Getting "out" of the trench: behind the lines and writing from the soldiers

In war, the harsh conditions to which the soldiers were subjected during their time in the trenches made it indispensable that the days of extreme danger and sacrifice were alternated by periods of relative calm.

The rear lines were located just a few kilometres from the front line and extended from both sides of the front to encompass a large organizational and logistic system that was used to supply the troops with essential provisions, weapons and ammunition, provide for the care and transport of the wounded, as well as the training and leisure activities of men at rest. There were warehouses, stores, workshops, heavy artillery placements, railroads, command posts and hospitals distributed everywhere.

 

A huge influx of men and materials

Gregorio Soldani, Captain Medical Corps, Casale Brigade

At Romans I met S.M., at Versa I began to see the first troop encampments, and near the bridge on the Torre there was an entire infantry regiment (...). After the bridge on the Torre I saw the first line of hay wagons. How many were there? I do not know, certainly no less than 100. Immediately after this there was a field hospital made up entirely of wagons that were entering the war zone. Then there was another infantry regiment, and more hay wagons. All of this without counting the hundreds and hundreds of lorries that were coming and going from Palmanova. At Visco there was another camp of another infantry regiment, and a little further on a long line of artillery wagons loaded with shells. So, stopping 100 times to make room, we came to Palmanova where we had to make a long stop, queuing behind the many vehicles waiting their turn to enter the narrow gate to the city.

 

Finding lost tranquillity

Amleto Albertazzi, Second Lieutenant Infantry, Bisagno Brigade

15 June: Monfalcone has lost its delightful appearance. The buildings, villas, gardens, scarred in every sense, are now no more than ruins. And the hurrying infantryman, in dismal sadness, skirts the rubble that is still smoking.

We abandon the town to put up the tent at the Randon house, near San Canziano.

After a hearty lunch, we retire under the tent to sleep the most placid of sleeps, far from the din of the battle.

 

Precarious conditions even in the rear

Attilio Frescura, Territorial Officer

The rooftops of the houses are riddled with holes, open to the rain, and the walls having gaping holes that are open to the wind. They are dirty, smell of rubbish, but the soldier, perhaps through some instinctive nostalgic love for home, finds a way to dwell in it and "live there".

 

Rest in a manner of speaking: the difficulties and tasks of the soldier in the rear

Carlo Salsa, Infantry Lieutenant, Palermo Brigade

Ten days of rest. Skeletal shacks, where, at night, we have to get up every now and then to pace around in a circle so that we do not end up freezing like anchovies. Guard duties, daily drills, fatigue duties, devised as daily exercises to fuck with us. Lieutenant colonel who is obsessed with barracks routines, regulations, heresies from 1848, who sniffs around and persecutes us, with a heap of arrests to serve up with lavish profligacy (...). Colonel who summons us to report to teach us how to make war, when he himself does not know how to do anything but read tarot cards.

 

Initiatives and entertainment to distract the men

Giuseppe Poli

Having been relieved, after twenty-four hours of rest it was impossible to find one of those soldiers who was not clean and shaven as if they were freshly arrived from "Italy" and, in the lawns where their camp was set, every day the commander organized tug of war and jumping contests and races on quadrupeds.

(...) Those mule races were a really bizarre and interesting spectacle and we believe that a lot of the people who now flock to San Siro or the Parioli would have very willingly paid to see those thirty-eight animals that, mounted "bareback" by their improvised jockeys, took off like demons  unleashed at the signal "Go!".  

 

Military brothels

Giovanni Comisso, Officer in the Engineer Corps

The entrance was full of soldiers, many of whom had just come out of the trenches with their uniforms encrusted with red dirt. (...) The soldiers stood in a row on the stairs, leaning against the wall to leave room on the side of the balustrade to those who were coming down.

(...) The line of soldiers formed in an adjacent waiting room where my friend and I were awaiting our turn.

(...) We were on the landing, there were only a few soldiers in front of us. One could see four doors to four rooms, and in front of them there was a fat, bawdy woman who was crying out: "Next, who's next, come on boys." She took the money and put her hand on the shoulder of each man or embraced him.

