from the book 'Many Fronts'
'The Garibaldi Fight Again for Freedom'
edited by Lewis R. Freeman

A Family of Soldiers

from a French newsmagazine
see also : Garibaldi's Grandsons Fighting for France / Les Funérailles de Bruno Garibaldi / La Mort de Bruno Garibaldi


Once or twice in every winter a thick, sticky-hot wind from somewhere on the other side of the Mediterranean breathes upon the snow and ice-locked Alpine valleys the breath of a false springtime. The Swiss guides, if I remember correctly, call it by a name which is pronounced nearly as we do the word "fun"; but the incidence of such a wind means to them anything but what that signifies in English. To them—to all in the Alps, indeed—a spell of fun weather means thaw, and thaw means avalanches; avalanches, too. at a time of the year when there is so much snow that the slides are under constant temptation to abandon their beaten tracks and gouge out new and unexpected channels for themselves. It is only the first-time visitor to the Alps who bridles under the Judas kiss of the wind called fun.

It was on an early January day of one of these treacherous hot winds that I was motored up from the plain of Venezia to a certain sector of the Italian Alpine front, a sector almost as important strategically as it is beautiful scenically. What twelve hours previously had been a flint-hard ice-paved road had dissolved to a river of soft slush, and one could sense rather than see the ominous premonitory twitchings in the lowering snow-banks as the lapping of the hot moist air relaxed the brake of the frost which had held them on the precipitous mountain sides. Every stretch where the road curved to the embrace of cliff or shelving valley wall was a possible ambush, and we slipped by them with muffled engine and hushed voices.

Toward the middle of the short winter afternoon the gorge we had been following opened out into a narrow valley, and straight over across the little lake which the road skirted, reflected in the shimmering sheet of steaming water that the thaw was throwing out across the ice, was a vivid white triangle of towering mountain. A true granite Alp among the splintered Dolomites—a fortress among cathedrals—it was the outstanding, the dominating feature in a panorama which I knew from my map was made up of the mountain chain along which wriggled the interlocked lines of the Austro-Italian battle-front.

"Plainly a peak with a personality," I said to the officer at my side. "What is it called?"

"It's the Col di Lana," was the reply; "the mountain that Colonel "Peppino" Garibaldi took partially in a first attempt, and afterwards Gelasio Caetani, the Italo-American mining engineer, blew up and captured completely. It is one of the most important positions on our whole front, for whichever side holds it not only effectually blocks the enemy's advance, but has also an invaluable sally-port from which to launch his own. We simply had to have it, and it was taken in what was probably the only way humanly possible. It's Colonel Garibaldi's headquarters, by the way, where we put up to-night and to-morrow; perhaps you can get him to tell you the story."

Where his study window looks out on the yellow Tiber winding through the Rome for which his father had fought so long and so bravely, I had listened one afternoon, not long previously, to that fiery old warrior. General Ricciotti Garibaldi while he spoke of the war and of Italy's part in it. "All of my boys are fighting," he had said, "and my daughters and my wife are nursing. Two of the boys are gone —killed in France—but the other five are with the Italian army. They are all good fighters, I think; but one of them—Peppino, the eldest— is also an able soldier. Or at least he ought to be, for he has been trained in the 'Garibaldi' school. There hasn't been a war (save only that between Russia and Japan) or revolution in any part of the world in the last twenty years that he hasn't drawn a sword, carried a rifle, or swung a machete. You must make a point of seeing him if you are visiting his part of the front, for he is a good little fellow, is our Peppino."

"And you'll fare well if you put up with Peppino. too," his little English mother had added: "He is sure to have a good cook; and then the dear boy was always so fond of sweets that I can't imagine his doing without them. Besides Sante is with him, and Sante was running a co-operative creamery when the war broke out. You may be sure that he has foraged his share of the good things too."

We found the grandson and namesake of the great Giuseppe Garibaldi quartered in a little string of an Alpine village which occupied the last bit of ground open enough to enjoy even comparative immunity from the snow sliding from either flank of the deep valley which the road followed up to the pass. The "good little fellow" who sprang up from his map and report-littered desk to bid us welcome turned out to be six feet of vigorous manhood, with a powerful pair of shoulders, a face red-bronzed from the sun-glint on the snow, and a grip which fused my fingers in the galvanic pressure of its friendly clasp. The high, narrow forehead, the firm line of the mouth, the steady serious eyes—all were distinctly Garibaldian,. recalling to me the words of his mother: "Ricciotti is my handsomest boy, but Peppino is the one most like the old General his grandfather."

