Voices from the Karst: From the trench to the assault

During the Great War the trench became the greatest symbol of the tragic wartime experience of millions of men. The First World War in fact saw soldiers entrenched as the norm, thus significantly altering modes of confrontation: there were no more brutal but short battles, but rather long and violent fighting over large spaces and against an often invisible enemy. In the Karst region and along the Isonzo, the Italians, initially at a disadvantage to their adversary on account of the lack of weapons, poor knowledge of the territory and the unfavourable positions they held, beginning in the winter of 1915, faced an efficient defensive line with an already well-developed Austro-Hungarian trench network.

 

The progressive evolution of Italian fortification works

Leo Pollini, Infantry Lieutenant, Ferrara Brigade

At first there were rocks and the natural earth outcroppings, behind which, after the brief madness of the assault, men hid their heads, pressing into the ground with their faces, tasting the red soil in their mouths and, without saying a word, pressing the wound in their side against the pointed rocks that poked almost breaking the flesh.

Later small walls were raised between shell holes and used as a communication line between different positions (...).

Then came the sandbags. (...) The trenches grew and became more solid; close to them began to emerge the first dens, rudimentary homes, troglodytic and primitive hearths. They improved month by month; (...) the interiors were widened, the walls embellished, the ceilings rose to the level of the trenches and it was possible to remain comfortably where earlier it seemed that one would suffocate in three minutes.

The first, plain and rudimentary walkways were laid out and only used at night, then defiladed and covered (...).

Then came the caves. (...) At first the commanders were opposed to their use, because they thought that it would demean the soldiers. And yet how many times during the fighting I left one man at the weapons and made the others to take refuge in them during bombardments, thereby surviving preserving them and their equipment for the decisive moment of the struggle. (...) They were generally used to house the commanders, reserves, and aid stations.

 

Trench life was no doubt a hardship and shocking experience for the soldiers from countless points of view.

The visual impact of the front line

Carlo Salsa, Infantry Lieutenant, Palermo Brigade

You cannot move; this ditch we are in is crammed full of pressed bodies, twisted legs, rifles, piled up ammunition boxes, and overflowing garbage. Everything is caked in a layer of mud like red mistletoe.

(...) One edge of the trench is full of dead bodies that blend together in a confused tragedy: I ​​trace out the human figures one by one.

(...) Cautiously, with a stick, I lift up a tent cloth that covers a mess: a fetid stench knocks me back: but I catch a glimpse of five or six dead men staring lifelessly into a hole open in their midst: only one livid face looked upwards, his fleshless jaw sneering at the sky.

(...) The tangled walls of the trench erupt here and there with clogged shoes, swollen wraps, fingers of people buried or sunk slowly into the ground: even the ground on which we are lying occasionally has hard bumps in places.

(...) The surrounding terrain is sown with human remains that are tangled, pressed, lumped together (...).

Helmets riddled with holes, rifles, feathered caps of Bersaglieri, and postcards litter the ground.

(...) Nearby, a shell-battered tree trunk, bent over as if trying to escape, holds pieces of something dripping from the top of a torn branch.

And farther up, among the unburied dead, are those buried alive: our holes stuffed with men, tiny ampoules of life in that nameless graveyard.

 

The constant presence of the corpses

Alfredo Graziani, Cavalry Lieutenant, assigned to the Sassari Brigade

As much as is done to bury the fallen as soon as possible, there are so many that the more are carried away, the more come; there are always so many of them! And with the heat of the sun by day, and the pouring rain at night, all these corpses decompose with incredible speed.

The stench is unbearable, a penetrating and amorphous stink. (...) We requested that several quintals of lime or other material be sent to us as a saving grace; the High Command replied that it had nothing, and so we bury the dead bodies under a sprinkling of dirt, just to hide them and to stave off the biting of the countless ravenous flies, but it does not help. The whole area is nothing but a huge cemetery; we eat among the dead, we sleep on the dead, we live together with the dead.    

 

Lice are everywhere.

Salvino Diana, Private, Engineer phone operator

So now the lice have appeared, the bastards! They make it impossible to live! One day at the command post there was a lieutenant colonel dictating a phonogram to me; the way the man went back and forth I knew he was full of lice too. At one point he sat down on a wood bench and called his adjutant, gave him a stick he held in his hand and said:

"Scratch me". The other man stuck the stick to his back and started scratching. (...) But we were all full of lice, soldiers and officers alike; to the lice it made no difference.

 

The terrible danger of cholera

Amleto Albertazzi, Second Lieutenant Infantry, Bisagno Brigade

There is a new disaster falling upon the bloodstained trenches: an even more terrible enemy is lurking among the ranks: cholera. Already down there among the foothills of the mountains there is a large company of sick in the quarantine station.

(...) Pitiful and heart-wrenching groans from the cholera victims resound through the valley.

 

The torment of thirst

Alfredo Graziani, Cavalry Lieutenant, assigned to the Sassari Brigade

I was thirsty as hell. I asked a soldier for his canteen.

“Su tenè, boida est, non d’hamos; tota die cun mesa ghirba semus”.

[Lieutenant, it's empty, we have no water. We go all day with half a canteen.]

