band was
playing over and over again, at short intervals, God Save the King, the
Marcia Reale, the Marseillaise, the Brabançonne and the Marcia degli
Alpini. Whenever any of these national anthems was played, all the
troops stood at attention, and we officers at the salute.

Then a little man with a black beard and an eager manner stepped forward
and mounted a chair, and on behalf of the Association of Italian
Teachers wished us good luck. He spoke in English. He told us that his
wife was "an Englishman," and recalled the names of Garibaldi and
Gladstone, Palmerston and Cavour. He then presented to the Major an
Italian Flag, which was handed to our Battery Sergeant-Major to be
carried at the head of the troops as they marched into the station. Many
Italian officers were present to say personal good-byes, and an immense
crowd was on the platform cheering and singing, and distributing gifts
and refreshments to our men. One gift was a little piece of tricolour
ribbon, which an old woman gave to one of us. It had a note pinned to it
addressed "to a brave British soldier," saying that she had a son at the
Front who always carried just such a little piece of ribbon as a
talisman, cut off the same roll, and that it had always kept him safe,
and that it would keep the British soldier safe too. The note was signed
"Tua Madrina" ("your god-mother").

At last it seemed that everyone was aboard, and the train started. But
it was then discovered that the Major, Jeune and Manzoni had been left
behind, not expecting the train to start so soon. They had chased it for
a hundred yards down the line, but failed to catch it up. So the
stationmaster telephoned to Rovigo to stop the train there till the
three missing ones arrived, which they ultimately did, riding on an
engine specially placed at their disposal. So ended our stay at Ferrara,
in a blaze of wild enthusiasm. And I believe that, collectively, we left
a very good impression behind us.



PART V

A YEAR OF RESISTANCE AND OF PREPARATION


CHAPTER XXVII

IN STRATEGIC RESERVE

Our train reached Cittadella shortly after dusk. We interviewed a
British R.T.O., who had only taken up his duties five minutes' before
our arrival, and so not unnaturally knew nothing about us. The Major
proposed that the train should be put into a siding and that we should
spend the night in it. This was done. We went into Cittadella, but found
everything in complete darkness, most of the houses sandbagged, and all
shops, cafés and inns closed at dusk by order of the military. We
succeeded, however, in getting a meal of sorts, and then went back to
the train and turned in early. We were woken up a little after midnight
by two British Staff officers, who were very vague and ignorant, but
told us to go next morning to San Martino di Lupari, a little village
midway between Cittadella and Castelfranco. This we did and found pretty
good billets. Monte Grappa loomed over us to the north, deep in snow. I
did not go into Cittadella by daylight, but only saw its battlemented
outer walls.

Then for a few days nothing happened, except that everyone seemed to
have caught a cold. We were now part of the XIth British Corps, who were
concentrated in the surrounding district and formed for the moment a
strategic reserve, which might be sent anywhere according to the
development of the situation. If nothing particular happened, we should
probably go into the line south of the XIVth British Corps on the Piave.
If, on the other hand, the Italians were driven back in the mountains to
the north of us, or were forced to retire down the Brenta Valley,--and
this danger had not yet quite passed,--we should move up the mountains
and take over part of the Italian line, with the French probably on our
right. We received tracings of several possible lines of defence, on the
plain itself and on the near side of the mountain crest, described as
the "Blue Line," the "Green Line," etc., which we were required to
reconnoitre with a view to finding Battery positions and O.P.'s. They
were all very awkward lines to defend, as the enemy would have splendid
observation and we practically none at all.

On the 15th the Major went out in the car reconnoitring to the east. He
met some Alpini on the road to whom he said, "Fa bel tempo,"[1] and they
replied, "Le montagne sono sempre belle;"[2] also an old man who had
never seen British soldiers before, and was tremendously excited and
pleased, and shouted with joy.

[Footnote 1: "It's beautiful weather."]

[Footnote 2: "The mountains are always beautiful."]

On the 16th the Major went out again with Jeune and myself to look for
Battery positions for the defence of the line at the foot of the
mountains. We went through Cittadella and Bassano, then southwards along
the Brenta to Nove, and then back through Marostica and Bassano. Bassano
is a delightful old town, with many frescoes remaining on the outer
walls of the houses, and a beautiful covered-in wooden bridge over the
Brenta.

Marostica charmed me even more. Its battlemented walls are like those of
Cittadella and Castelfranco, but in a better state of preservation and
more picturesque, running up a rocky foothill behind the town and coming
down again,--a most curious effect. These Alpine foothills for shape and
vegetation are very like the Ligurian hills north of Genoa and round
Arquata.

At San Trinità, just outside Bassano on the road to Marostica, is a very
fine cypress avenue. There was a possible Battery position here. I
noticed also a row of cypresses standing at intervals of about fifty
yards along a hillside, dark and tall amid a mass of grass and rocks and
brown fallen leaves. The weather was clear and cold, but the snow had
shrunk to subnormal on the foothills. The Weather God was still
favouring the enemy. It was very still, though occasionally shells burst
over the Grappa. But the hills muffle the sounds beyond them.

On the way back we passed a Battalion of Alpini marching up, many of
them very young. I thought of the Duke of Aosta's latest message to the
undefeated Third Army: "A voi veterani del Carso, ed a voi, giovani
soldati, fioritura della perenne primavera italica."[1] Splendid
Alpini! They are never false to their regimental motto, "di quì non si
passa!"[2] They never fail. But nearly all the first Alpini, who went
forth to battle in May 1915, are dead now.

[Footnote 1: "To you, veterans of the Carso, and to you, young soldiers,
flower of the eternal Italian spring."]

[Footnote 2: "No one passes here!"]

On the 20th I went out in a side-car with Winterton to look for
positions in the hills above Marostica. Reconnaissances of the back
lines were now to be discontinued, a sign, we hoped, of diminishing
apprehension and an improving military situation. At San Trinità on the
way back we collided with an Italian wagon and had to stop for repairs.
A number of Italians gathered round, one of whom I discovered to be a
priest, conscribed to serve with the Medical Corps. I bantered this man
in a friendly way about secret drinking and the confessional and women
and paradise, causing uproarious delight among the bystanders. And the
priest took it all in excellent part.

On the 22nd we heard that, irrespective of the movements of the rest of
the Corps, a special Group of Heavy Artillery was to be formed,
including ourselves, to be lent to the Italian Fourth Army in the
mountains. There began to be rumours of an offensive on our part.

On the 23rd we made a reconnaissance up the mountains to look for
positions. We started through Bassano, which the Austrians had begun to
shell the day before with long range guns, starting a trickling, pitiful
exodus of terrified civilians. Just before reaching Marostica we struck
up a valley running northwards past Vallonara. The road soon began to
rise more steeply. It was a war road, broad and of splendid surface, one
of those many achievements of the Italian Engineers, which entitles them
to rank easily first among the engineers of the great European
Armies.[1] Before the war this road had been in parts a mere mule track,
in parts non-existent. We went through a number of little Alpine
villages, Crosara, Tortima, Fontanelli, Rubbio. We had soon risen more
than three thousand feet above the plain, which lay far beneath, spread
out gloriously like a richly coloured carpet, green, white and brown,
through which ran two broad, twisting, silver threads, the rivers Brenta
and Astico. There had been more than a hundred bends in the road up to
this point, but the gradient was never uncomfortably steep. Snow lay
thick on the higher levels and the pine and fir trees were all
snow-crowned. Sometimes the road ran along the edge of rocky gorges,
dropping sheer for hundreds of feet below, with a great mountain wall on
the other hand rising sheer above us. The air grew perceptibly colder as
we mounted higher.

[Footnote 1: I have seen it stated, by an impartial authority, that
there has been no roadmaking in war time to compare with that of the
Italians on the Alpine and the Isonzo Fronts and in Albania, since the
Napoleonic wars. A distinguished British engineer, with great experience
of roadmaking in many countries, has also told me that in his opinion
the Swedes are the best roadmakers in the world, the Italians a close
second, and the rest of the world some way behind.]

We turned out of view of the plain over undulating snow fields and down
a long valley and came out on a small plateau, screened by a gradual
ridge from the eyes of the enemy. Here we provisionally chose a Battery
position close to a small solitary house, known as Casa Girardi, on the
edge of a pine wood. All round Italian guns were firing in the snow. We
went on to Col. d'Astiago, which would be our probable O.P. The summit
commanded a wonderful view of the high mountains to the northward,
Longara and Fior, Columbara and Meletta di Gallio, and the sheer rock
face of the Brenta gorge, and the stream far below, and the great mass
of the Grappa rising beyond.

As we came down, lorry loads of Italian troops passed us going up,
Alpini, Bersaglieri, Arditi and men of the 152nd Infantry Regiment. They
cheered us wildly as they passed, waving their caps and crying, "Avanti!
Avanti! Viva l'Inghilterra! Viva gli Alleati!" And as the string of
lorries turned round and round the spiral curves of the road, now high
above us, they were cheering and waving still, until they disappeared
from view.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Battery ate their Christmas dinner at San Martino, though the air
had been thick with talk of an immediate move. On this, as on other,
occasions the Major made an excellent speech, in the course of which he
said: "You will be going very soon into a place where, before this war,
no one would have dreamed that Siege Artillery could go. You were the
first British Battery to be in action in Italy, and you will probably be
the first British Battery to be in action in the Alps. We shall be very
uncomfortable, at any rate for a time, but we shall pull through all
right, as we always have before. It will be an honour to be proud of,
and an experience to remember for the rest of our lives. And I know that
whatever happens to us in this coming year, you will all behave as
splendidly in the future as you have always done in the past."

The enemy was doing a good deal of night bombing at this period. Treviso
and Padua were attacked with great persistency, so much so that the
British G.H.Q. decided to move from the latter city to some smaller and
more peaceful place. We used to hear the bombing planes coming over
nearly every night and explosions more or less distant. They bombed
Bassano, Cittadella and Castelfranco, the latter especially because the
French had their Headquarters there. But luckily they left San Martino
alone, thinking it too small to worry about. There seemed to be no
anti-aircraft defences anywhere. But our Air Force soon mitigated the
nuisance by raiding their aerodromes, and brought down a number of
hostile planes in air fighting.

Our Staff again brought themselves into notice at Christmas by altering
our official address from "B.E.F. Italy" to "Italian Expeditionary
Force." I heard that the distinguished General, who introduced this
reform, estimated that it would hasten victory by several months. But
the stupid soldiers and their stupid relatives at home, having got into
the habit of using the abbreviation "B.E.F.," shortened the new address
to "I.E.F.," and the stupid postal people began to send the letters to
India! And then the distinguished General had to issue another order,
pointing out that "this abbreviation is unauthorised" and that "this
practice must cease."

In the midst of such excitements the New Year began, and the Major was
awarded the D.S.O. for work on the Carso. He was as delighted as a
child, and I too was very glad. This decoration, even more than most
others, has been much too freely dished out during this war among quite
undeserving people, who have simply made an art of playing up to their
official superiors. The Major, however, had always been something of a
thorn in the side of various Headquarters, and seldom hesitated to speak
his mind both to, and of, Colonels and Generals and Staff officers
generally. For this reason, and also for others, I consider that he
deserved a D.S.O. a great deal more than many who received one.



CHAPTER XXVIII

THE FIRST BRITISH BATTERY UP THE MOUNTAINS

The Major's words were soon to come true, after many of those delays and
conflicting orders of which the victims of war time "Staff work" have
profuse experience. On the 7th of January we moved up the mountains into
the position previously selected near Casa Girardi. We were the first
British Battery to go up. Two others and a Brigade Headquarters were to
follow, when it had been seen how we got on. When in doubt, try it on
the dog!

It began to snow as we came into Marostica, and we had great difficulty
with the lorries even on gentle gradients. The roads were frozen hard
and in places very slippery. We managed, however, to reach Casa Girardi
before nightfall and found that our advance party had put up some wooden
huts, and cut some trees for fuel. All that night the snow came down in
clouds, but the next day, and the next few following, were very fine.
The sun shone all day long from a cold, cloudless sky upon a waste of
flashing snow, with here and there trees sticking out of it, and strange
red morning lights in the sky behind it, and sweeping winds across it,
and in the sunset the white hillsides slowly changed to a mauve pink. It
was a scene of wonderful beauty. But the temperature was ten degrees
below zero one day at noon, and the next day twenty-four below zero at 9
a.m. and nine above zero at noon.

These conditions were disconcerting to good shooting, the lower
temperatures not having been contemplated by those who compiled our
range table in England. But we got all four guns satisfactorily
registered by the second day, to the evident pleasure of the Italian
Colonel under whose command we were temporarily placed. This man had a
somewhat ferocious appearance and a reputation for great rudeness, both
to his superiors and his subordinates in the military hierarchy. It was
said that, but for this, he would long ago have been a General. To us,
however, he showed his politer side, patting the Major on the back and
repeating several times "buon sistema, buon sistema!"

The physical discomfort of those early days was great, but we were full
of buoyancy and health. Everything froze hard during the night, one's
boots, one's clothing, if damp when taken off, the ink in one's fountain
pen. In the morning water poured into a basin froze hard in a couple of
minutes and the lather froze on one's face before one had time to shave.
The Major, breaking through one of the most fundamental traditions of
the British Army, announced that no one need shave more than once in
three days. The morning after our arrival we had a discouraging
breakfast. No fire could be got to burn and no tea had been made. There
was nothing to eat except a few very hard ration biscuits and some eggs
boiled hard the night before, and now frozen through and through. One
cracked the shell and found icicles beneath, and miserably held
fragments of egg in one's mouth until they thawed!

But gradually, by patient work and organisation, these early troubles
were surmounted. The whole Battery had been provided with Italian
greatcoats and other Italian mountain equipment,--white Alpine boots
lined with fur, alpenstocks, spiked snow grips, which could be fastened
on to one's boots like skates, and white clothing to put on over the top
of everything else, to render us invisible against a snowy background. I
used to hear some amusing comments in the Battery on our Alpine
situation. "This is the sort of thing you see pictures of in books,
but...!" "I suppose folks would pay quids in peace time to see this!"

"Why, it's like a blooming Cook's tour!"

Being the first of the British who had been seen in these parts, we were
objects of great interest to the Italians, who used to collect in crowds
to watch our guns firing. We became great friends with the members of a
mixed Mess not far away, consisting of two Anti-aircraft Batteries and
the personnel in charge of a large ammunition dump. Between this Mess
and our own there were frequent exchanges of hospitality.

One day an Italian General's car skidded into a ditch close to our
position. We supplied a party of men to get it out again and the
General, thanking us, asked if there was anything we wanted. The Major
told him that we should like two or three more huts and two good stoves
for cooking. A few days later these were delivered by the Italian
authorities. Our own Brigade Commander, who had now followed us up the
mountains with his two other Batteries, noticed these things and asked
how we had come by them. When we told him, he seemed displeased, and
next day we got an official letter to inform us that "it has come to
notice that British units have in some cases recently been approaching
the Italian authorities direct.... This practice is irregular and must
cease.... Indents must be submitted through the proper channels." We
smiled and obeyed. But we kept our huts and stoves which were better
than any which we should have been likely to get "through the proper
channels."

We were very short of water except snow water, there being only one
waterpoint for all troops within several miles. Here there was a long
queue waiting most of the day. It is probably not generally known that
it takes ten dixies full of snow, when melted down, to make one dixie
full of water. For this and for hygienic reasons snow water was not much
use to us. We were not at this time required to fire very much, but we
were warned to get acquainted with the surrounding country, as an action
of some importance might be coming off before long. This provided the
occasion for several reconnaissances.

On January 15th the Major and I went up Monte Costahmga, a few miles to
the west. It was a ziz-zag, scrambling track, and it was thawing enough
to make everything rather unpleasant. But we gained some, useful new
knowledge.

On the 24th, Jeune, together with an Italian officer, a telephonist and
myself made a long day of it. Starting early, we were on the top of
Costalunga about 9 o'clock, were given a guide by an Italian Field
Battery on the summit and went on, along a mountain road commanding a
magnificent view, to Cima Echar. Here was a good O.P. from which I got
my first sight of Monte Sisemol and Asiago, of which part of the
_campanile_ was at that time still standing. But it was brought down by
Italian shell fire very soon afterwards. I remember thinking that the
whole Asiago Plateau should be easy to retake, if we only brought up
enough guns. Later on I began to realise that it would not be as easy as
it looked.

It was impossible to get telephonic communication with the Battery from
Cima Echar, so we could not, as we had hoped, do from there some
registrations on wire and trench junctions on Sisemol, which were among
our allotted targets. We therefore went back to Costalunga, where the
Italian Field and Mountain Batteries along the crest were firing away
with great vigour, and after an excellent lunch, which had been
hospitably prepared for us, went down again into the valley and walked
several miles further west to Monte Tondo.

I noticed at lunch, as on several other occasions lately, a change in
the Italian attitude to good weather. They no longer hoped that it would
break and so prevent further Austrian offensives. They hoped it would
continue and so permit offensives of their own. Their morale was rapidly
rising. We had, indeed, received the previous day the artillery portion
of an elaborate offensive plan, but no date had yet been fixed for it.