(...) Our turn was coming, from inside of the rooms we could hear the creaking of the beds and the sound of water. A door opened, I saw a half-naked woman, and a soldier came out adjusting his cartridge bags.

 

The presence of numerous hospitals

Giulio Bazini, machine-gunner attached to the 577th Fiat machine-gun company

The pace in the hospital, which had slowed down only slightly during the night, began to become intense again towards dawn, due to the settling in and care of the wounded that had arrived in the night, as they began the departures, from that "centre of pain", of the wounded sorted and directed to the interior.

(...) Frequently, a sheet was laid on one of the many stretchers lying on the ground, to cover the unfortunate person that would lie there motionless forever. A wretch who had not resisted the evil: he had died alone, on that fire-red stone, among so much painful humanity and far from the affections that could have provided him at least some precious last comfort. The pitiful and courageous chaplain was certainly not enough to make the passage for so many dying people less difficult. Ambulances of all kinds and wagons equipped for urgent removal began to arrive.

 

The rear lines strewn with cemeteries

Pietro Ferrari, private in the Bergamo Brigade first and later the Murge Brigade

It was an unfortunate little graveyard, because sometimes the shells fell into it and shattered the graves thrusting the bodies of the poor dead soldiers back to the surface, where they emitted an unbearable smell.

 

Improvised landing strips for planes

Antonio Baldini, war correspondent

The Albatros that was chased from the skies over Udine as if pushed out by two small, dogged fighters, flew headlong into the countryside and broke its wings, giving the inhabitants of the hamlets of Remansacco and Premariacco a spectacle they will remember forever.

(...) As they filed slowly out of the church, the people gathered at the crossroads, stretching their legs a bit before going to eat, when someone saw the winged monster and where it had crashed: and immediately afterwards they saw the two fighters hover there for a while staring at their prey and then land gently nearby.

 

Relations with civilians

Luigi Gasparotto, Officer of the 154th Infantry Regiment, Novara Brigade

In the evening we were guests at the canteen of the Third Battalion in the Piccoli House, where Celso Colombo had organized a wonderfully enormous meal. As the log burned on the large traditional Friulian hearth, the whole Piccoli family sang the songs of Zorutti; the father accompanied the singing of his many daughters on the piano.

(...) I like this family who, on the edge of the war, gathers around the hearth to sing the songs of their homeland.

 

Two different ways of making war: fighters and shirkers

Attilio Frescura, Territorial Officer

11 September

At the place I am staying an old woman and two sisters-in-law wait for their men, who are on the other side.

One of them, who has learned the jargon of the soldiers, among whom she has been living for a long time, said to me:

"Fortunately my husband is going to go AWOL!"

"AWOL? How so?"

"Oh yeah... he plays the trumpet at the aviation field..."

(...) Her sister-in-law listens to her with a serious face. Suddenly the cannon launched a screaming shell over us, towards the "enemy". The woman turned pale and placed her hand over her heart. My host explained to me:

"Her man is not going anywhere... whenever she hears the cannon, her heart skips a beat...”

 

For the soldiers the rear lines were a place suspended between war and normality, between death and life, not far from the hell of the front line. The deeply felt need to write was a striking feature of this state of being between the front and the civil society they had left behind. In addition to reassuring their families about their state of health, writing letters served primarily to create a tangible link to that normal life that the soldiers had been forced to leave and to which they were seeking to return.

The testimonies received through the letters and diaries of soldiers engaged at the front during the Great War include references to moments of tranquillity witnessed at even the most advanced positions, during which the infantrymen dedicated themselves to various activities, especially writing, which made it possible to keep in touch with their home and distant loved ones, thereby retaining a sense of individuality, that was too often obscured by the war. The increase in the practice of writing in the First World War did a lot to help with the literacy process in Italy, introducing, in the written language as well as in the spoken language, a remarkable mix of idioms from the various regions of the peninsula.

