Moun­tain man

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since the 14th cen­tury, Slove­nia found it­self in the fir­ing line when Italy de­clared war on the Cen­tral Pow­ers and in­vaded. The in­tended rapid thrust into the heart of the em­pire didn’t even­tu­ate.

In­stead a bloody front de­vel­oped that lasted 29 months and was char­ac­terised by a fur­ther 10 costly, but largely in­ef­fec­tive, Ital­ian of­fen­sives.

It was trench war­fare among moun­tains, its hor­rors com­pounded by ice, snow, sub-zero tem­per­a­tures and the in­domitable land­scape. But then, in Oc­to­ber 1917, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­ans, sup­ported by Ger­man troops, launched a mighty counter-of­fen­sive that drove the Ital­ians back­wards and stunned the world with its au­dac­ity. One of the main thrusts was made to­wards Ko­barid along this val­ley.

Out­side Ko­barid we de­tour to Gradic hill and climb to the Ital­ian Char­nel House. This grandiose shrine, built by the Fas­cists in the 1930s, rises in oc­tag­o­nal tiers to the 17th-cen­tury Church of St An­thony. Em­bed­ded in walls of smooth green ser­pen­tine are the re­mains of more than 7000 Ital­ian sol­diers, col­lected from grave­yards through­out the val­ley. The echo­ing cham­bers, with their end­less com­pi­la­tions of dead and un­known, are evoca­tive. The view over the val­ley is stun­ning.

Con­trary to leg­end, Hem­ing­way didn’t wit­ness the Izonzo fight­ing. His war­time ex­pe­ri­ence came work­ing for the Red Cross on the Pi­ave River, to which the Ital­ians had re­treated, in the sum­mer of 1918. Here one night he was wounded in action when a mor­tar shell ex­ploded among the trenches he was vis­it­ing. As he car­ried an in­jured com­rade to safety, he was also ma­chine-gunned in the leg.

Re­cov­er­ing in hospi­tal in Mi­lan he met and fell in love with an Amer­i­can nurse who, af­ter a ten­ta­tive af­fair, un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dumped him. Lesser men might have been shat­tered by th­ese re­verses. To the bud­ding au­thor, it was grist to the mill.

Ko­barid has the sleepy air of a place with its liveli­est days be­hind it. We park be­neath Hem­ing­way’s campanile on the edge of a dusty pi­azza where boys are kick­ing a foot­ball and dogs doze in the sun.

Out of sea­son there are few vis­i­tors at the ac­claimed war mu­seum, lo­cated in a three-storey white­washed build­ing that once served as an Ital­ian mil­i­tary court. A pho­to­graph of the au­thor adorns a land­ing on the stair­well. In the multi-vi­sion room we see a short film, com­posed of black-and-white stills, ex­plain­ing the 12th and fi­nal Izonzo bat­tle, the so-called Mir­a­cle of Ko­barid.

Hem­ing­way tells the story through the eyes of his hero, Fred­eric Henry, an am­bu­lance driver in the Ital­ian army. Thus we see him, in au­tumn 1917, re­turn­ing to the front from con­va­les­cent leave to find his for­mer com­rades sub­dued and de­mor­alised af­ter a ter­ri­ble sum­mer of fight­ing. The war is a dis­as­ter, he is told, and must soon end. With the au­tumn rains set­ting in, no­body be­lieves the ru­mours of an im­pend­ing Aus­trian of­fen­sive. When the at­tack comes, on a night of driv­ing wind and rain, Henry is not at Ca­poretto but south on the Bain­sizza plateau, where he hears a tremendous ar­tillery bar­rage far to the north.

Next day word ar­rives of a great bat­tle and an en­emy break­through at Ca­poretto, af­ter which a head­long re­treat be­gins. To­gether with hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers, Henry is caught up in one of the 20th cen­tury’s most dire episodes. Ca­poretto was not only the largest moun­tain bat­tle in his­tory but the first suc­cess­ful use of blitzkrieg, which the Ger­mans had de­vel­oped against the stale­mate of trench war­fare on the Rus­sian front. The tac­tic re­lied on sur­prise and the speedy move­ment of troops.