Oh well! I started chewing on another cigarette, fooling myself into imagining that I had drunk.

 

The wait for rations

Carlo Orelli, Private, Siena Brigade

Rations often did not arrive on time because the personnel who had to supply the front lines came from the rear where the field kitchens were located. To get to us they often had to run across open field and were thus exposed to sniper fire. Many times they were wounded or, even worse, killed.

Since the risk could not be taken of losing the ration and above all the supply personnel, there were often no rations and there was nothing that could be done about it. All we could do was to wait patiently for the next supply round and hope it would go better. It was possible to go for days without eating. During the war we always had to scrounge to survive. If the cannon fire did not kill you, you could die just trying to get something to eat.

 

The hazardous climate

Mario Muccini, Infantry Lieutenant, Caltanissetta Brigade

The soldiers froze on the icy floor of the walkways, the cold was intense especially at night and there was no way to get warm. Someone demolished the barn and burned the boards.

Our feet are always wet and we have no socks (...).

The number of soldiers with frozen limbs has risen to an enormous figure. The regiment is being destroyed day by day in this white hell; it falls apart and is overcome by snow and mud. The infantrymen no longer laugh or smile. Their faces seem to have frozen in a nightmare of cosmic pain.

 

The often inadequate clothing

Carlo Orelli, Private, Siena Brigade

Our clothing was very light, the uniform was cotton and we did not have a cloak because when I was at the front it was summer and it was very hot. Even our shoes were not made of leather, but rather of light canvas. We tied cotton or wool bands around our calves depending on the season.

When we left Naples we were thrown into battle with full battle gear.

At the beginning we had caps and only later helmets.

 

Forced daytime immobility

Alfredo Graziani, Cavalry Lieutenant, assigned to the Sassari Brigade

The "alley" is entered from every side. It is a position known in trench jargon as "funky".

(...) Those who enter it have to crawl, those who live there are continually squatting and constantly dreading. One goes in clean and comes out red with aching limbs and broken bones.  

(...) It is the temporary tomb of the living!

 

Feverish night work

Paolo Caccia Dominioni, Second Lieutenant of the Field Engineers and later commander of a Flamethrower unit

With our lack of sleep and excessive fatigue, long beards, and emaciated faces, we are gradually beginning to appear like the famous beggars in a Callot print.  

 

In a theatre devastated by the uncontrollable violence of the war, the trench became the home of millions of soldiers, who had to endure unspeakable hardships and suffering despite themselves.   

For the soldiers involved in the conflict there was an experience even more overwhelming than that of the wretched life in the trenches, that of the terrible moment of the assault. At the onset of the Great War, the war industry underwent a remarkable evolution, putting powerful weapons onto the battlefields, making the clashes extremely violent and whose effects on the flesh of the wounded men could be devastating.

On the Karst and along the Isonzo, the Italian infantry generally maintained an offensive attitude, forced as they were to make extended uphill runs across rugged, unprotected and deeply shell-torn ground, against the dominant and well-fortified Austro-Hungarian positions.

 

Over the top: an indescribable feeling of bewilderment

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

At precisely 15:15, the artillery lifted its fire and we went over the top. (...) We stopped a few metres from the wire and pressed ourselves into mother earth as best we could. I had never seen a sight like this before!

(...) The sight of so much blood and death impressed horror on me for the first time: seeing enemy machine guns a few metres away exploding and smoking, wiping out half a company, hearing the cries of the seriously wounded and not being able to do anything for them, staying frozen to the ground, swallowing mouths of dirt under the wire, expecting that at any minute one of the many bullets whistling around my ears would have my name on it and not being able to defend or help the wounded whose cries were heart wrenching. It was enough to drive one mad.

Seeing oneself beside the dead and bodies with faces contorted in spasms of agony, my fellow infantrymen with whom I shared quarters, the trench and sips of water, hearing the groans of the batman entangled in the enemy’s wire, and watching him die under the fire of the Austrian riflemen, and being unable to do anything, having to remain flat on the ground, waiting for one's own turn to die, it is frightening. Only those who have lived through it can imagine it, the pen can never exactly describe it!

 

The dual trauma of the soldier: the acceptance of murder and the danger of being killed

Nunzio Coppola, Second Lieutenant, Barletta Brigade

Dear Father, I have something I must confess to you. In the fury of the melee, when it came to hand-to-hand fighting with the enemy, I had to use my revolver against them, I hit more than one (...).

The image of that young man turning white as I fired and opening his arms as he dropped his rifle, and falling on top of me, because I was a bit lower than him, as if to embrace me without saying a word, is always with me and haunts my dreams on many nights. Many times I think of so many strange things, but I cannot stop thinking about it. I did not know his name and I never will know it, but I don't know why I keep thinking about the mother waiting for him to return. Maybe he doesn't even have a mother, just as I don't have a mother. But, if I had not killed him then, he would have made it that it was you awaiting my return in vain. Even with all these thoughts, I still cannot get it out of my mind.

 

Night patrols before the assault: wire cutters and the iron tube with blasting gelatine

Alfredo Graziani, Cavalry Lieutenant, assigned to the Sassari Brigade

The forerunners of death with their wire cutters tried to clear the way for the imminent assault.