His greeting was warm and hearty, and only in the grave eyes was there hint of the terrible responsibility accumulating through the fact that a hot, moist wind was playing upon the heaviest fall of snow the Alps had known for many winters.

"I have sketched you out a tentative programme for the next twenty-four hours," he said, speaking English with an accent which plainly revealed that it had come to its fluency under American—and probably Western American—skies "which is as far (and a good deal farther, in fact) ahead than there is any use in planning while this accursed weather lasts. There are still a couple of hours of daylight, so we will begin by taking sledges to the upper valley and making a survey of our lines from below. To-morrow—God willing!" (he said it with the same quick fervency with which the pious Mohammedan interpolates "Imshallah" into any outline of his future plans) "you and Captain X------will go to the summit and glacier of the Marmolada, perhaps the most spectacular position on all our front. That will depend upon whether or not we can keep the telefericas going."


Peppino Garibaldi - sitting on the log with cap


As the sledge threaded its way between deep-cut snow-banks up the narrowing gorge, Colonel Garibaldi spoke briefly of the difficulties of Alpine transport in midwinter.

"On the ordinary battle front, like those of France and Russia," he said, "it requires rather less than one man on the line of communications to maintain one man in the first-line trenches. For the whole Italian front the average is something over two men on the communications to one in the first line; but at points in the Alps (as on this sector of mine), it may run up to six, or even eight or ten in bad weather. It isn't just keeping the roads clear from falling and drifting snow, it's the valangas, the slides. And with the slides the worst trouble isn't just the men you may lose under them (though that's terrible enough, Heaven knows), but rather the men who are holding the lines up beyond the slides that have to be fed and munitioned whatever happens. By an unkind trick of fate (just as bad for the enemy as for ourselves, however), the snows of this year have been among the heaviest ever known. This means that the slides are also bad beyond all precedent, and especially that they are coming in unexpected places, places where they have never been known before. Slides in new places mean—what you saw where that swath was cut through the lower end of the little village down the valley, and problems like this!"

We had just come out of a narrowed section of the gorge where, to get through at all the road had to run on a sort of trestle built above the now frozen river, and where the ice-sheathed walls above us interlocked like the jaws of a wolf-trap. Ahead of us the road was blocked by a towering barrier of crumpled snow, piled a hundred feet or more high from wall to wall. Rocks and snapped-off and up-ended pine trees peppered through the amorphous mass furnished unmistakable evidence that the avalanche which formed it had come down out of a " track."

"We couldn't go over it, and we couldn't have shovelled it away in ten years," said my companion; "so we simply had to follow the only alternative left and go through it. Here we go into the tunnel now. My great worry is as to whether the new slide that the next day or two—or the next hour or two. for that matter —may bring down upon this will crush in my little tunnel or only pile up harmlessly above. Hard-packed as it is the snow " (I felt him lurch away from me in the darkness, and heard the soft swish of something brushing against the side of the tunnel) " is slushy even in under here. I'm rather afraid that it won't stand much more weight, even if it doesn't fall in of its own. But—ah" (we were out of the tunnel now, and a fluted yellow cliff of staggering sheerness loomed through the notch ahead), "there's the Marmolada! Doesn't look like an easy place to dislodge the enemy from, does it? Well, my men—my brother. Major Ricciotti Garibaldi,. leading them—took the most of the 13,000-foot massif from the Austrians with the loss of so few men that I am still being accused of having thrown my dead in the crevasses of the glacier and filling their places with smuggled recruits!"

An Alpino passed singing, and the Colonel took up the air as he returned the salute.

"O Marmolada, tu es bella, tu es grana ina in peo e forta in guerra."

"It's a song the men have made," he said. "The Marmolada was famous even in peace time, but up to a year or two before the war it had never been climbed from this side. The Captain of Alpini in the post at that pass on the left was the first Italian to make the ascent. It took him two days, and cost him several hundred lira for guides. Well, it was from this very side that we took it (I can't tell you exactly how, as we want to use the same method again), and now we are sending fuel and food and munitions up there every day. To-morrow, if the telefericas are still running, you will go up there to that snow-cap on the top in less than an hour." On the way back to the village in the gathering dusk I had an illuminative example of the famous Garibaldi sang froid. The conversation had turned—as it seemed to persist in doing during all of my visit—to common friends and haunts in South America, and I mentioned a meeting with Castro in Venezuela some years previously. "Just what month was that?" Colonel Garibaldi queried. "March," I replied. "Then at that very moment," said he. "I was chained to a ring in the wall of the jail at Ciudad Bolivar. A little later," he continued, "I and a itMovt-revolutionista chained up with me broke out and started to swim the Orinoco to—

