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