Voices from the imprisonment

The testimonies of Italian prisoners of war, reported here in epistolary form, give us a series of contrasting and varied attitudes, opinions and moods. The main topics of correspondence were the description of the precarious conditions of life in the camps, the obsessive demand for food packages - the only element that could make the difference between life and death, the defense of the prisoner status and the dynamics of their capture, distancing on his own he is accused of infamous deserter, but there are also those who proudly claim their desertion, often motivated by political-humanitarian reasons or because of the harshness of Italian officers.

From Vienna (Austria) To Azeglio (Turin)

06/20/1918

[...] The pants and socks I sold them to buy food [...] Here it is always cold ... I have not sold the shirt as long as I can; but before I die of hunger I sell everything; it is bad to have to undress to eat at 41 years [...]

From War Zone [Military Mail Office] To Sigmundsherberg (Austria)

03/18/1917

I answer you in the name of R. You are unworthy to write to our valiant soldiers. You are a mean and a coward. However, when there will be peace, we will have the satisfaction to see you shot one day by those who were your comrades. You do not deserve that contempt of the world. Vile!

Lieutenant M.

I simply say: Coward

S. Lieutenant P.

[The recipient of the postcard, sergeant, does not appear in the lists of deserters]

From L'Aquila To Mauthausen (Austria)

21.8.1917

You ask me to eat, but I don't send anything to a coward like you; if they don't shoot you, those rascals of the Austrians, will shoot you in Italy. You are a traitor, a scoundrel; you should kill yourself. Always long life to Italy, death to Austria and to all the German rascals: scoundrels. Long live Italy, long live Italian Trieste, Do not write more than you do us a favor. Death to the scoundrels [...]

[The letter is directed from the father to the son. The recipient does not appear in the lists of deserters]

From War Zone To Albiolo (Como)

27/11/1917

[...] Whose fault is this? Many and many say he is of the soldier but I do not believe it, I search elsewhere, the Italian soldier has no fault because if he was strong on the Podgora, fought and died, as he fights and died on the Sabotino, on the Vodice, on the Santo and Gabriele - which saw the heels of the Austrians, also would been not only able to hold back the enemy this time but also defeat him. Instead this time, he took the example of his bosses, no more I want to continue, I have seen, I have heard and I keep sad memory [...]

[The sender has the rank of sergeant. The letter is reported by the Censorship Department "because the opinion of the writer is repeated with some frequency in the letters of the soldiers"]

From Piacenza to Lausanne (Switzerland)

07/03/1918

[...] You ask me how I spent it in Austria, I can not describe it to you. If I had to talk to you about the bad treatments of eating consisting of pickled cabbage, morning and evening herrings, wheat bread with which was minced also the corncob. There was also dried grass in June and July, a salad cooked in water seasoned with vinegar. For small failings there is the whip, and if they can not have the one to be chastised, there is the rifle firing at me and men. Imagine then you can stay, if I say only this. They did an autopsy to a dead prisoner and they found 3 or 4 herring heads in his stomach; with them he had nourished himself with hunger, and it was they who caused his death. And you saw so many young people of 20 years reduced as skeletons, they feel sorry to look at them and it is painful to think about their youth, they are without clothes, without shoes [...], and Austria [...] give them clothes of paper dirty and ragged shirts are not disinfected. In the winter they die of cold and hunger, and in fact in a concentration camp where we were in 30 000 died from 100 to 150 a day [...]

From Csót bei Papa (Hungary) To War Zone [72 Sez. Sussistenza]

1 8.3 .1918

[...] Finally after a long and painful illness only now I can notify you of my miserable and troubled health ... I am in Austria since 28 October, 1917; you can imagine what I've tried and what I'll have to try ... please make it possible to get me some bread, or flour, rice, lard, please dear brother, do everything possible and as soon as possible, that already from time I suffer enough of everything - I'm afraid not to meet again, too many are the afflictions, if you saw how small I am, poor me [...] I beg you dear brother, that hunger torments me, please and please again try to do something that I am no longer a man [...] so I bow to you again begging you of all this, bread that I am hungry [...] dear, you can not even imagine how much I suffer here [.. .]

From Sigmundsherberg (Austria) To Casalvolone (Novara)

28.1.1918
Dearest wife - I come to give you my news, that I am a Prisoner, and rest assured that I find myself out of danger almost better than when it was that cowardly Battery, commanded by murderers and villains - here I go to work and my commander where I am respects me better than the Italians, and loves me and always offers me something to eat. Now take care of yourself and dear little girls and I hope peace will be next and so we will meet forever. Greetings and kisses you and little girls your husband M. Emilio. Wait to send the packages that Interns in Galicia.

