One hun­dred years on: the for­got­ten front that in­spired A Farewell To Arms

Oc­to­ber 1917 saw some of the most bru­tal fight­ing in the Alps be­tween Ital­ian and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian forces. SNP de­pute leader and jour­nal­ist, An­gus Robert­son, re­calls his mov­ing meet­ing with one of the last vet­er­ans of the con­flict

Sunday Herald - - COMMENT -

AS we re­mem­ber the cen­te­nar­ies of the First World War it is un­der­stand­able that we are most fa­mil­iar about the West­ern Front. Af­ter all it was our grand­fa­thers and great-grand­fa­thers who fought at the Somme and Pass­chen­daele. We also hear about our English-speak­ing cousins and their sac­ri­fices at Gal­lipoli or Vimy Ridge. Per­haps that’s the rea­son we see so lit­tle about cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions from other fronts: whether at Tan­nen­berg, Gali­cia, the Carpathi­ans or count­less other bat­tle­fields. We also hear next to noth­ing about the south­ern front, which pit­ted Italy against Aus­tro-Hun­gary and was just as bloody as any­where else, but took place in the Alps. To this day it is the big­gest-ever con­flict in moun­tains in the his­tory of mankind with over one mil­lion ca­su­al­ties.

This week marks the de­ci­sive an­niver­sary of the war on the Ital­ian Front, when one of the only break­through bat­tles of the war led to “the great­est de­feat in Ital­ian mil­i­tary his­tory”. Par­tic­i­pants in­cluded the fu­ture Ger­man Gen­eral Er­win Rom­mel, the soon-to-be Ital­ian fas­cist dic­ta­tor Ben­ito Mus­solini and Amer­i­can writer Ernest Hem­ing­way who set A Farewell To Arms in the con­flict.

Con­scripted Ital­ians were sent to the front, many see­ing the Alps for the first time. This was the same for troops from across the Hab­s­burg Em­pire in­clud­ing many Ger­man speak­ers, Czechs, Slo­vaks, Poles, Hun­gar­i­ans, Ruthenes, Bos­ni­ans and Croats. For two years af­ter Italy en­tered the war in 1915 there was a stale­mate along the Dolomites and Ju­lian Alps. Ital­ian and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian troops were dug in along alpine val­leys, ridges and on the high moun­tain peaks. Con­di­tions were hor­ren­dous, es­pe­cially in the freez­ing win­ter, with tens of thou­sands killed by avalanches alone. The trenches were dug into the rock of the hill­sides and tun­nels were driven into the moun­tain sides, to lay ex­plo­sives and lit­er­ally blow the en­emy off the hill­tops.

The trenches and em­place­ments are vis­i­ble to this day, es­pe­cially along the Isonzo val­ley in Slove­nia which was the most con­tested area on the front. Given the out­stand­ing beauty of the re­gion which in­cludes a na­tional park, it is hard to imag­ine the car­nage of a cen­tury ago. Any­one in­ter­ested in the con­flict should visit the award-win­ning mu­seum in Ko­barid which ex­plains things from the per­spec­tive of the par­tic­i­pants on all sides.

Very lit­tle has been writ­ten in English about the south­ern front com­pared to the other World War One the­atres of con­flict. A re­cent ex­cep­tion is The White War by Mark Thomp­son, who re­counts re­peated sto­ries of de­fend­ers who stopped shoot­ing dur­ing sui­ci­dal at­tacks and urged their en­emy to re­turn to their line. In one ex­am­ple: “An Aus­trian cap­tain shouted to his gun­ners, ‘What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be’. The Aus­tri­ans stopped fir­ing and called out: ‘Stop, go back! We won’t shoot any more. Do you want every­one to die?”

Twenty years ago I first cov­ered the con­flict for the BBC and met the last Slove­nian vet­eran who iron­i­cally lived in the same val­ley as the worst fight­ing: “My name is Ivan Ko­vacic,” he said. “I joined the army in 1916, and served with the 97th Reg­i­ment of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian forces, the Bad Rad­kers­burg Reg­i­ment as a ma­chine gun­ner”.

He re­counted the hor­rors of the 11 in­con­clu­sive bat­tles on the Isonzo and then the break­through 12th bat­tle, which started on Oc­to­ber 24, 1917 – 100 years ago this Tues­day. Af­ter a mas­sive ar­tillery and gas at­tack, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian troops and their Ger­man al­lies suc­cess­fully broke through the Ital­ian de­fences and pushed them back all of the way to the Pi­ave river north of Venice.

It all counted for noth­ing be­cause the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire was on the brink of col­lapse, de­feat and dis­in­te­gra­tion. Mil­lions of peo­ple lost their lives for no gain what­so­ever.

As on the West­ern Front to­day, there are well tended ceme­ter­ies, os­suar­ies and memo­ri­als across the con­tested re­gion. Com­mem­o­ra­tions de­scribed as A Farewell To Arms have been tak­ing place through­out this year, some­thing no doubt that would have been wel­comed by Slovene vet­eran Ivan Ko­vacic. Dur­ing his life­time he lived un­der 10 flags without leav­ing his home. Speak­ing be­fore reach­ing the age of 103, he told me: “If some­body said you should go through the same things as I did on the front and I’d be given 50 dec­o­ra­tions I’d say I don’t want them.”

Pho­to­graph: Hul­ton Ar­chive/ Getty Im­ages

A group of Alpine In­fantry sol­diers camped at the foot of Mount Vi­lau in the Ital­ian Alps dur­ing the First World War

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