from 'the War Illustrated' 9th August, 1916
'The Battle in the Snows'
By Luigi Barzini

An Epic Story from Italy’s Alpine War

heroic illustrations from a British magazine

SIGNOR LUIGI BARZINI, the distinguished correspondent of the "Corriere della Sera," is the king of Italian journalists. As a war correspondent few men have had a wider experience. He went through the Russo-Japanese War, the two Balkan Wars, and the Mexican struggle. He was in Belgium and France during the early months of the present conflict. When the Austro-Italian . campaign broke out he was appointed official correspondent with the Italian Army. Dressed as a soldier he lives in the first-line trenches with the troops. During the Battle of Pal Piccolo he was in the thick of the fight, and has here described what he saw and felt. This article, specially written for 'THE WAR ILLUSTRATED', has been translated from the Italian by Dr. James Murphy, himself a famous British correspondent with the Italian forces.



True Tales of the War by Famous Correspondents

We were encamped on the mountain side, in caverns dug into the ice-hardened snow, around us the rugged and angry peaks of Pal Piccolo, beneath us the Pass of Monte Croce. Here is one of the vital spots in the Italian line, for it commands the Freikofel approaches, and consequently the way into the Italian plains. Where the cluster of hills reaches its highest point two crests tower above all the others, to a height of about 6000 feet. They stand opposite to one another, running somewhat parallel along their summits, separated by a distance of about one hundred yards. One is in our hands, the other in those of the Austrians.

At half-past two in the morning, in the midst of a driving snowstorm, we were awakened by the incessant crackle of rifle fire. "There is a fight at Pal Piccolo," telephoned the sentry, "but it is a matter of no importance."

A few moments later the captain in command at Quota 1859 — which is the great military trenchwork guarding our position on the Pal — telephoned for reinforcements. The Austrians had come over the snow and had attacked him.

"Counter-attack immediately," was the order from the colonel. "I have done so already," replied the captain, "but I have lost a number of my men." Suddenly the telephone communications were broken off — a proof that he was already besieged and had his lines of communication destroyed.


Italian troops in action


White Phantoms in a Blizzard

The situation was extremely grave. One of our most important positions had suddenly fallen into Austrian hands. Over the intervening snow they had come, clad entirely in white. It was in the depth of night, with a blinding and bitter storm raging, so that the sentries could not have seen the moving mass. Generally on the darkest night a figure moving on the mountain, even though clad in the colour of the snow, throws a distinct reflection on the ice-encrusted ground ; but on that night no eye could pierce .the dense screen of the storm. Our men were shoveling the freshly fallen snow from their trenches when they were surprised by the phantom-like Austrians, who fell upon them in enormous masses. They bound the hands of the sentries with wire and smashed their skulls with rifles.

On they came, wave after wave in quick succession, flooding the main trenches and connecting galleries. From these galleries to the caves where our Alpini dwell a system of subterranean corridors run. The corridors are in the form of stairways whose steps are made of wood or hewn into the rock. Up to the openings of the corridors the Austrians came, destroying the stairways as far as possible and building barricades across the exits, so as to prevent any advance on the part of those who had retired to the refuges.

Having fought bravely and lost heavily, the garrison of Quota 1859 withdrew into its refuge, bringing as many of its wounded as possible, and decided to await reinforcements. Its position became surrounded and its communications entirely cut off. But the captain was determined not to surrender. Screened somewhat by the darkness and the blinding storm, his men rushed to and fro, bringing sand- bags, tables, and iron plates to block the mouths of their fortress. When the morning broke they peered out, only to see the phantom mass of howling enemies surrounding them. Jeeringly the Austrians shouted : "Down, Italians ! We are your masters. To-day, Pal Piccolo ; to-morrow, Pal Grande." They were but twenty yards distant, shouting hurrahs, hymns, and songs of victory. And they had reason to be confident of success; for their enterprise had been carefully planned and skilfully carried out. An enormous mass of defensive material was brought up — sand-bags, steel plates, searchlights, ammunition, and artillery — and the position consolidated. Should they succeed in holding their ground they would eventually control one of the main roads to Italy.


Italian artillery in the mountains


The Italian Counter-Attack

We realised the seriousness of it fully. One of the most important spots along our whole line, a vital spot, was in danger. "We must act immediately," ordered the general. "Each hour's delay may cost hundreds of lives."

A company of Bersaglieri at once received orders to attack the Austrians on the left. Forward they went, forging .ahead in single file, tunnelling the newly fallen snow to afford themselves a passage. But they were soon swept by the rifle fire and artillery of the enemy. The commander, two leading officers, and several of the men fell. Further advance was impossible; so they wheeled to the left and sought protection under the lee of a towering snow-peak. In order to understand this form of warfare one must know something of the conditions under which it is waged.

On the mountain the distances are short but the journeys are long. In order to arrive at a point not more than two hundred yards away, one must follow a zigzag course, leading downwards over precipitous declines and again upwards, scaling angry crags and circumventing treacherous ravines. As one moves forward the path must be excavated, and this is absolutely necessary where fresh snow has fallen. The battlefield is small but the manoeuvring is on a colossal scale. The enemy is near at hand, but the movements necessary to come into touch with him lie through distances that are well-nigh infinite. The mountain takes part in the conflict, pushing forward gigantic obstacles which make every step a combat. It has thrown up its fortresses and delved its moats, and it must be conquered before the enemy can be attacked.

The attack of the Bersaglieri failed, and for the moment it appeared as if our line would be broken. So we hastily built new trenches and brought up reserves for the defence. Our artillery came into action, but the blanket of clouds rendered aim impossible. The sky was our target, the heavens themselves were now against us. The wounded were falling into the deep glacial ravines, their cries for help reverberating against the cruel walls, piteous and tragic.