At that moment the sledge chanced to be worrying by a long pack train on the trestle in the bottom of the overhung gorge I have referred to, and just as my companion reached this point in his story a big icicle, thawed loose somewhere above, came crashing down on the back of one. of the mules. The pack-load of provisions was riven as by a knife, and the mule, recoiling from the sudden shock, shied back into the animal immediately behind him. This one, in turn, backed into the animal next in line, so that the impulse went back through the train by what I once heard an old Chilkat packer call "mu-leg-raphy." The consequence was that the hundred yards of gorge (in passing through which one was cautioned even to lower one's voice for fear of starting vibration that might break loose one of the thousand or so Damoclean swords suspended above) was thrown into an uproar that set the echoes ringing. The temperamental Alpini swore at the mules and at each other from the depths of their leather lungs while the mules simply did the mulish thing by standing on their forelegs and lashing out with their hind ones at whatever fell within their reach.

But, unruffled alike by the kinetic energy released below and the potential energy which menaced from above, the imperturbable scion of the Garibaldi simply leaned closer to my ear and went on with his story.

"Poor Y------never reached the bank. Shark got him, I think. I headed off into the jungle ------"That was about all the story I remember, except the finish, which had to do with racing a couple of Castro's spies for a British steamer lying alongside the quay at La Guayra. This latter part, however, was related after we had come out from under the icicles and the heels of the mules to the open road beneath the awakening stars.

There were several interruptions during dinner that evening. Once a wayfaring Alpino, whose lantern had gone out, and who had turned in to the nearest house to relight it, appeared at the door. That he stumbled upon his Colonel's mess did not appear to disturb him a whit more than it did the Colonel, who gave the smiling chap a box of matches and sent him on his way with a cheery "a rivederci." A little later the door was opened in response to a timid knock to reveal a little old lady who wanted to borrow a tin of condensed milk and five eggs. Her son was coming home on leave on the morrow, she said, and she was going to make a panndlo for his dinner. The little village shop was out of eggs and milk for the moment, and as the Colon-Clio's cook had refused to lend them to her, she had come straight to the Colonello himself. She had heard he was very kind.

"See that she has all she wants; fill up her basket," was the order sent out to the cook. And then as the grateful little old dame backed, bowing, out of the door: "Feed him up well madre; a man has to have something under his belt to fight in these mountains, doesn't he?"

"Brother Sante usually looks after callers of this kind for me," said my host with a laugh; "but Sante is away for a day or two, and I have no buffer. You will observe, by the way, that I am not quite at one with my distinguished grandfather in the matter of rations. What was it he said to the men who had assembled to follow him in his flight after the unsuccessful fight for the Roman Republic? I offer neither pay, quarters nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst forced marches, battle and death.'Well, I too have plenty of fighting to offer my men, but no more of the other ' inducements ' than I can possibly help. And when they have to die I like to feel that it's on a full stomach.

"Perhaps you heard," he went on, "what a stir it made up here when I first asked for marmalade for my men. They started out by laughing at me. 'Of course,' they said, 'we know that your mother is English; but that is no reason why much as you may crave it your men should need marmalade!' Then they said that marmellata would cost too much, and finally tried to prove that it would be bad for the men's health. But I had seen what troops had done in South Africa on a generous marmalade allowance; also what they were doing in France. So I stuck to it, and—well, we took the Marmolada on marmellata and a good many Austrians besides."

We were still laughing over the little joke when the door opened and the telephone operator from the room across the hall entered to report in a low voice some news that had just reached him. The Colonel's face changed from gay to grave in an instant; but it was with voice and manner of quiet restraint that he asked a couple of quick questions and then gave a brief order, evidently to be transmitted back whence the news had come.

"It must have been either A------or B------" he said musingly, turning again to the big slice of caramel cake he had just cut for himself when the interruption occurred. "Oh I beg pardon; but I've just had word that the middle telejerica serving the Marmolada has been carried away by an avalanche, and that one of the engineers is killed. I was just speculating as to which one it was. They were both good men—men I can ill afford to lose. This puts an end, by the way, to the trip we had planned for you for to- morrow. You will have to go to the position at the ------instead; providing, of course, that tele/erica doesn't meet a like fate."

