- from the book 'Many Fronts'
- 'Wonders of the Teleferica'
- edited by Lewis R. Freeman
Italian camp amid the Alpine snows
"Jolly good work, I call that, for a 'basket on a string,' "was the way a visiting British officer characterised an exploit of the Italians in the course of whichin lieu of any other way of doing itthey had shot the end of a cable from a gun across a flooded river and thus made it possible to rig up a teleferica for rushing over some badly- needed reinforcements.
The name is not a high-sounding one, but I do not know of any other which so well describes the wonderful contrivance which played so important a part in enabling the Italians to hold successfully their three hundred miles and more of high Alpine front during the first two years they were in the war. And in this connection it should be borne well in mind that the Austrians never were able to break through upon the Alpine front, whereuntil the debacle upon the Upper Isonzothe Italians, peak by peak, valley by valley, were slowly but surely pushing the enemy backward all along the line. Nor should it be forgotten that up to the very last the Alpini had their traditional foe mastered along all that hundred and fifty miles of sky-line positions from the Carnic Alps, through the Dolomites to the Trentinowhich ultimately had to be abandoned only because their rear was threatened by the Austro-German advance along the Friulian plain from the Isonzo. The loss of this line under these conditions, therefore, detracts no whit from the magnificent military skill and heroism by which they were won and held.
The Italians' conduct of their Alpine campaign must remain a supreme classic of mountain warfaresomething which has never been approached in the past and may never be equalled in the future. According to the most approved pre-war strategy, the proper way to defend mountain lines was by implanting guns on the heights commanding the main passes and thus rendering it impossible for an enemy to traverse them. The fact that these commanding positions were in turn dominated by still higher ones, and these latter by others, until the loftiest summits of the Alps were reached, was responsible for the struggle for the "sky-line" positions which the Austro-Italian war quickly resolved itself into.
This kind of war would have been a sheer impossibility two decades ago, from the simple fact that no practicable means of transport existed capable of carrying men, munitions, guns and food up to continuous lines of positions from ten thousand to thirteen thousand feet above sea-level. The one thing that made the feat possible was the development of the aerial tramway, or the teleferica, as the Italians call it, which gave transport facilities to points where the foot of man had scarcely trod before. Regular communication with the highest mountain-top positions would have been absolutely out of the question without this ingenious device.
As I have said, the "basket-on-a-string" description fits the teleferica exactly, for the principle is precisely similar to that of the contrivance by which packages are shunted around in the large stores and factories. The only points which differentiate it in the least from the overhead ore-tramways is the fact thatin its latest and highest developmentit is lighter and more dependable. For the ore-tramway always built in a more or less protected position had only the steady grind of the day's work to withstand; the teleferica has not only the daily wear and tear racking it to pieces, but is also in more or less perennial peril of destruction by flood, wind, and avalanches, to say nothing of the fire of the enemy's artillery or of bombs from his aeroplanes. That the Italians have evolved a contrivance more or less proof against the ravages of these destructive agents is, perhaps, the best evidence of their genius for military engineering. Nothing more perfect in its way than the teleferica has been produced by any of the belligerents.
Theoretically, a teleferica can be of any length, though I think the longest on the Italian front is one of three or four miles, which makes a good part of the eight- thousand-foot climb up to the summit of the Pasubio, in the Trentino, and whichat the time of writingis still in Italian hands. The cable may run on a levelas when it spans some great gorge between two mountain peaksor it may be strung up to any incline not too great to make precarious the grip of the grooved overhead wheels of the basket. I was not able to learn what this limit is, but I have never seen a cable run at an angle of over forty-five degrees. Wherever a cable does not form a single great span it has to be supported at varying intervals by running over steel towers to prevent its sagging too near the earth.
