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  • Writer's pictureThe Bridge Burford


George Dernowski from Burford's home town, Potenza Picena, has sent a further instalment of his series of articles about Italy and the First World War.


Statements, such as this or that country saved the cause of the Allies, no doubt have much truth in them: that the need of the full power of every country, both at home and at the front engaged on the Allied side called for was none too much to secure the final and complete victory. Of no time nor action can this be affirmed more so than of the period when Italy declared her neutrality and, transferring the main body of her troops from her garrisons along the French border to the Austrian frontier, released the French troops who might otherwise have been required to guard the Italian frontier of France, thus contributing effectively to the French victory in the first and decisive battle of the Marne in 1914. Can this contention be challenged in hindsight? However, maybe the biggest contribution to the Intent’s victory was the fact that Italy defected the Central Powers and fought alongside what she then considered to be a democratic and free world (together with personal gains) thus creating another front and forcing the Central Powers to divert troops and material from other areas of combat where they were so direly needed (both on the Western and Eastern Front). Let’s just imagine for one moment that had the Central Powers won (not impossible) with Italy then on the losing side she would have not only to forget about redeeming lost lands entitled to her, (through reasons previously mentioned), but she would most likely have had to pay much more being on the vanquished side and Austria, who already had in mind to conduct a preventive war against Italy in 1908 during the most disastrous earthquake in her history in Messina, (which killed 100,000 people), the tribute to pay for what would have been considered a “betrayal” would have been unimaginable!

Soldiers had long manned alpine frontiers to secure borders or marched through high passes en route to invasion. But never had the mountains themselves been the battlefield, nor for fighting at this scale, with fearsome weapons and physical feats that would humble many mountaineers. As New York World correspondent Alexander Powell wrote in 1917: “On no front, not on the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian marshes, nor in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world.”

The front on the Austrian border was 650 km (400 mi) long, stretching from the StelvioPass to the Adriatic Sea. Italian forces were numerically superior but this advantage was practically invalidated by the difficult terrain and the fact that the Austrian troops had the advantage of the higher ground.

Although massive frontal assaults of thousands and thousands of the anonymous soldiers were launched in eleven major battles between 1915 and 1918, the mountain war in Italy was a battle of small units, of individuals. In subzero temperatures men dug miles of tunnels and caverns through glacial ice, they strung cableways up mountainsides and stitched rock faces with rope ladders to move soldiers onto the high peaks, then hauled up an arsenal of industrial warfare: heavy artillery and mortars, machine guns, poison gas and flamethrowers. The terrain itself was used as a weapon, rolling boulders to crush attackers and sawing through snow cornices with ropes to trigger avalanches. Storms, rock slides and natural avalanches—the “white death”—killed plenty more. After heavy snowfalls in December of 1916, avalanches buried 10,000 Italian and Austrian troops over just two days.

The fighting troops had to build bridges across mountain ravines, and to construct forts, barracks and huts to serve as accommodation, as well as digging trenches (where possible) or using high explosive to create networks of underground caves and tunnels for protection, accommodation and storage. The Italians used cable cars and mules to transport food and munitions up to the mountain-top front lines – and to take the wounded back down to the plains, where hospitals were situated. The Alpine landscape was incredibly challenging: mountain peaks in the combat zone were up to 2000m above sea level, with some slopes of up to 80° steepness. Fast-flowing rivers ran through glacial troughs and there were minimal road and rail connections to the area. In order to make the landscape more suitable for warfare, intensive mountain road-building took place; both armies also dug deep into the mountain burying tons of high explosives under the opposing enemy oblivious of the fact that at any moment they were to be blown sky high together with thousands of tons of rock to change the face of the mountain forever.

Italy’s involvement in World War I was disastrous by any measure. More than 650,000 Italian soldiers were killed, while more than one million were seriously wounded. The nation was effectively bankrupted, its national debt increasing from 15.7 billion lire (1914) to 85 billion (1919). This debt, along with economic disruption and shortages, saw inflation increase by 400 per cent. More than a half-million civilians died, most as a consequence of food shortages and poor harvests in 1918. Civilian deaths exceeded the prewar level by 1,021,000. 589,000 caused by food shortages and 432,000 by the Spanish Flu, civilian deaths due to military action were about 3,400 including 2,293 by attacks on shipping, 958 during air raids and 142 by sea bombardment.

Many Italians believed their country had sacrificed far too much for far too little return. One of these was the fascist demagogue Benito Mussolini, who would later raise to power on the back of these nationalist sentiments.

Let’s not forget that Italy’s loses were more or less the same as Britain’s yet she had been in war ten months less than Britain so her casualties were concentrated in a shorter length of combat time but above all its looking at the percentage according to the population between the two countries that one realizes the costs in loss of manhood considering that at the time the population in Britain was estimated around 46 million compared to Italy’s 36 million!.

More can be said even about British troops who fought alongside the Italians during those tragic days high in the Alpine mountains, leaving behind eleven cemeteries, a sad testimony of their heroic presence. (Maybe the best known is the Cemetery of Granezza where the twenty-two year old Captain Edward Harold Brittain of the II Sherwood Foresters grave is to be found (alongside that of many other young men), made famous by his sisterVera Brittain, (1893-1977) a voluntary Red Cross Nurse who was to publish “Testament of Youth” and other writings in remembrance of the “war generation” where the young were to be remembered as “strong, brave, and beautiful”. [She was also the mother of politician Shirley Williams – Ed]

With this in mind may I dedicate a well-known war poem, written during W.W.1 by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrea, to the lost generation, regardless of which side they fought on, as a tribute to the blood shed for their cause and country inwhich they believed in at the time!

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Nei Campi Delle Fiandre (Italian translation)

Nei campi delle Fiandre i papaveri crescono

Fra le croci, allineate, che segnano il nostro posto:

E nel cielo le allodole, ancora coraggiosamente cantando,

Volano, scarsamente sentite, in mezzo ai cannoni sotto.

Noi siamo i morti. Pochi giorni fa

Abbiamo vissuto, sentito l’alba, visto il tramonto splendere,

Abbiamo amato e fummo amati, e ora giacciano

Nei campi delle Fiandre.

Continuate la nostra lotta contro il nemico.

A voi, da mani fallite, passiamo la torcia:

Che sia vostra da mantenere alta.

Se voi mancherete alla promessa data a noi che siamo morti,

Noi non riusciremo a dormire, anche se i papaveri crescono

Nei campi delle Fiandre

In thanking the reader for having had the patience and tenacity of getting to the end of this last installment of Italy’s little known involvement in the First World War, should one wish to further delve into more knowledge of this mountain conflict may I take the liberty of suggesting just two books written by British authors

1) The War in the Mountains Rudyard Kipling (author)Published:1st April 2015 Uniform Press

2) With British Guns in Italy Hugh Dalton (Lieutenant R,G,A (author) Published by The Naval & Military Press Ltd.

Thank you

George Dernowski




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