We climbed up Monte Tondo and down the other side and made our way to an
O.P. in a front line trench. For fifty yards of the way there was a
break in the trench line and we had to run across the open through
knee-deep snow. But the Austrians didn't fire. From this O.P. we had
again a fine view of Asiago and the country round it. After delays
connected with the telephone, we succeeded in registering two targets.
While we were firing, all the woods and houses grew rosy in the sunset.
It was dark when we finished. We went back with a Major of the Pisa
Brigade, a quiet, spare little man, of great energy and exhausting speed
of movement. He gave us coffee and showed us maps at his Brigade
Headquarters and then sent us on to the Regimental Headquarters, further
down the hill, where they gave us rum punch, believing, as all Italians
do, that an Englishman is never happy unless he is drinking alcohol. We
got back to the Battery in the moonlight.

On January 27th the long expected action began, and our Brigade lost one
of its best officers, who was hit in the head in the front line O.P. on
Monte Tondo. His steel helmet and the skill of Italian doctors just
saved his life, but he was permanently out of the war. The Italians put
their best doctors right forward in the advanced dressing stations. All
that day we bombarded enemy Batteries and cross roads and barbed wire.
Next morning the Italian Infantry carried Col Valbella and Col d'Echele
by assault. The day after they took also Col del Rosso, and beat back
very heavy counter-attacks. The Sassari Brigade and a Brigade of
Bersaglieri specially distinguished themselves. It was an important and
useful success. It considerably improved our line between the Asiago
Plateau and Val Brenta, it deprived the enemy of the secure use of the
Val Frenzela, and it was the first offensive operation of any importance
undertaken by the Italians since the great retreat. Its success went to
prove that the Italian Army had been effectively reorganised, and that
its morale was again high.

From my sleeping hut and from the Battery Command Post I used to hear
for days afterwards the Italian Infantry singing in great choruses, far
into the night. There was triumph in their songs, and there was ribaldry
and there was longing. I thought I knew what dreams were in their
hearts, and, if I was right, those dreams were also mine.

The advance left us a long way behind the new front line, and we
expected to move our guns forward; indeed we selected and asked to be
allowed to occupy a very good position behind Montagna Nuova. But this
was not allowed, and we stayed where we were for another six weeks. It
snowed a great deal and we fired very little. But we had plenty to do to
keep pathways dug between the guns and the huts; often we had to clear
these afresh every hour.

During this time I made the acquaintance of several interesting
Italians and Frenchmen. Among these was Colonel Bucci, who had been
attached the year before to the Staff of one of the British Armies in
France. He was now in command of a Regiment of Field Artillery,
including a group of Batteries known as the Garibaldian Batteries, which
were always placed at their own request in the most forward positions. I
heard that, when he took over this command, he sent for all his officers
and said, "Now here we are, some old men and some young men and two or
three boys, and we are all here for the same purpose and I hope we shall
all be always the best of good friends. But, as a matter of convenience,
someone has got to be in command of the others, and I have been chosen
because I am the oldest."

He used to tell an amusing story of an encounter he had in France with a
British officer from one of the Dominions, who walked into his bedroom
late one night, after a liberal consumption of liquor, and said he
"wanted the fire" and asked if Bucci was "that Portuguese." Bucci,
having persuasively but vainly asked him to go away, got out of bed and
genially taking him by the shoulders,--he is a powerful man,--ran him
out into the passage. Whereat the British officer, surprised and
protesting, said, "You have no business to treat me like that. Don't you
see that I am a Major and have three decorations?" pointing to his left
breast. "Yes," said Bucci, "and I am a Colonel, and I have some
decorations too, but I don't wear them on my nighty, and I want to go to
sleep."

He had been in Gorizia before Caporetto, and had kept, as a melancholy
souvenir, the maps showing the line of his own Regiment's retreat. "I
call it the Via Crucis," he said. "I want to go back. I want to see an
advance across the Piave with Cavalry and Field Artillery. I want to
advance at the gallop. I have applied to be sent down there." He was a
natural leader of men, and I felt that I would willingly follow him
anywhere.

We saw a good deal too of the officers of a French Observation Balloon.
One of their officers was a tall man, promoted from the ranks, with big
upturned moustaches, a delightful smile and twinkling eyes. He smoked
more cigars than any man I have ever met. He smoked them, like some men
smoke cigarettes, one after another all the evening, with no interval
between. He came from Marseilles. Another was from Auvergne, always most
elegantly dressed. He never smoked at all, for he was very proud of his
white teeth. He spoke Italian and German, but no English. A third was a
little blonde Alsatian business man. He was usually rather quiet, but
one evening I saw him roused, when someone had said something that
displeased him about Alsace. Then he showed us that he could be eloquent
when he chose.

They are very implacable, these Frenchmen. Undoubtedly Clemenceau spoke
in their name, when he said, "my war aim is victory." Another Frenchman
said to me once, "when Clemenceau is speaking, no one dares to
interrupt, for they know it is the voice of the soldier at the Front
speaking." And one can scarcely wonder that they are implacable. In
Alsace-Lorraine and in the occupied territories of Northern France, they
say that it is known with complete certainty that the daughters and
wives and widows of many French officers and men have been compelled to
take up their abode in brothels, and there to await at all hours of the
day and night the visits of their country's enemies. Is it surprising
that certain French Regiments, knowing these things, never take
prisoners? And can one fail to admire, even if one does not
unconditionally agree with, the soldier who would fight on and on, until
everyone has been killed, rather than accept anything less than a
complete victory?

It is all but impossible for a foreigner to measure the spiritual
effects upon a proudly and self-consciously civilised Frenchman of these
unpardonable, brain-rending, heart-stabbing provocations. But the
statesman at home who, drawing good pay and living in comfort far behind
the Front, is ever ready to declare that his country "shall continue to
bleed in her glory" is a less admirable spectacle. It is his business to
conceive some subtler and more comprehensive war aim than bare military
victory, and to make sure that, when he has died safely in his bed and
been forgotten, other men shall not have to do over again the work which
he complacently bungled. A fighting soldier, who risks his life daily,
may speak brave words, which are indecent on the lips of an _imboscato_,
whether military or civilian.



CHAPTER XXIX

THE ASIAGO PLATEAU

About the middle of March the British Divisions moved up from the
Montello to the Asiago Plateau, and all the British Heavy Artillery was
concentrated in the Asiago sector. We, therefore, moved six miles to the
west and found ourselves in support of British, and no longer of
Italian, Infantry. Our Brigade ceased to be a "trench-punching" and
became a "counter-battery" Brigade. Most of our work in future was to be
in close co-operation with our own Air Force.

My Battery was destined to remain here, with two short interludes, for
seven months. It was in many ways a very interesting sector. The British
held the line between the Italians on their left and the French on their
right. To the right of the French were more Italians. The move had
amusing features. One compared the demeanour of the lorry drivers of
different nationalities. The scared faces of some of the British the
first time they had to come up the hundred odd corkscrew turns on the
mountain roads, taking sidelong glances at bird's eye views of distant
towns and rivers on the plain below, were rather comical. Even the
self-consciously efficient and outwardly imperturbable French stuck like
limpets to the centre of the road, and would not give an inch to Staff
cars, hooting their guts out behind them. The Italian drivers, on the
other hand, accustomed to the mountains, dashed round sharp corners at
full speed, avoiding innumerable collisions by a fraction of an inch,
terrifying and infuriating their more cautious Allies. But I only once
saw a serious collision here in the course of many months.

The Asiago Plateau is some eight miles long from west to east, with an
average breadth of two to three miles from north to south. On it lie a
number of villages and small towns, of which the largest is Asiago
itself, which lies at the eastern end of the Plateau and before the war
had a population of about 8000. Asiago was the terminus of a light
railway, running down the mountains to Schio. The chief occupation of
the inhabitants of the Plateau had been wood-cutting and pasture. In
Asiago were several sawmills and a military barracks. Army manoeuvres
used often to take place in this area, which gave special opportunities
for the combined practice of mountain fighting and operations on the
flat. It was moreover within seven miles of the old Austrian frontier.
Asiago was hardly known before the war to foreign tourists, but many
Italians used to visit it, especially for winter sports.

Across the Plateau from north to south ran the Val d'Assa, which near
the southern edge, having become only a narrow gulley, turned away
westwards, the Assa stream flowing finally into the river Astico. The
Ghelpac stream, which flowed through the town of Asiago, joined the Assa
at its western turn. Apart from these two streams the Plateau was not
well watered. In summer, when the snows had melted, water was even
scarcer on the surrounding mountains. All our drinking water had to be
pumped up through pipes from the plain.

The Plateau was bounded at its eastern end by Monte Sisemol, which
stands at the head of the Val Frenzela, which, in turn, runs eastward
into the Val Brenta near the little town of Valstagna. Sisemol was of no
great height and was not precipitous. It had a rounded brown top, when
the snow uncovered it. But it was a maze of wire and trenches, and a
very strong point militarily. There had been very bitter fighting for
its possession last November and it had remained in Austrian hands.

At the western end the Plateau was bounded by the descent to the Val
d'Astico. On the northern side of the Plateau rose a formidable mountain
range, the chief heights of which, from west to east, were Monte
Campolungo, Monte Erio, Monte Mosciagh and Monte Longara. This range was
thickly wooded with pines, among which our guns did great damage. I
always more regretted the destruction of trees than of uninhabited
houses, for the latter can be the more quickly replaced. This range was
pierced by only four valleys, through each of which ran roads vital to
the Austrian system of communications, the Val Campomulo, the Val di
Nos, the Val d'Assa and the Val di Martello. The Austrians had also a
few roads over the top of the mountains, but these were less good and
less convenient.

Along the southern side of the Plateau ran another ridge, less
mountainous than the ridge to the north, and completely in our
possession. This ridge also was thickly wooded, and pierced by only a
few valleys and roads. The road we came to know best was the
continuation of the wonderful road up from the plain, through Granezza
to the cross-roads at Pria dell' Acqua, and on through the Baerenthal
Valley to San Sisto. Thence it led through the front line trenches into
the town of Asiago itself. At Pria dell' Acqua, a most misleading name,
where there was no water, but only a collection of wooden huts, another
road branched off westwards, running parallel to the front line, behind
the southern ridge of the Plateau.

The Italian Engineers had created a magnificent network of roads in this
sector of the Front. Before the war there had been only one road into
Asiago from the plain. Now there were half a dozen, all broad and with a
fine surface, capable of taking any traffic. And, in addition, there
were many transverse roads, equally good, joining up and cutting across
the main routes at convenient points.

When the British troops took over this sector in March, the whole
Plateau, properly so called, was in Austrian hands. It had been taken
last November in the mountain offensive which followed Caporetto. At one
perilous moment the Austrians had held San Sisto and their patrols had
passed Pria dell' Acqua, but they had been thrown back by Italian
counter-attacks to the line they now held. Our front line ran along the
southern edge of the Plateau, and, on the right, along the lower slopes
of the southern ridge, just inside the pine woods. On the left, further
west, it ran mostly on the flat and more in the open. Where the Val
d'Assa turned west, our front line ran on one side of the shallow gulley
and the Austrian on the other. The Austrian front line was completely in
the open. The first houses of Asiago were only a few hundred yards
behind it.

From the defensive point of view our line was very strong, and the
trenches, particularly at the eastern end, very good, deeply blasted in
the rock. The wooded ridge, running close behind our front line all the
way, completely hid from the enemy all movement in our rear. He could
get no observation here except by aircraft. Even movements in our front
line, owing to the trees, were largely invisible at a distance, and,
owing to the lie of the ground, large parts of No Man's Land could be
seen from our own trenches, but from nowhere in the enemy's lines, with
the result that we were able to post machine guns, trench mortars and
even, for a short time, a field battery there, without being detected,
until these weapons had served their immediate purpose. Our systems of
transport, supply and reliefs of the troops in the line could,
therefore, be carried out at any hour of the day or night with almost
complete disregard of the enemy. His intermittent shelling of the roads
was perfectly blind and haphazard and seldom did us any damage.

He, on the other hand, was in a very undesirable situation. Not only was
his front line all the way in full view from our various ground O.P.'s,
but a long stretch of flat country several miles broad behind his front
line was equally in view. Only a few small folds in the ground were
invisible from all points along our ridge. We could see also most of the
nearer slopes of the northern ridge, though here the thick woods and
breaks in the hillside gave him greater opportunities for concealment.
Taking into account, therefore, ground observation only, we had him at a
tremendous disadvantage. He dared not move nor show himself in daylight
behind his line, and was compelled to carry out all his supply and troop
movements at night, or during fogs that might lift at any moment. One
French Battery did no other work except sweep up and down his roads
throughout the hours of darkness, and it is obvious that the probable
damage done in this way was far greater than anything he could hope to
do to us.

Taking into account the possibilities of observation from the air, the
balance in our favour became even greater. We had a strong superiority
in the air, whenever it was worth our while to enforce it, partly
because our airmen were individually superior to the Austrians, and
partly because we had more and better machines. Our pilots often flew
over the northern ridge, both to observe and to bomb, but the enemy
seldom crossed the southern ridge. His anti-aircraft Batteries were,
however, at least as good as ours, and, in my opinion, better.

Most of our pre-arranged counter-battery shoots were carried out with
aeroplane observation against enemy Batteries situated in the thick
woods on the slopes of the northern ridge, the airman flying backwards
and forwards over the target and sending us his observations by
wireless. But it was often necessary to spend more than half of the four
hundred rounds allotted to a normal counter-battery shoot in destroying
the trees round the target, before the airman could get a good view of
it. Flying, however, was always difficult on the Plateau, especially
during the winter, and more difficult for our men than for theirs, since
there were no feasible landing-places behind our lines. Our nearest
aerodromes were down on the plain, and a big expenditure of petrol was
required to get the airman up the mountains and actually over the
Plateau, and also to get him down again. The time during which he could
keep in the air for observation was, therefore, very limited. Weather
conditions on the Plateau, moreover, were often very unfavourable for
flying even in the spring and summer. The practical importance of our
superiority in the air was thus smaller than might have been expected.

From the defensive point of view, then, our position was pretty strong.
But the sector was important and might at any time become critical, and
much depended upon its successful defence. For the mountain wall that
guarded the Italian plain had been worn very thin in this neighbourhood
by the Austrian successes of last year. An Austrian advance of another
few miles would bring the enemy over the edge of the mountains, with the
plain beneath in full view. Further defence would then become extremely
difficult and costly, and the whole situation, as regards relative
superiority of positions and observation, now so greatly in our favour,
would be more than reversed. We were too near the edge to have any elbow
room or freedom of manoeuvre. Our present positions were almost the last
that we could hope to hold without very grave embarrassment. It would
have seemed evident, then, that to obtain more elbow room and security,
we should not be content with a defensive policy, but should aim at
gaining ground and thickening the mountain wall by means of an early
local offensive, even if larger operations were not yet practicable.

But, from the offensive point of view, our position presented great
difficulties. To make only a small advance would leave us worse off
than now. Merely to go out into the middle of the Plateau, merely to
reoccupy the ruins of Asiago, would be futile, except for a very slight
and transitory "moral effect." To carry the whole Plateau and establish
a line along the lower slopes of the northern ridge would be no better.
We should only be taking over the difficulties of the enemy in respect
of his exposed positions, while he would escape from these difficulties
and obtain an immunity from observation nearly as great as that which we
now possessed. No offensive would benefit us which did not give us, at
the very least, the whole of the crest of the northern ridge. And to aim
at this would be a big and risky undertaking, involving perhaps heavy
casualties and large reserves. We had only three British Divisions in
Italy at this time, the 7th, 23rd and 48th, two of which were always in
the line and one in reserve. The French had now only two Divisions in
Italy and the Italians, when the German advance in France became
serious, had sent to France more men than there were French and British
left in Italy. The large fact remained that, since the military collapse
of Russia the previous year, the Austrians had brought practically their
whole Army on to the Italian Front and established a large superiority
over the Italians, both in numbers and in guns. Considerable Italian
reserves had to be kept mobile and ready to meet an Austrian offensive
anywhere along the mountain front or on the plain. There was not likely
to be much that could be safely spared to back up a Franco-British
offensive on the Plateau. None the less, the value of a successful
offensive here was recognised to be so great, that it was several times
on the point of being attempted in the months that followed. But it did
not finally come, until events elsewhere had prepared the way and sapped
the enemy's power of resistance.

This, however, is anticipating history. In March, when we first arrived,
we moved into a Battery position in the pine woods behind the rear slope
of the southern ridge. Our right hand gun was only a hundred yards from
the cross-roads at Pria dell' Acqua, disagreeably close, as we
afterwards discovered. For the enemy had those cross-roads "absolutely
taped," as the expression went. In other respects the Battery position
was a good one. Being an old Italian position, it had gun pits already
blasted in the rock, though they were not quite suited to our guns and
line of fire, and we had to do some more blasting for ourselves. In the
course of this, a premature explosion occurred, wounding one of our
gunners so severely that he lost one leg and the sight of both his eyes
and a few days later, perhaps fortunately, died of other injuries. He
was a Cornishman, very young and very popular with every one in the
Battery. We missed him greatly. In this same accident Winterton was also
injured, and nearly lost an eye. He went to Hospital and thence to
England, and saw no more of the war, for the sight of his eye came back
to him but slowly.