A teleferica has never more than its two terminal stations. If the topography of a mountain is such that a continuous cable cannot be run the whole distance that it is desired to bridge by teleferica, twoor even three or four separate installations are built. This is well illustrated in the ascent of the Adamello, the highest position on the Austro-Italian front. One goes to the lower station of the first teleferica by motor, if the road is not blocked by slides. At the upper station of this two-mile-long cable- way a tramcar pulled by a mule is taken for the journey over three or four miles of practically level narrow-gauge railway. Leaving this, a hundred-yard walk brings one to another teleferica, in the basket of which he is carried to its upper station, on the brow of a great cliff towering a sheer three thousand feet above the valley below. Three hundred yards farther up another teleferica begins, which lands him by the side of the frozen lake at Rifugio Garibaldi. Three more telefericaswith breaks between eachand a dog-sled journey figure in the remainder of the climb to the glacier and summit of the Adamello.
The engine of a telefericaits power varies according to the weight and capacity of its basket and the height and length of the liftis always installed at the upper station. The usual provision is for two baskets, one. coming up while the other goes down. As with the ore-tramways, however, an installation can be made if sufficient power is availableto carry two or three or even a greater number of baskets. As this puts a great strain on the cableway the Italians have only resorted to it at a few points where the pressure on the transport is very heavy.
The two greatest enemies of the teleferica are the avalanche and the windthe latter because it may blow the baskets off the cable, and the former because it may carry the whole thing away. As the tracks of snow-slidesthe points at which they are most likely to occurare fairly well defined, it is usually possible to make a wide span across the danger-zone with the cable and thus minimise the chance of disaster on this score. It is only when the dread valanga as occasionally happensis launched at some unexpected point that damage may be done to an aerial tramway. A great slideperhaps the worst which has occurred on the Italian side of the lines during the warwhich came down> a mile wide, from the summit of the Tofana massif to the Dolomite road in the valley five miles below, carried away a block of barracks and a battery of mountain guns, in addition to burying a considerable length of teleferica a hundred feet deep in snow and debris. Visiting this slide in December, 1916, a few days after it happened, I sawat a point where a cut had been run in an endeavour to save some of the several hundred Alpini who had been buried the twisted tower of the teleferica, inextricably mixed up with the body of a mule and a gun-carriage and overlaid with a solid stratum of forest trees, two miles below the point at which it had formerly stood.
Though the number of disasters of this kind from avalanches may be counted upon one's fingers, trouble from high wind is always an imminent possibility. In the early days of the teleferica accidents traceable to the blowing off of the baskets were fairly common; in fact, it was feared for a time that the difficulty from this source might be so great as materially to limit the usefulness of the cableway system. The use of more deeply-grooved wheels, however, did away with this trouble almost entirely, so that now the only menace from the wind is when it comes from "abeam" and blows hard enough to swing the baskets into collision when passing each other in mid-air.
Though I have had many a teleferica journey that was distinctly thrillingwhat ride through the air on a swaying wire, with a torrent or an avalanche below, and perhaps shells hurtling through the clouds above, would not be thrilling?
I have never figured in anything approaching an accident, and only once in an experience which might even be described as "ticklish." This latter occurred through my insistence on making an ascent in a teleferica on a day when there was too much wind to allow it to operate in safety. It was on the Adamello in the course of an ascent which I endeavoured to make toward the end of last July.
There was a sinister turban of black clouds wrapped around the summit of the great peak, and before we were half-way up what had only been a cold rain in the lower valley was turning into driving sleet and snow. We ascended by the first telefericaa double onewithout difficulty, but the ominous swaying of the cables warned us that the next line, which was more exposed, might be quite another matter. This latter is the one I have mentioned as running from an Alpine meadow to the brow of a cliff towering three thousand feet above it. It was one of the longestif not the longest unsupported cable-spans on the whole Alpine front. It was also the steepest of which I had had any experience. The fact that it was exposed throughout its whole length to a strong wind which blew down from an upper valley was responsible for putting it "out of business" during bad weather and thus made it the weak link in the attenuated chain of the Adamello's communications.
As we had feared, we found this teleferica "closed down" upon our arrival at the lower station, ample reason for which appeared in the fifteen or twenty-foot sway given to the parallel lines of cable by the powerful "side-on" wind gusts which assailed it every few moments from the direction of the glacier. Fortunately, as the storm was only coming in fitful squalls as yet and had not settled down to a steady blow, the tenente in charge thought that it might be possible to send us up in one of the quieter intervals.
