Battle of Asiago
Right then. Time for Conrad von Hotzendorf to prove, once and for all, that his armies are totally capable of fighting on their own and winning, without the Germans holding their hands. Quick recap; he’s hoping to drive through poorly-sited Italian positions in the Dolomites and into the Asiago plateau. From there they will drive south-east to capture Venice and trap two Italian armies in the north-eastern shoulder of the boot, as well as General Cadorna and King Victor Emmanuel III.
It’s a typical Conrad plan; a wonderful piece of grand and original thinking, that might well be completely beyond the capabilities of his men to carry out. Meanwhile, General Cadorna has been preparing for the attack, which he has been well warned of, mostly by writing rude letters to General Brusati, commanding his 1st Army in the Dolomites. He’s now having Brusati sacked, for reasons that make absolutely no sense no matter how long tilt my head to the side and stare at them. He is taking the threat seriously, mind. He even asked for help!
Three weeks ago, he wrote to General Joffre asking for some French artillery and other supplies to repel the upcoming attack. Yeah, in the middle of the Battle of Verdun. And the worst part is, I can’t even swear at this guy yet, because if I do that now, I’ll have nowhere left to go when he gets even worse. Can’t shoot your bolt too early. And believe me, will there ever be a lot of bolts shot.
So, to the battle! It really shouldn’t have worked, you know. We’ve had plenty of chances to see how much mountain fighting sucks. One unexceptional division has been assigned objectives that will require it to climb nearly 6,500 feet to the Col Santo in a few days. Italians in the Alps have spent nearly a year having boulders and mines rolled downhill at them. They should surely have figured out how this is done and passed the information round to 1st Army by now. There is really no way that this should have worked.
As ever, it’s the plentiful quantities of artillery, including pretty much every mountain gun that the Austro-Hungarians could scrape together, that told. The weight of shellfire doesn’t compare to what’s being fired at Verdun, but it’s far beyond anything the battle-rusty 1st Army men have known. The vast majority of them either don’t attempt to fight at all, or surrender after only the briefest of exchanges. Their poor-quality trenches have been blown to bits. The few men who do hold out are generally the ones who have been able to shelter in natural mountain caves.
But what we have here is sheer weight of artillery fire resulting in an overwhelming success for the Austro-Hungarian army. Even though they’ve just attacked enemy positions so strong that they had no right to expect success. They just crushed the defenders’ morale with shells. It might seem like I’m labouring this point a little; but boy howdy is it ever relevant to a certain other attack that even now is in the planning stages.
Many of the defeated defenders of Kut have now been hustled all the way to Baghdad. Meanwhile, the wounded Captain Edward Mousley of the Royal Artillery has been unceremoniously dumped onto the captured Julna for the journey up the River Tigris.
We called this the Death Ship, as on it were all the remnants of the sick. Men were dying as they came aboard. Brigadier-General G. B. Smith was senior officer, but Colonel Brown-Mason, [Medical Officer], was in charge. We carried a few sentries. As we moved upstream past the palm grove, scene after scene in a tussle of five months became again vivid.
Then the Turkish crescent, floating from the Serai in place of our Union Jack, was shut out from our eyes by the bend of the river, and we realized a little more that Kut and the siege were back history, and we prisoners in a relentless captivity.
The voyage was a sad and long one, owing to our running short of petrol. A tin of this turned up here and there and the ship simply went on until this was done. There was mildewed and rotten bread that no one could touch. It was worse than the biscuits. Other things like eggs and milk we had to buy at huge prices. One night several Indians were missing. Others reported that these have fallen overboard or jumped overboard to end their wretchedness. But more than one was probably trying to escape.
This story is a very, very long way from over.
Our mission consisted of maintaining liaison, by patrols, with the troops who held the facing slopes. But these patrols took place only on paper, in fictional reports. In reality, the patrols had ceased after three days. There was no one to send out on patrol.
Curiosity led me to inspect the immediate surroundings of our emplacements. We were still protected by a veil of fog which the May sun would soon dissipate. Just then, in a shell hole, I saw the body of a soldier, thickly encrusted from head to toe in dried mud. “Well,” I said, “here’s a dead one already.” And I poked him with my foot, to make sure he was no longer among the living but had entered the realm of Pluto.
The reply was a protest: “Leave me alone!” And in this grumbling I recognized the voice of my fellow Peyriacois, Edouard Durand, who was in the 4th Section with me. Stupefied, I asked him how he had gotten into this comatose state.
He told me how, tangled up in a jumble of barbed wire, he couldn’t get himself loose until nightfall, after much trouble, and then he couldn’t rejoin our section, which had disappeared in the darkness. After having wandered around for hours, he finally was able to rejoin his squad at daybreak.
“But,” I told him, “don’t stay there, immobile, all soaked on the damp ground. Get up, and shake yourself off!”
Overcome with fatigue, he didn’t budge. “One way of croaking is just as good as another,” he said. And I wasn’t able to pull him out of this state. Besides, his half-section had left us, to go who knows where, and I didn’t see my comrade again.
The Battle of Verdun grinds onward.
Packed up tents and spare kits after breakfast. Overcoats much to our relief were put on the transport. Drew bread and got our water-bottles full then started about 9 o’clock. Dull and drizzling day and roads very slippery and muddy. Halted for lunch after marching 5 miles. Ordered to saddle up at 3pm, but no sooner finished when we were told to off saddle, so made our fires.
Putting the overcoats on the transport is very efficient; then the quartermaster can lose them all at once!
Had an invitation to tea from the Garrison Commander yesterday, and for supper to-day. Only he and his wife present…
When I paid him at his request a formal visit two days ago the policeman on guard would not let me enter by the private front entrance and told me that orderlies had to go by the back door. As I left the house again after about an hour-and-a-half’s chat with the Colonel and the two young officers who were with him, my friend the policeman came up to me. “I am sorry, Sir, I did not know you were a guest and a friend of the Commandant. But I saw you with him on the lawn !”
Then I made a tactical blunder. To console the poor and crestfallen Eye of the Law, I gave him sixpence to drink my health. Since then I am no longer safe in the streets of Newhaven. All the policemen beam on me with the most affectionate and heart-moving smile. They are all my very dear friends. And wherever two or three of them are standing together at the street-corners they will stop me and talk to me. They have such a touching way.
And the “Bass” at the Bridge Hotel certainly is tempting.
Oh, oh, oh, it’s a lovely war! For once I’m not being ironic. It’s nice to see someone who isn’t a coddled officer having a good time of it. Even though he’s basically being treated as though he were an officer. Still. The Army’s been shitting on him from two different directions, on account of his parentage and his weak heart both. Now he’s really making the best of things.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!