The Italians had also blasted some good _caverne_ in the position, and
these we gradually enlarged and multiplied, till we had cover for the
whole Battery. Being on the side of a hill, and our guns not constructed
to fire at a greater elevation than forty-five degrees (the Italians had
fired at "super-elevations" up to eighty), we had to cut down many trees
in front of the guns. But this clearance hardly showed in aeroplane
photographs, as there were already many bare patches in the woods. We
had perfect flash-cover behind the ridge and were, indeed, quite
invisible, when the guns were camouflaged, even to an aeroplane flying
low and immediately overhead. From our position we could shoot, if
necessary, right over the top of the northern ridge, on the other side
of the Plateau. And this was good enough for most purposes.

We prepared another position, which was known as the "Forward" or
"Battle Position," at San Sisto, about four hundred yards behind the
front line. This position we never occupied, but we should have done so,
if an offensive had come from our side while we were still on the
Plateau. San Sisto, I was told, was once the centre of a leper
reservation. There is a little chapel there, but no other buildings.
This chapel was used by the R.A.M.C. as a First Aid Post. One day I saw
a shell go clean through the roof of it, but there was no one inside at
the time.

The Battery O.P. was a glorious place, up a tall pine tree on the summit
of Cima del Taglio, a high point to the east of the Granezza--Pria dell'
Acqua road. This O.P. had been built by the French. It was reached by a
strong pinewood ladder, with a small platform half way up as a
resting-place. The O.P. itself consisted of a wooden platform, nailed to
cross pieces, supported on two trees. It was about fifteen feet long and
four feet broad and some ninety feet above the ground. At one end of the
platform a hut had been erected, with a long glass window, opening
outward, on the northern side, and a small fixed glass window on the
western. The other end of the platform was uncovered. When the weather
was bad one could shelter in the hut and imagine oneself out at sea, as
the trees swayed in the wind. The O.P. was well hidden from the enemy by
the branches of the trees. The view was superb. Immediately below the
thick pine forest sloped gradually downwards, the trees still carrying a
heavy weight of snow. Among the trees patches of deep snow were visible,
hiding rocky ground. Beyond lay the Plateau, studded with villages and
isolated houses, with the ruins of Asiago in the centre of the view,
and, to the left of it, the light railway line and its raised
embankment, along which the Austrian trenches ran. And beyond, more
pinewoods on the northern ridge, and beyond, more mountains, one snowy
range behind another, up to the horizon. The visibility was often poor
and variable from one minute to another. Great clouds used to sweep low
over the Plateau, blotting out everything but the nearest trees, and
then sweep past, and Asiago would come into sudden view again, and the
sun would shine forth once more upon the little clusters of white
houses, some utterly wrecked, some mere shells, others as yet hardly
touched by the destruction of war. The prosaic name of this O.P. was
"Claud."

There was another O.P. called Ascot, which we used sometimes to man at
the beginning. It was on, or rather in, Monte Kaberlaba, just behind the
front line, approached through a communication trench and then a long
tunnel through the rock, named by our troops the Severn Tunnel. This
tunnel was full of water and many worse things, and it was impossible to
clean it out properly. The unfortunate telephonists off duty had to
live and sleep in it. The O.P. was a cramped, little, stinking place at
the far end of the tunnel, shared with the Italians, undoubtedly visible
and well known to the enemy, and with practically no view. The Major, by
his usual skilful diplomacy, soon arranged that we should man Claud
permanently, but Ascot never.

My only pleasant recollection of Ascot is that once, about midnight, as
we were keeping watch together, a young Italian gunner from the Romagna
sang to me.

   "'Addio, mia bell', addio!'
    Cantava nel partir la gioventù,
    Mentre gl' imboscati si stavano
    Divertire, giornale in mano
    E la sigaretta.
    Per noi l'assalto
    Alla baionetta!
    Come le mosche noi dobbiam morir,
    Mentre gl' imboscati si stanno a divertir."[1]

[Footnote 1:

   "Good-bye, my darling, good-bye!"
   Sang the young men as they went away,
   While the imboscati were standing about
   To amuse themselves, with a newspaper in their hand
   And a cigarette.
   For us the bayonet charge!
   Like flies we must die.
   While the imboscati stand about to amuse themselves.

This is one of many front line versions of a patriotic drawing-room
song. It has an admirable tune.]

He sang me also another longer song, composed by a friend of his, which
is not fit for reproduction.

       *       *       *       *       *

We experienced great variations of weather on the Plateau. When we first
arrived in March the snow was in full thaw, and every road a sunlit,
rushing torrent. We climbed about at that time in gum boots. Later it
snowed again heavily and often. Sometimes for several days running we
were enveloped in a thick mist, and then suddenly it would clear away.
Once, I remember, it cleared at night, and one saw the full moon rising
through the pine trees into an utterly clear, ice-cold sky, and under
one's feet the hard snow scrunched and glittered in the moonlight.
British, French and Italian Batteries were all mixed together in this
sector. On our left came first another British Battery, then two French,
one in front of the road and one behind it, then another British, then
an Italian. On our right, slightly more forward, the Headquarters of an
Italian Heavy Artillery Group, in front of them a British and an Italian
Battery, one on each side of the road leading past Kaberlaba to the
front line. To the right of the Italian Headquarters, across the San
Sisto road, was a French Battery, with two Italian Batteries in front of
it. To our own right rear was one Italian Battery and two French, and in
rear of them, back along the road to Granezza, our own Brigade
Headquarters.

This mixture was a good arrangement, stimulating friendly rivalry and
facilitating _liaison_ and exchange of ideas. Our relations were
specially cordial with the Italian-Group Headquarters and with one of
the French Batteries on our left. The Italian Major commanding this
Group was a Mantuan and he and I became firm friends. It was in his Mess
one night, in reply to the toast of the Allies, that I made my first
after-dinner speech in Italian. I do not claim that it was grammatically
perfect, but all that I said was, I think, well understood, and I was
in no hesitation for words.

Not till the end of May did Spring really climb the mountains, and the
snow finally vanish, and then the days, apart from the facts of war,
were perfect, blue sky and sunshine all day long among the warm aromatic
pines and the freshness of the mountain air. Here and there, in
clearings in the forest, were patches of thick, rich grass, making a
bright contrast to the dull, dark green of the pines, and in the grass
arose many-coloured wild flowers.

The Italians have buried their dead up here in little groups among the
trees, and not in great graveyards. There was one such little group on
the hillside in the middle of our Battery position, between two of our
gunpits. There was another in the middle of our forward position at San
Sisto, and another, where some thirty Bersaglieri and Artillerymen were
buried, in the Baerenthal Valley. It was here one day that an Irish
Major, newly come to Italy, said to me, "I don't want any better grave
than that." Nor did I. It was a place of marvellous and eternal beauty,
ever changing with the seasons. It made one's heart ache to be in the
midst of it. It was hither that they brought in the months that followed
many of the British dead, who fell in this sector, and laid them beside
the Italians, at whose graves we had looked that day.



CHAPTER XXX

SOME NOTES ON NATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS

For a week or two in May an Italian Engineer officer messed with us. He
had a sleeping hut on the hill just behind us, and was in charge of a
party of men who were working on British Field Artillery positions. His
men were on British rations and did not altogether like them. They would
have preferred more bread and less meat and jam, and they missed their
coffee. Our tea they did not fancy. The first time it was issued to
them, they thought it was medicine. "Why do the English give us
_'camomila'_?" they asked their officer, "we are not ill!"

       *       *       *       *       *

I have had, at one time and another, much gay and delightful intercourse
both with Frenchmen and Italians, which has led me to certain
speculative comparisons and to many dangerous generalisations, some of
which I will venture tentatively to set down here. But it is difficult
to find forms of words which are not mere journalism.

Italian humour is more primitive and uproarious than French, and the
Italians seem to present fewer barriers to intimacy, but the proportion
of rational discussion is larger in the conversation of the French. Both
the French and the Italians combine natural and easy good manners with
great punctiliousness in small matters of etiquette. Only very arrogant
or very boorish people find it difficult to get on well with either.

It is idle for any wideawake observer to deny that a certain antipathy
exists between the French and the Italians. Both, I think, generally
prefer the British to their Latin brothers, and I have heard both say
unjust and absurdly untrue things about the other. Their antipathy is
rooted partly in temperament, partly in history, and partly in that
ignorance and lack of understanding which accounts for nine-tenths of
all international antipathies. As Charles Lamb said, in an anecdote
which President Wilson is fond of quoting, "I cannot hate a man I know."
It is sometimes said that the French and the Italians are too much alike
to be in perfect sympathy. The Frenchman has at times an instinct to be
what an Englishman would call "theatrical," which instinct the
Englishman himself hardly possesses at all. But in the Italian this
instinct is even stronger than in the Frenchman, and he gives it freer
play. Thus the Frenchman often notices the Italian doing and saying
things which he himself dislikes, but which it needs a deliberate effort
of self-repression on his part not to imitate. The Englishman has no
inclination to do and say such things, and is, therefore, more tolerant
of them than the Frenchman, thinking them either charming or merely
"queer," according to his temperament.

If the French are the more admirable, the Italians are the more lovable;
if the French are the more creative, the Italians are the more
receptive. In the French, though not so much in the Italians, one does
find that "sheer brutality of the Latin intellect," which, since the
French Revolution, has dethroned many previously dominant ideas and
institutions. One finds in the French a tradition of limpid precision,
of concise and ordered logic, while the Italians are still groping
rather turgidly among those great abstract ideas which the French handle
so easily. The spirit of France shines with the hard splendour of the
noonday sun, of Italy with the soft radiance of the light of early
mornings and late afternoons.

The French are proud and sometimes intolerant, the Italians tolerant and
often diffident. It has been truly said that in every modern Frenchman
there is still something Napoleonic, however subconscious it may have
become. One could never be surprised if, in the midst of conversation, a
Frenchman should suddenly draw himself up and cry "Vive la France,
monsieur!" But one does not expect an Italian in like circumstances to
cry "Viva l'Italia!" In general, the French are the more tenacious and
clear-visioned in adversity, but none are more irresistible in success,
nor more conscious of its drama, than the Italians.

The low birth-rate of France, as compared with Italy, is a fact of deep
and permanent importance. In years to come the French will grow more and
more negligible, numerically, in world politics, but the French spirit
is immortal and unconquerable. It will penetrate the hearts of the best
men for ever, and ideas characteristically and originally French will
continue to mould the world's thought and action till the end of time.
The Italians on the other hand will play in future history a greater
part numerically, and moreover, by a greater intermarriage with other
races, will continue to produce fine and generous human types, not
wholly Italian. Italians will continue to show a shining example to the
world by reason of their gaiety and charm of character, their mental
subtlety, which with time will grow less involved and more lucid in
expression, by their art of life, even now not much inferior to the
French, by their sensitiveness to beauty, by their capacity for
enthusiastic appreciation, and by their technical genius in applied
science.

Italy is a naturally democratic and peaceable polity, and her present
imperfections will diminish rapidly with the increase of her national
maturity and stability. She will be a sane and healthy element in the
future international order.

In some respects, as in their indifference, sometimes excessive, to
foreign opinion, the French resemble the British, just as, in their
excessive sensitiveness on this point, the Italians resemble the
Americans. This is the contrast between age and youth, between nations
with a continuous tradition of centuries behind them and nations born or
reborn only yesterday.

There remains the larger contrast between the Latins on the one hand and
the Anglo-Saxons on the other. At first sight it is the latter who are
the more realistic and the more practical, the former who are the more
effusive, idealistic and poetical. But, as Mr Norman Douglas admirably
puts it in _South Wind_, "Enclosed within the soft imagination of the
_homo Mediterraneus_ lies a kernel of hard reason. The Northerner's
hardness is on the surface; his core, his inner being, is apt to quaver
in a state of fluid irresponsibility." The comparative method of
approach to the institution of marriage among Latins and among
Anglo-Saxons illustrates this truth. And it serves also, perhaps, for an
example that, in the midst of the terrors of war, the dim project of a
League of Nations, the only hope of the world, first took shape in the
minds of Anglo-Saxon dreamers and not of Latin realists. The Latin often
thinks more clearly, but not always more profoundly, than the
Anglo-Saxon. The currents on the surface are not always the same as the
currents in the deep.



CHAPTER XXXI

ROME IN THE SPRING

I was at Rome in May. Of the many things and persons I saw there, not
much is relevant here. But there is an intoxication and a beauty and a
sense of wonder in Rome in the Spring, as great as I have found at any
time elsewhere. Rome grew upon me, rapidly and ceaselessly, during the
few days that I spent there, and sent me back to the mountains, clothed
with their pinewoods and their graves of much brave youth, uplifted in
heart and purified in spirit.

       *       *       *       *       *

Early one afternoon in the Piazza Venezia I fell in with two Italian
officers, an Alpino and an Engineer, both wounded and not yet fit to go
back to the Front. We rapidly made friends, and, having drunk beer
together, we took a carrozza and drove to the Villa Borghese Gardens,
where we walked and sat for several hours. Then we went back to the
Piazza Venezia, and walked in the neighbourhood and contemplated the
monuments. My friends said that Rome was the capital city of the world,
and praised also the giant memorial to Italian Unity and Victor Emmanuel
II., which, still unfinished, dominates the Piazza, and indeed a large
part of the city. This memorial is, I believe, condemned by the greater
part of foreign aesthetic opinion, the Germans alone conspicuously
dissenting. Personally I like it in the fading light from close at hand,
and in a bright light from a distance, as one sees it, for instance,
from the Pincio.

We spoke a little, but not much, of the war. They were both for fighting
on till final victory, whatever the cost, and both spoke with admiration
of the inflexible and stubborn spirit of the British nation. Very
wonderful too is the spirit which animates the Alpini. My Alpino friend
had been wounded in the leg last August at Rombon, and still walked
lame. He told me of incidents which he had witnessed, of Alpini charging
across and through uncut enemy wire, with the wounded and the dying
crying to their comrades, "Ciao![1] Ciao! Avanti!" He sang me also
certain songs of the Alpini, in one of which they sing that in the
Italian tricolour the green stands for the Alpini,[2] the white for the
snow on their mountains and the red for their blood. O these "fiamme
verdi," who can talk and sing themselves into such transfigured
ecstasies, as to turn, death and pain almost into easy glories!

[Footnote 1: "Ciao" is a colloquialism, much the same as our own "so
long," or "good-bye and good luck!" It is an intimate word, used only
between friends at parting.]

[Footnote 2: The regimental colours of the Alpini are plain green, worn
on the collar.]

The three of us dined at a little restaurant near the Pantheon, and my
friends wrote their names and a greeting to my wife on a post card, and
an old man at the next table ordered a bottle of wine, in which we all
drank the health of the Allies, and a party at another table began to
sing, and went on singing for nearly an hour. We stayed in that
restaurant talking till eleven p.m., when the lights were turned out,
and then my friends demanded that we should make another "giro
artistico," which terminated beneath Trajan's Column, where in the warm
air we sat and talked for half an hour more, and separated about
midnight, I having had eight hours of continuous practice in the use of
the second person singular of Italian verbs.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next day I lunched with my friends the Marinis, at their charming Villa
on Monte Parioli, and in the afternoon Signor Marini offered to act as
my guide to places of interest. We took the tram to the Piazza del
Popolo, which was laid out in 1810 under the French Empire, perfectly
circular and symmetrical, thus differing from the more Italian of Roman
Piazzas, such as the elongated and quite unsymmetrical Piazza di Spagna.
We passed along the broad embankment beside the Tiber and through the
Square of St Peter's. Just outside the gates of the Vatican, my guide
pointed out to me the little shabby building occupied by the Giordano
Bruno Society, symbolic of the brave defiance thrown out, all down the
ages, by poverty and the spirit of freedom and intellectual honesty, in
the face of wealth and power and oppression, intellectual bondage and
the dead weight of tradition.

My guide thought that, out of the wreck of her material defeat and
disaster, Russia would perhaps give a new spiritual religion to the
western world, to take the place of old forms now dead, and historic
organisations which, having lacked the audacity and the wisdom to remain
poor when riches were within easy reach, had now become visibly and
irremediably detached from the life of the people. He did not fear, as
some did for France, a clerical revival in Italy after the war. For the
Italian branch of clerical power had shown itself in the hour of Italy's
deadly peril to be largely lacking in Italian patriotism, and to have
been scheming for the maintenance, if not the expansion, of Austrian
dominion, and, perhaps, for the re-establishment by the aid of Austrian
and German bayonets, or Turkish, if it had been necessary to solicit
them, of the Temporal Power of the Papacy over Italian citizens and
Italian soil. I saw one of the Swiss mercenaries of the Papacy gazing
forth a little contemptuously through a door of the Vatican upon the
secular outer world.