South American revolution (in vivid reminiscence) had raised its hydra-head many times before I saw my way clear to turn the conversation into the channel where I was so interested to direct its flow.

"Won't you tell me, Colonel," I said finally, "something of how the young Garibaldi have carried on the tradition of the old Garibaldi in this war? Tell me how it came about that you all foregathered in France in the early months of the war, what you did there, and what you have done since; and, especially, tell me how you took the Col di Lana."

"That's (as you Americans say) rather a tall order," was the laughing reply; "but I'll gladly do what I can to fill it."

He drained his glass of cognac, waited till the occult rite of lighting his "Virginia" over its little spirit-lamp was complete and then began his story (as I had hoped he would) at the beginning. The narration which follows was punctuated by the steady drip of the eaves and the not infrequent rumble of a distant avalanche as the hot south wind called fun breathed its relaxing breath on a half winter's accumulation of hanging snow.

"My father—and even my grandfather—had foreseen that Europe must ultimately fight its way to freedom through a great war; that the two irreconcilable forces (fairly represented by what France, England, Italy, and the United States stood for, on the one hand, and what Prussia and its satellites stood for on the other) made no other alternative possible. The same feelings which led my father and grandfather to fight for France in 1870 led me and my brothers to offer ourselves to fight for France and her Allies in 1914.

"As the eldest of seven sons and the namesake of my grandfather, my father felt that it was up to me to carry on the Garibaldi tradition, and when I was scarcely out of my teens he sent me out to train in the only school that the old General ever recognised—that of practical experience. ' Some day you will be needed in Europe,' he said. 'Until then, see that you make yourself ready by taking part in every war that you can find. Learn how men follow, and then learn how men lead. If there is any choice between two causes, fight for the one you think your grandfather would have fought for; but don't miss a fight because you can't make up your mind on that score. The experience is the thing,, and the only way you can get it is in real battles, not sham ones.'

"Well, I did the best I could, considering the day and age we live in, to follow out my father's idea. With what success (so far as a comprehensive experience was concerned) you may judge from the fact that, up to the outbreak of the present war, I had—counting skirmishes— fought on 132 battlefields. That I had not been wounded was not, I trust, entirely due to not having been exposed to fire.

"The preparation of my brothers had been rather less drastic—less 'Garibaldian'— than my own. In their cases, it was my father's idea that it would be sufficient if they simply knew the world and how to get on with men; and to this end he encouraged them, as fast as they became old enough, to seek work abroad, preferably something of an outdoor character, such as that in connection with engineering projects. None of us was overburdened with book-learning or technical training, myself least of all. Indeed, I have often wished I had a bit more of both.

"So it was that it happened that the outbreak of the war found all but the two youngest of us scattered to the ends of the earth. I was in New York (not long before I had gone through the first Mexican revolution as Chief of Staff to General Madero), and with me was my second brother, Ricciotti, who had joined me there for a trip to South America. Menotti was in China, on the engineering staff of the Canton- Kowloon Railway, and Sante, also an engineer, was working on the Assuan Dam in Upper Egypt. Bruno was in a sugar 'central' in Cuba, and Costante and Ezia, the two youngest of us, were at their studies in Italy. My sister, Italia, was organising Red Cross work in Rio de Janeiro.

"As the war clouds began to gather, my father sent a letter to each of the five of us abroad, saying that when we received a cable from him we were to start at once for whatever place was mentioned in it. I forget what the cables received by Ricciotti and myself were about; but the rendezvous was Paris, and we were away by the next boat. We found Ezia and Costante already awaiting us in Paris, and Bruno and Sante arrived a few days later. Menotti could not arrange to get away from China until his own country entered the war, some months subsequently.

"Word had already gone out that an Italian Legion was to be formed to fight for the Allies, but in what theatre had not yet been decided upon. All my own training had been for guerilla warfare, and, figuring that this could be turned to the best use in the Balkans, I was in hopes that my legion could be landed in Albania, to co-operate with the Servians and Montenegrans against Austria. This was not to be, however; indeed, Ezia, who was sent to drive a camion at Salonika after being wounded on this front a few months ago, has so far been the only Garibaldi to reach the Balkans. I am sorry, in a way, for I still think that that would have been my sphere of greatest usefulness.

