2017 commemorates the hundredth anniversary of perhaps Italy’s greatest military disaster, certainly its most costly one: the Great War’s battle of Caporetto, otherwise known as the twelfth battle of the Isonzo. The Italian army’s front line, under the command of General Cadorna, was broken and had to push back to the Piave river. Only the battle of Monte Grappa stopped the Austrians from entering wholesale into the Adige and Po valleys. It was the great resistance at the Piave that stopped the Austrian reconquest of Italy, a fact that is still recognized today when we crossed this river – which ran red with the blood of soldiers in 1918 – while driving on the A4 motorway through Veneto.
The Italian army comprised 874,000 soldiers as against 350,000 Austrians. The Italians also had 6,918 artillery pieces against just 2,213 Austrian. So what went wrong?
By the end of the battle there were 305,000 Italian casualties as against 70,000 Austrian, more than four times as many… In addition, over half a million civilian refugees poured into Italy escaping from well-documented rape and pillage (in the town of Portogruaro alone there were over three hundred illegitimate children born nine months later). Many refugees were welcomed by Bagni di Lucca. Indeed, the companion of Evangeline Whipple, (the author of ‘A famous corner of Tuscany’ about Bagni di Lucca) died as a result of contracting Spanish flu while nursing the refugees. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/a-rosy-relationship/ for a fuller account).
The ‘disfatta di Caporetto’ was notorious for the Austrians’ use of what would later develop into the Hitlerian Blitzkrieg: intensive fire with highly mobile units and widespread use of machine guns, flame throwers and light trench mortars. Notoriously too, arsenic-chloric and diphosgene poison gas canisters were launched causing devastating effects on Italian casualties and morale.
(A trench at Caporetto)
The defeat was blamed on Cadorna, a martinet and an incompetent commander who brought a new level of ineptitude to the management of the Italian army. Cadorna was infamous for his application of military discipline. For example, Italian soldiers made prisoners-of-war were termed deserters and were not allowed any Red Cross food parcels or medicines. Thousands literally died of hunger or disease in Austrian camps such as Spielberg and Mauthausen. Those who were not captured by the enemy but retreated when ordered to advance were decimated i.e. one out of ten were selected to be court-marshalled and usually shot. It’s been estimated that 6% of the Italian army was found guilty in this way. Unsurprisingly, Cadorna was relieved of his command after the rout of Caporetto and the Italian army was placed under the command of General Diaz who led it to final victory at Vittorio Veneto the following year.
Bagni di Lucca played a role in the Great War out of all measure to its population: over 250 young men lost their lives in action out of a total population of just 5,000. I’ve written a post on the part our comune played in WWI at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-the-great-war-from-an-italian-perspective/ and local historian prof. Natalia Sereni has also written a fascinating book on the subject titled ‘Bagni di Lucca nella Grande Guerra. (See https://www.ibs.it/bagni-di-lucca-nella-grande-libro-natalia-sereni/e/9788865504871 )
There’s nothing, however, more poignant than to focus away from the broad perspective of WWI and delve into its effect on individual young men. The Uni-tre’ lezione’ this week was delivered by Prof Marcello Cherubini who read and commented on letters written by two soldiers from Bagni di Lucca, Arnaldo and Amos Contrucci. Censorship is a major issue in any correspondence during a war situation and these letters were no exception to the rule. Specific places could not be mentioned – just an ‘area of operations’ or ‘zona di guerra.’ Some soldiers got round this by writing where they were stationed underneath the postage stamp (and then sometimes adding on the envelope ‘please find where I am by looking under the stamp…!) Furthermore, soldiers could not say they were freezing to death or dying of hunger on the front. Everything had to be couched in positive terms. Indeed, Cadorna would cancel soldiers’ leave with the excuse that soldiers returning home might tell friends and relatives what conditions were really like at the front. Another problem with writing home was that almost half the Italians at that time were illiterate. So even if one could write a letter, who, in the family would actually be able to read it?
The letters of Arnaldo and Amos, two local brothers, describe not only their military conquests – they were part of the first regiment to march into the newly conquered city of Gorizia ‘la Maledetta’ – the damned – otherwise known as the sixth battle of the Isonzo and in which 20,000 Italian soldiers lost their lives as against just (!) 9,000 Austrians. The letters also describe amorous conquests too with a ‘bella goriziana’. All letters state that the soldiers are in the best of health (even though the true situation might be utterly the opposite) and winning every battle they fight in. They conclude with best wishes to their family members all listed by name in highly concentrated sheets of densely-written paper.
Sadly, in the twelfth battle of the Isonzo – the terrible defeat of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) Amos was taken prisoner by the Austrians and languished in the concentration camp of Mauthausen – which subsequently became the notorious extermination camp under the Third Reich). Now the letters make desperate pleas to send food especially flour. Clearly, Amos was still being retreated as a ‘deserter’ like so many other Italian prisoners-of-war. The letters finish with a note from a fellow prisoner to Amos’ family poignantly describing their son’s last moments and death through – probably – Spanish flu and a follow-up letter of condolences from the military authorities.
(From left, Profs Natalia Sereni, Marcello Cherubini, Valeria Catelli)
Cherubini’s talk was captivating and moving in equal measure. Statistics of thousands missing or dead may often be too enormous to comprehend by the individual human mind: read out, however, the correspondence of named soldiers from Bagni di Lucca, now stuck in atrocious condition of mud, cold and sleeping in water-logged trenches often filled with excrement and unburied bodies of previous fatalities from ‘over-the-top’ and attacked by vermin of all sorts and then war and the pity and the lie of war come out to the forefront in massive measure. As that greatest of war poets, Wilfred Owen, wrote:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
PS On a lighter note I’m giving a ‘lezione’ for Bagni di Lucca’s Unitre on Thursday April 6th at 4 pm. The subject is “Giovanni Battista Cipriani: un artista Toscano in Inghilterra” and is about the famous painter of the royal gold coach, co-founder of the Royal Academy and ancestor of my wife.