"There's no danger of the baskets blowing off the cable," he said; "it's only a matter of preventing them striking one another in passing, of which there is always risk when the wires are swaying too much."
As there were three of us and the carrying capacity of the basket was limited to two hundred kilos, it was necessary to attempt two trips. As the heaviest of the party, it was decided that I should ride alone, starting after the two others had gone up. Taking advantage of a brief quiet spell, my companions were started off. There was still a good deal of sway to the cables, but a look-out above kept the engineer advised as to conditions as the baskets approached each other, and the passage was made without incident. When my turn came to start, however, the storm had settled down to a steady gale, and the tenente said he did not dare take the responsibility of trying to send me through. Ordinarily I should have been only too ready to acquiesce in his ruling, but as my companions had just 'phoned word that they were going on by the next telefericaa comparatively-protected oneto the Rifugio Garibaldi, where they would await me before starting on the following stage of the ascent, I realised at once that my failure to appear would throw out the whole itinerary and make the trip (which had to be finished that day or not at all) a complete failure. It was plainly up to me to get through if there was any way of doing it, and I accordingly suggested to the young officer that I would gladly sign a written statement taking the whole responsibility for an accident on my own shoulders.
"That would not help either you or me very much if things happened to go wrong," he said, with a laugh. "If you really must go, you must; that is all, and we shall simply do our best not to have any trouble. I shall send one of the linemen along with you to fend off the other basket in case it swings into yours in passing. There is a returned American here who ought to be able to do the job and talk to you in your native tongue at the same time."
And so it was arranged. I took my place lying on my back in the bottom of the basket-as usual, after which Antoniogrinning delightedly at the prospect of keeping watch and ward over a "fellow-countryman"climbed in and knelt between my feet, facing up the line. Then the "starter" banged three times on the cable to let the engineer at the top know that all was ready, and presently we were off along the singing wire.
The ordinary motion of a teleferica is not unlike that of an aeroplanethough it is not quite so smooth and vastly slower. On this occasion, however, the swaying of the cable furnished a new sensation which, while mildly suggestive of the sideslip of an aeroplane on a steep "bank," was rather more like the "yawing" of a "sausage" observation balloon in a heavy wind. The swinging of the basket itself was also a good deal more violent than I had ever experienced before, though at no time great enough to make it difficult to keep one's place. Both motions were, of course, at their worst out toward the middle of the span, so that one had an opportunity to get used to them gradually in the quarter of an hour which elapsed before that point was reached.
I took the occasion to ask Antonio a question I had been making a point of putting to every teleferica man I had a chance to talk with. "Is it really true," I said, "that no one has been killed since the war began while riding in a teleferica?"
"A large number of men have been injured," he replied; "but no one has been killed outright," and he went on to tell of a friend of his who had coasted down a thousand feet because the pulling-cable jerked loose from the place where it was attached to the basket when the latter had fouled a "down" basket in passing. He was badly injured from the jolt he received when the basket brought up short at the bottom, and it had taken three months in the hospital to put him right again. He would never walk again without a stick, but he was so far from being killed that he was the engineer of the very teleferica on which we were riding. He was a very careful man, said Antonio, for he fully understood the consequences of letting two loaded baskets bump in mid- air. A chill current of spray began to enfold us at this juncture, and Antonio was just in the midst of an explanation of how it was carried by the wind from a thousand-foot- high quarter-mile-distant waterfall coming down behind the curtain of the lowering clouds, when I suddenly saw him bring the point of his alpenstock over the edge of the basket and, with his eyes fixed intently ahead, hold himself poised in an attitude of tense readiness. Just above our heads the descending basket was swaying to and fro in the strong wind. A collision seemed imminent when, with a quick lunge of his alpenstock, Antonio turned it aside, and in that fraction of a second we passed it unharmed. It had been easy this time, explained Antonio, because the engineer at the top had slowed down the baskets to under half-speed at the moment of their passing.
