- from the book 'War Scenes I Shall Never Forget'
- 'On the Venetian and Dolomite Fronts'
- by Carita Spencer
American Aid to Italy
the author is the lady in the middle of the photo
Venetta, June, 1916.
Still another front and so very different from the others. After an interesting two weeks in Rome, where I had business to attend to for our Committee, I received the unexpected but welcome permission to enter the Italian war zone. My first stop was Bologna, that uniquely beautiful city of terra cotta towers and heavily arcaded streets. To-day it is one of the big hospital centers of Italy, and I walked through miles of wards and studied surgical dressings in active use in the operating and dressing rooms until I felt as if I could not stand the sight of another one.
By contrast my nine-hour trip in the train last night over the mountains was full of the most restful beauty and romance. I found a little corner compartment which I managed to keep all to myself by the simple expedient of pulling down the shades and feigning sleep on the sofa when we stopped at stations. I left Bologna at six o'clock and for two hours feasted my eyes on the beauty of the lovely Italian hills in the setting sunlight. Then the moon came up, big and round and calm. After a while we stopped at a cross- roads. There was a block on the single track ahead. I opened my window. Not a sound to be heard. My train companions in the other compartments seemed to be asleep. It was just so beautiful, I drank it in. Then in the distance a tenor voice broke the stillness with a Neapolitan love song. Slowly it came nearer and grew louder and sweeter until a figure appeared at the top of the road. He came on down to the track, singing all the while.
I never enjoyed a Caruso aria as I did that song from the heart. Next came a lumbering hay-wagon drawn by oxen, a drop in the bucket of supplies for the front. Then a special dispatch carrier on a motorcycle, beastly sound which broke the spell of beauty and took me back to the guns. He dismounted and silenced his machine, as the train was blocking the crossing. Two other men appeared from somewhere, arm in arm. The Italians never sleep and they always sing. It was not many minutes before the group had gathered together and were giving us a concert around the ox cart in the moonlight. I sat back in my corner and wondered if there really were a war.
At last we moved on at our usual snail pace which is characteristic of the trains in the war zone. Also trains seem to be always late in the war zone. No matter what time I started from a place, I was sure to land at my destination between two and three a. m. True enough, about half-past two in the morning we drew into the station shed at Mestre, the point where all the gray-green uniformed soldiers and officers descended to return to their posts in the trenches. The train would stop some twenty minutes before it went on to Venice, so I got out on the platform, an object of interest to the many soldiers, as I was noticeably a civilian, a foreigner and a woman.
Almost simultaneous with our arrival a hospital train drew slowly into the station on the track next to ours. It came from the other direction. I stood in the center of the platform and looked at my train on the right. Many of the coaches were still filled with groups singing and gay, buying fruit and cheap wine from the shrill-voiced youngsters who ran up and down the platform with their wares. Officers of importance lounged about, non- coms ran the length of the train giving orders. I looked to the left, where huge Red Crosses stamped the sides of the light-truck, third-class carriages filled with enduring, pain-racked human beings. Here and there glued to the window was a bandaged head with two eyes looking out of hollow black-rimmed holes. The bandages were nearly always stained red. Even though the hospital car was but very dimly lighted, thanks to the ever-present aeroplane, I could see the feverish ones tossing about on their stretchers, disclosing bloody bandages on arm or leg or body as the case might be. As I carried a special permit to visit any military hospital or dressing station in Italy, I climbed into the train and walked through half a dozen cars. How I wished I had a hundred or so odd-sized little cushions with me! What a comfort they would have been to those men who yesterday did their duty to the end, and who would now for three or four days travel unwashed, their mud-caked uniforms still on them, in most cases their dressings unchanged, through the blistering heat of the Italian summer, to their destination in Rome. I tried to say a cheerful word here and there in my best Italian, but somehow it seemed so futile. There they lay through no fault of their own, alone and suffering hour after hour, and there on the other track, with courage undaunted by this sight, hundreds more were going north to take their turn. The physical side of war may be hell, but in the moral side there is certainly some kind of divinity.