 

Precious moments to get away from the harsh reality

Carlo Salsa, Infantry Lieutenant, Palermo Brigade

The soldiers write, hunched over their free post cards, clutching their pencils as if they were performing a delicate surgical operation.

It is in these hours when the winter of the heart is filled with people from far away: hours of receptions and visits.

 

The collective ritual of mail call

Attilio Borrozzino, officer in the Fifth Company of the 132th Infantry, Lazio Brigade

Mail call, which is one of the regular company duties, takes on particular importance for the quartermaster in wartime. These men stand at the centre of the company in a circle, and read out surnames: a soldier says here! and the letter is hurled in that direction.

It is almost always caught in mid-air and does not fall because, even if the throw is not perfect, it is caught by someone and handed over to the person who watches it and follows it until it comes into his hands, trembling with emotion and joy.

One just has to say: "Fall in for mail call" and the men bolt, dash and run to the place indicated: dropping everything because they know that ... mail is a duty too, and, for him, it is the most important one. He opens the letter, reads it, reads it again, tries to make out his loved one's handwriting, grabs it, turns it over, and then places with almost religious devotion along with the others over his heart in his jacket.

 

Delivery of correspondence at any cost

Gianni Stuparich, an irredentist volunteer, lieutenant of the first regiment of Grenadiers of Sardinia

From the trench you have to hand over the mail to third parties, so sometimes they may forget it or sort it irregularly. I usually give it to a trusted grenadier when we are on the front line and second line, to the guy that brings us the mess rations. He comes in the evening: he leaves at dusk from the place where the kitchens are and comes down paths in the open, risking getting hit by a bullet or shrapnel.

 

A real postal obsession

Francesco Ferrari, infantry sergeant, assigned to a scout unit of the 123rd regiment group, Chieti Brigade

From the trench 26-4-16

Dear sister.

Every morning at sunrise my first job is to pick up my pencil and send you my most sincere greetings and kisses to everyone in the family. As long as I am alive (and still in this place) I will write you one every day. I am doing well, as I hope you and everyone in the family is. Here's a big warm kiss from your brother Francesco

 

Creating as efficient a network of communications as possible

Amleto Albertazzi, Second Lieutenant Infantry, Bisagno Brigade

The postal service has improved. Letters no longer come one or two months late.

 

The continuous re-supply of writing materials

Francesco Ferrari, infantry sergeant, assigned to a scout unit of the 123rd regiment group, Chieti Brigade

Dear parents, I now have a bit of paper and postcards. There is no longer a lack of these things as there was recently. If all these letters and postcards arrive, you will see something arrive every day.

 

The Italian spoken in the trench: a mixture of dialects and standard speech

Domenico Gamberini, Rifleman, 15th Bersaglieri Regiment

When a companion who needed help was from the South or, even worse, Sicilian, I had some difficulty translating into Italian words of a dialect that was completely incomprehensible to me.

(...) I was asked to write words like "quartara" or "ficupala" and it took some doing to understand their meaning: the first meant an amphora for water, and the other meant prickly pear.

A fellow soldier asked me to express his opposition to the sale, by his parents, of a "salma" (corpse) of land. I did not know what the devil he was talking about. Sell ​​a corpse? "No, my friend told me; in our parts, a "salma" does not mean a dead body, but is an agricultural measurement equivalent to about 3 hectares."

Sometimes I would hear that damned word "caccarazza” that damaged the seeds. The sound of the word made me think it was something like bad manure for the fields. But no, it was a beautiful thieving magpie that would eat up seeds that were just sown and not buried deep enough.

Once a friend of mine from Sicily, at a certain point in his dictation, came out with this phrase: "... and the friar (frate) must take care of the cattle." I stopped him immediately: “What? Where I come from, the friars are concerned with church duties in preparation for the Sunday masses; they are listened to and respected as important religious people! And you want to send those friars to care for the livestock?"

My Sicilian friend laughed heartily as he looked at me: "No, Domenico. Where I live, the word friar (frate) also means brother and I was speaking about my brother. We, too, love and listen to the friars with great respect."