(...) Our men continued to advance. Crawling, they arrived beneath the wire and, as much as possible, curl up in a blind spot.

The cutters began to work, then suddenly the tinkling of bells interrupted the silence of the work and, almost simultaneously, the whole trench round burst forth with fire and issued forth a hail of iron. From the already occupied front line our third wave responded, but the first ones out were left there, stuck, lying exposed, under the rain of bullets. The wire cutters continued their work undaunted (...).

The enemy fire, though fierce, was harmless. Under the protection of our troops, the work of cutting the wire proceeded quickly and almost undisturbed. We waited for the word "forward" to go.

 

Gaetano Filastò, Private first class, Corpsmen, Brescia Brigade

What is my danger compared to that which the volunteers for death will soon face?

(...) Leaving the trench, getting to the enemy wire, inserting the long and heavy cast iron tubes filled with blasting gelatine, igniting the fuse, bracing and waiting for the blast, and then making the assault. And all this has to be done while the entrenched enemy shoots at anyone attempting to advance.

 

Artillery bombardments

Nunzio Coppola, Second Lieutenant, Barletta Brigade

Dawn began to break, and with dawn the first sounds of cannon, which were immediately followed by the shells, beginning as rhythmic cadences of giant and numerous drums, gradually growing in intensity and number, until they became a single, terrible deafening roar, bursting with long shrieking shots that cannot be imagined or described.

(...) Thousands of guns of all calibres firing, in every tone possible, throwing tons of shells along every metre of the line. Add to that the fire of the enemy's response which, if not of the same intensity as ours, was by no means inconsiderable.

(...) And all this hell went on not for an hour or two, but for hours and hours, continuously, without a second's interval. Just when you thought that there would be a break, it would resume even more intense.

 

Lifting of the artillery barrage before the imminent attack

Carlo Salsa, Infantry Lieutenant, Palermo Brigade

The rounds are falling shorter: now the shells are striking the wire fence that collapses in shredded piles of near the areas of the explosions, and the chevaux de frise that flit and flutter like entangled mosquitoes. The air is heated by a fervour of destruction and a sense of slaughter, as if from the blood-soaked soil.

Nearby, the soldiers huddle together immobile, waiting between a rack of rifles, like stowed cattle.

Suddenly the shelling stops. Anguish hangs in the air during the break.

The crowded mass of the assault platoon tumbles forward to the attack: billows of smoke twisting above the silent enemy trench that is waiting.

 

The distribution of the bits of comfort: spirits and chocolate

Carlo Orelli, Private, Siena Brigade

Before the assault, they gave the soldiers liquor to help numb us to what was happening. But I never drank the stuff because I wanted to keep my head clear.

 

H hour: the moment of the assault

Arnaldo Calori, Infantry Officer, Lombardy Brigade

The final moments, with a cigarette in mouth to kill the nerves, a buzzing in my head, an empty feeling in my stomach, a kind of resignation, ten seconds, ... five seconds, ... the feverish eyes of the soldiers fixed on my face, one second ...

It's H hour: a scream, a run, a quickly wounded man that falls to the ground and shouts at us that we must keep moving.

All around soldiers are stopping: are they dead? ... wounded? ... who understands anything that is happening?

(...) Forward, in small rushes between bomb blasts, and hissing machine guns.

(...) The bullets blur around like ice pellets, the shrapnel makes crown and star outlines on the trenches and the walkways behind us.

We stop, clinging to a rock, inside a shell hole, small groups of soldiers from three or four regiments.

(...) Meanwhile, the enemy continues to shell us angrily, until the night brings us darkness and a few moments of truce.

 

Two insurmountable obstacles: barbed wire and machine guns

Aurelio Baruzzi, Infantry Lieutenant, Pavia Brigade

And so the attacking infantry was desperately looking for a gap in the middle of the barbed wire that was never open, under the fire of the machine guns that sowed numerous dead and injured among the ranks, leaving the flower of its youth on that terrible barbed wire, with little hope of a tangible victory.  

 

Main objective: resist at all costs

Mario Muccini, Infantry Lieutenant, Caltanissetta Brigade

The telephone lines have been cut, the switchboards blown up. The messengers have not returned. We are cut off, we no longer have communications with anyone, nor do any commanders give us orders or instructions. The battalion received just one order last night: fight to the death. Do not fall back.

 

The brutality of fighting with cold steel

Alfredo Graziani, Cavalry Lieutenant, assigned to the Sassari Brigade

The fighting had become furious and fierce. Our troops were using their bayonets like a dagger, and their rifles like clubs. The enemy put up strong resistance and (...) continued, vigorously and valiantly, to oppose our efforts.

Clinging bodies fell to the ground, gasping, wrestling in the mud and then one or the other getting the upper hand; then one of the two rose, still staggering, shaking loose from the grip of his opponent, who remained on the ground forever. Blood dripped from the grooves on the bayonets.

 

The experience of the assaults was a drama that left deep marks upon the bodies and souls of all those who took part in them, no matter which army they belonged to.

 

References:

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