From St Peter's we drove up the Janiculum, stopping on the way at the
convent of S. Onofrio, where Tasso passed the last three weeks of his
life and where a Tasso Museum has been accumulated. Very admirable is
the equestrian statue of Garibaldi on the Janiculum, both as sculpture
and for its details of intention, such as that sideways turning of his
head, looking down hill at the Vatican, as though saying, "Non ti
dimentico,"--"I do not forget you, my old enemy." The view of Rome from
this point is magnificent, the best that I have seen, though the view
from the Pincio only just falls short of it.

Thence, passing outside the old city walls through the Porta San
Pancrazio, we stood on ground made memorable by Garibaldi's defence of
the Roman Republic in 1849, and went down, past the. Pope's monument to
the French who died fighting to defend his Temporal Power against the
Garibaldini, into the beautiful garden of the Villa Pamfili. "Attendono
il finale risorgimento,"[1] says the Pope's Italian version on the
monument. It is an ironical phrase in view of the history of the next
twenty years. "They did not have long to wait," I said, "a bird in the
hand is worth two in the bush." And my guide said, I thought well, of
the French that they are a people of great gifts and of most generous
mind, but that their rulers have often showed "un po' di volubilità, un
po' di fantasia."

[Footnote 1: "They await the final resurrection." But "risorgimento" to
most Italians suggests modern history more than theology.]

We visited last of all the Depôt of the Bersaglieri in Trastevere, where
is also the famous Bersagliere Museum. Here we were received and shown
round with great courtesy by the Colonel commanding the Depôt, a
handsome man with most sad eyes, but full of great regimental pride in
this creation, intimately and characteristically Italian, of General La
Marmora.

In the Museum, among much that was trivial, I found much that was
interesting and even deeply moving: the relics of Enrico Toti, an artist
who, having only one leg, joined the Bersaglieri Ciclisti as a volunteer
at the beginning of the war, and rode up mountain tracks on a bicycle
with a single pedal, and died, after acts of the greatest heroism and
after sustaining for many hours grave wounds, crying with his last
breath "Avanti Savoia!", upon whose dead body and brave departed spirit
was conferred the most rare Gold Medal for Valour; photographs of all
the Bersaglieri, who since the foundation of the Regiment have won the
Gold Medal, some twenty of them, hanging together on one wall, all dead
now; the steel helmet of a Bersagliere Major, killed on the Carso, while
leading his men; this is all that they found of him, but it has three
holes through the front, sufficient proof, said the Colonel, that he was
not going backward when he died; a menu card, signed by all the officers
of a Bersagliere Battalion, who dined together on the eve of the
victorious action of Col Valbella last January, in which they played a
worthy part.

The Colonel told me that his own son was killed and is buried beyond the
Isonzo, near Cervignano. It had been suggested to him that he should
have the body brought home, but he preferred to leave it where it fell.
"C'è un' idea che è morta lì," he said, "It is an idea which has died
there. Some day, if I live, I shall make a pilgrimage thither, but the
Austrians may, by now, have destroyed the grave."

Outside in the courtyard, where the Colonel took leave of us, I saw many
young Bersaglieri, the latest batches of recruits, mere boys. "They are
splendid material," he said, with a military pride, not without a
half-regretful tenderness, "one can make anything out of them." They
were, indeed, incomparable human stuff, whether for the purposes of
peace or war. They seemed to have the joy of the spring in their eyes,
just as that middle-aged Regular soldier had in his the sadness of
autumn. And amid all the beauty of Rome in the spring, I was haunted by
the grim refrain, "Nella primavera si combatte e si muore, o
soldato,"--"In the springtide men fight and die, young soldier."

       *       *       *       *       *

I went away from Rome strengthened in my previous judgment that the
Italians are not a militarist nation. There was no sign of the
militarist, as distinct from the military, spirit at the Bersagliere
Depôt. The relations of the Colonel and Signer Marini illustrated this.
They had never met, nor, I think, heard of one another before. Yet this
little civilian seemed to find it quite natural to march into a military
barracks without any preliminary inquiries, to walk upstairs and
straight into the Commanding Officer's office and, not finding the
Commanding Officer there, to send a message into the Officer's Mess,
and, the Commanding Officer having come out, to present his card,
without any appearance of servility or undue deference, and to ask to be
taken round. And the Colonel seemed to see nothing odd in these
proceedings, but placed himself at once at our disposal and showed us
everything and talked without aloofness and without reserve to both of
us. I could not help thinking that things would not have happened quite
like this at the Depôt of a crack regiment in most other European
capitals.



CHAPTER XXXII

THE FIFTEENTH OF JUNE, 1918

I happened to be the officer on duty in the Battery Command Post on the
night of June 14th-15th. There had been a thick fog for several days and
not much firing. No one expected anything unusual. The Battery was much
below strength owing to the ravages of what the doctors in the mountains
called "mountain fever" and the doctors on the plain called influenza.
We had, if I remember rightly, about forty men in Hospital owing to this
cause alone. I myself had a touch of it, but, thinking I could probably
count on a quiet night, I refused the offer of a brother officer to take
my place, coldly calculating that a few nights later, when it would be
my turn to take his duty, I might have more to do. But my hopes of much
sleep were soon dispersed.

Orders came in from Brigade for an elaborate counter-battery shoot with
gas shell, in two parts, one between 11 p.m. and midnight, the other
between 2 and 3 a.m. We had never fired gas shell from six-inch
howitzers before, though we had been warned that we should soon be
required to do so. We had no gas shell in the Battery, but we were
informed by Brigade that a sufficient quantity would arrive by the time
the shoot was to begin. In fact, however, the first consignment of gas
shell was not delivered in time to enable us to take part in the first
part of the bombardment, and I was told not to fire high explosive
instead, as that would tend to disperse the gas which other Batteries
would be simultaneously firing on the same targets. The method adopted
on this and later occasions, when gas was used, was that a number of our
own Batteries should concentrate for, say, five minutes at the fastest
rate of fire possible on a particular enemy Battery, then all switch
together to another enemy Battery, and so on, all coming back together
on to the first enemy Battery after an interval sufficient to lull the
human elements forming part of the target into a delusive sense of
security and a return to slumber without their masks, or, alternatively,
to make them wear their masks continously for prolonged hours of
expectation, thus subjecting them to much discomfort, depriving them of
sleep, lowering their morale, and making them likelier victims for fresh
forms of devilment in the morning. War is a filthy thing, and must be
stamped out ruthlessly. The facts of gas will have helped to drive this
simple conviction into many a thick, egotistical, unsensitive head. But,
as has been wisely said, you cannot half make a war of the modern sort,
you cannot let a faint savour of regret hang about all your actions, and
enervate your will. And, in plain, brutal truth, our employment of gas
was a big factor in determining and hastening the end. Of the military
efficiency of our gas tactics we had much evidence later on.

We joined in the second part of the gas bombardment in the early hours
of the 15th of June, and, when this was nearly over, I got orders to
fire at my leisure ten rounds of high explosive at "Archibald," which
was our code name for a certain Austrian searchlight, which used to
sweep round the country from the summit of Monte Mosciagh on the far
side of the Plateau. So I fired the ten rounds, and the officer at one
of the O.P.'s, whom I had previously warned of my intention, reported
that Archibald had gone out after the fourth round, and that, judged by
the flashes of their explosions, all the rounds had seemed pretty near.
It was now nearly half-past three, and, conscious that I had a high and
rising temperature, I determined to lie down and get a few hours' sleep.
Some of the gas shell which had been intended for the first part of the
bombardment, but had arrived about four hours too late, was still being
unloaded from lorries on the road outside. But I asked a Corporal to
look after this, and send the unloading party to bed as soon as they had
finished.

I had just fallen asleep when the Corporal awakened me. Were the men, he
asked, to go on unloading the shell? Still half asleep, I asked why not?
He said that the road was being shelled. I pulled myself together and
went to the door of the Command Post. Not only the road, but the whole
Battery position and apparently the whole area for some distance round,
was being bombarded very violently. So I ordered every one to take
cover. It was just 3.45 a.m.

I thought for a moment that this was merely Austrian retaliation for our
first use of gas and for the shots at Archibald. In fact, it was the
beginning of the big Austrian offensive, which had long been
prearranged. During the last few days the Austrians had brought up a
large number of new guns to our sector, and had placed a number of them
right out in the open. And owing to the thick fog our airmen had been
able to see nothing. The bombardment continued with great fury for
several hours, with guns of all calibres, but fortunately mostly small,
with shrapnel, high explosive, and gas, chiefly lacrimatory, but mixed
with a certain quantity of lethal. Luckily we had pretty good cover,
mainly _caverne_ blasted in the rock. The Command Post itself was proof
against anything less than a direct hit from a pretty heavy shell. It
was also supposed to be gas proof, but was not. I collected about half a
dozen men in it who had nowhere else to go, including two A.S.C. lorry
drivers.

Early on, a young Bombardier was hit rather badly in the leg just
outside. We brought him into the Command Post, bandaged his wound and
laid him on the camp bed, on which I had been hoping to get some sleep,
and there left him till the shelling should abate and it should be
reasonably safe to carry him to the dressing-station a quarter of a mile
away. He lay there, I remember, looking like a little tired cherub, and
another Bombardier sat beside him and tried to persuade him to go to
sleep. They were very great friends, those two boys, both signallers,
and inseparable both on and off duty. The one who was not wounded went
out that same morning and spent hours repairing telephone lines under
very heavy fire, for which act he won the Military Medal. The other,
months later, when his wound was healed and he had returned to the
Battery, also won the Military Medal for gallantry on the Piave.

The conduct of the two lorry drivers afforded a strong contrast in
psychology. One, a man of middle age, was superbly cheerful. "They can't
keep this up much longer," he said several times with a placid smile,
"they haven't the stuff to do it." The other, though younger, was a
bunch of visible nerves. A shell exploded just behind the Command Post
and violently shook the whole structure and a storm of stones hit the
log framework. He collapsed on the floor, and was convinced for a couple
of minutes that he had been hit, and for some time after that he was
suffering from shell shock.

Such illusions come easily at such times. A gas shell made a direct hit
on one of our smaller dug-outs. A Sergeant inside was badly gassed. They
put him for the moment in a gas-proof shelter, higher up the hill, and
several hours later I saw him being carried away on a stretcher,
apparently lifeless. But he finally pulled through. A gunner who was
with him in the dug-out came running into the Command Post crying out
that he also was gassed. I made him lie flat on the floor, and told him
to keep as quiet as he could. And then I watched his breathing. It was
clear after a minute or two that, if he had had a breath of gas at all,
it was only of the slightest. But, when I told him this, he was very
unwilling to believe me. Another man was hit just outside, and lay on
the ground screaming like an animal in pain. Him, too, we carried into
the Command Post, and, later, on a stretcher to the dressing station.

Meanwhile all the telephone lines had gone owing to the shelling,
cutting us off from Brigade, other Batteries and O.P.'s. But
intermittent communication was maintained by runners, and signallers
were out, hour after hour, mending breaks in the line and showing their
invariable gallantry. Till about six o'clock our orders were to lie
low, to keep under cover and not to open fire. The rain of shells
continued without slackening. We were wonderfully lucky to get off as
lightly as we did. It is one of the most extraordinary phenomena of war,
how many shells can fall in a position of no great size, and yet do very
little damage. It was estimated, and I think quite soberly, that at
least two thousand rounds were pumped into our Battery position that
morning.

It was soon after six that we got orders, passed along from the next
Battery up the road, to open fire on our "counter-preparation target."
This was a sign that the advance of the Austrian Infantry had either
begun, or was thought to be imminent. They attacked, in fact, about a
quarter to seven on our sector. Their synchronising was faulty, as
between the different sectors attacked. Some went forward earlier and
others later than had been intended. They were all newly equipped and
were carrying full packs and blankets on their backs. They had been told
by their officers that this was to be the last great offensive of the
war, that they were going to drive us headlong down the mountain side,
that after two days they would be in Verona, and after ten days in Rome.
They were not told that they had British troops in front of them. They
came forward bravely and with great determination, in five successive
waves.

On the British left Divisional Front, to the west of us, they gained a
large initial success, and pushed us back well behind our first line of
guns. Here for some time the situation looked serious. But next day
strong counter-attacks by British and Italian troops restored the line,
our lost guns were retaken and the retreating Austrians suffered great
slaughter and demoralisation.

On the British right Divisional Front, in support of which our Brigade
was operating, the British 23rd Division fought a fight worthy of their
high reputation. Forced back for a while from their front line trenches,
after a prolonged and intense bombardment and by an overwhelming
superiority of numbers, they never even fell back to their support line.
But, turning on the enemy who was advancing along and astride the San
Sisto road, they drove him back and re-established their own front line
within six hours of the first attack. It was here that a boy Colonel, a
Sherwood Forester scarcely twenty-one years old, won the V.C. and fell
severely wounded. When things looked black, he had organised the defence
and the subsequent counter-attack, collecting together British
Infantrymen of several Battalions, together with British Artillerymen
and Italian Machine-Gunners and Engineers, welding them into a coherent
force and making swift, yet well thought out, dispositions which did
much to save the situation.

On the right of the British, the French Infantry, though furiously
assaulted, never, I believe, budged an inch. On the right of the French,
the Italians were momentarily driven from Col Valbella, Col del Rosso
and Col d'Echele, which they had won in January, but retook all three a
few days later.

But we in the Battery knew nothing of all this at the time. We knew only
that we had to open fire on our counter-preparation target. The gunpit
of our No. 1 gun near the cross-roads was in low-lying ground, now so
full of gas that one could hardly see one's hand before one's face.
Fortunately we could achieve the rate of fire required by using three
guns only, so we left No. 1 out of action for the time. The enemy's
bombardment, as far as we were concerned, was beginning to slacken a
little, but was still heavy. The Major, out on the road with a signaller
mending wire, was hit in the face with shrapnel. It turned out, happily,
not a serious wound, but at the time it looked less hopeful. He went
down the mountains in the same Field Ambulance with the young Colonel of
the Sherwood Foresters, of whom I have already spoken.

There was an abandoned Field Ambulance in the road, half in the ditch,
with the engine still running. The driver had found the shelling too hot
to stay. There was no one inside it, but we got a couple of stretchers
from it. And we had need of them. No. 4 gun, my own gun, which was
nearest to the road, suffered most severely. Seven of the detachment on
this gun were hit, not all at once but, what is apt to be much more
demoralising, at intervals of a few minutes. A Bombardier was in charge
of the gun that day, no senior N.C.O.'s being available. He showed a
very wonderful coolness and courage. Shells were bursting all round the
gunpit, and sometimes in the gunpit itself. But the rate of fire never
slackened. Every now and again the cry was heard "another casualty on
No. 4!" and stretcher bearers would start down the road from the Command
Post. But, each time, almost before they had started, came the deep
report of another round fired. No casualties and no shelling could
silence her. At one time this Bombardier had only two other men to help
him work the gun. And both of them were as undismayed as he. He won the
Military Medal for his gallantry that day, and I was very proud of him
and of No. 4.

The Brigade Chaplain appeared in the course of the morning and gave a
hand in carrying the wounded away on stretchers. It was outside his
official work and I give him all credit and respect for the help he gave
us. But one N.C.O. in the Battery, with the plain speaking that comes
naturally in the face of common danger, said to him, "Well, Sir, we
never thought much of you before, either as a man or as a preacher, but
we're glad to see you here to-day doing your bit."

The Austrian gunners had a fine sense of discrimination in their
targets. The wooden hut, in which I and two of my brother officers used
to sleep, had been hit two or three times that day, and much of our kit
had been destroyed. So had both volumes of Morley's _Rousseau_, which
were on a shelf over my bed, leaving behind only a few torn and
scattered pages. Much damage had also been done to a collection of
Pompeian photographs of great historical interest. But Baedeker's
_Northern Italy_, which lay alongside, had not been touched!

       *       *       *       *       *

The God of Battles also discriminates delicately. He takes the best and
leaves the worst behind. There died that day, struck by a shell at the
foot of our tree O.P. on Cima del Taglio, one of the finest
personalities in the Battery, a signalling Bombardier who had worked for
some years on a railway in America and, just before the war, as a
railway clerk in the Midlands. He was the father of a young family,
thoughtful and capable, and loyal without subservience to those of
higher military rank, in so far as he judged them to be worthy of his
loyalty. I remember one night at the beginning of the year, when we were
keeping watch together among the snows at Col d'Astiago, with the sky
cold and clear and full of stars, and when he and I talked in complete
understanding and agreement of the waste of war and the deeper purposes
of life and the need to build up a better world. Now he is buried in the
beautiful Baerenthal Valley, along which runs the road from Pria dell'
Acqua to San Sisto and Asiago.