"Recruits flocked to us from all over the world, among them being many men who had fought with me in South and Central America. We were quite the typical band of soldiers of fortune, and except for the fact that we were all Italians, there wasn't a great deal to differentiate us from the Foreign Legion into which we were incorporated. Side by side with the several scions of Italian nobility who had joined us marched men who had ridden as gauchos on the pampas of Argentina or hammered drills in the mines of Colorado and the Transvaal. Nor was I by any means the only one who had peered hungrily outward through barred gratings and was familiar with the clank and tug of the ankle chain. But whatever we were, and whoever we were, we had come to fight, and we did fight. Yes, all in all, I think we lived up to the traditions of the Legion Etrangere quite as well on the score of fighting as we did on that of pedigree. It isn't where you come from that counts on the battle line, but only where you go to; and if there was a man in the Italian Legion who wasn't ready to fight until he dropped, I can only say that he did not come under my notice. " Considering the fact that we began with practically raw material (though, of course, many of the men had seen previous service) and that there were no cadres to build upon, I think our work with the Legion Italienne was about a record for quick training. It was October before we were well started, and by the end of December we were not only on the first line, but had already gone through some of the bloodiest fighting the war has seen. My grandfather used to say that proper military training was nine- tenths a matter of applied common sense and one-tenth a matter of drill. Well, I employed what common sense and experience I had, and made up the rest with drill. Inside of two months we had 4,000 men at the front, where the French Higher Command was so well impressed with their quality that it was but a week or two before they were deemed worthy of the place of honour in an attack upon the Prussian Guard, which had been pressing steadily forward in the hope of cutting the communications between Chalons and Verdun. No regiment ever had a warmer baptism of fire. We drove back the Guard two and a half kilometres, but lost a thousand men in the effort.

"I don't recall anything that was actually said between us on the subject, but it seemed to be generally understood among us brothers that the shedding of some Garibaldi blood—or, better still, the sacrifice of a Garibaldi life— would be calculated to throw a great, perhaps a decisive, weight into the wavering balance in Italy, where a growing sympathy for the cause of the Allies only needed a touch to quicken it to action. Indeed I am under the impression that my father said something to that effect to the two younger boys before he sent them on to France. At any rate, all three of the youngsters behaved exactly as though their only object in life was to get in the way of German bullets. Well—Bruno got his in the last week in December, ten or twelve days ahead of Costante, who fell on January 5. Ezia—the youngest of the three fire-eaters—though, through no fault of his own, had to wait and take his bullet from the Austrians on our own front. (It occurred not far from here, by the way.)

"The attack in which Bruno fell was one of the finest things I have ever seen. General Gouraud sent for me in person to explain why a certain system of trenches, which we were ordered to attack, must be taken and held, no matter what the price. We mustered for mass at midnight—it was Christmas, or the day after, I believe— and the memory of that icicle-framed altar in the ruined roofless church with the flickering candles throwing just light enough to silhouette the tall form of Gouraud who stood in front of me will never fade from my mind.

"We went over the parapet before daybreak, and it was in the first light of the cold winter dawn that I saw Bruno—plainly hit—straighten up from his running crouch and topple into the first of the German trenches, across which the leading wave of our attack was sweeping. He was up before I could reach him, however (I don't think he ever looked to see where he was hit), and I saw him clamber up the other side, and, running without a hitch or stagger, lead his men in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. I never saw him again alive.

"They found his body, with six bullet-wounds upon it. lying where the gust from a machine-gun had caught him as he tried to climb out and lead his men on beyond the last of the trenches we had been ordered to take and hold. He had charged into the trench, thrown out the enemy, and made—for whatever it was worth—the first sacrifice of his own generation of Garibaldi. We sent his body to my father and mother in Rome, where, as you will doubtless remember, his funeral was made the occasion of the most remarkable patriotic demonstration Italy has known in recent years. From that moment the participation of our country in the war became only a matter of time. Costante's death a few days later only gave added impulse to the wave of popular feeling which was soon to align Italy where she belonged, in the forefront of the fight for the freedom of Europe.

"Further fighting that fell to the lot of the Legion in the course of January reduced its numbers to such an extent that it had to be withdrawn to rest and re-form. Before it was in condition to take the field again, our country had taken the great decision, and we were disbanded to go home and fight for Italy. Here—principally because it was thought best to incorporate the men in the units to which they (by training or residence) really belonged—it was found impracticable to maintain the integrity of the fourteen battalions—about 14,000 men in all—we had formed in France, and, as a consequence the Legion Italienne ceased to exist except as a glorious memory. We five surviving Garibaldi were given commissions in a brigade of Alpini that is a 'lineal descendant' of the famous cacciatore formed by my grandfather in 1859, and led by him against the Austrians in the war in which with the aid of the French, we redeemed Lombardy for Italy.

