May 23rd 1915 marks the hundredth anniversary of Italy’s entry into World War I. I have already given the background to this entry in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-the-great-war-from-an-italian-perspective/ .
As that ominous date approaches I recollected my visit, in April 2007, to the military memorial of Redipuglia in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Dedicated to the memory of more than 100,000 Italian soldiers who died during the Great War it was built during the fascist era to replace a less colossal cemetery just to the front of it.
It was that same fascist regime which almost lost the memorial to the Yugoslavs in the bitterest fighting that marked the close of the Second World War. The cemetery is, in fact, situated in the province of Gorizia, a town which has been divided between two countries since 1945 as a result of that fighting. Several other Italian cemeteries have not been so lucky and one has to cross over into Slovenia or Croatia to visit many of them, something more easily done now than during the existence of Yugoslavia.
The Redipuglia monument is the centre-piece of a large memorial park which includes several parts of the karst battlefields. These were the scene for some of the fiercest battles fought and include the Isonzo war theatre comprising twelve battles between 1915 and 1917 which ended with the disastrous defeat by the Austrians at Caporetto.
The huge size of the Redipuglia memorial makes it easily the largest military memorial in Italy and one of the largest in the world. It was an incredibly moving experience to be there.
I went to the top of the memorial where there is an ossuary dedicated to sixty thousand soldiers who died without a name and slowly walked down the colossal stair ramps (twenty two steps in total) casting an eye on some names which somehow rang a bell with me.
In all there are 39,857 names referring to the identified bodies of soldiers. I found the constantly repeated inscriptions “Presente” referring to the soldiers’ morning roll call particularly touching. Truly these soldiers are always present with us, “lest we forget”.
It is really shocking to realise that 60,330 soldiers are buried here without a name to identify them!
Interestingly, there is also a woman, a Red Cross nurse, buried at Redipuglia: Margherita Orlando, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic which followed the war’s end and claimed even more victims that those who fell in combat.
At the monuments base is the porphyry tomb (weighing 75 tons) of Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia-Aosta, commander of Italy’s Third Army – a sort of symbolic gesture (which he wanted) of a general leading his soldiers even beyond death.
Every November 4, in the presence of the President of the Senate (replacing the President of Italy who observes at Rome’s Altar of the Fatherland – or Motherland?) there is a commemoration, on the lines of our own tribute at London’s cenotaph, in remembrance of the 689,000 Italian soldiers who died in the First World War.
The great stone stairway down which I walked, and which forms a kind of gigantic shrine at Redipuglia, is placed directly in front of Sant’Elia Hill, which housed the previous war cemetery and which was also the scene of bitter fighting between 1915 and 1918. I found this previous war cemetery particularly touching as it was designed by the serving soldiers themselves rather than by a totalitarian regime which would drive Italy into yet another disastrous war.
The area between the two cemeteries contains relics of the fighting including trenches, tunnels, munition, machine gun nests and various examples of WW1 firepower.
The dedications set up by the survivors are themselves particularly poignant and, although this previous cemetery lacks the impressiveness of the new one designed by architect Giovanni Greppi and sculptor Giannino Castiglioni, it is for me even more moving, giving a closer impression of how feelings ran about the bloodiest conflict mankind has known.
It is both ironic and unbelievable that Mussolini’s monumental masterpiece was inaugurated in the same year that he began negotiating a “pact of steel” with his great admirer, Adolf Hitler.
When will we ever learn, I wonder.