As that day ended, which the Italians always afterwards spoke of as "il
giorno quindici" (the fifteenth day), the firing on both sides in our
sector slackened, though our guns were seldom silent for more than an
hour at a time, and the Austrians still carried out sudden bursts of
vicious fire in our neighbourhood. But that night, and the next day and
the next, we began to get through information of what had been happening
all along the line. And when, a week later, the whole tale could be
told, it was evident that no great offensive on any Front during this
war, prepared with so great elaboration and carried out with so great
resources, had ever quite so blankly failed, as the great Austrian
offensive from the Astico to the Sea. And the effect upon the
self-confidence and morale of the Italian Army and of the Allied
contingents was correspondingly great. For, to speak frankly, this
offensive had been awaited with much apprehension and anxiety, with the
memory of Caporetto not yet faded and in view of the success of the
German offensive in France.



CHAPTER XXXIII

IN THE TRENTINO

The Austrian offensive on the mountain sector, from the Astico to Monte
Grappa, had been obviously and decisively broken by the 18th of June.
But there was still danger on the plain, particularly in the Montello
sector, where the Austrians were established in strong force west of the
Piave. A flying Brigade of British Heavy Artillery was hurriedly formed
and sent down the mountains. Of this Brigade my own Battery formed part.
Our general function was to reinforce the Italian Artillery in what was
at the moment the most critical sector of the whole Front, our
particular function to destroy by shell fire the Piave bridges behind
the Austrian troops. But when we arrived we found that the emergency had
already passed. The bridges had already been destroyed by airmen and
Italian Artillery, and the Austrian forces had either been driven back
across or into the river by Italian counter-attacks, or had been cut off
and compelled to surrender. We, therefore, came back to the Plateau
without firing a round.

But we did not remain there long. The idea of a mobile Artillery of
manoeuvre was much talked of at this time, and early in July a Brigade
consisting of three British Siege Batteries, my own included, was moved
westwards up into the Trentino. We travelled all the way by road,
through Verona up to Brescia, "the eagle that looks over Lombardy," and
thence beside Lake Idro, up the Val Chiese, past Storo into the Val
D'Ampola.

All this last stretch of country is famous in Italian history as the
scene of Garibaldi's campaign of 1866, which, had it not been
interrupted by the course of events elsewhere, would probably have
hastened the liberation of Trento by more than half a century, and
greatly modified the problems of Italian policy in recent years. The
story is well known of the recall of Garibaldi, which reached him at the
moment of victory at Bezzecca, and of his famous reply, a model of
laconic self-discipline, in the one word "Ubbidisco"--"I obey." The
little town of Bezzecca lay this July behind the Italian lines, but in
full view and easy range of the Austrians. A company of Arditi was
billeted here, with whom I lunched one day, returning from a front line
reconnaissance. The Piazza had been renamed by the Italians "Piazza
Ubbidisco," and under cover of darkness they set up one night on the
mountain side just above the town a memorial stone to Garibaldi and his
volunteers of 1866, a provocative target for Austrian gunners.

No other British troops, except these three Batteries of ours, ever
fought in the Trentino. It was a proud distinction and a very memorable
experience. The natural scenery was superb, a series of great mountain
ranges, uneven lines of jagged peaks, enclosing deep cut valleys, the
lower slopes of the mountains densely wooded, the higher levels bare
precipitous rock. The Austrian front line ran along one ridge of peaks
and ours along another; between ran a deep valley, all No Man's Land,
into which patrols used to climb down at night, often with the aid of
ropes. One mountain mass, a continuation of Cima d'Oro, was partly in
our possession and partly in theirs, and up there by night among the
rocks patrols grappled for the mastery, poised high above the world, and
in these struggles men sometimes slipped, or were thrown, to crash to
death thousands of feet below in the Val di Ledro.

This country was Austrian before the war, though inhabited wholly by
Italians, and Italian troops had conquered it with extraordinary feats
of endurance and daring in their first great onrush all along their old
frontiers in the spring of 1915. But now a big advance here by either
side, in the face of carefully prepared opposition, seemed almost
inconceivable, except as the result of some wide turning movement,
hinging on some point many miles away.

The special military problems presented by warfare in such country were
numerous and difficult. Our guns had to be dragged into position up a
rough mountain track, which at some points was too narrow and at others
too weak to allow the passage of a six-inch howitzer without much
preliminary blasting and building up. Our first gun to go up took
twenty-four hours of continuous labour between the time of starting up
the track and the time of arriving in position, a distance of only about
two miles of zig-zag. No tractor or other power engine could be used
here. The only force available was that of men hauling on drag ropes,
and a party of sixty Italian gunners reinforced our men.

What may be called the problems of pure gunnery were still more
difficult. British Heavy guns had never fired under such conditions
before and, for the benefit of such of my readers as may be practical
Artillerymen, it may be interesting to remark that for one of our
targets the angle of sight, properly so called, worked out at more than
twenty degrees, while the map-range elevation was only about fifteen.
The devising of an accurate formula for correction of elevation for a
large "_dislivello_," as the Italians shortly call it, which in English
means a large "difference of level" between a gun and its target, is one
of the most intricate problems of theoretical gunnery, or, for that
matter, of theoretical mechanics, involving, among other factors, the
various shapes and sizes of projectiles, their comparative steadiness
during flight, the resistance of the air, and the effect of other
atmospheric conditions and of the force of gravity.

There was a splendid opportunity for systematically testing various
rival formulae in the Trentino, but it was allowed to slip. Among
gunners, as among other classes, and especially among Regular Army
gunners, the so-called practical man sees little value in scientific
experiments, which do not produce large, obvious and quick returns. We
fired many hundred rounds in the Trentino and I have no doubt that they
were tolerably effective. But most of them were fired at night, with no
observation possible, and we were often restricted in our registrations
by daylight to four rounds a section per target, from which no really
reliable conclusions could be drawn.[1]

[Footnote 1: We could get no help from Italian range tables, which were
not merely for different guns and ammunition, but were drawn up on
different principles from our own.]

       *       *       *       *       *

We were billeted in the village of Tiarno di Sotto, where the Mayor
under the Austrian regime, an Italian by race, was still carrying on his
duties. "But I shall have to disappear, if the Austrians ever come
back," he said with a smile. It was a tremendous climb from our billets
to get anywhere, the least tremendous being to our Battery position,
straight up the nearest mountain side. A very active and energetic man
could get up in a quarter of an hour. It used to take me twenty minutes.
The weather, moreover, was hot, though considerably cooler than on the
plains.

Some Czecho-Slovaks were billeted in the next house to ours, but, owing
to lack of a common language, we were unfortunately unable to talk to
them. They were well-built fellows, and gave one an impression of great
tenacity and intelligence. And I know that they were fine fighters. But
they had not the gaiety of the Italians, partly perhaps because they
were exiles in a strange land, and must so remain till the day of final
victory, which might then have seemed still infinitely remote. An
amusing incident happened one evening. Four officers had deserted from
the Austrian lines and surrendered to the Czecho-Slovaks; it was one of
their military functions to induce surrenders. Two of these officers
were themselves Czecho-Slovaks, the third a Jugo-Slav and the fourth an
Italian from Istria. They were very hungry and were in the midst of a
good meal, in the presence of a Czecho-Slovak guard, when a Corporal and
two gunners from our Battery, passing outside the house and hearing some
language being spoken within, which they recognised to be neither
English not Italian, rightly thought it their duty to enter and
investigate the matter. The deserters were astonished to see these
unfamiliar looking persons, speaking a strange tongue and wearing a
uniform which they had never seen before. But they were still more
astonished to learn that they were British. They seemed hardly to be
aware that the British were at war with Austria, much less that any
British troops had been within hundreds of miles of them. The incident
closed in much mirth and friendliness.

In the village were also billeted many Italian troops, who used to fill
the night with song, long after most of us had gone to bed:--

   "'Addio, mia bell', addio!'
    Cantava nel partir la gioventù,"

which is never very far from the lips of any Italian soldier, and those
endless _stornelli_, which to an invariable tune they multiply from day
to day.

   "II General Cadorna
    Mangiava la bifstecca;
    Ai poveri soldati
    Si dava castagna secca,"[1]

[Footnote 1: "General Cadorna used to eat beefsteak. To the poor
soldiers they gave dried chestnuts."]

or

   "Il Re dal fronte Giulio
    Ha scritto alla Regina,
    'Arrivato a Trieste
    Ti manderò una cartolina,'"[1]

[Footnote 1: "The King has written to the Queen from the Julian Front
'when I get to Trieste, I will send you a picture post card.'"]

with its sardonic variant or sequel,

   "Il General Cadorna
    Ha scritto alla Regina
    'Se vuoi veder Trieste,
    Compra una cartolina.'"[1]

[Footnote 1: "General Cadorna has written to the Queen, 'if you want to
see Trieste, buy a picture post card.'"]

Many of the others are for various reasons unprintable, though many are
extremely witty and amusing. Even those which I have quoted were
nominally forbidden by the High Command to be sung, but the prohibition
was not very rigorously enforced. And General Cadorna, after all, had
now passed into history. Of his successor I never heard any evil sung,
though I remember once hearing a great crowd of soldiers and civilians
at Genoa shouting monotonously.

"Viva, viva il Generale Dia!"

The refrain of the _stornelli_ was onomatopoeic, and was intended to
represent the sound of gunfire.

   "Bim Bim Bom,
    Bim Bim Bom,
    Al rombo del cannon."

       *       *       *       *       *

What a theatrical country Italy is! I remember being out in the streets
of Tiarno one evening with a stream of song issuing from almost every
house, and looking up at the full moon riding high over the towering
peaks that locked in our valley and all but shut out the night sky. I
could hardly believe that it was neither a stage setting nor a dream.

I remember another day, when I did a great climb above Bezzecca to carry
out a front line reconnaissance, and arrived limp and perspiring to
lunch at the Headquarters of an Italian Artillery Group, high, high up,
looking out upon a glorious and astounding view. And in the afternoon I
took my first ride on a _teleferica,_ or aerial railway, slung along a
steel rope across the deeps, seated on a sort of large wooden tea tray,
some six feet long and two and a half across, with a metal rim some six
inches high running round the edge. I was quite prepared to be sick or
at least giddy. But I was pleasantly disappointed. My journey took about
a quarter of an hour; walking it would have taken about three hours of
very stiff climbing. The motion is quite steady, except for a slight
jolt as one passes each standard, and, provided one sits still and
doesn't shift one's centre of gravity from side to side, there is no
wobbling of the tea tray. And looking down from time to time I saw tree
tops far below me, and men and mules on mountain tracks as black specks
walking.

       *       *       *       *       *

There were various theories to account for our being sent to the
Trentino. One was that an Austrian attack was feared there, another that
an Italian attack was intended, but that the intention was afterwards
abandoned, a third that the whole thing was a feint to puzzle the
Austrians. But in any case we did not remain there long. By the
beginning of August we were back on the Plateau. On the return journey,
which was again by road all the way, we were given three days' rest at
Desenzano and I was able to spend half a day in Verona.



CHAPTER XXXIV

SIRMIONE AND SOLFERINO

"Leave is a privilege and not a right," according to a hack quotation
from the King's Regulations. This quotation has done good service in the
mouth of more than one Under Secretary of State for War, heading off
tiresome questioners in the British House of Commons. Leave was a very
rare privilege for the British Forces in Italy. In France, taking a
rough average of all ranks and periods, British troops got leave once a
year. In my Battery in Italy, the majority were without leave home for
nineteen months. How much longer they would have had to wait, if the war
had not conveniently come to an end in the nineteenth month of their
Italian service, I do not know. Even in Italy, of course, the privilege
was extended somewhat more freely to junior regimental officers and much
more freely to Staff officers and Lieutenant-Colonels, in view of the
danger of brain fag and nervous strain following upon their greater
mental exertions and their abnormal exposure to shell fire and the
weather. The former class went home about every eleventh, the latter
about every third month.

The French Parliament fairly early in the war, with that gross lack of
discrimination and of military understanding habitual to politicians,
insisted on the granting of leave every three months to all ranks in all
theatres of war. The Italian Parliament pedantically laid down a uniform
period of six months. The British Parliament, with the sure political
instinct of our race, preferred to leave the whole matter in the hands
of the War Office. The interference in purely military affairs of
unpractical sentimentalists was strongly discouraged at Westminster.

Why no leave to England could be granted except in special cases, was
cogently explained from time to time during the summer in circulars
written by Staff officers of high rank, who had frequent opportunities
of informing themselves of the realities of the situation, while
visiting London. These circulars were read out on parade and treated
with the respect which they deserved. To allay possible, though quite
unreasonable, unrest, it was determined to open a British Club, or Rest
Camp, at Sirmione, which, as every reader of Tennyson knows, stands on
the tip of a long promontory at the southern end of Lake Garda. Here a
week's holiday was granted to a large proportion of the officers and a
small proportion of the rank and file. Many officers went there more
than once. Two large hotels were hired, which had been chiefly
frequented before the war by corpulent and diseased Teutons, for whom a
special course of medical treatment, including sulphur baths, used to be
prescribed.

One of these hotels was now set apart for British officers, the other
for men. A funny little person in red tabs was put in charge; there were
various speculations as to his past activities, but all agreed that he
had got into a good job now, and wasn't going to lose it, if tact could
prevent it. This little man used to stand outside the hotel gates as
each week's guests arrived from the steamer, and always had a cheery
smile of welcome for every Field officer; to General officers he showed
special attentions. He took his meals in the same room as the rest of
us, but at what was known as "the Staff table," where he invited to join
him any officers of high rank, who might be staying at the hotel, or, if
there were none such available, certain of his private friends. The food
supplied to ordinary people like myself was good, wholesome, reasonably
plentiful and cheap. At "the Staff table" special delicacies were
provided and additional courses, with no increase of charge. The
profits, he used to say, were made entirely on the drinks and smokes.

A series of rules was drawn up, that none of us might be led into any
avoidable temptation. All towns within reach,--Milan, Verona, Mantua,
Brescia, Peschiera,--were placed out of bounds. So, too, were some of
the larger villages on the shores of the Lake. The hours during which
alcoholic liquor might be obtained, either in the Hotels or in the Cafes
of Sirmione, were narrowly limited. Beer was strictly rationed.
Carefully regulated excursions on the Lake, by steamer or launch, were
permitted and even encouraged. Likewise bathing.

I spent a week here, from August 14th to 21st, in gloriously fine, hot
weather. Some said that the damp heat was relaxing and depressing, but
I, in my second Italian summer, was getting acclimatised. The place was
wonderfully beautiful. The end of the promontory is covered with olive
trees, the ground thickly carpeted with wild mint and thyme, surrounded
on three sides by the deep blue water of the Lake, along the shores of
which lie little white villages, backed by groups of straight, dark
cypresses, with mountain ranges rising in the background, range behind
range, and overhead the hot Italian sun, shining from a cloudless sky.
Here, at the point, were the ruins of what are called, upon what
evidence I know not, the Villa, the Baths and the Grotto of Catullus.
Here, too, was an Italian Anti-Aircraft Battery, and the Grotto of
Catullus was filled with their ammunition.

The Austrians still held the upper end of the Lake, including the town
of Riva. But only Italian motor boats now survived on the Lake,
occasionally raiding Riva. The Austrian boats had all been sunk early in
the war.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 15th I went round the lower end of the Lake in a steamer and,
passing along the shores of the beautiful Isola di Garda, on which
stands the less beautiful Villa Borghese, landed at Maderno, famous for
its lemon groves. Here a church was being used as a ration store. It had
fine carving on the door. The French had established Artillery and
Machine Gun Schools close to the Lake and several of their officers were
on the steamer.

On the 16th I went with a young officer from a Yorkshire Battalion, a
most agreeable companion, to Desenzano, which was out of bounds. We
played billiards and lunched, and in the afternoon went to sleep on the
grass in the shade beside the Lake. We were driven back in a carrozza
along the promontory by an old Garibaldino, a Capuan by birth, who in
1860 at the age of eleven joined Garibaldi, when he crossed from Sicily
to the mainland, and held older people's horses at the Battle of the
Volturno. He served with the Fifth Garibaldini in the Trentino campaign
of 1866 and knew intimately the country where I had lately been, the Val
d'Ampola and Storo, Tiarno and Bezzecca. He then joined the Italian
Regular Army, and in 1870 was a Corporal in the Pavia Brigade. He was
present at the taking of Rome and claimed that, although an Infantryman,
he helped to load one of the guns which breached the Porta Pia. If this
claim be true, there must have been either a lack of gunners on this
famous occasion, or a certain degree of enthusiastic confusion. Having
entered Rome, he got very drunk and absented himself from his Regiment
without leave for three days. As a punishment he was made to march on
foot, carrying a full pack, from Rome to Padua. He showed us his old
military pay-book, his medals and other souvenirs. Next year he will be
seventy years old and will begin to draw a pension. Having returned to
Sirmione, we arranged with him to drive us next day to the neighbouring
battlefields of 1859, San Martino and Solferino. Much delighted, he
assured me, quite without necessity, that next day he would put on his
best clothes, would wash and shave, and give his horse an extra bit of
grooming.