"In July I was given command of a battalion occupying a position at the foot of the Col di Lana. Perhaps you saw from the lake as you came up the commanding position of this mountain. If so you will understand its supreme importance to us, whether for defensive or offensive purposes. Looking straight down the Cordevole Valley toward the plains of Italy, it not only furnished the Austrians an incomparable observation post, but also stood as an effectual barrier against any advance of our own toward the Livinallongo Valley and the important Pordoi Pass. We needed it imperatively for the safety of any line we established in this region, and just as imperatively would we need it when We were ready to push the Austrians back. Since it was just as important for the Austrians to maintain possession of this great natural fortress as it was for us to take it away from them, you will understand how it came about that the struggle for the Col di Lana was perhaps the bitterest that has yet been waged for any one point on the Alpine front.

"Early in July, under cover of our guns to the south and east, the Alpini streamed down from the Cima di Falzarego and Sasso di Stria, which they had occupied shortly before, and secured what was at first but a precarious foothold on the stony lower eastern slope of the Col di Lana. Indeed, it was little more than a toe-hold at first; but the never-resting Alpini soon dug themselves in and became firmly established. It was to the command of this battalion of Alpini that I came on July 12 after being given to understand that my work was to be the taking of the Col di Lana regardless of cost.

"This was the first time that I—or any other Garibaldi, for that matter (my grandfather, with his 'Thousand,' took Sicily from fifty times that number of Bourbon soldiers)—had ever had enough (or even the promise of enough) men to make that ' regardless of cost' formula much more than a hollow mockery. But it is not in a Garibaldi to sacrifice men for any object whatever if there is any possible way of avoiding it. The period of indiscriminate frontal attacks had passed even before I left France, and ways were already being devised—mostly mining and better artillery protection—to make assaults less costly. Scientific 'man-saving,' in which my country has since made so much progress, was then in its infancy on the Italian front.

"I found many difficulties in the way of putting into practice on the Col di Lana the man-saving theories I had seen in process of development in the Argonne. At that time the Austrians—who had appreciated the great importance of that mountain from the outset—had us heavily out-gunned while mining in the hard rock was too slow to make it worth while until some single position of crucial value hung in the balance. So—well I simply did the best I could under the circumstances. The most I could do was to give my men as complete protection as possible while they were not fighting, and this end was accomplished by establishing them in galleries cut out of the solid rock. This was, I believe, the first time the ' gallery-barracks '— now quite the rule at all exposed points—were used on the Italian front.

"There was no other way in the beginning but to drive the enemy off the Col di Lana trench by trench, and this was the task I set myself to toward the end of July. What made the task an almost prohibitive one was the fact that the Austrian guns from Corte and Cherz—which we were in no position to reduce to silence—were able to rake us unmercifully. Every move we made during the next nine months was carried out under their fire, and there is no use in denying that we suffered heavily. I used no more men than I could possibly help using, and the Higher Command was very generous in the matter of reserves, and even in increasing the strength of the force at my disposal as we gradually got more room to work in. By the end of October my original command of a battalion had been increased largely.

"The Austrians made a brave and skilful defence, but the steady pressure we were bringing to bear on them gradually forced them back up the mountain. By the first week in November we were in possession of three sides of the mountain, while the Austrians held the fourth side and—but most important of all—the summit. The latter presented a sheer wall of rock, over 200 metres high to us from any direction we were able to approach it, and on the crest of this cliff —the only point exposed to our artillery fire— the enemy had a cunningly concealed machine-gun post served by fourteen men. Back and behind, under shelter in a rock gallery, was a reserve of 200 men, who were expected to remain safely under cover during a bombardment, and then sally forth to repel any infantry attack that might follow it. The handful in the machine-gun post, it was calculated, would be sufficient, and more than sufficient, to keep us from scaling the cliff before their reserves came up to support them; and so they would have been if there had been only an infantry attack to reckon with. It failed to allow sufficiently, however, for the weight of the artillery we were bringing up, and the skill of our gunners. The apparent impregnability of the position was really its undoing.