From Marchegg (Austria) To Frassino (Cuneo)

15.7.1917

[...] you tell me that the packs go back the reason I know my father told me; but I'm innocent of that thing though. The misfortune touched me: on the evening of 11 April we were commanded to patrol. In all we were sixteen men. Our task was to reach the village called Plezzo in Valchiesa. During the exploration march the enemy noticed our movements, because at intervals he followed our advanced movements using the spotlight and at the same time doing some shots of rifle on us that forced us to stop several times. Once over the village we found some wires of mines that crossed the road; we passed them one by one without causing the mines to explode. However, at the time of the day we had arrived in the village, and we explored it. The officer and the sergeant went even farther to see the best position. We occupied the best position: the sergeant a corporal and a soldier were driven to the left of the village in a house from which the enemy position could be observed. Around 10 am the enemy began firing a few shots at the windows of the house, but we were silent, resisting in the same place. At 4 pm the enemy bombed and burned the country, and we retired on the bulk of the patrol because the house where we were caught fire. At this time the Sergeant and the corporal had orders to cut the lines of mines, but as soon as they were on the entrance, they were surprised by an enemy platoon who had already bypassed us and were forced to retreat. The enemy began to shoot wounding the sergeants, while the country was all in flames. The lieutenant ordered everyone out, and turn right to reach the company. As soon as we got out of the village, the enemy, who had surrounded us, set himself on fire, forcing us to throw ourselves to the ground. We did not have time to reply, which jumped on us forcing us to surrender our weapons. So we were prisoners, while they gave me a deserter. I am innocent of that thing: I never thought I would be reduced to this point. I am innocent, I never intended to give me a deserter; they innocently ruined me [...]

From Theresienstadt (Bohemia) To Trinitapoli (Foggia)

August 3, 1916

[...] I no longer deign to call you dear father having received your letter today, where I read that I had died in the war, and that I have dishonored you and the whole family all speak ill of me. Because I understand that you no longer feel filial love, you feel nothing but love for your country and for your king. Therefore from now I will be your greatest enemy, and no longer your Domenico. I thank you wholeheartedly, but do not send me anything. Remember that I am not a child to be dragged by my companions, as you say. Goodbye. You know I'm not very good at writing but these are my words [...]

From Salzburg (Austria) To Terni

29/10/1916

Dear Mother [...] I received a letter from my sister who said that I was a deserter [...] That would be the limit, after doing my duty. I was ordered to patrol with Lieutenant and Sergeant, two corporals and 10 soldiers and we went inside the Castle of Plezzo, and we were surrounded by Austrian soldiers and then they set fire to this castle with artillery. Inside you could no longer resist the great fire, or die, burned or captive. Executed all the commands of the lieutenant and made every effort to retreat to our position, but we could no longer escape, I think we have done our duty [...]

From Mauthausen (Austria) To Rome

02/24/1918

[...] here, my dear wife, we die of cold and hunger, as well as because of lice. To eat, they give us a loaf of bread every eight soldiers, which we must divide into a hundred grams of bread for each, which we eat in six bites.

In the evening we receive a herring each one with three or four pieces of potatoes or carrots and a mixture of hot water; here is all the ration that pass us daily; this serves to sustain us, since we can not stand up anymore because of our hunger. Our clothes are tattered and we die of cold with the snow and we are forced to sleep on the ground with big lice never seen on my skin. I assure you, dear wife, that I could never imagine coming to find these troubles and similar sufferings. For this reason many soldiers die, especially because of hunger, because they fall ill because of weakness, and I hope that Our Lady will grant me the grace to return to Italy, die later no longer matters to me [...] Every time a parcel arrives , we have a big party and we need to survive the best, since here we see nothing but hunger [...]

[Letter forwarded clandestinely, through a repatriated invalid prisoner]

From Mauthausen (Austria) To Bianco (Reggio Calabria)

01/12/1916

My dear mother. I received your [...] The content of it, concerning my misfortune, brought me pain and even tears. Mum, I am innocent, I confess to you with ample confidence because my conscience tells me and reaffirms it to me. I am free from any remorse [...] I have great faith in God because he will recognize my innocence and help me in the struggle that I will sustain on my return. Yes, when I return, I say, because I will come, I will come to justify my unjust accusation. Rather than renouncing my homeland, I also want to unjustly suffer the condemnation. [...] Do not worry, because your son has not dishonored you [...]