All sorts of freightfrom ducks and donkeys to shells and cannonhave been carried by the teleferica, and one of the best stories I heard on the Italian front had to do with a pigthe mascot of a battalion of Alpini holding a lofty position on a Dolomite glacierwhich found its way up there by means of the cable. He was a sucking-pig, and was sent up alive to be reared for the major's Christmas dinner, when the teleferica basket in which he was travelling got stuck in a drift which had encroached upon one of the steel towers. Twelve hours elapsed before it was shovelled free, and the sucking-pig, when it finally reached the top, was frozen as hard and stiff as one of his cold-storage brothers. It was only after he had lain in the hot kitchen for several hours that an indignant grunt revealed the astonishing fact that his armour of fat had kept smouldering a spark of life. They reared him on a bottle, and at the time I saw him he was a hulking porker of two hundred pounds or more, drawing a regular ration of his own. They called him Tedescoon account of his face and figure rather than his disposition, they saidbut all the same, I would be willing to wager that, if that brave battalion of Alpini were able to save anything more than their rifles and their eagle-plumes in their retreat, he was not allowed to fall into the hands of his brother Tedeschi from the other side of the Alps.
But the most noteworthy service of the teleferica is the way in which it facilitates the handling of the wounded at points where other ways of transporting them are either too dangerous or too slow. It was on a sector of the upper Isonzo, where at that time the Austrians had not yet been pushed across the river. A rather wide local attack was on at the moment, and to care the more expeditiously for the wounded a very remarkable little mobile ambulancethe whole equipment of which could be taken down in the morning, packed upon seven motor lorries, moved from fifty to a hundred miles, and be set up and ready for work the same eveninghad been pushed up many miles inside the zone of fire to such protection as the "lee" of a high ridge afforded.
"We have found," said the chief surgeon, "that many wounds hitherto regarded as fatal are only so as a consequence of delay in operating upon them. This little hospital unit, which is so complete in equipment that it can do a limited amount of every kind of work that any base hospital can perform, was designed for the express purpose of giving earlier attention to wounds of this kind, principally those of the abdomen. From the first we saved a great number of men who would otherwise never have survived to reach the base hospitals; but even so we found we were still losing many as a consequence of the delay that would often arise in transporting them over some badly exposed bit of road on which it was not deemed safe to risk ambulances or stretcher-bearers. Then we devised a special basket for wounded, to be run on the teleferica (as you see here), with the result that we are now saving practically every man that it is humanly possible to save."
While he was speaking the teleferica, which ended beside the tent of the operating theatre, began to click, and presently an oblong box, almost identical in size and shape with a coffin, appeared against the sky-line of the ridge and began gently gliding toward us along the sagging cable. "In that box," continued the surgeon, ''there will be a man whose life depends upon whether or not his wound can be operated upon within an hour or so of the time he received it. He was probably started on his way to us within ten minutes of the time he arrived at the advanced dressing station, and if he was not left lying out too long the chances are we will pull him through. All up the other slope of the ridge he came across ground that is being heavily shelled (as you can see from the smoke and dust that are rising), but that basket is so small a mark that the Austrians might fire all day at it without hitting it. One of them occasionally runs into the ' pattern' of a shrapnel burst (with disastrous results, of course), but the only danger worth bothering about is of having the teleferica laid up from a shell on the engine-house or one of the supporting towers. Although the man is probably unconscious he is coming alone, you see. No other life, and not even an ambulance, is risked in bringing him here. Except for the teleferica, he could not have been sent over until after dark, and the delay would have been fatal. We estimate that from one to three per cent, of the men wounded on a battlefield which, like this one, lies so exposed that they cannot be sent back at once by stretchers or ambulance, owe their lives directly to the teleferica?