Then another plan of attack was decided upon. The Alpini took the centre of the advance, with the infantry on the right and the Barsagheri on the left. To make progress possible, and escape the withering fire of the Austrian artillery, they had to tunnel the mountain, through the hard ice and snow. In subterranean corridors they moved forward. It was tedious work, and all the while the Austrian position on the crest was growing stronger. After hours and hours of anxious waiting we saw our men emerge from their tunnels. Little black specks they looked on the side of the great white mountain. They appeared in batches of three, calling out orders and cries of encouragement to one another. One could see hands lifted to the grasping hand above, pulling one another upward by means of axes, ropes, alpenstocks, and rifles.

Then we saw circles of white smoke floating over the Austrian position. Our machine-guns rent the air. The crackle of their shells against the steel-plate Austrian defences was re-echoed from the glacial walls of the surrounding peaks. Recognising the sound, our troops on the lower portions of the hill shouted, "Bravo, Cariino ! Bravo, Carlino !" — the pet name given by the mountaineers to the little bronze machine-gun which is the watchdog of the trenches.

The Austrians sneeringly shouted, "Come on, Italians !" They were not more than one hundred yards away, but they occupied a crest which controlled every approach. The intervening ground consisted of a rugged steep, teeming with jagged crags and deep ravines, the whole terrain swept by the enemy's artillery. To advance in daytime was out of the question, so it was decided to wait for the cover of night.


an Italian machine-gun emplacement


Red Tracks Across the Snow

At nine o'clock the signal was given, and a riot of fire surrounded the crest. An Austrian searchlight swept the mountain side, the dark sky was lit up by an orange glow, and the whole zone became a palpitating mass of living flame. Our infantry swept around the shoulder of the crest, taking advantage of the shelter given them by the craggy banks of a mountain torrent. But our frontal attack could not proceed. There they stood, immobile and determined, but unable to advance, grappled together in groups, awaiting a more auspicious moment, annealed to the crags by the congealing snow and ice, insensible to cold and hunger, but determined not to yield an inch.

A little before midnight they sprang once more to the attack. Wounded again and again, lines of red marked their track across the snow, but still they went forward and upward. At midnight some sections had already arrived at a spot within six yards of the Austrians; other sections were within fifty yards. But the Austrian rain of hand-grenades was devastating. Our troops lost all their officers, and the attack had to be suspended once again. A damp snow was falling, freezing into a mailcoat of ice as it covered the bodies of the men.

At one in the morning a new order was given. Up from the shoulder of the hill came a detachment of Bersaglieri and Alpini. Some had rackets on their feet, tobogganing over mountains of snow, while others waded breast-deep through the newly-fallen drifts. Sometimes several hours were spent in covering only a few yards.

Then came the dawn — the dawn of the third day of struggle — ashen grey, cold and sad, filling one's soul with a sense of death. Because of the nearness of our troops to the Austrians our artillery could not come into action, but Carlino kept barking at the enemy, so that he was unable to show himself above the parapet. However, the Austrians were ready with a store of hand-grenades and rifles at the mouth of the gallery, just above the parapet. While they remained there, further attack was impossible.



more illustrations


Out of the unknown, like shades of the dead wandering on the mountain, came two Alpini, clad in white shirts. Nobody could divine whence they had come or whither they would go. They were utterly unarmed, simply carrying a harmless bread-basket. Soon they were at the mouth of the gallery, which towered above them like the balcony of a castle built of glistening ice. One was seen to stoop and lift the wooden ladder which the Austrians had thrown down. They placed it against the side of the wall and climbed upwards, while a shower of hand- grenades and rifle fire from the Austrians poured over their heads. Poising with the coolness of an athlete in the games, one launched his loaf of bread against the parapet. Another and another throw. Then the parapet leaped upwards. A wild cry of "Savoia!" rent the air; the. breach had been made. From crag to crag, from crest to crest, the loud hurrahs were passed, until the whole mountain became vocal. Upwards rushed the infantry, Bersaglieri, and Alpini, from right and left and centre. It was a struggle of sublime terror, waged on towering cliffs in the midst of the clouds, on a winter island, cast into the skies from the tepid seas of spring. As the battle raged the fighting units became intermixed. As the officers fell, the sergeants and soldiers leapt forward to command, but, dominating .all and directing all was the sublime faith and enthusiasm, which burned in each breast

"Avantii alia baionetta!"

"Up, up, Savoia!" rang the wild cry. Bersaglieri and Alpini pulled one another up the sides of the glistening crags, some holding the bare bayonet between their teeth.

"Up, up, Savoia !" Soon they were scaling the parapet. An Alpine colonel threw his feathered hat in the air, crying out, "Avanti, alia baionetta !" Then a heavy green cloud of poison gas was belched forth from the Austrians, but the wind blew it away from our men. Heaven, was with us. "Avanti, Savoia !"

In a thousand echoes the mountains crashed back the cry. Soon the bayonets were at work in the trenches, and the ground became encumbered with heaps of Austrian dead. The struggle of the terrible three days was over. Pal Piccolo was ours once more.

We counted six hundred dead, but that was only a fraction of the enemy's losses. They fought well and bravely, but they could not master the bravery and skill of our men. And thus Pal Piccolo remains the most heroic and sublime struggle ever fought on the mountains. In the moment of victory the besieged garrison came forth gleamingly and shook the hands of their deliverers. "We knew you would come," they said.


moving material and men up and down the mountains


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