From Zsadàni - Behar Megge (Hungary) To S. Piero Patti (Messina)

02/11/1917

[...] Dear mother, on January 1st I wrote a letter as soon as I knew the sad news about how they took me prisoner, and this letter, present it to the mayor to make him verify this very serious mistake, which is in the meantime my downfall the pain of the whole family [...]. I hope that such an interesting letter has not been lost; Please God has arrived to you. Dear mother, be sure and do not doubt your son, because everything is identical to what I wrote to you, the whole truth, believe me, I am innocent [...] no, mother, I would not have played a cowardly part, not even for all the gold in the world, on any occasion. As I told you, I was forcibly taken, and neither myself nor my companions could move. If we could, we would have made every resistance possible, but we were five against twenty-five. I hope everyone will have understood and that my innocence is considered. Do not believe, dear mother, that I could forget you as well as my bride to make a similar fact, I would not even have imagined it! I have always been wretched and I will always be for all my life; this is the last sentence: to be disgraced and not to see my family again! Precisely I was rewarded for having always done my duty as a citizen and a faithful soldier. Ah! if I saw how I cried every day, and how much I do every moment! It is too bad a sentence that bad luck has brought me, a thing which will never pass! [...]

From Selyp Nógrad (Hungary) To Palazzuolo (Florence)

Selyp 20.5.917

My dearest Adalgisa, Tomorrow is a year of my imprisonment, this date will be unforgettable for me. Eh !, the fateful day of my decision I will not ever forget, I'll tell you everything: "the war" was wanted by the murderers, the unconscious, but today? ... I can not complain about being in Hungary (only I say and I insist that the nationalist aspiring imperialists could have avoided it). Here I'm fine, I hope you will have received my photograph and then you can see; the provisioning is discreet - bread a Kg. per day of wheat, clothing also we can not complain, we all have two seals, one for work and the other for Sunday, linen the same and we change it every week, and pay we currently have three daily crowns, they are always together with the L. and I hope we will remain until peace, only for a while we do not take any correspondence from Italy, this gives us to think more of everything, for the rest do not worry that I I'm fine.

From Meiringen (Switzerland) To Rome

04/09/1918

[...] At first I must tell you that your son is very well now, so no worries; but without wanting to scare you, I want to tell you how poor Giovanni suffered, not for a long time, fortunately, since I adopted him a few days after his arrival and he was my protégé. Arriving in the field the boches separated the Italians from the French, without letting them communicate with each other; luckily I was appointed to go to their camp. The German system is to exhaust them completely, not by feeding them. So they were walking skeletons I saw them kneeling to beg us to feed them, they died on average seven a day, falling into the toilet, walking, eating. Ah, what a show! If this soup fell on the ground it was not that dirty and stinking water, they even ate the earth. Oh, hunger is terrible; others went to the dunghill to look for old garbage [...] For the least fault in the field they deprive them of bread, you see a little 'those misfortunes; of detestable soup without bread. It's awful. All the French had adopted a godson, in this way we have saved many. The French bring soup in cans and they pass it without being seen by the boches. If your vehicles permit it, do not forget to send packages because you do not have to rely on the dirty and puzolenta water boches soup. Here is the best package of packages for a prisoner; of soldier's biscuits, dried vegetables, pasta, a box of meat, fat or lard, chocolate, condensed milk, soap [...]

Georges H.

[Letter translated from French]

From Otoshniya (Hungary) To Cuasso al Monte (Varese)

03/25/1918

[...] because here if a package does not arrive I must lose (die); necessarily because now we poor prisoners are all ruined, already of my group someone dies of exhaustion. Last week a doctor visited us, and told us that we are almost all tuberculosis that means tisonic and from this disease no longer heals [...] while I write to you I cry [...] I see that I perish every day increasingly. Now I'm not interested in anything more ... [...] When I get the parcels I'm spitting for two or three days. Dear parents at times find it so sad and grieved me that more than once I cursed you and even when I was born, dear parents, you have no guilt [...]

From K. u. K. Station (Austria) To Cremona

02/22/1918

[...] Today I ate a tin of dog meat that seemed to me very good. Weakness has taken hold of me to such an extent that when I walk I seem to be a drunk, a sleepwalker and, moreover, my sight has failed me, I can hardly see any more [...]

 

Bibliography:

G. Procacci, Soldati e prigionieri italiani nella Grande Guerra: con una raccolta di lettere inedite, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2000.

A. Gibelli, La grande guerra degli italiani:1915-1918, Milano, Rizzoli, 2007