The engine of my train whistled and I hopped back into the carriage. In ten minutes we had crossed the lagoon and were in Venice. Venice again by full moon. Years ago I arrived at this very station at midnight when the moon was full. Life and bustle were then everywhere, and the gay-lanterned gondolas were gliding up and down the Grand Canal with music and song in full blast. This night the same full moon shone down, but the silence and lonesomeness were overwhelming. After some waiting an old man managed to find me a gondola. I got into it with my little handbag and heavy coat, and for three-quarters of an hour we moved slowly and silently up the Grand Canal, where every window in the medieval palaces was barred and shuttered, and every branch canal and narrow passage deathlike in its stillness. Not a voice in the Venice one thinks of as always awake. Not a sign of life did I see except the aero patrol on the tops of several of the high buildings, their guns pointed skyward, ready for action.
When we reached the Hotel D------all was barred and closed. The old, stooped-back porter, who was finally aroused by the loud pounding of the gondolier, looked as though he had seen a ghost when he opened the door to let in a woman traveler in Venice in war time at three o'clock in the morning.
Italian Front, June, 1916
I came down from the highest mountain peaks on all the Italian front, the Dolomites, where General di R------sent me in his motor to the very peak next to one occupied by the Austrian guns. For the first and only time in my travels I was on soil conquered from the enemy. We could easily see the position of their guns through the glasses, and we were at great pains to hide the motor behind a screen of trees out of sight of those evil guns. I simply cannot describe the picturesqueness of that two- hundred-mile ride through one of the most beautiful mountain sections in Europe, over magnificent new roads, now the pathway for man, beast and food on the way up to the unbelievable war among the snowcaps. We passed through all kinds of camps, and I had excellent opportunity to realize the terrific difficulties of this front.
The following day we motored down out of the hills and into the flatter country behind the front where the Austrians had for the moment broken through. I was honored by being taken by the Duchesse d'A------to visit a front line hospital here. In a little village the stone schoolhouse had been turned into a temporary ambulance. A shell had fallen in the yard the day before, so the head surgeon feared they might be driven back any moment. Think what that means when you already have two hundred freshly wounded men in a place that can only accommodate a hundred and fifty, and ambulances are arriving every half hour with more. In the operating room six naked men, or what remained of them, lay on six different dressing tables, each with a red hole or stump out of which the doctor was pulling red gauze, or into which he was poking white gauze. For over thirty-six hours without rest these surgeons had been on duty. Is it any wonder that they could not be over-gentle, that they were sometimes blind to the writhing of their victims, or deaf to then-groans and shrieks! That is a sight I can never forget and I left it as quickly as I could, weak in the knees, and glad to hear the door slam behind me.
The next room we entered was somewhat less awful. Iron cots were crowded into it as close as you could pack them, with a human wreck in each one. They were what are known as the "Grands Blesses," that is, the men most dangerously wounded. I won't describe them, though the picture will never become indistinct. As the Princess entered every hand that had the strength to move attempted a salute. She went about, speaking a kind word to each one and tying a little tin medal with the colors of Italy on their wrists. The two women who were taking care of these two hundred or more men told me they were not quite sure whether it was two or three days since they had gone to bed. They were ladies who before the war had never known what manual labor meant. "There come moments like this," they said, "and then somehow we seem to find the strength, but it is awfully hard on the surgeons. Besides it's so difficult to keep the men clean and supplied with what they should have even as bare necessities. We hate to see them in dirty, blood-stained linen, but what can we do? Look! there come two more ambulances." And all the time they were working while they talked.
Oh! we at home, who are often bored by the daily headlines telling of trenches taken and lost, let us stop, think and imagine! What is our responsibility and how do we meet it? Is there really one of us with a heart and mind who dares to let twenty-four hours pass without dropping his mite of time, sympathy or money into the brave hand of suffering Europe! Men, women and children, they need us! If we do all we can, then we are not doing half enough! The horror of their suffering is hideous! The magnificence of their sacrifice is sublime!
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