Third Battle of the Isonzo
Let us first talk about the things that have gone well as Third Isonzo opens! Salandra needs things to go well. His opponents in the Socialist Party are beginning to rumble about opening a new session of parliament to discuss what the hell happened to their promised quick victory.
To begin with, the Italian air force has recently been reinforced. Attempting to learn from their allies, the recent bombardment has seen the first use by the Italians of aircraft to issue artillery corrections from the air. The three days of firing are also far beyond anything the Austro-Hungarians on this front have ever experienced before, and the bombardment has significantly affected their morale.
The big win, such as it is, is on Mount Mrzli. The Italians have hauled heavy field howitzers up to the top of the neighbouring Mount Krn to fire across at the trincerone, the “Big Trench”, which they’d briefly captured at Second Isonzo and then lost again. It takes several hours of fighting, dodging grenades and boulders all the way, but the trench is once again secured after heavy work with the bayonet. And, with so many men committed to invading Serbia, this time General Boroevic doesn’t have the blokes to get him his trench back. This time he has to pick his fights, and there is fighting further south that need the attention more than Mrzli does.
Believe it or not, the capture of one particularly annoying trench isn’t the only good news for the Italians! Mount San Michele spends most of the day changing hands, men dropping like flies under withering artillery fire and then scrapping hand-to-hand in the most brutal fashion in the defenders’ trenches. At the end of the day the main defensive position in the first line is still in possession of the defenders, just about. There’s precious few of them left, the Italians have taken some of their outpost trenches and listening posts, and they’re in desperate need of reinforcements and supplies, but they’re still there.
There is one ridge on the northern slope of the mountain that’s particularly well-defended. This one is known as Hill 124, and it will provide a particularly vivid picture of the fighting. The attacks today go absolutely nowhere. The local commander, Colonel Viola (no Twelfth Night jokes, please), is a sensible and prudent man. He’s seen that the prepatory bombardment hasn’t done much against the enemy barbed wire, so he’s sent wire-cutting parties and men armed with Bangalore torpedoes out at night to try to widen such breaches as already exist. Despite these, his attempt to attack in the morning goes absolutely nowhere.
Elsewhere? Do you really want to know? Nothing doing at Sabotino. Nothing doing at Podgora; just men running uphill at intact barbed wire and then falling over. Hill 383, still in Austro-Hungarian hands. Hotel Cosich, still under the old management. There’s been a major attack between San Michele and Monfalcone, on a rolling limestone wilderness called Six Holes Mountain (Monte Sei Busi). I’m reliably informed that people who go there think a better name might be Six Hundred Holes Mountain; men who have to advance across it simply can’t trust their footing. Every step forward might be a broken ankle, a twisted knee, a trapped foot.
With a colossal effort, the Serbians are clinging onto the north of their country, but the basic problem remains the same. Too many enemy soldiers spread over too wide a front. The north is holding as the enemy re-organises itself, but in the west they’re still falling back. To the south they’re preparing a counter-attack against the Bulgarians at Veles. The roads are beginning to fill with refugees as people all over the country flee the war, many of them starting to head for the borders with Greece, Albania, or Montenegro.
Bernard Adams is out of the line at the moment, billeted in yet another farm.
We came out here on Monday. The whole division marched out together. It was really an impressive sight, over a mile of troops on the march. Perfect order, perfect arrangement. Where the road bent you could often see the column for a mile in front, a great snake curling along the right side of the road. Occasionally an adjutant would break out of the line to trot back and correct some straggling; or a C.O. would emerge for a gallop over the adjacent ploughland.
Our company is billeted in a big prosperous farm. The men are in a roomy barn and look very comfortable.
Somewhere, a couple of hundred miles away, Louis Barthas thinks “Damn that stupid lieutenant”, and then suddenly realises he doesn’t know what prompted that thought. Adams continues with his own accomodation.
We are in a big room, on the right as you enter the front door of the farm: on a tiled floor stands a round table with an oilcloth cover, originally of a bright red pattern, but now subdued by constant scrubbings to the palest pink with occasional scarlet dottings. There are big tall windows, a wardrobe and sideboard, a big chimney-place fitted with a coke stove, and on the walls hang three very dirty old prints. The only war touch (beside our scattered possessions) is a picture from a French Illustrated of L’Assaut de Vermelles. Outside is a yard animated by cows, turkeys, geese, chicken, and ducks: also a donkey and a peacock, not to mention the usual dogs and cats. At 5 a.m. I am awakened by an amazing chorus.
Well, as long as the Colonel’s having fun and the subalterns wake up on time.
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