When the cover of the basket was lifted off in the station, the body of a man swathed in a blanket was revealed. He was unable to speak, but a note pinned to the blanket stated that he had been struck in the stomach with a shell fragment just outside the engine-house, and that nothing had been done save to wrap enough gauze around his middle to hold the riven abdomen together and bundle him into the waiting teleferica basket. "He must have been wounded not over fifteen minutes ago, and within less than a mile in an air-line from here," commented the chief surgeon. " We might have heard the detonation of the shell that did it. Five minutes one way or the other in operating may mean the difference between life and death in a case of this kind, and the chances are that the teleferica has given us the necessary margin."
Before I left the hospital, an hour later, the operation was over, and the man was resting comfortably, with every hope of recovery.
On several occasions, going up by a teleferica, I have passed a little Red Cross basket going down with a ferito, or wounded man (indeed, the occupant of one of these to whom I endeavoured to shout a few words of good cheer in Italian reported below that he had been accosted by an unmistakable Tedesco); but by far the queerest passenger it was my lot to "balance" against was one I encountered during an attempt I made to get up the Pasubio on a stormy day last January. It was snowing at the rate of four or five inches an hour, and the air was thick with the driving flakes, when, as a consequence (as I learned later) of a drift being piled right up against the cable where the latter crossed a jutting ledge, the steady "tug-tug" of the pulling wire ceased and my basket came to a quivering standstill. I knew that I had been approaching the halfway point, but the first evidence I had that the "down basket" had stopped near by was a sudden pulsing blast which cut athwart the besom of the storm and assailed my ears like the crack o' doom. Except that it was ten times louder than any human being could make, it was just such a wail of agony as would be wrung from the throat of a man who was being stretched on the rack.
Again the throbbing blast came hurtling through the storm, and this time I noticed that, starting with a raucous bass note, it kept on rising in a sirenic crescendo until it was suddenly broken short, as though the air which drove it was cut off rather than exhausted. Turning down the high collar of my storm coat, I squirmed around and peered back over my shoulder in the direction of the "Thing of Terror," but only an amorphous grey shape in the line of the opposite cable indicated the position of the other basket. It didn't seem possible that a two-feet-wide-by-six-feet-long wire basket could possibly hold anything large enough to make a sound like that, and yet the fact that the cable at this point was five hundred feet or more in the air made it certain that the sound could come from nowhere else.
A brisk shiver was running up and down my spine as I slithered down again in the bottom of the basket, but I told myself that it was from the cold and set my wits to work to find a "rational" explanation of the weird phenomenon. A great birdperhaps an eagle roosting on the cable? Impossible. Nothing on wings since the time of the "pterodactyl,"
or whatever it was called, could have the lung-power for a wail like that. A fog-horn? Not a hundred miles from the sea. Aah, I had it now! I told myselfgas-alarm signal out of order; Alpino taking it down to have that broken-off note put right playing it for his own amusement. "What a fool I had been not to think of it before!" I said to myself as I settled back with a sigh of relief and an easy heart to wait for the " train to start."
When, after a half-hour wait, punctuated at pretty regular intervals by the wail of the "gas alert," the gentle "tug-tug" began again, and the basket started on its way, I pulled myself up on my elbow to give the indefatigable serenader a hail in passing. Presently the "down" basket, filled with some sprawling shape, took form in the hard- driven snow, but it was not until it was almost upon me that I saw that the nose of a donkey, stretched a foot over the side, threatened to foul the side of my swaying car in passing. The vigorous punch of my mittened fist with which I fended it clear set another of those air-shivering blasts going, and I had just time to see, before the curtain of the snow dimmed down and swallowed up the fantastic sight, that the sudden cut-off I noticed at the end was caused by the swelling windpipe being brought into sharp contact with the side of the basket as the beast's neck was stretched out to establish the proper air columns to form the sirenic higher notes.
The donkey, they told me in the engine-house at the top, had colic from eating fresh snow on top of the contents of a box of dried figs he had broached, and they had tied his legs and sent him down on his way to the "Blue Cross" hospital to be put right. He was a plains donkey, and didn't have good "Alpine sense," else they would have driven him down by the path on his own legs. If they had known that a guest was coming up, however, they said, they wouldn't have sent, down an ass in the teleferica. It wasn't quite safe for either passenger on account of the way the animal sprawled. The last donkey they had sent down got his hind legs tangled in a load of firewood that was coming up, and they had lost a good deal of the precious fuel at a time when they were at the bottom of their pile, with a storm coming on. The "up" car always got the worst of a collision, but if they were only warned that anyone of importance was coming, they took great care that there shouldn't be any collision. No one ever got much hurt on a teleferica, anyhow.