"This cunningly conceived plan of defence I had managed to get a pretty accurate idea of— no matter how—and I laid my own plans accordingly. All the guns I could get hold of I had emplaced in positions most favourable for concentrating on the real key to the summit—the exposed machine-gun post on the crown of the cliff—with the idea, if possible, of destroying men and guns completely, or, failing in that, at least to render it untenable for the reserves who would try to rally to its defence.

"We had the position ranged to an inch, and so, fortunately, lost no time in 'feeling' for it. This, with the surprise incident to it, was perhaps the principal factor in our success; for the plan —at least so far as taking the summit was concerned—worked out quite as perfectly in action as upon paper. That is the great satisfaction of working with the Alpin, by the way: he is so sure, so dependable, that the ' human fallibility' element in a plan (always the most uncertain quantity) is practically eliminated.

"It is almost certain that our sudden gust of concentrated gun-fire snuffed out the lives of all the men in the machine-gun post before they had time to send word of our developing infantry attack to the reserves in the gallery below. At any rate, these latter made no attempt whatever to swarm up to the defence of the crest, even after our artillery fire ceased. The consequence was that the 120 Alpini I sent to scale the cliff reached the top with but three casualties, these probably caused by rolling rocks or flying rock fragments. The Austrians in their big ' funk-hole ' were taken completely by surprise, and 130 of them fell prisoners to considerably less than that number of Italians. The rest of 200 escaped or were killed in their flight.

"So far it was so good; but, unfortunately, taking the summit and holding it were two entirely different matters. No sooner did the Austrians discover what had happened than they opened on the crest with all their available artillery. We have since ascertained that the fire of 120 guns was concentrated upon a space of 100 by 150 metres which offered the only approach to cover the barren summit afforded. Fifty of my men, finding some shelter in the lee of rocky ledges, remained right out on the summit; the others crept over the edge of the cliff and held on by their fingers and toes. Not a man of them sought safety by flight, though a retirement would have been quite justified, considering what a hell the Austrian guns were making of the place. The enemy counter-attacked at nightfall, but in spite of superior numbers and the almost complete exhaustion of that little band of Alpini heroes, were able to retake only a half of the summit. Here, at a ten-metres-high ridge which roughly bisects the cima, the Alpini held the Austrians, and here, in turn, the latter held the reinforcements which I was finally able to send to the Alpini's aid. There, exposed to the fire of the guns of either side (and so, comparatively, safe from both), a line was established from which there seemed little probability that one combatant could drive the other, at least without a radical change from the methods so far employed.

"The idea of blowing up positions that cannot be taken otherwise is by no means a new one. Probably it dates back almost as far as the invention of gunpowder itself. Doubtless, if we only knew of them, there have been attempts to mine the Great Wall of China. It was, therefore, only natural that, when the Austrians had us held up before a position it was vitally necessary we should have, we should begin to consider the possibility of mining it as the only alternative. The conception of the plan did not necessarily originate in the mind of any one individual, however many have laid claim to it. It was the inevitable thing if we were not going to abandon striving for our objective.

"But while there was nothing new in the idea of the mine itself, in the carrying out an engineering operation of such magnitude at so great an altitude, and from a position constantly exposed to intense artillery fire, there were presented many problems quite without precedent. It was these problems which gave us pause; but finally, in spite of the prospect of difficulties which we fully realised might at any time become prohibitive, it was decided to make the attempt to blow up that portion of the summit of the Col di Lana held by the enemy.

"The choice of the engineer for the work was a singularly fortunate one. Gelasio Caetani —he is a son of the Duke of Sermoneta—had operated as a mining engineer in the American West for a number of years previous to the war, and the practical experience gained in California and Alaska was invaluable preparation for the great task now set for him. His ready resource and great personal courage were also incalculable assets. (As an instance of the latter, I could tell you how, to permit him to make certain imperative observations, he allowed himself to be lowered over the side of a sheer cliff at a point only partially protected from the enemy's fire.)

"Well, the tunnel Was started about the middle of January, 1916. Some of my men— Italians who had hurried home to fight for their country when the war started—had had some previous experience with hand and machine drills in the mines of Colorado and British Columbia, but the most of our labour had to gain its experience as the work progressed. Considering this, as well as the difficulty of bringing up material (to say nothing of food and munitions), we made very good progress.