Accordingly next morning at ten o'clock we started off again in the
carrozza. We visited first San Martino della Battaglia, only a few miles
from the southern end of the Lake. This was the northern extremity of
the battlefield of Solferino. It was here that the Sardinians and
Piedmontese, forming the left wing of the Franco-Italian Army, attacked
and drove back the Austrian right wing. A memorial tower has been
erected here, 250 feet high, with great avenues of cypresses radiating
outwards from it. The custodian is a handsome boy, who lost a leg at the
taking of Gorizia two years ago. There is no stair-case within the
tower; one goes up by a spiral inclined plane. At successive stages, as
one ascends, are large and detailed paintings, running right round the
inner circumference of the tower, representing the battles of the
Italian Wars of Liberation from 1848 to 1870. As works of art they are
not of the first class, but they convey here and there a vivid sense of
life and movement, an advance of the Bersaglieri with their cocks'
feathers waving in the wind, Garibaldini in their red shirts rushing
Bomba's gunners on the Volturno, Italian cavalry charging a Battalion of
brown-coated Croats at Custozza, the defence of a fort in the Venetian
lagoons against Austrian warships.

On a fine day the view from the top is very good, but that day it was
hazy in the great heat. Close by is an Ossario, containing the skulls
and bones of seven thousand dead collected in the neighbourhood, washed
clean with white wine and set out in neat rows, the majority Italian. A
good warning, one would think, against war, and more compact and less
wasteful of space than a conventional graveyard.

Thence we drove on to Solferino, a little remote village with a single
street paved with cobble stones, seldom visited by foreign tourists. The
plaster on the walls of the farmhouses hereabouts still bears many
bullet marks. As we drove, the Garibaldino pointed out to us some of the
positions where Napoleon III.'s Generals had sited their Batteries. We
were the first British officers seen here during the war, and had an
enthusiastic reception. I was surprised to find that none of our
Regulars had come over from Sirmione, as a matter of professional
interest and duty, to study the tactics of 1859 upon the ground.

We lunched well at a small _albergo_. There were four good-looking
daughters of the house, who came and sat with us in turn and watched us
eat. They had the naturalness and simple charm of dwellers in remote
places. "Four good cows," said the Garibaldino, with the frank realism
of the South, "but all the local proprietors are too old." After lunch
my companion remained in the village, and I climbed the ridge from which
the French drove the Austrians, a very strong natural position even now.
I went up La Rocca, at its south-eastern extremity, on which stands an
old square tower, also converted into a battle memorial. Here again
there are no steps within, but an ascending spiral plane. The slopes at
this end of the ridge are thickly planted with young cypresses, and the
place will grow in beauty year by year. Even now it is well wooded, with
larger trees just below the tower. The village lies at the foot of the
slope. Just outside it, off the road on slightly rising ground at the
end of an avenue, is another and larger Ossario, containing twenty
thousand skulls and sets of bones, French and Austrian. The building is
full of banners and wreaths and memorial tablets, including one lately
sent by the French troops now fighting on the Italian Front.

   "Ceux de la grande guerre
    A ses glorieux anciens.
    1859-1918."

A few skeletons have been preserved intact, including one said to have
been an Austrian bandmaster, a giant eight feet tall. The nationality of
some of the skulls can be determined by bullets, French or Austrian,
found in the head and now attached by a string.

I stepped forth from this well-ordered tomb into the outer sunshine with
a sense of personal oppression and of human ineffectiveness. How slowly
and how clumsily do the feet of History slouch along! And yet, if
Napoleon III. had kept faith with Cavour, the fighting here might have
liberated Venetia without the necessity for another war a few years
later. How quiet and silent lie these battlefields of yesterday! Even
so, one day, will lie the pine woods round Asiago, shell-torn and
tormented now, and populous with the soldiers of many nations, yet of a
wondrous beauty in the full moonlight and the fresh night air. I shall
be back up there in three days' time!

       *       *       *       *       *

We drove back in the warm evening, by the road through Pozzolengo toward
Peschiera, along which many of the defeated Austrians fled in 1859. The
roadside was dusty, but along all the hedges the acacias still showed a
most delicate and tender green.



CHAPTER XXXV

THE ASIAGO PLATEAU ONCE MORE

During August and September we were kept pretty busy on the Plateau.
Concentrations on enemy trenches and wire and special counter-battery
shoots by day and counter-battery support of Infantry raids by night
were continually required of us. We fired high explosive by day and
chiefly gas shell at night. Our own Infantry and the French on our right
raided the enemy's front and support lines very frequently, bringing
back many prisoners. The French constantly penetrated and reconnoitred
the enemy's defensive system on Mount Sisemol. Many of us were inclined
to think that the casualties, sometimes heavy, which were incurred in
these raids, and the great quantity of ammunition shot away, were
largely wasted. We saw no sufficient return for them, beyond a certain
amount of information obtained from prisoners, much of which was of
small and doubtful value. But in view of what happened later, I think it
must be agreed that these continual raids and bombardments did their
share in gradually wearing down the morale and power of resistance of
the Austrian Army.

There was a persistent rumour that the enemy was on the point of
retiring to a line, on which he was known to be working hard, along the
lower slopes of Monte Interrotto and Monte Catz on the far side of the
Plateau. This line, we learned from prisoners, was commonly referred to
as the _Winterstellung_ (winter position). It would have been stronger,
defensively, than his existing line, and would have had the great
advantage of being able largely to be supplied and munitioned during
daylight, as there was much good cover and roads hidden in the pine
woods leading down immediately behind it. It would have involved the
moral disadvantage of evacuating the ruins of Asiago. But, with the snow
down on the Plateau, every Austrian track and foot-mark would have been
visible from our O.P.'s, and the Austrian situation, bad as it already
was from this point of view, would have become quite intolerable. If, on
the other hand, we had followed up an Austrian retreat to their
_Winterstellung_ by the occupation of Asiago and the throwing forward of
our line across the Plateau, the relative situation would have been
reversed. Our Infantry and many of our Batteries would then be out in
the open, in view from the Austrian O.P.'s, unable to light a fire by
day, and only able to send up supplies by night; and our general
situation would be so much the worse with heavy snow increasing our
discomfort and the visibility of any work we might undertake and of our
every movement.

For this reason, as has been explained in an earlier chapter, it was
taken for granted that a small advance from our present excellent line
would be worse than useless, and that only an advance at least to the
crest of the first mountain range beyond the Plateau would be of any
military value. The possibility of such an advance being attempted was
evidently still in the minds of the Staff, for our forward or Battle
Position at San Sisto had to be kept in constant readiness for
occupation, and it was suggested by some that the occasion for a big
attack would be the moment when the enemy was in the act of retiring
voluntarily to his _Winterstellung_, necessarily a somewhat difficult
and risky operation.

Meanwhile the enemy guns were not silent. They were indeed unpleasantly
active, constantly sweeping the road just behind our Battery, putting
down violent, though brief, concentrations on the cross roads at Pria
dell' Acqua, less than a hundred yards to our right, and apparently also
endeavouring to carry out occasional counter-battery shoots after our
own pattern. The British Batteries in this sector suffered a number of
casualties during this period, and one in particular, not my own, was
frequently shelled with great precision by twelve-inch howitzers, most
disagreeable weapons, firing at extreme ranges from the cover of some
distant valley. Many efforts were made to locate these particular guns,
but I am not confident that any of them were successful. Among the
victims in this Battery was Preece, a young officer who had served under
me in a Training Battery in England. He was the only son of a widowed
mother, and, had he lived, might have become a world-famous chemist. His
grave, too, is in the Baerenthal Valley.

Our own officers' Mess had several narrow escapes, especially on one
occasion when the impact of an enemy shell was broken by a trench cart
and a box of tools, only seven or eight yards away. None of the tools
were ever found again and portions of the trench cart were seen next
morning hanging on the telephone wires beside the road. Only a few
splinters came into the Mess and did no harm, all the occupants, myself
included, warned by the sound of the approaching shell, having flung
ourselves face downwards on the floor. Another frequent exercise of the
enemy at this time was night bombing, which during the full moon became
somewhat serious. But a big raid by our own airmen on the enemy
aerodrome at Borgo in the Val Sugana put an end to this source of
trouble.

I was able now and then to make short expeditions down the mountains in
the Battery car to Thiene, and sometimes even to Vicenza, for the
ostensible purpose of buying canteen and mess stores and drawing the
Battery pay. Thiene is the ugliest and dullest little town in Italy. But
Vicenza, with its exquisite Olympian theatre, and other fine Palladian
architecture, varied by many smaller buildings which are beautiful
examples of the Venetian Gothic style, with its busy and animated
Piazza, centring round the ever-crowded Café Garibaldi, and with the
wooded slope of the famous Monte Berico, rich with historic memorials,
rising behind the town, never failed to lift my mind out of the dreary
monotony of war into an atmosphere of cleaner and more enduring things.
I remember, too, the strange thrill I had one day, when, having passed
the sawmills and dumps of stores and shells and the huddle of
Headquarter offices at Granezza, I came out on the last edge of the
mountain wall, into sudden full view of the great plain below, full of
rivers and cities, and saw, for the first time from up here, the
sunlight flashing on a strip of distant golden sea. It was the lagoons
round Venice.

I spent also many interesting days about this time at our tree O.P. on
Cima del Taglio. The Italians had an O.P. in a neighbouring tree, which
they called Osservatorio Battisti. The British Field Artillery occupied
a third tree, and the French a fourth. The pine trees on that summit
were, literally, full of eyes. But the enemy never discovered any of us,
though he sometimes dropped a few stray shells in our neighbourhood. Our
own O.P. was not generally manned at night, unless some prearranged
operation was taking place, but the officer on duty had to remain within
call and slept in a log hut near the foot of the tree, in telephonic
communication with Battery and Brigade. The French and Italians also had
huts close by, and I spent several evenings playing chess with them, or
talking, or listening to the mandolin and the singing of Italian
_stornelli_. One young Italian, in particular, I remember with some
affection, a certain Lieutenant Prato, a mandolin player of great skill
and a very charming personality.

One day in September, when the news from the French Front was getting
better and better, I remember talking, on our tree top, to the Italian
officer, who was at that time acting as _liaison_ officer to our
Brigade, a member of a family well known in Milan. He knew every inch of
those mountains, now in Austrian hands, along the old Italian frontier.
His Battery had fought there in the early part of the war. He knew, too,
Gorizia and the Carso battlefields. And he was sick at heart, as every
Italian always silently was, at the memory of the retreat of last
autumn. And I remember saying that what was now happening in the Somme
country would happen soon in Italy. There, I reminded him, was a
stretch of country which we had once conquered, inch by inch, with
terrible losses and infinite heroism and insufficient Artillery, just as
Italy had conquered those positions on the Carso and on Monte Santo. And
all those gains of ours had been wiped out in a few disastrous hours
last March, as Italy's had been wiped out last October, and now we were
advancing again over that same country and beyond it, far more rapidly
and with far smaller losses than in those bloody days two years ago. And
so, I prophesied to him, would it be on this Front too. The day was
coming when Italy would win back all she had lost, and far more than she
had ever won before, far more swiftly and cheaply than in her early
brave offensives, and Austria, like Germany, would be broken in
hopeless, irretrievable defeat. He said to me then that he hoped it
might come true, but that he was less certain of the future than I. But,
two months later, when I had proved to be a true prophet, he reminded me
of that conversation of ours.



PART VI

THE LAST PHASE


CHAPTER XXXVI

THE MOVE TO THE PIAVE

The second week in October we moved down from the Plateau and lay for a
week at Mestre, within sight of Venice. One clear afternoon it looked as
though one could throw a stone across the intervening water. Every one
took for granted that a big Italian offensive was imminent. The rumour
was that it would be timed to begin, as near as possible, on the
anniversary of the defeat of Caporetto. In Italy more weight is attached
to anniversaries than with us. One felt expectation everywhere in the
air.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was during these days that I fell in with the Rumanian Legion. I had
been in Padua and saw a group of them standing on the platform at the
railway station. They were obviously not Italians. Their uniform was
similar to that of the Italian Infantry, but their collars were red,
yellow and blue, and they wore a cockade of the same three colours on
their hats. They wore Sam Browne belts, too, and carried a _pugnale_
like the Italian Arditi. I asked a Carabiniere on duty who they were.
He smiled but did not know. "Perhaps Yugo-Slavs," he suggested. One of
them overheard our conversation and came up to me saying, "Siamo Rumeni,
Legione Rumena." Then followed a tremendous fraternisation. We shook
hands all round and began to talk. We talked Italian, which, being very
like their own language, they all understood. Indeed, for an Italian
Rumanian is much easier to understand than many of the Italian local
dialects.

They were attractive people, of all ages and very friendly, rather like
Italians, but with a queer indescribable racial difference. They were
natives, mostly, of Transylvania and had much to say of the oppression
of their nationality by the Magyars. Most of them had been conscribed to
fight in the Austro-Hungarian Army, but had crossed over to the Italian
lines at the first opportunity. One said, "There are four millions of us
in Austria and Hungary." Then, with an air of restrained fury, "Is that
not enough?" Another said, "But after the war there will be a Great
Rumania--great and beautiful." And another said, "We Rumanians must be
very grateful to Guglielmone.[1] If he had not made this war, we should
not have seen the Greater Rumania in our lifetime. But now, if it was
not certain before, the blunders of Carluccio[2] have put it beyond all
doubt." And another told me that his father wrote and spoke English very
well, having lived for twelve years in America at St Louis. And another
explained to me how the Rumanians had retained, more than any other
modern nation, the speech and customs and dress and traditions of the
ancient Romans, which things they had originally derived from the
legionaries of the Emperor Trajan.[3] When we parted I said, "May we all
meet again on the field of victory beyond the Piave. Long live the
Greater Rumania!" And they all cried, "Long live England! Long live
victory!" And so I was going away, when one of them, a little fellow,
with a rather sad, earnest face, who had apparently missed a parting
handshake, ran after me about twenty yards, and seized me by the hand
and cried again, "Long live victory!"

[Footnote 1: "Big William."]

[Footnote 2: "Wretched little Charles."]

[Footnote 3: This common boast of the Rumanians is quite true. It is
partly to be accounted for by the fact that they were able to retreat
before successive invading hordes of barbarians into the inaccessible
valleys of the Carpathians, and come down again on to the plains when
the danger had passed by.]

       *       *       *       *       *

From Mestre we moved up through Treviso to a Battery position, on which
an advance party had been at work for several days. It grew more and
more certain that the offensive was coming at last. Troops of all arms
were moving forward in unending streams along every road leading toward
the Piave. Prominent among them were many Italian Engineers and bridging
detachments with great numbers of pontoons. Beyond Treviso all troop
movements took place at night, and our defensive (and offensive)
measures against aircraft were apparently sufficient to prevent the
enemy from getting any clear idea of what was going on. It seems that he
expected an attack in the mountains, but not on the plain. The Italian
High Command, on the other hand, considered that the relative strength
and morale of the opposing Armies was now such that we could attack on
the plain without fear of a successful counter-attack in the mountains,
and that, the attack on the plain once well under way, we could pass to
the offensive in the mountains also. This view of things was justified
by the events which followed. Two British Divisions were moved down to
the plain, and one was left in the mountains. The Heavy Artillery was
divided proportionately and, of my own Brigade, one Battery was left in
the mountains but the rest moved down.

Our new Battery position lay between the ruined village of Lovadina and
the river Piave, about three-quarters of a mile from the nearer bank.
There was a farmhouse, not much knocked about, close to the gun pits
and, with the aid of a few tents erected out of sight along a shallow
ditch, the whole Battery was very tolerably billeted. Another British
Battery was less than a hundred yards in rear of us, and two others not
far away on our right flank. We were once more in a land of acacia
hedges, beginning now to take on their autumn tints. For miles round us
the country was dead flat. Beyond the river we could see, on a little
rise, what was left of Susegana Castle, near to Conegliano, and on a
higher, longer ridge further away the white _campanile_ of San Daniele
del Friuli, above Udine. It was there that, almost a year ago, in the
first newspaper I saw after the retreat, I had read that Italian
rearguards were still fighting. In the far distance rose great mountain
masses. Up there were Feltre and Belluno, and behind, just visible when
the light was very bright, the peaks of Carnia and the Cadore.

It was an unaccustomed feeling, after months of comparative immunity
from observation behind mountain ridges, to be in flat country again. At
first we all felt a queer sense of insecurity whenever we walked about,
even when thick hedges manifestly screened us from enemy eyes. But the
road from Lovadina to the river bank at Palazzon, which ran right
through our position and within a few yards of our billet, was in full
view, and no movement along it was permitted during daylight. When we
first arrived we found a deep sense of gloom prevailing amongst our
advanced party. They were convinced that our position had been spotted
already, for the Austrians that morning had put down a five minutes'
concentration all round the place. Nothing much heavier than Field Guns
had been firing, but it had been lively while it lasted. It seemed
probable, however, on further inquiry, that this outburst had been
caused by the fact that an idiotic officer belonging to the Battery
immediately in rear of us had marched a working party up the road in
fours, then halted them and allowed the men to stand about in groups on
the road for several minutes. It was at these groups that the Austrians
had apparently been firing. A vigorous protest extracted from our
neighbours a promise that more common sense should be used in future.