It seems to be a plain fact that no man has yet lost his life on the Italian front as a consequence of riding in a teleferica. Many have been killed in constructing them, and even more in patrolling the lines and keeping them in repair. Men have fallen or have jumped out of the baskets, often from considerable heights, and men have been brought in stiff with cold after two or three hours of exposure to a blizzard in a stalled car. Stations and engines have been carried away and buried, with all serving them, a hundred feet beneath an avalanche; but in these, as well as in all other mishaps connected with telefericas, inquiries which I pursued during the whole time I spent on the Italian front failed to reveal a single instance in which an actual passenger had lost his life. Hairbreadth escapes and rescues I heard of by the score. The story of one of the most remarkable of the latter was related by no less a personage than the brave and distinguished Colonel now General"Peppino" Garibaldi, grandson of the Liberator, and hero of the famous capture of the peak of the Coli di Lano.
While I was staying with Colonel Garibaldi in the Dolomites last winter the station of a teleferica which I had been expecting to use on the morrow in going up to the lines on the glacier of the Marmolada was carried away by an avalanche, which also killed one of the engineers. It was the receipt of the news of this disaster which led my host to remark that one of the most spectacularly brave feats he had ever heard of had been performed by an Alpino the previous winter in connection with putting right a stalled car on this very span of cableway which had just been destroyed.
"At this stage of the game," said Colonel Garibaldi, who is fluent in American idiom as a consequence of his many revolutionary campaigns in both North and South America, "they were not grooving the wheels of the teleferica basket deeply enough, with the result that they were occasionally blown off the cables by strong winds. So far as we could, the carrying of passengers was suspended during blizzards, but of course every now and then an occasion would arise when the chance had to be taken. That was how it happened that a staff officer from the Comando Supremo, who had never been on a teleferica before, was in a basket which was blown from the cable of the first Marmolada span at the height of a heavy storm last March. The basket was within a couple of hundred metres of the end of its journey when the derailment of its two forward wheels occurredin fact, it was a good deal nearer ' land' in that direction than downwards, where there was a clear drop of three or four hundred metres on to frozen snow.
"If the air is quiet, a basket (going up, of course; the 'down' one runs by gravity) with only one pair of wheels off can usually be ' nursed' along the cable by gentle tugs from the engine, and that was what the engineers tried to do in this instance. The side pressure of the wind was too strong, however, and within a metre or two the cable wedged in beside the wheels and jammed hard. If there had not been a man in the basket, they would simply have sped up the engine and gone on pulling until either the basket came up or something broke. If the former, all was well; if the latter, they picked up the pieces as soon as the weather permitted, rushed their repairs, and started up again. With a passengerand especially a staff officerto reckon with, it was a different proposition.
"Luckily the chap kept his nerve, and between snow flurries they could see him working hard trying to get the wheels on again. An expert teleferica lineman can, with luck, occasionally put a pair of wheels back on the track alone; but unless one understands exactly how to take his weight off the basket by hanging over the cable the job is as hopeless as trying to lift yourself by your boot-straps. This chap was anything but an expert, and, after fumbling with numbing fingers for ten or fifteen minutes, he waved his hand with a gesture of despair and sank back into the bottom of the heeled-over basket.
"The Alpino has lived among blizzards all his life, and is able to figure pretty closely how much resistance is left in a man exposed to wind and cold under any given conditions. They knew that a man tucked in comfortably in a basket on an 'even keel waiting for engine repairs is good for several times as long as one hanging on for dear life to the sides of an apparently hopelessly stalled and half-upset basket. Most of the men watching from the station gave the poor chap from fifteen to twenty minutes; it was only the most optimistic who said half an hour. In any case, there was only one thing to doto send a man down to the disabled basket; and a lineman who had shortly before performed a similar feat successfully when a load of badly needed shells was stalled on the cable volunteered to do it.
"Suspending the intrepid fellow from the cable in a hastily rigged harness hung from a spare pair of wheels, they tied a long line round his waist and let him coast down by gravity to the basket. The line, paid out slowly, kept him from gaining too much momentum. The journeyan easy feat for a man with a good headwas made without mishap. The officer's mind was still clear and his nerve unbroken, but, numb with cold and on the verge of physical collapse, he was unable to lift a finger to save himself. The most he could do was to maintain his hold, and even that he could not be expected to do for long.
"For some time the Alpino, still suspended in his harness, put forth all his strength in an endeavour to lift the basket sufficiently to allow the displaced wheels to slip back on to the cable, but there was no way to bring enough force to bear to be of any use, and, after nearly spilling out the man he was trying to save, he gave it up. Next he tried to lighten the basket of the weight of the officer by passing a couple of hitches of the bight of the line around him and tricing him up to the cable immediately overhead. He succeeded in his immediate end, but in doing so defeated his ultimate one. The body of the officer swung clear of the bottom of the basket, but hung in such a way that the Alpino could not himself get in the proper position to lift from.
"By now it was evident to the would-be rescuer that nothing could be accomplished unless the helpless officer were got clear of the car entirely, and this could be effected only by changing places with him. How the resolute fellow did it Heaven and the special providence which always sees the Alpino through only know. They paid him out a couple of metres more of line when they felt him tugging for it, and then they had a snow-blurred vision of him scrambling about the tilted car for three or four busy minutes. Finally they got the short, sharp, double tug which was the signal he had arranged to give in the event that he failed in his attempt and wanted to be drawn back.
"Not a little cast down over this development, they began hauling in from the station, only to feel the more apprehension when they saw it was a limp and apparently lifeless body that was coming up to them out of the storm. A reassuring yodel rolled up from the misty depths at this juncture, however, and the sharpest-eyed of them announced that he could see his comrade 'jack-knifed' over the cable jerking the basket straight. Even before the body of the swooned officer, with its wind-blown arms and legs flopping like those of a scarecrow, was swung on to the landing and released from its harness, the ringing bang of a steel spanner on the cable gave the familiar signal of 'Haul away!'
"He came up (so his captain told me later)," concluded Colonel Garibaldi, "sitting on the rim of the basket with his eagle's feather rasping right along the sagging cable all the way, his hobnailed boots drumming a tattoo on the steel bottom, and singing the Alpini marching song in a voice that set the echoes ringing above the howling of the storm."
The expedient of shooting a teleferica cable across an otherwise unbridgeable space was not tried for the first time on the occasion referred to in the opening paragraph of this chapterwhen it was resorted to in running a line across a flood-swollen river. The same plan had been successfully followed a year previously in carrying succour to a band of Alpini who, through the destruction of their teleferica by an avalanche, were left "marooned" on the side of a glacier with only a few days' supply of food and munitions. The one path leading up to their eyrie had also been scoured away by the slide, so that a month or more of labour would have been required to open communications in this way. For the same reason even a longer period would have had to elapse before the teleferica could be restored; that is, if the cable were to be carried up as when it was first built. The mountaineering genius of the Alpini would undoubtedly have been equal to the problem of finding their way back to safety by letting each other down by ropes, but this would have involved the abandonment of a position which it was vitally important to hold.
The expedient of shooting the cable up from a gun was the only one of the many alternatives considered which promised any chance of success. The first attempt nearly proved a "boomerang," for the weight of the cable deflected the charge-less six-inch shell to which it was attached nearly sixty degrees and sent it crashing through a mule stable, fortunately empty at the moment. A shell attached to a lighter cable went almost equally wide of its mark; in fact, all attempts with high-velocity guns were dismal failures, and it was not until one of the new long-range trench- mortars was brought up that the experiment took an encouraging turn, though success was not won until the cable-line was displaced by a light manila rope. This was fired to its goalan eminence half a mile distant and a thousand feet highat the first shot, and afterwards served to drag up a light cable which, in turn, dragged up the heavy one. The single-span teleferica installed at this timequite free from the menace which had overwhelmed its lower predecessorwas still in use when I visited this sector nine months later.
Perhaps the most spectacular exploit ever carried out from a teleferica was that by which a troublesome nest of Austrian machine-gunners were cleared off one of the pinnacles of the great M------massif in the fall of 1916. At that time the lofty ridge was divided between the Italians and Austrians. The latter had access to one splintered pinnacle which, although there was no room to establish a permanent position on, offered a splendid vantage from which to observe all Italian movements in the valley beneath. The situation was irritating enough for the Italians even when the activities of the enemy were confined only to observation, but when he took to bringing up a machine-gun and pepperingalmost from its rearthe headquarters of an Alpini battalion which held an important pass three thousand feet below, it became well- nigh intolerable. What happened was related to me some months later, when I asked the major of this battalion how it chanced that the roof of the officers' mess, in which we were dining, was]armoured with sheets of steel.
Against machine-gun bullets," was the reply: "there was a time of accursed memory in which the enemy used to bring a gun out on a little splinter of rock, not fifteen hundred metres from here in an air line, and spray the whole of our little terrace with 'dum-dums.' "
"It must have been a bit trying," I observed. "How did you manage to stick it?"
"By keeping out of sight as much as possible," he replied; "that is, until the day we went after him from the teleferica. After that he left us alone until we had time to get a gun rigged up to make him keep his distance."
"Went after him from the teleferica!" I repeated, in surprise. "What do you mean by that? "
"Just what I said," he answered, with a smile. "We were working day and night to excavate a gun-cavern, the fire from which would make that troublesome position untenable for the Austrian machine-gunners. In the meantime we had to stick it out as best we could, for the least weakening of our force at this point would have been the signal for an Austrian attack which might well have left them in possession of the pass. By doing most of our moving about at night we were getting on fairly well until, opening up at an unexpectedly early hour one morning, they killed a good many more of us than I like to think of.
"It was at this juncture that Captain X------ over there, who had had a bullet through his hat, came to me with a drawing in his hand, and said that he had just figured out that, between the third and fourth towers of the teleferica, there was a point from which the Austrian machine-gun position could be enfiladed with deadly effect.
"If our position had not been really serious I should probably never have listened to such a mad proposal. As it was, I entered into it heart and soul. We hung the platform of the machine-gun on to the cable at an angle which would make it easy to elevate and range on the Austrian position above. Thenas a happy afterthought we bent a sheet of bullet-proof steel for a shield on the exposed side, erected a low platform on which the gun would rest securely, andthe first and last armoured teleferica was complete. Between X------and his helper, the armour and the gun, the weight was about double that which the teleferica was supposed to carry, but I knew there was a wide margin of safety allowed for, and had no misgivings on that score. With X------ and his assistant crouched low on either side of the gun, and with a black tarpaulin thrown loosely over the whole, she looked as much like an ordinary load of junk going down for repairs as anyone could wish.
"The Austrians, who had been busy for an hour peppering the zigzags of the path up to the trenches at the lip of the pass, took no notice of the innocent-looking load slipping down the teleferica. The relieved men from above, dodging in quick rushes past the exposed stretches of the zigzags, offered them far more exciting practice than a load of old gear. The latter disappeared from our sight at the second tower, reappeared at the third, and was in full view when X------ 'unmasked' and opened up. We could even follow the line of brown dust-spurts on the face of the cliff as the bullets ranged upward to their mark. The fire of the two Austrian machine-guns ceased instantly, and never resumed. Probably the gunners were killed before ever they had a chance to turn round their guns and reply to the sudden attack from the air.
"After spraying the pinnacle for five minutes X------ signalled to be drawn up. He arrived at the station to report his job finished. Against possible further use for her, we improved our 'aerial dreadnought' considerably in the next day or two, but there was never occasion to send her into action again. When the Austrians did venture up our big gun was in place, and we scoured them off the top with high explosive."
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