The war of the forts seen by Fritz Weber

Fritz Weber, Austrian writer and journalist, was born in 1895 and died in Vienna in 1972. He participated in the Great War and told of his experiences in many books. As artillery officer, he served for the entire duration of the conflict on the Italian front, first over the Plateau and then on the Isonzo. At the conclusion of the war, he was deployed on the Piave Front and participated in the last battle fought by the imperial Austro-Hungarian army. No doubt, Fritz Weber’s most successful book is Das Ende einer Armee: the original edition published in 1931 received great editorial acclaim, being reprinted several times. It was translated for the Italian audience and released by the publisher Ugo Mursia in 1965. Weber leaves us a bitter autobiography, in which the Austrian writer emerges marked by a deep inner contradiction. The soldier, although disgusted by the senselessness of the war, was firmly determined to do his duty.

Below are some extracts from the book that tell of the earliest phases of the war. Here, Lieutenant Weber is in service at Fort Verle.

"Only the forts are truly in order and form the backbone of this seemingly weak line. However, no one knows their effective resistance to fire.

Cima di Vezzena, the northernmost of the four forts, built on a rocky summit at an altitude of 1900 metres, does not have a wide firing range. For this reason, it has been conceived only as a fortified observation post and equipped with five machine guns. Verle, Luserna and Gschwendt are, however, fully equipped: each fort has a garrison of three hundred men and four howitzers placed in rotating armoured towers, two cannons on the side behind front shields, four cannons in casements to battle the advance-fosse... food and munitions for one hundred days...

The stronghold should have nine officers and three hundred men. Verle, instead, has only two officers: the commander, Lieutenant Gimpelmann, and sub-lieutenant Papak, plus three privates and a doctor. There are two hundred artillerymen and one hundred diggers in the engineer corps. They are all young people, on whom one can count...

The days pass, one like another... A series of wires urges: be ready, as ready as possible... At night, we place sentinels in the front line, to avoid possible surprises. However, we find nothing suspicious. The landscape is deep in silence and, with the exception of the sentinel of the Verena Fort, not a single Italian is seen...

An infernal din jerks us from sleep... Thunder: for a few seconds, we perceive the characteristic whining of the bullets, then the explosion. The walls shake. Then, silence again...

There is an impact every three minutes. The reinforced concrete vibrates like bronze. It seems though the bullets fly over our heads. In one section, one explosion is stronger than the others: a second battery has opened fire on us...

We climb the crooked steps of the ladder. The platform is in disorder, the weapon lies sideways, and the shield has an enormous rift. The smoke is suffocating...

Above the Fort Cima di Vezzena rises a cloud of smoke in the shape of a cluster of grapes. Luserna is also bombarded...

We disappear again; this time the grenade bursts before us, over the concrete steps. The tower is immersed in a cloud of dust... We get back up and wait. The same scene is repeated for six consecutive hours. Every three minutes we throw ourselves to the ground, as an explosion bursts our eardrums. Our heads are spinning like tops. After six hours of fire, twelve of rest; another six of inferno, unless we are cut to ribbons sooner...

Suddenly, the haze that encompasses the Costesin dissolves and we can glimpse a true city of tents. Many are hidden under the trees, but others are in the open. We distinctly see the Italians moving, since the distance does not exceed sixteen hundred metres. This camp represents one of those typical phenomena of inexperience in war possible only in its first days. Perhaps the Italians believe they have already reduced the fort to silence...

In the meantime, a tragedy took place in Luserna caused by a mental breakdown that only by miracle did not cause the loss of the entire line of Lavarone. The commander, Lieutenant Nebesar, in fear of a surprise attack, kept all of his men up for three days and three nights, without allowing them to sleep. One alarm followed the other, the towers were occupied permanently and in the posts for the machine guns men were in vigil, nearly dropping with fatigue. All that happened because the brain that should have been in charge was incapable of evaluating the exact situation of the fort...

Around 16:00, the sentinel on guard in the rotating armoured tower, stated that four white flags had been raised over Luserna. We could not believe it and we shook with indignation. If one of the forts fell, the entire line would fall into pieces...

Only someone who for entire weeks had remained shut up in a concrete box, under a hail of grenades, can justify the men of Luserna. The garrison was composed of the same trusting, brave soldiers to be found in the garrison of the other forts. It was all the fault of the commander, more insane than evil.

Bibliography:

F. Weber, Tappa della disfatta, Milano, Mursia, 1965, pp. 6ff.