In the weeks be­fore­hand, 2400 train­loads of men and sup­plies were trans­ported over the Alps, on nonex­is­tent roads, in to­tal se­crecy. When they at­tacked, af­ter the ar­tillery bar­rage wit­nessed by Fred­eric Henry, it was not in the lambs to the slaugh­ter fash­ion preva­lent at the time but in ag­ile and fast-mov­ing col­umns that tar­geted pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied weak points with lo­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity.

For the Ital­ians, dis­lodged within days from po­si­tions they’d held for years and pushed back into Italy, the de­feat was so to­tal that the word passed into their ver­nac­u­lar. It was a Ca­poretto!’’ Ital­ians still some­times say when catas­tro­phe strikes.

Hem­ing­way’s is not the only fa­mous name linked with the con­flict. Ben­ito Mus­solini served on the Izonzo but missed Ca­poretto af­ter be­ing wounded in gre­nade prac­tice. Sim­i­larly, lead­ing the at­tack on Mt Matadur was a young bat­tal­ion com­man­der named Er­win Rom­mel. Ca­su­al­ties were pre­dictably hor­rific with the Izonzo front claim­ing nearly a half mil­lion lives, mak­ing it a costly ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity.

The mu­seum pulls no punches. Ar­ranged over 12 rooms, each de­voted to a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the con­flict, it presents an ex­haust­ing and of­ten con­fronting as­sem­blage of maps, pho­to­graphs, re­lief mod­els, weaponry, sol­diers’ equip­ment and, most poignantly, their di­aries and let­ters.

From the pho­to­graphs of dead and mu­ti­lated men to the model of a sol­dier writ­ing what may well be his last let­ter home, the mes­sage is over­whelm­ingly anti-war.

We have been here two years to­day,’’ writes Paolo Cac­cia Do­min­ioni in his Diario di Guerra 1915-19 ,

and still our posts are as in the beginning, ex­cept for Gorizia which we have con­quered and parts of south Ty­rol which we have lost. And hun­dreds of thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties.’’

We leave the mu­seum feel­ing gut­ted and, to clear our heads, em­bark on the Ko­barid his­tor­i­cal walk, a stren­u­ous 5km trek into the coun­try­side. The way passes for­ti­fi­ca­tions, over­grown trenches, a stream run­ning swiftly over smooth white peb­bles. In dusky light, we reach the Koz­jak River falls, the only spec­ta­tors to a wall of wa­ter tip­ping 15m into a jade-coloured pool that casts a fine spray that set­tles cold on our faces.

Later we re­pair to Gos­tilna Breza, one of the many con­ge­nial es­tab­lish­ments in Ko­barid serv­ing tra­di­tional Slove­nian fare. The prox­im­ity of the Ital­ian and Aus­trian bor­ders hints at the align­ment of the na­tional cui­sine.

At Breza I first taste aj­dovi zganci z ocvirki, a buck­wheat por­ridge laced with pork flecks; we also lay siege to the wind-dried ham, sauer­kraut with sausage and a se­lec­tion of lo­cal cheeses, washed down by a tasty mer­lot from nearby Goriska Brda. Over a medic­i­nal glass of Ju­niper schnapps, I ask Samo what hap­pened af­ter­wards. Samo chuck­les rue­fully. The Ital­ians ral­lied, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire col­lapsed and, in the post-war carve up, most of west­ern Slove­nia was given to Italy as repa­ra­tions.’’ And Hem­ing­way?’’ Well, he got rich and fa­mous, had many wives, trav­elled and drank, but his writ­ing de­clined. Many con­sider A Farewell to Arms his most ac­com­plished novel.’’

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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