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.’’
www.slovenia.info Susan Kurosawa’s DepartureLounge column returns in April.
DEALS OF THE WEEK
Barge into France on a cut-price cruise; free night on Hamilton Island; national parks cashback offer; GuysandDolls Sydney package. These and other money-saving offers are featured in Travel&Indulgence’s holiday deals, updated daily: