- from the British magazine 'T.P.'S Journal of Great Deeds', December, 1915
- 'How I Saw the Fighting for Gorizia'
- by Robert Sommerville
The Key Position on the Carso
Italian troops and officers in newly acquired territory - cover pages of an Italian newsweekly magazine
High up in the church tower of a village in the redeemed country I looked upon the besieged town of Gorizia. Its situation resembles a great scoop hollowed out of the mountain side, the contents carried away by the waters of the Isonzo. From where I stood I could see Monte San Michele, the key of Gorizia, and the scene and centre of operations. The peaks of San Sabatino and Pogdora flanked the northern side in the direction of Italy. On the south and south-west the Doberdo Plateau, rising in terraces and sweeping round past Gradisca to Monfalcone and the Gulf of Trieste, completed the natural defences of the town. All the country to the west was flat, almost as a billiard table, from Cormons to Grado, and from Cervignano to Gorizia. Eastward, range after range of mountains, seemingly higher and higher, filled the vision in all directions. Hitherto I had loved mountains, and had felt their uplift. Now I hated these ones against which the noble sons of Italy have to throw themselves in driving back the usurper.
The Hinterland of War
We had motored out that morning from Udine. Everywhere along the way we encountered evidences of warlike activity, but we were still too far away from the actual conflict to find any considerable disturbance of the peaceful pastoral habits of the people. A heavy motor convoy would lumber along past a farmer with his cart and his team of oxen. A motorcyclist, eagerly pressing on, would shoot past some women on their way to market, with baskets of eggs and butter and produce. Farms and farmyards would be given over completely to military purposes, fields would be full of horses, and little groups of soldiers loitering in a gateway would give us cheery recognition; otherwise, the country was quiet, for quite soon after Italy's participation in the War the enemy was driven helter-skelter to the mountains. Except for a mile or two at one point, and then for a little while only, he had never crossed the frontier into Italy, but had abandoned village after village in the plain, and had taken to his natural fastnesses.
The Old Fortress of Palmanova
Before crossing into the redeemed country we turned south to visit the old fortress town of Palmanova. It might itself have been the scene of warfare, had not the Italians, the instant war was declared, acted with resolution and purpose. As we entered the town, and took note of the old battlements, how strongly one's mind conceived their modern uselessness. The square, round which all the houses clustered, presented an animated appearance, but, except for the presence of soldiers, the scene might merely have been that of a busy market day - as, indeed, it was. Here we picked up the officers that were to be our guides in the danger zone, and away we sped toward what had hitherto been the border.
One might read about, and, in a measure, understand, the resentment of the Italians at the absolutely arbitrary character of the frontier. There never was any real frontier of any sort, either as regards the people or the physical aspects of the country. Austria imposed its will on Italy, and created this frontier, several miles west of the mountains and the Isonzo River, so that Italy was deprived of any slightest strategic advantage.
Where the Invader is Welcomed
To-day that frontier is gone - for ever! As we cross into what was, yesterday, Austrian territory, we have to be shown the line of demarcation. The lonely little huts are the only remaining indications. Further and further, and wherever we go, the inhabitants are not less, but apparently more and more Italian, rejoicing with a joy almost past belief that at last they are coming definitely under the protection of the flag of their beloved Italy. When we arrived at Cervignano the people seemed still to be celebrating the event, and the town was gay with flags and bunting.
We stopped at the bridge-head to examine the scene of the first actual fighting. Here the Austrians had erected barbed wire entanglements, and from the windows of the houses near by had directed a withering fire. But the Italians were not to be stayed yet awhile. Cervignano fell immediately; and all the country round, the ancient city of Aquileja-now a mere village -the little town and islands of Grado, and across to the Isonzo River, were swept clear of the enemy.
A Soldiers' Service
It was interesting to notice that hardly a building anywhere in this part of the country had been damaged. The Austrians were confident that they would return and drive the Italians, not only across the frontier, but away south to Venice and Milan. That dream speedily passed. Later on, the increasing number of ruins were indicative of the fading confidence. At Aquileja, full of historical interest going back thousands of years, the dilapidated little place bore no evidence of evacuation, except that all the most precious contents of the museum had been removed, and Austrian dominance had come to an end. In the square, hundreds of Italian soldiers, standing four deep, were waiting patiently to enter the fine old church. Inside every corner was packed with soldiers. They had come to a last service before starting out on what would be to so manv of them their last great adventure. The fervour of the service spoke volumes for the determination of the Italian Army this time to rid their brothers of the foreign yoke.
The Key to Trieste
From the church tower, up which we climbed by steep steps and many, we were able to look across to the little town of Morifalcone, then, as now, a centre of conflict. A cloud of smoke rising from one part of it told only too well that at least one Austrian shell had attained its object. Only the other day General Cadorna, in his communique, again speaks of the further ruin of the place, and it must surely by now be approaching the condition of Ypres and other towns on the Western front.