 

Writing: the strong need to feel closer to families

Giuseppe Personeni, Infantry Lieutenant, Belluno Brigade

I was assailed by an invisible urge to think about home, struck by a desire that I had never felt to be in constant spiritual communion with my family, to write, to write what I felt, what I was seeing, and I wrote (...).

 

A sentiment of an indissoluble bond with the countryside

Augusto Della Martera, Corporal, Macerata Brigade

You told me that a cow was sick and when you write me let me know how it is doing and if they sold any of the animals and if the farmer is at home or if he has been called up and where he is if he is now a soldier (...).

 

Francesco Ferrari, infantry sergeant, assigned to a scout unit of the 123rd regiment group, Chieti Brigade

War zone - 2.5.16

Dear sister.

The other day I received your dear letter in which you told me so many things.

You wrote to me on the 26th and I learned in the Cittadino newspaper that on the 27th there was a great storm. The newspaper wrote that it had hit Scarpizzolo, and if it hit Scarpizzolo, I'm sure that it must also have hit Trignano, and for this I am greatly saddened. The wheat will certainly be completely ruined and you will not even be able to harvest the seeds. The grass will have to be cut immediately and you cannot use the machine to prune the vines and mulberries must be cleaned.

 

Writing to inform families of the wounded and deceased

Carmine Cortese, Military Chaplain, Brescia Brigade

I have been stuck with writing to the families of the wounded and dead. And I'm alone, and I want very much to sleep. But I cannot.

 

Memories kept close to the heart: letters found on the fallen

Angelo Raffaele Baldassarre, Infantry Lieutenant, Savona Brigade

Near the rifleman's mouth his wallet lay open from which issued forth wrinkled papers and a photograph of an elderly woman. (...) I picked it up along with the other papers. I would send it to the family telling them that the hero had died in a crash, in a moment, without suffering for even a minute. That is how it was always done in the war.

 

War censorship

Anonymous Lieutenant, Artillery Officer

I began writing and sending out love letters and postcards filled with ardent desire. It would often happen for my pen to let slip a censurable phrase, which would then be blacked out, often causing the text to lose what little sense that it contained and the writings sometimes reached their destination in quite an incomprehensible form.

When I received the answers to my letters, I often could not understand anything: I had no idea that the censor had put his hand on it. Once I wrote that I was going off the line for eight days to rest and to come and see me: the answer I received was incomprehensible. It made me sick. I began to think that I had got involved with a half-wit. I later found out that the censor had changed one of my sentences. I had written: "I'm coming down for eight days to Zanè, near Livenza." The censor had changed it to say: "I'm coming down for eight days with Zanè, near Livenza."

I stayed in Zanè and she in Milan, so we were both in love with each other, waiting.

 

Bibliography:

Albertazzi Amleto, L’inferno carsico, Bologna, Cappelli, 1933

Baldini Antonio, Nostro purgatorio. Fatti personali del tempo della guerra italiana 1915-1917, Milano, Treves, 1918

Bazini Giulio, Da Venezia a… Venezia. 1915-1918 tra diario e storia le avventurose vicende di un volontario della Grande Guerra, a cura di Franco Bottazzi, Udine, Gaspari Editore, 2010

Comisso Giovanni, Giorni di guerra, Milano, Longanesi, 2009

Ferrari Pietro, Vita di guerra e di prigionia. Dall’Isonzo al Carso. Diario 1915-1918, a cura di Maria Teresa Aiolfi, Milano, Mursia, 2004

Frescura Attilio, Diario di un imboscato, Milano, Mursia, 1999

Gasparotto Luigi, Diario di un fante, Chiari (Bs), Nordpress, 2002

Poli Giuseppe, Uomini del Carso, Milano, Codara, 1928

Salsa Carlo, Trincee. Confidenze di un fante, Milano, Mursia, 1982

Soldani Gregorio, Dal fronte del sangue e della pietà. Il diario del capitano medico Gregorio Soldani nella Grande Guerra, a cura di Silvio Ficini, Udine, Gaspari Editore, 2000