We were to remain a silent Battery until the start of the offensive, and
this was to be dependent on the height of the river, which at that time
was in full flood owing to heavy rains in the mountains. Our guns were
well camouflaged and the chances of our detection seemed small. But one
day we had a lucky escape. It was very clear and there had been great
activity in the air on both sides all the morning. All seemed quiet
again, however, and we had the camouflage off one of our guns, and two
small parties working in the open on shelter trenches behind. A plane
was seen approaching, but the air sentry, whose duty it was to keep a
sharp look out through glasses and signal the approach of enemy aircraft
by two blasts of a whistle, gave no warning. He had been deceived by the
marking on the plane, a very thin black cross instead of the thick one
usually found on enemy aircraft. Not till it was right upon us did he
blow the whistle, and then it was too late. The plane flew very low over
us. We could see the pilot looking calmly down at our uncovered gun, and
our men trying, ineffectually and belatedly, to take cover. He certainly
took it all in and marked us down on his map. The position was 'very
easy to identify owing to the solitary farmhouse and the road close by.
A few rifle shots were fired, but they did him no harm, and he sailed
away toward the river and his own lines.

We had certainly been spotted. And then we suddenly saw another plane,
this time an Italian, coming from the left, flying high, hard in
pursuit. The Austrian began to rise, but the Italian outpaced him and
got right above him, and pressed him gradually down towards the ground.
We heard the wooden-sounding _clack-clack-clack_ of machine gun fire.
And then we saw the Austrian evidently go out of control, diving toward
the ground, more and more rapidly, and the Italian circling downwards
above him; and then the Austrian went out of sight behind the acacias
and a few moments later a column of smoke began to rise. He had crashed
in flames, just this side of the river, and his valuable information
with him. The Italian flew back over us, triumphantly and very low this
time, and waved his hand to us. And we gave him a grateful cheer.



CHAPTER XXXVII

THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST BATTLE

By the night of October 24th the river had fallen a few inches, and
British Infantry crossed in small boats to the Grave di Papadopoli, a
long island of sand in the middle of the stream. On the right a
Battalion of the Gordons crossed, rowed over by Venetian boatmen. I met
one of their officers afterwards. "Everyone of those boatmen deserved a
decoration," he said. "They were all as cool under heavy shell fire as
if they had been rowing on the Grand Canal." Our Infantry held their
preliminary positions here for two days, in spite of considerable
Austrian bombardment and counter-attacks. British aeroplanes flew over
the island and dropped rations in sandbags. Throughout the fighting of
these two days, we were standing by ready to open fire, if orders should
come. But no orders came and we remained a silent Battery.

But on the night of October 26th, half an hour before midnight, the big
bombardment opened and our guns spoke again. It was to be their last
great oration. It was, of its kind, a fine, thunderous performance, and
the Austrian reply, in our own neighbourhood, was feeble. Evidently they
had not spotted our position, thanks to that Italian airman. Our targets
were enemy Batteries and Brigade Headquarters. We fired gas shells
continuously for many hours, switching from one target to another, until
a strong wind got up, rendering gas shelling comparatively ineffective.
Then we got orders to change to high explosive. The gun detachments
worked splendidly, as always. We were below strength and could not
furnish complete reliefs, but no one spared himself or grumbled.

On the morning of the 27th, just before 7 o'clock, our Infantry
attacked, crossing from the island to the further bank of the river.
There were no bridges, and the water was breast high in some places. In
places it came right over the heads of the smaller men, but their taller
comrades pulled them through. Where the current was strongest, cables
were thrown across and firmly secured, and to these men held on, as they
forced their passage through the water.

About ten o'clock I went forward from the Battery position to the river
bank at Palazzon to ascertain the situation. A little man named Sergeant
Barini, half an Italian and half an Englishman, but serving in the
English Army and attached to our Battery, accompanied me. At Palazzon
the river was broad and, under fire, unbridgeable, and we went half a
mile down stream along what up to this morning had been our front line
trench, to the bridgehead at Lido Island. The islands in mid stream were
crowded with prisoners and wounded coming back and fresh troops going
forward, and dead bodies lay about, British and Austrian together, of
men who had fought their last fight, and two crashed aeroplanes. The
Austrians had put up elaborate barbed-wire defences on the island, but
these had been pretty well broken up by our fire.

Some enemy guns of big calibre were still shelling the crossings and
causing casualties among a Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers,
who were in reserve, waiting on the bank for the order to cross. I tried
to locate as accurately as possible the direction of these guns and
reported them by telephone to our Brigade Headquarters. I saw an
Infantry Brigadier, who said that things were going well, but asked for
some additional Artillery support for his left flank on the other side,
and, if possible, for an enemy Battery, which he thought was near
Susegana Castle, to be knocked out. I looked across the river and saw
the dense white smoke screen which our Field Guns were putting up to
cover the advance.

These Italian rivers of the Venetian Plain, fed by the melting Alpine
snows, are not at all like the Thames. Where I was, there were about
nine successive channels, varying in breadth and depth, and in between,
stones and sand and rough vegetation on islands varying in size and
shape and number with the height of the river. And it was no uncommon
thing for the river to rise or fall several feet in a night, for whole
islands to be submerged, or for whole channels to run dry. The
difficulty here of carrying out military operations according to a time
table arranged several days in advance was very great.

Over the main channels pontoons had been thrown, over others light plank
bridges, less strongly supported, through others everybody was wading.
Large bodies of Engineers, mostly Italian, were ceaselessly working at
these river crossings, and working magnificently. For not only was it
necessary to be constantly strengthening and multiplying the bridges
already made, to take the ever-increasing volume of traffic that would
be required to supply the troops across the river, but the enemy's guns
were still firing with terrible accuracy at the crossings, and swarms of
enemy planes were constantly appearing, bombing the bridges and the
islands in a last desperate effort to hold up our advance. Our planes,
too, were never far away, and succeeded in driving off or driving down
many of these attackers. But others got through and were constantly
undoing the work of the Engineers.

When we had got all the information we could, Barini and I went back to
the Battery and reported what we had heard and seen. On the way I let
myself go and spouted much cheap rhetoric, I am afraid, at the little
man. And he laughed rather nervously and thought me, I expect, a queer
companion in rather unpleasant surroundings. For several shells kicked
up great clouds of earth and stones pretty close to us. But he too, I
know, smelt victory in the air that day.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

ACROSS THE RIVER

Next day I went over the river and right on, one of the two F.O.O.'s
(forward observation officers) from my Brigade who were to establish and
maintain contact with the advancing Infantry. Three signallers and a
runner came with me, carrying rifles, bayonets and ammunition, a day's
rations and much signalling gear. The other officer had his own party.
We soon subdivided our work and separated.

The twenty-four hours of my duty do not lend themselves to a sustained
description. I passed and identified from the map one of the targets of
my Battery in the preliminary bombardment, an Austrian Battery position,
which we had bombarded for many hours with gas and high explosive
alternately. Our shooting had been accurate and deadly. The position was
a mass of shell holes. One of the guns had been blown up, a second badly
damaged. A third had been pulled out of its pit and half way up a bank
by a team of horses. The enemy had made a desperate effort to get it
away. But horses and men and fragments of men lay dead around it. It was
a well prepared position, and well concealed by trees. But Italian
airmen had spotted it, and marked it down with precision on the map,
marked it down for destruction. The enemy had done much work here. There
were fine, deep dug-outs, well timbered and weatherproof, comfortable
dwelling places in quiet times and strong enough to resist shell
splinters and even direct hits by guns of small calibre. But we had got
a direct hit on one dug-out and killed half a dozen occupants. And the
others had not been proof against our gas. They were full of corpses,
mostly victims of gas. Some were wearing their gas masks, but our gas
had gone through them. Some had apparently been gassed outside, some
with masks on and some without, and had crawled, dying, into the
dug-outs in the vain hope of finding protection there. However hardened
one may grow, by usage, to the common facts of war, few can look on such
a sight as this, without feeling a queer thrill of very mixed emotion.
My men looked with solemn faces at the work they had helped to do. One
said, "poor chaps, _they_ were pretty well done in!" And then we turned
and went on.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a very rapidly moving warfare that day. One Infantry Brigade
Headquarters, with whom I kept in intermittent touch, occupied four
successive positions, miles apart, in the course of twelve hours. About
noon I came to a ruined village, Tezze. I went on to reconnoitre it with
one signaller. In a half wrecked house we heard the voices of Italian
peasant women and saw through an open door an ugly, little, dirty child,
probably about a year old, crawling among rubbish and refuse. The
village was only just ours. On the far side of it men of the Manchester
Regiment were lining a ditch, under cover of a hedge, waiting the order
to charge. They warned me to go no further along the road which, they
said, was under enemy machine gun fire. Every few minutes enemy shells
whistled over our heads and burst in the fields and houses behind us. A
wet wind blew down the road. There was no fixed, clearly marked line.
Everything was in movement and rather uncertain....

Enemy guns, captured with their ammunition, swung round and firing at
the enemy, big guns and little guns....

On the British left the Como Brigade were advancing rapidly in spite of
pretty strong opposition. For a while our left flank had been perilously
in the air, but the danger was past now....

All the roads were thick with Austrian equipment thrown away in the
confusion of departure, rifles, steel helmets (grotesquely shaped, like
high-crowned bowler hats), ammunition, coats, packs (handsomely got up,
with furry exteriors), mail bags, maps, office stores, tin despatch
boxes, photographs of blonde girls, bayonets, hand bombs, ... everything
dead thrust into the ditches, both men and horses, the latter smelling
earlier and stronger than the former. (The more I look at dead bodies,
the more childish and improbable does the old idea of personal
immortality appear to me!) ...

At one cross-roads a huge pool of blood, mingling with and overwhelming
the mud. Here a whole transport team of heavy grey horses with wagons
had been hit and blown up. Close by, in a ditch, two British wounded lay
on stretchers, covered with blankets. One, only lightly wounded, gave us
information and directions. The other was very near to death. His face
was growing pale already, as only the faces of the dead are pale. He was
shifting feebly and ineffectually, with the vain instinct to escape
from pain. He was past speech, but he looked at us out of wide open
half-frightened eyes that seemed to question the world despairingly,
like an animal, broken helplessly in a trap....

There were some civilians wandering on the roads, liberated now but
uncertain whither to go or what place was safe, their possessions on
carts. But soon the storm of battle will have passed well beyond them
and they will be able to return to what is left of their homes. One old
woman in black, walking lame, asked me if the Austrians would come back,
and began to cry. I heard some of our soldiers saying in wonder to each
other, "did you see those civies going along the road just now?" Queer,
irrelevant creatures in the battle zone!...

Others, more fixed, liberated in their own villages, were eager to talk
and to welcome us, but a little lost with the British and their
unfamiliar ways and language, full of tales of the lack of food under
the Austrian occupation, and the robbery of all their livestock and
metal and many other things. But the retreat hereabouts had been too
rapid and involuntary for deliberate burning or destruction or
trap-setting on an appreciable scale....

That night I made my headquarters in a wrecked church, from the tower of
which I sent back signals in the morse code by means of a lamp. I slept
for an hour or two under an Austrian blanket, none too clean as it
afterwards appeared, and drank Austrian coffee and ate Austrian
biscuits....

All through that day and night and the day following the cannonading
continued, but with very variable intensity at different points and
times. Sometimes a tremendous affair, heavies, field guns and trench
mortars all pounding away together, creeping barrage, smoke screens and
the rest of it. Elsewhere and at other times, nothing, Infantry well
ahead of the guns, going forward almost into the blue, with nothing
heavier than machine guns to support them.

British Cavalry went through in the dawn, spectral, artistically
perfect, aiming at ambitious, distant objectives, Northamptonshire
Yeomanry who had come from France to Italy a year ago and had been kept
behind the lines all through the war and were having their first show at
last. The next day they suffered many casualties, but they did fine
work. Their reconnaissance officer came into the church soon after
midnight and asked me if the Austrians still held any part of the
village. I told him no, not since yesterday morning.

Later on in the morning great masses of Infantry moved up through the
village; British Infantry with a look of evident satisfaction in their
faces, but unemotional; Italian Infantry, looking usually even less
expressive, but ready to burst into electrical enthusiasm at a touch, at
a word, at a sign.... A British General, all smiles, rode past on his
horse and stopped to ask me a question or two. He tapped me playfully on
the helmet with his riding crop. "When will you get your guns across the
river?" he asked. "As soon, Sir, as the Sappers can build a bridge that
will carry them," I replied....

Now and again Italian planes going on, or coming back from, raids and
reconnaissances, flying very low over our heads, the pilots waving
their hands over the side and cheering, the troops on the roads cheering
back and upwards in return....

When I was relieved, I tramped back to the Piave, many miles now, and
wading those of the channels that were still unbridged returned, tired
and footsore but with a song in my heart, to my Battery.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not till later did we come to comprehend the vast sweep and the
triumphantly executed plan of this Last Great Battle.[1]

[Footnote 1: For a full and lucid account see the official _Report by
the Comando Supremo on the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, 24th October--2nd
November_ 1918.]

At dawn on the 24th, the same day that the British Divisions had crossed
to the Grave di Papadopoli, the Italian Fourth Army had attacked in the
Grappa sector, where fighting was desperate and progress slow for
several days. On the evening of the 26th the Piave was bridged in three
sectors, and on the 27th three bridgeheads were in being; the first on
the Upper Piave, in the hands of Alpini and French Infantry of the
Italian Twelfth Army; the second on the Middle Piave, in the hands of
Arditi and other troops of the Italian Eighth Army; the third further
downstream, in the hands of our two British Divisions and the Italian
Eleventh Corps. For a while the situation had been critical owing to the
gap between the second and third bridgeheads. But by the 28th fresh
Divisions had crossed the river at all three bridgeheads, and spread out
fanwise, linking up the gaps in the line. The same day on the Asiago
Plateau the enemy at last fell hurriedly back to his _Winterstellung_,
and British troops occupied the ruins of Asiago itself. During the next
two days the advancing troops on the plain swept steadily eastwards. On
the 31st the enemy's line in the Grappa Sector completely collapsed,
with great losses of men and guns. On the 1st of November an attack was
launched along the whole of the Italian Front, from the sea to the
heights of the Stelvio, amid the glaciers and the eternal snows on the
Swiss frontier, and on this day Italian, British and French troops
carried at last, after strong resistance, the whole northern ridge of
the Asiago Plateau, at which we had gazed with eyes of desire for many
long months.



CHAPTER XXXIX

LIBERATORI

On November the 1st a reconnaissance by car was ordered, to test the
practicability and the need of accelerating the forward movement of our
guns. Leary and I and two others started early in a car, adequately
armed and carrying a day's rations and a flask in which rum had been
mixed accidentally with _florio_ (marsala). This most original mixture,
which we christened "florium," was excellent, more thirst-quenching than
rum, more sustaining to the spirit than florio.

That day we travelled 76 miles at the least, in a great curve, through
liberated country. We had everywhere an astounding reception, never to
be forgotten. Everywhere we passed, we were wildly, deliriously,
cheered by the civilian population. Old men ran up to us waving their
hats, old women clapped their hands, young girls waved and threw flowers
at us, little boys ran shouting after us, all crying "Evviva! Evviva!
Liberatori! Viva gl' Inglesi!" The radiant joy of them, and their
smiles, never far from tears, were the manifestation of a form of human
emotion, singularly pure and indescribably moving. Every town and
village was hung with the Italian flag, and at one place an arch of
flowers ran from tree to tree above the road. Everywhere crowds with
smiling, wondering faces, stood watching the Allied troops moving up
along the roads, wave upon wave upon wave, triumphant, unendingly. Here
a few days ago the foreign invader had ruled, perhaps only yesterday,
perhaps only a few hours ago: Now he had vanished, like a bad dream from
which one suddenly awakes, leaving behind him only his dead, and certain
grim marks of his occupation, and vivid memories of many brutal and
cruel and thoughtless acts, to prove that he was worse and more real
than a dream.

       *       *       *       *       *

We crossed the Piave at Spresiano, on a series of wooden bridges and
pontoons, similar to those further down the stream at Palazzon and Lido
Island. On the further bank we came first to Conegliano. Here just a
year ago some of von Below's German troops, who broke the line at
Caporetto, had been billeted, and later a Bulgarian Governor and staff
had been installed, for the encouragement and flattery of the wavering
minor allies of the enemy powers. On the same principle a Turkish
Governor had been appointed at Feltre. The troops of occupation had been
guilty of wicked excesses at Conegliano. The little town had been
ruthlessly ravaged and set on fire and the majority of the houses had
been completely burnt out, only the charred shells of them remaining.

Hence we turned northwards up into the Alpine foothills, through country
of exceptional beauty, and along the shores of a piece of long blue
water, to the village of Revine Lago. Here were many captured and
abandoned Austrian guns. Some, in the last desperate moments of
departure, had been thrown down a steep cliff which overhangs the lake,
and lay below us, for the time being out of reach. Here I met again
several officers of the Italian Field Artillery, whom I met above Val
Brenta in January, including the Neapolitan Adjutant of Colonel Bucci.
Also General Clerici of the Bersaglieri, who for the moment had his
Headquarters here, a friend of one of my companions. They all
substantiated the rumour that last night, or the night before, Austrian
envoys had appeared with a white flag in the Val Lagarina and had been
taken to Diaz's Headquarters.