From Aquileja we turned into the open road and away south to Belvedere. As far as the eye could reach the road was level and almost as straight as a die. Here, as in other parts of the country through which we passed, we could see how essentially Italian the people were in all their ways. At level crossings, while the Austrian Government could not be humanly expected to refrain from imposing the German language in the notices displayed, they had found it necessary- bitterly necessary, perhaps-also to warn the people in Italian to beware of the trains.
The Blue Lagoon
A little motor launch conveyed us over the blue waters of the lagoon to Grado. Everything was peaceful-perhaps more peaceful than usual; but war was in the air, and that very morning a motor-boat from Trieste, only fifteen miles away, had paid Grado a visit, but treated the inhabitants to a salvo of rapid fire, and then turned tail and fled back to its base. And yet Grado was very much like what it would always be, except for the absence of the menfolk of military age. They were away fighting, and fighting, too, not in the ranks of their natural comrades, but in the ranks of the Austrian Army. Perhaps their chief consolation was that their womenfolk and their children were now under the generous care of Italy.
We were right royally and bountifully entertained in Grado, and here it might be fitting to interpose a word of admiration for the noble men we met, from Colonel Boriani and his magnificent Headquarters Staff down to the humble soldier at Tarcento, who, because we were friends of his master, presented us with flowers as a token of his appreciation-the only token he could give, for the Italian soldier is very poor. But what a token in sunny, flower-bedecked Italy! The sunshine and the flowers are also in the hearts of this truly cultured and kindly people.
Women Waiting and Watching
The Mayor of Grado took great pride in showing us round the place and disclosing to us all its ancient glories. We could have lingered here a long time, especially in the little church, where women and even children were continually coming and going, praying for the safety of husbands, and sons, and fathers who were away among the enemy-they knew not where. No letters could come from their loved ones. Death might have been busy in the night of separation. The women and children could only wait, and watch for the dawn.
Soon we were in the motor-boat again, on the way back to Belvedere and Cervignano. And now we turned our faces towards the battlefront. We wended our way through small towns and many villages until we approached as near to the fighting lines as our guides considered advisable. At one point we were within a mile or so of the Austrian trenches. Gradisca was in the hands of the Italians. In the direction of Fogliano and San Martino, the Italian guns were clearing a way, and with fine dash and courage infantry were occupying new trenches and creeping nearer to the Austrian positions.
Mountains Ploughed Up
The hillsides leading to the Doberdo Plateau were literally a mass of wounds; great rocks had been rent asunder, little ones had been blown to pieces and scattered about, forming an added danger to any enemy within reach. Such earth as there was was everywhere ploughed by shells. Nothing could live within the region of the bombardment.
And so, step by step, with dogged persistence, and returning again and again to attacks that had failed, the Italians wormed their way forward. In front of Gorizia Italian trenches had been established for a long time, up almost to the very outskirts of the town. Here, indeed, some of the fiercest fighting has taken place. The Italians could have entered Gorizia any time these last three or four months, except that it would have been impossible to remain there while it was dominated by the Austrian guns on Monte San Michele.
Women and Children in the Zone of War
Nominally, Gorizia has been evacuated by the Aus-trians for a long time. It became a sort of no-man's-land, and the Italian guns could probably have blotted it out of existence if so desired. Thousands of the inhabitants fled from the inferno, but it is computed that some 15,000 remained, most of them living in cellars. How they could exist is one of the great mysteries of war. Indeed, one marvels enough over the presence of women and children within the zone of war. Every village through which we passed seemed to be full of them; women stood at the doors gossiping, as if they were thousands of miles away from the fighting; children played in the streets, and the whole population seemed unconcerned. In one village through which we passed a fierce bombardment had just taken nlace that very morning. The church tower had evidently been
made the target; yet there it stood, apparently unharmed, while numerous houses in the immediate vicinity had been reduced to ruins. Doubtless many of the civil population were buried among the debris. It was somewhat uncanny, therefore, to watch women and old men, and even children, digging among the ruins for anything that might turn up. There seemed to be no excitement, no fear, just that familiarity which breeds contempt.
And on we went to Cormons. There, at a cafe, we thought we had come across some real excitement at last, perhaps even something approaching adequate serious concern; but we were mistaken. The people were animated, but only because they had something interesting to tell us. The station had been bombarded an hour before we arrived! Yet though we had been so near to the scene of it all, and coming from the direction of the shells, we had not been aware that anything more than usual was happening. Later we crossed the old frontier again, with the same feeling as we had crossed it in the other direction in the morning.
Every schoolboy in Italy is familiar with a map that is circulating everywhere, and which indicates the extent of Italian aspirations. Naturally, the Trentino, where Italy has put up such a wonderful fight, is included in the greater Italy. Then the corner just described is also included, and the hinterland thereof. Trieste and the peninsula of Istria, with the important naval base of Pola, is included, and the proposed line comes down and touches the Adriatic comfortably east of Fiume. With the new development in the Balkans, Italy may secure more than this. It may be that she will secure less, but no one who has moved in and out among the Italian people, or who has had an opportunity of studying the character and the determination of the army now fighting on the frontier, will doubt for one moment but that Italy, hand in hand with her Allies, will go straight forward to the attainment of the great object in view.
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