The Rocca | Monfalcone | 09 Jun 1915

We’re mostly in Italy and Artois today, with a soupcon of flavour from Gallipoli.

Kenneth Best

We’ll start on Gallipoli, where Kenneth Best has already learned the fine military art of acquiring a buckshee from an absent friend.

Beardmore tells me Kinloch has gone off with a bad tummy. I never thought he would stick it. Went in such a hurry that he left his Communion set, which I promptly borrowed. Coming back I encountered some nasty black shells. On arrival, find my servant and various staff men laid out with shrapnel.

We are living in a regular death trap. Our dugouts face road to Clapham Junction about 100 yards off. Each vehicle or body or men who come along the road is peppered with shrapnel as they pass us. It is more tantalising than sitting in stalls and watching the grimmest tragedy.

Lovely. And now we get to go to Italy and see what’s up over there.

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Monfalcone

The Italian Third Army has finally crossed the River Isonzo, cleared the flooded land beyond, and reached Monfalcone, about 17 days behind schedule. The Austro-Hungarian army has chosen not to defend the town. They’ve left an outpost garrison on the Rocca, at the peak of a hill just behind the town square. There’s sharp fighting for a few hours, and then the garrison withdraws in good order.

Monfalcone is almost a ghost town. There’s no point in sticking around. And so the Third Army passes quickly through and enters the Carso. The ground drops quickly away from the back side of the Rocca on the outskirts of town, then descending into a valley. It then rises sharply to a hill by the name of Cosich.

Cosich had been quickly identified at the start of the planning process as an ideal keystone for defence. Its trenches were designed and excavated first, its barbed wire some of the most extensive on the front. The defenders also have plenty of guns. The Italian guns are still moving forward. The enemy guns fire briefly and then withdraw in plain sight to more defensible locations.

The men are 18 miles from Trieste. One hard day’s march would have got them there. But the road ahead is now well and truly blocked. Apparently, an Austrian journalist, when seeing the positions, called them the “Hotel Cosich”. We’ll see how long it takes the Italians to turn the Hotel Cosich into Fawlty Towers.

Gorizia

Away to the north, the Italians are trying to cross the Isonzo. They attack in three different places, at Podgora (west of Gorizia), Mount Sabotino (north of Gorizia), and Sagrado (south of Gorizia). The Podgora and Mount Sabotino attacks only fail miserably. They aren’t complete disasters like the one at Sagrado.

At Sagrado, the Austro-Hungarian defensive positions have, unusually, been pushed far enough forward to allow them to overlook the Isonzo. The Italians have built pontoon bridges across the river at a point where there’s a helpful sandy islet in midstream. A battalion crosses before dawn and prepares to assault the enemy positions. They’ve got reinforcements all ready to come across after them.

At which point, the enemy artillery opens up. And it doesn’t target the infantry, yet. Nobody seems to have realised that the islet is an ideal ranging mark for guns. A thunderous crash of shells falls on the pontoon bridge, which simply disappears under the weight of fire.

And then the guns turn on the infantry. By afternoon, the Italians are fixing bayonets, as they’re starting to run out of ammunition. The enemy responds with hand grenades. As night falls, some of the more enterprising attackers wade back through the Isonzo, which at this point is wide but only slightly less than head high, and attempt to dig foxholes on the islet. Once the guns fall silent, they continue back to the west bank and safety.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has another tough day on the Lorette at Second Artois. Discretion is, once again, advised.

Bombs and grenades rained all around us. We could hardly answer back, because we had a very small supply of these devices, and not many of us knew how to throw them. There were continual alerts, true and false, and an excessive waste of cartridges. All to kill nothing more than a rat, since I don’t think we were dealing with more than a handful of Boches who had crept up to throw bombs at us.

About midnight the cry went up. I didn’t see a thing, but all of us blasted away pell-mell. The guy next to me, Argence, from Quillan, had his wrist shot through. The blood spurted like a fountain and I was covered in it. I yanked off his cravat and tied it around his arm, as hard as I could. The bleeding stopped and he was able to reach the first-aid station. I don’t think he exaggerated when he said in a letter home that I had saved his life.

Lying stretched out on the ground at our feet, moaning and unrecognisable, were the two men we had seen in flames. Their skin was completely black. One died that night. The other, delirious, sang the songs of his childhood, conversed with his wife and his mother, spoke about his village. We all had tears in our eyes.

By the end of it, his squad is in expansive mood.

“If we weren’t all cowards”, said Terrisse, “those who wanted this war would be here in our place. Then we’d see!”
“It’s too late now”, I chimed in. “It’s before things start that we need people to see clearly. Let’s hope that those who get out of this will remember that, at least.”
“And you,” said Ferie to me, “you who are writing about this life that we’re leading here, don’t hide anything. You’ve got to tell it all.”
“Yes, everything. We’ll be there as your witnesses. Maybe we won’t all die here”, added the others.
“They won’t believe us”, said Mondies. “Or maybe they won’t even give a damn.”

In vain we put the dying man alongside the trench wall, so he wouldn’t get trampled. He kept rolling into the middle. Worn down by fatigue and the need to sleep, I slumped down. I was leaning on the dead man, the dying man was leaning on me. I slept between a corpse and a near-corpse.

It didn’t bother me at all.

That’s their last day of trench duty for the moment; they then go back into close reserve.

Actions in Progress

Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Battle of Artois (Second Artois)
Armenian Genocide
Sri Lanka Riots
Bussa Rebellion

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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