We parted from our friends and sped on to Vittorio Veneto, which gives
its name to this last great battle, being the point on which those
Italian forces moved, whose purpose and whose successful achievement it
was to cut the Austrian Armies in two, separating the Armies in the
mountains from the Armies in the plain. Vittorio stands on and around
the summit of a little hill, itself one of the foothills, the older part
of the town picturesque with little winding streets, the newer part well
laid out with broad roads, shaded with avenues of trees. Here the
Austrian flight had been more rapid and the damage smaller. But we were
still many miles behind the ever advancing battle line. We determined,
therefore, to turn sharply eastward and make for Pordenone, in the hope
of coming up with the fighting thereabouts. For last night, we heard,
the Austrians were still defending themselves on the near side of that
town.

The road from Vittorio to Sacile grew thicker with advancing troops, at
first all Italian, then, as we approached Sacile, mixed Italian and
British, much Italian Cavalry and Artillery, then British Infantry and
some Batteries of Field Guns. In Sacile itself, which British troops had
liberated, the crush of troops was dense, and held us up for more than
half an hour. Union Jacks hung out from many houses, side by side with
the Italian tricolour. As we waited for a chance to go forward, a
Battalion of the Bisagno Brigade went past along the side of the road,
two deep, at a steady double. Several officers I recognised, whom I had
met at dinner at a little restaurant at Marostica many months before,
and again near Casa Girardi on the Plateau. We waved to one another and
cheered as they passed. When at last we moved on again, we found the
road from Sacile to Pordenone pretty clear for several miles and were
able to get up speed. But what a sight this road presented! Along it a
confused mass of Austrian transport was moving yesterday in headlong
retreat. They were bombarded by Artillery, ceaselessly bombed and
machine-gunned from the air. The slaughter here had been great, the
ditches were full of dead men and horses, and the loss in wrecked and
abandoned material of every kind had been immense. And the civilians,
who had been practically without food for many days, had been cutting up
and eating the dead horses. "Poverini!" said an Italian officer to whom
we gave a lift into Pordenone, "they are all starving and we have little
chance yet to bring them food."

Pordenone was ours. It had fallen in the early hours of this morning,
but the departing Austrians had burnt and wrecked it. The streets were
full of the debris and furniture which they had thrown out of the houses
and shops in the last mad search for loot. We pushed on, and came up
with British Infantry advancing, and the transport wagons and the
steaming field cookers of two Battalions, and some cyclist companies of
Bersaglieri. But the transport was at a standstill and the dismounted
men only going forward slowly. We soon discovered the cause. The wooden
bridge over the Meduna river was on fire, pouring forth clouds of smoke.
The Austrians had been here only four hours before and had blown up two
spans as they retreated and soaked the rest with paraffin and set it
alight. The bridge was effectually destroyed. Italian Cavalry, we heard,
had gone through the water in pursuit, and likewise some British
Infantry patrols, swimming and wading and making use of various
ingenious, improvised devices. But the Austrian had a good three hours
start, and was running fast and travelling light, it was thought.

But we, being unable to get our car across, turned northward along the
river bank and drove furiously and, after a mile or two, outran the
foremost Infantry patrols (I think, of the Royal Warwicks), who were
pushing cautiously forward, searching the woods and farmhouses for
lurking rearguards. And so it was that, first of all the Allied troops,
we four entered the little village of Nogaredo. And, as we came in, we
sang, very loudly and perhaps somewhat out of tune, the chorus of _La
Campana di San Giusto_, the forbidden song which to the Italian
Irredentists stands for somewhat the same officially repressed but
inextinguishable emotions, as that once forbidden song _The Wearing of
the Green_ stood for to the Nationalist Irishmen of a now vanished
generation.

   "Le ragazze di Trieste
    Cantan tutte con ardore,
    'O Italia, O Italia del mio core,
    Tu ci vieni a liberar!'"[1]

[Footnote 1: All the maidens of Trieste sing with passion, "O Italy, O
Italy of my heart, thou comest to set us free!"]

So to that village _we_ were the visible liberators. All the villagers
came running towards us, crowding around our car, weeping and cheering,
pouring out their stories, touching and holding and kissing us. It is
seldom that things happen with such dramatic perfection.

The last Austrians, they said, had been gone only half an hour. We
pressed on along a narrow road, but it was late afternoon, and the light
was failing. The road grew worse, and the mud thicker. Much retreating
traffic had only lately traversed it. At last we stuck deep in two muddy
ruts. The wheels skidded round helplessly. We could go neither forward
nor backward. Three of us got out and shoved with all our strength.
There was a crackle of rifle shots not far away. We were prepared for
an encounter. But nothing came of it. We got the car out at last, but
the road was too bad for further progress and it was almost dark. We
turned and drank up the remains of our "florium" and came back. But that
day had been unforgettable.



CHAPTER XL

THE COMPLETENESS OF VICTORY

The end was almost come. On November 3rd we received the official
announcement that an armistice had been signed, and that at 3 p.m. on
November 4th hostilities on the Italian-Austrian Front would cease. That
same day Trento, Trieste and Udine fell. One began to be aware of the
completeness of victory. On this day and the days that followed the
communiqués of Diaz were decisive and historical.

"November 4th. Noon. The war against Austria-Hungary which ... the
Italian Army, inferior in numbers and resources, undertook on the 24th
of May, 1915, and with unconquerable faith and stubborn valour conducted
uninterruptedly and bitterly for 41 months, has been won. The great
battle begun on the 24th October, in which there took part 51 Italian
Divisions, 3 British, 1 French, 1 Czecho-Slovak and 1 American Regiment
against 73 Austrian Divisions, is finished.... The Austrian Army is
annihilated. It has suffered very heavy losses in the fierce resistance
of the first days of the struggle and in the pursuit; it has lost
immense quantities of material of every kind and almost all its
magazines and depôts; it has left in our hands, up to the present, about
300,000 prisoners with complete staffs and not less than 5000 guns.[1]
The remnants of what was once one of the most powerful Armies in the
world are now flowing back in disorder and without hope up the mountain
valleys down which they came with proud self-assurance."

[Footnote 1: These figures increased later to more than 430,000
prisoners and 6800 guns.]

"November 4th, 4 p.m. According to the conditions of the armistice ...
hostilities by land, sea and air on all the fronts of Austria-Hungary
have been suspended at 3 p.m. to-day."

"November 6th. At 3 p.m. on the 4th of November our troops had reached
Sluderno in the Val Venosta, the Pass of Mendola and the Defile of
Salomo in the Val d'Adige, Cembra in the Val d'Avisio, Levico in the Val
Sugana, Fiera di Primiero, Pontebba, Plezzo, Tolmino, Gorizia,
Cervignano, Aquileia and Grado."

Some of these names filled me with memories of a year, and more than a
year, ago. Old Natale's message to the enemy chalked on our hut at Pec
had come true. We had soon come back.

       *       *       *       *       *

The fighting was over! That night of the 4th of November all the sky was
lit up with bonfires and the firing of coloured rockets and white Véry
lights. One could hear bells ringing in the distance, back toward
Treviso, and singing and cheering everywhere. It was an hour of
perfection, and of accomplishment; it was the ending of a story. An
epic cycle of history was finished, the cycle of the wars of Italy
against Austria. The task of completing Italian unity was finished, so
far as a series of wars could finish it.

   "The fight is done, but the banner won;
    Thy comrades of old have borne it hence,
    Have borne it in triumph hence.
    Then the soldier spake from the deep, dark grave:
    'I am content.'"

The soldier had done his duty, now let the statesman do no less. Let
wisdom and imagination make sure the fruits of valour.

       *       *       *       *       *

The old Austria is dead, and from her grave, which Italian hands have
dug, are rising up new nations, the future comrades of the old nations
and of Italy, who in these bloody years has grown from youth to full
manhood. It has been said that a nation is a friendship, and the common
life of nations in the future must also be a friendship, necessarily
less intimate but in no way less real. The youth of the world must never
be called to swim again, with old age on its back, through seas of
needless death to the steep and distant cliffs of military victory.
There must be no more secret plots, nor seeming justification of plots,
by little groups of elderly men against the lives and happiness of young
men everywhere. The world must be made safe for justice and for youth.

       *       *       *       *       *

Youth was rejoicing that night in Italy, when the war against Austria
ended. And not youth only, nor Italians only. The British troops loudly
and healthily and almost riotously sang also, all the temporary
soldiers and nearly all the regulars. Yet here and there were gloom, and
drab, wet blankets, trying to make smoulder those raging fires of joy.
In a few officers' Messes, especially among the more exalted units, men
of forty years and more croaked like ravens over their impending loss of
pay and rank, Brigadier Generals who would soon be Colonels again, and
Colonels who would soon be Majors. To have been, through long uneventful
unmental years, a peace-time soldier puts the imagination in jeopardy
and is apt to breed a self-centred fatuity, which the inexperienced may
easily mistake for deliberate naughtiness. Yet these brave men, who hate
peace and despise civilians, have many human qualities. They are
generally polite to women, and they are kind to animals and to those of
their inferiors who show them proper deference and salute them briskly.
It is not always easy to judge them fairly. And that night one did not
try. They jarred intolerably. They seemed a portent, though in truth
they were something less. They found themselves left alone to their
private griefs, ruminating regretfully over the golden age that had
suddenly ended, gazing into the blackness of a future without hope.



CHAPTER XLI

IN THE EUGANEAN HILLS

_November 12th_, 1918

It is all over. For a few days it seemed possible that we might be sent
northward, through redeemed Trento and over the Brenner and the crest of
the Alps and down through Innsbruck, to open a new front against Germany
along the frontier of Bavaria. But that will not be necessary now. It is
all over.

Our Battery is living partly in a little terra-cotta Villa and partly in
a barn close by. We are among the Euganean Hills, a group of little
humps, shaped like sugar loaves, which rise out of the dead level of the
Venetian Plain, south-west of Padua. Here Shelley wrote a famous and
beautiful poem, and Venice, on a clear day, is visible in the distance
from a monastery perched among trees upon one of the loftiest humps. Our
guns, which will never fire any more, sit in a neat row, "dressed by the
right," along the garden path outside the Villa, their noses pointing
across a grass lawn. Their names, which are the Battery's Italian
history, are painted on their muzzles and their trails in large white
letters, picked out with red upon a dark green ground: _Carso_, _Piave_,
_Altipiano_ and _Trentino_. _Trentino_ is my gun. They look very
ornamental in their new coats of paint, and with a high polish on their
unpainted metal parts.

It is an hour of anticlimax. There is nothing to do, and one has to
"make work" in a hundred silly, ingenious ways. Next week some of the
men who have been out of England for 19 months will go on leave. Then,
after a fortnight in England, unless something tremendous and unexpected
happens, they will all come back again. And there will still be nothing
to do. Was it Wordsworth who said that poetry is "emotion remembered in
tranquillity"? Wordsworth would undoubtedly have written much poetry
here. Our chief delight is Leary's musical voice. He sings to us in the
evenings after dinner, "_La Campana di San Ginsto_" and "_Addio, mia
bell', addio_" and choice _stornetti_, and "_Come to Ferrara with me_,"
a cheerful song of his own composing, set to a music-hall tune which was
famous three years ago, and "_We'll all go a-hunting to-day_," an old
song with a superb chorus. And so the days pass, one very like another.

I dreamed last night that a regular soldier of high degree and uncertain
nationality appeared to me and said, "Do you not see now, young man,
that peace is degeneracy, and that war is an ennobling discipline?" And
I, chancing my luck, replied, "Yes, the great von Moltke himself said
that peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful dream." Whereupon my
visitor changed into a white owl and vanished with a hoot. And I awoke,
and found that I had overslept myself and that the nine o'clock parade,
which I was due to attend, was already falling in outside.

Then said I to myself bitterly, "At any rate we here have all survived,
and, therefore, since war is the greatest of all biological tests, we
must all be very fit to have survived, especially that most fit young
man, who came out to the Battery from England a day or two before the
armistice was signed, after three years at Shoeburyness, and the fittest
of all must be those whose survival, apart from such dangers as
influenza and air raids, has never been in doubt, the valuable people
who have been kept in England, because they were members of concert
parties or football teams at the depôts, or officers' servants to
influential _imboscati_, or influential _imboscati_ themselves."

And then, with a great and well-disciplined effort, I pulled my thoughts
together, and said to myself, "Enough of these musings of the peace-time
soldier!"



CHAPTER XLII

LAST THOUGHTS ON LEAVING ITALY

On the 3rd of December I passed out of Italy, after eighteen months
spent as a soldier within her borders. These eighteen months will always
be lit up for me by the memory of a great comradeship between men of
Allied nations. We have lived together through the dark days and the
sunshine, through sorrow and joy, through uncertainty and defeat to
final victory.

I have been very fortunate in my personal relations in Italy. I have
found always among Italians, both civilian and military, and from simple
soldier to General, the most open friendliness, the most unsparing
kindliness, the most happy spirit of good fellowship. And on my journey
home I closed my eyes and imagined myself back once more at Venice in
full Summer, and at Milan, and at hospitable Ferrara, and at Rome in the
Spring, and on the shores of the Bay of Naples, and out on Capri, and in
the wonder world of Sicily,--and always among friends. And then my steps
went back in fancy to the battlefields, where our guns had been in
action. I saw again the great peaks and the precipitous valleys of the
Trentino. I saw the wreck of liberated Asiago, ringed round with
mountains whose sides were clothed with shattered pine trees, heavy with
snow, and I went down once more by that astounding mountain road from
Granezza to Marostica, with the Venetian Plain and all its cities spread
out beneath my feet, and Venice herself on the far horizon, amid the
shimmer of sunshine on the distant sea. I stood again on the bridge at
Bassano, looking up the Val Brenta, with Monte Grappa towering above me
on my right hand, and then turning south-eastward across the level plain
I heard again the rushing waters of the Piave and, crossing to the
farther side, passed through Conegliano, burnt out and ravaged, and
Vittorio Veneto, a name that will resound for ever, to the broken bridge
over the Meduna, east of Pordenone, and the village of Nogaredo, whither
I came as one of its first liberators. And, as in a dream, I saw Udine,
unspoilt and radiant as she was fifteen months ago, before Caporetto,
and poor little Palmanova, as I last saw her, wreathed in the black
smoke of her own burning, and the cypresses and the great church of
Aquileia and the lagoons of Grado.

Then the flying feet of memory carried me beyond the Isonzo, up the
wooded slopes of San Michele, where the dead lie thicker, and along the
Vippacco, running swiftly between banks thick with acacias, and among
the ruined suburbs of Gorizia, up towards those desolate lands, which
for future generations of Italians will be, I think, the holiest ground
of all,--the bare summit of Monte Santo, and the mountain-locked
tableland of Bainsizza, and the rocky, inexorable Carso. These rocks
have, perhaps, been more deeply soaked with blood than any other part of
the entire Allied line on any continent. Here died many thousands of the
bravest and the best of the youth of Italy. "Nella primavera si combatte
e si muore, o soldato." How many great lovers, fathers, thinkers, poets,
statesmen, that might have been, but never were, lie here! These lands
will ever be more thickly peopled with the cemeteries of the dead than
with the villages of the living, lands desolate and barren, yet strange
and beautiful. Clear and clean is the beauty of those graves in the
noonday brightness, delicate and tremulous in the early dawn and in the
soft light of a fading day, and for us, who think of those dead with a
proud and tender emotion, that beauty is, in some sort, a frail
consolation. The dust of strong men from the great mountains is buried
here, and of men from the historic cities and the small unknown towns
and the little white villages of Italy, and of peasants from the wide
plains, and of brave men from the islands, and a handful of Frenchmen
and Englishmen along with them, and very many of those tragic soldiers,
drawn from many races, who died in the service of the Austro-Hungarian
State, fighting against their own freedom. I see again, as vividly as
though it were yesterday, those high-hearted legions of Italy, sturdy
men and fresh-faced boys, going forward with a frenzied courage,
supported by an Artillery preparation which elsewhere would have been
thought utterly insignificant, to assault positions which elsewhere
would have been declared impregnable.

"The world," said Lincoln at Gettysburg, "will little note nor long
remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished
work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced; that
from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for
which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." So may it be! They
died for the dream of a greater, a free and a secure Italy, and, the
more reflective of them, for a better, more coherent world and no more
war. A part of their dream is already come true, but part is a dream
still, a debt to them that only we can pay. It will need to be a far
better world, with a progress sustained and ever growing through
centuries to come, if this tremendous sum of wasted youth, of broken
hearts, of embittered souls, of moral degradation, of wounds that cannot
be healed until all this ill-fated generation has passed away, if this
great sum of past and present evil is to be cancelled by future good in
the cold balance of historic reality. Of the dead we may say, their task
is over, their warfare is accomplished. But not of the living. The
future is theirs, to make or mar.





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