"The worst thing about it all was the fact that it had to be done under the incessant fire of the Austrian artillery. I provided for the men as best I could by putting them in galleries, where they were at least able to get their rest in comparative safety. My own headquarters were in a little shed in the lee of a big rock. When the enemy finally found out what we were up to they celebrated their discovery by a steady bombardment which lasted for fourteen days without interruption. During a certain forty-two hours of that fortnight there was. by actual count, an average of thirty-eight shells a minute exploding on our little position. With all the protection it was possible to provide, the strain became such that I found it advisable to change the battalion holding our portion of the summit every week. Did I have any respite myself? Well, hardly; or, rather, not until I had to.

"We were constantly confronted with new and perplexing problems—things which no one had ever been called upon to solve before—most of them in connection with transportation. How we contrived to surmount one of these I shall never forget. The Austrians had performed a brave and audacious feat in emplacing one of their batteries at a certain point, the fire from which threatened to make our position absolutely untenable. The location of this battery was so cunningly chosen that not a single one of our guns could reach it, and yet we had to silence it—and for good—if we were going to go on with our work. The only point from which we could fire upon these destructive guns was so exposed that any artillery we might be able to mount there could only count on the shortest shrift under the fire of the hundred or more 'heavies' that the Austrians would be able to concentrate upon it. And yet (I figured), well employed, these few minutes might prove enough to do the work in. As there was no other alternative, I decided to chance it.

"And then there arose another difficulty. The smallest gun that would stand a chance of doing the job cut out for it weighed 120 kilos— about 260 pounds; this just for the gun alone, with all detachable parts removed. But the point where the gun was to be mounted was so exposed that there was no chance of rigging up a cable-way, while the incline was so steep and rough that it was out of the question trying to drag it up with ropes. Just as we were on the verge of giving up in despair, one of the Alpini—a man of Herculean frame who had made his living in peace-time by breaking chains on his chest and performing other feats of strength—came and suggested that he be allowed to carry the gun up on his shoulder. Grasping at a straw, I let him indulge in a few 'practice manoeuvres'; but these only showed that while the young Samson could shoulder and trot off with the gun without great effort, the task of lifting himself and his burden from foothold to foothold in the crumbling rock of the seventy degree slope was too much for him.

"But out of this failure there came a new idea. Why not let my strong man simply support the weight of the gun on his shoulder—acting as a sort of ambulant gun- carriage, so to speak— while a line of men pulled him along with a rope? We rigged up a harness to equalise the pull on the broad back, and, with the aid of sixteen ordinary men, the feat was accomplished without a hitch. I am sorry to say, however, that poor Samson was laid up for a spell with racked muscles.

"The gun—with the necessary parts and munition—was taken up in the night, and at daybreak it was set up and ready for action. It fired just forty shots before the Austrian ' heavies ' blew it—and all but one or two of its brave crew—to pieces with a rain of high-explosive. But it had done its work, and done it well. The sacrifice was not in vain. The troublesome Austrian battery was put so completely out of action that the enemy never thought it worth while to re-emplace it.

"That is just a sample of the fantastic things we were doing all of the three months that we drove the tunnel under the summit of the Col di Lana. The last few weeks were further enlivened by the knowledge that the Austrians were countermining against us. Once they drove so near that we could feel the jar of their drills, but they exploded their mine just a few metres short of where it would have upset us for good and all. All the time work went on until, on April 17, the mine was finished, charged, and ' tamped.' That night, while every gun we could bring to bear rained shell upon the Austrian position it was exploded. A crater 150 feet in diameter and sixty feet deep engulfed the ridge the enemy had occupied, and this our waiting Alpini rushed and firmly held. Feeble Austrian counter-attacks were easily repulsed, and the Col di Lana was at last completely in Italian hands."

Colonel Garibaldi leaned back in his chair and gazed thoughtfully at the cracks in the ceiling as one whose tale is finished. The end had come rather abruptly, I thought; and I was inclined to press for further details.

"It must have been a grand sight," I ventured—"that mountain-top blowing off into the air with hundreds of shells bursting about it. Where were you at the great moment?"

The grave face grew a shade graver, and a wistful smile softened the lines of the firm mouth.

"Not in sight of the Col di Lana, I am sorry to say," was the reply. "My health broke down a fortnight before the end, and another officer was in command at the climax. It was one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I would have given my right hand to have been the first man into that crater. But never mind," he concluded, rising and squaring his broad shoulders; "bigger things than the Col di Lana are ahead before this war is over, and I feel that I am not going to miss any more of them. It's the Garibaldi way, you know, to be in at the death."


lt. colonel Garibaldi and his staff


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