Italy's Great Part

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Italy's Great Part is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in the Daily Mail on 27 june 1916.

Italy's Great Part

Daily Mail (27 june 1916, p. 5)



One meets such extreme kindness, and consideration among the Italians that there is a real danger lest one's personal feeling of obligation should warp one's judgment or hamper one's expression. Making every possible allowance for this. I come away from them, after a very wide if superficial view of all that they are doing, with a deep feeling of admiration and a conviction that no army in the world could have made a braver attempt to advance under conditions of extraordinary difficulty.

First a word as to the Italian soldier. He is a type by himself, which differs from the earnest solidarity of the new French army and from the business alertness of the Briton, and yet has a very special dash and fire of its own, covered over by a very pleasing and unassuming manner. London has not yet forgotten Dorando, of Marathon fame. He was just such another easy, smiling youth as I now see everywhere around me. Yet there came a day when a hundred thousand Londoners hung upon his every movement, when strong men gasped and women wept at his invincible but unavailing spirit. When he had fallen senseless in that historic race on the very threshold of his goal, so high was the determination within him that while he floundered on the track like a broken-backed horse, with the senses gone out of him, his legs still continued to drum upon the cinder-path. Then, when by pure will-power he staggered to his feet and drove his dazed body across the line, it was an exhibition of pluck which put the sunburned baker straightway among London's heroes.

Dorando's spirit is alive to-day, I see thousands of him all around me. A thousand such, led by a few young gentlemen of the type who occasionally give us object-lessons in how to ride at Olympia, make no mean battalion. It has been a war of most desperate ventures, but never once has there been a lack of volunteers. The Tyrolese are good men — too good to be lighting in so rotten a cause. But from the first to last the Alpini have had the ascendancy in the hill fighting as the line regiments have against the Kaiserlichs upon the plain. The spirit in the ranks is something marvellous. There have been occasions when every officer has fallen and yet the men have pushed on, have taken a position, and then waited for official directions.


But if that is so, you will ask, why is it that they have not made more impression upon the enemy's position? The answer lies in the strategical position of Italy, and it can be discussed without any technicalities. A child could understand it. The Alps form such a bar across the north that there are only two points where serious operations are possible. One is the Trentino salient, where Austria can always threaten and invade Italy. She lies in the mountains with the plains beneath her. She can always invade the plain, but the Italians cannot seriously invade the mountains, since the passes would only lead to other mountains beyond. Therefore their only possible policy is to hold the Austrians back. This they have most successfully done, and though the Austrians, with the aid of a shattering heavy artillery, have recently made some advance, it is perfectly certain that they can never really carry out any serious invasion. The Italians, then, have done all that could be done in this quarter.

There remains the other front, the opening by the sea. Here the Italians had a chance to advance over a front of plain bounded by a river with hills beyond. They cleared the plain, they crossed the river, they fought a battle very like our own battle of the Aisne upon the slopes of the hills, taking 20,000 Austrian prisoners, and now they are faced by barbed wire, machine guns, cemented trenches, and every other device which has held them as it has held everyone else. But remember what they have done for the common cause and be grateful for it. They have in a year occupied some forty Austrian divisions [nearly 4,000,000 men — an Austrian division is very strong] and relieved our Russian Allies to that very appreciable extent. They have killed or wounded a quarter of a million, taken 40,000, and drawn to themselves a large portion of the artillery. That is their record up to date.


And they are excellently led. Cadorna is an old Roman, a man cast in the big, simple mould of antiquity, frugal in his tastes, clear in his aims, with no thought outside his duty. Everyone loves and trusts him. Porro, the Chief of the Staff, who was good enough to explain the strategical position to me, struck me as a man of great clearness of vision, middle-sized, straight as a dart, with an eagle face grained and coloured like an old walnut. The whole of the staff work is, as experts assure me, most excellently done.

My first experience of the Italian line was at the portion which I have called the gap by the sea, otherwise the Isonzo front. From a mound behind the trenches an extraordinarily fine view can be got of the Austrian position. The Isonzo, which has been so bravely carried by the Italians, lay in front of me, a clear blue river, as broad as the Thames at Hampton Court. In a hollow to my left were the roofs of Gorizia, the town which the Italians are endeavouring to take. A long, desolate ridge, the Carso extends to the south of the town and stretches down nearly to the sea. The crest is held by the Austrians, and the Italian trenches have been pushed within fifty yards of them. A lively bombardment was going on from either side.


The story of trench attack and defence is no doubt very similar in all quarters, but I am convinced that close touch should be kept between the Allies on the scatter of new inventions. The quick Latin brain may conceive and test an idea long before we do. At present there seems to be a very imperfect sympathy. As an example, when I was on the British lines they were dealing with a method of clearing barbed wire. The experiments were new and were causing great interest. But on the Italian front I found that the same system had been tested for many months. In the use of bullet-proof jackets for engineers and other men who have to do exposed work the Italians are also ahead of us. One of their engineers at our headquarters might give some valuable advice.

At present the Italians have, as I understand, no military representatives with our armies, while they receive a British general with a small staff. This seems very wrong not only from the point of view of courtesy and justice but also because Italy has no direct means of knowing the truth about our great development. When Germans state that our new armies are made of paper our Allies should have some official assurance of their own that this is false. I can understand our keeping neutrals from our head-quarters, but surely our Allies should be on another footing.

(*) Copyright 1916, by A. Conan Doyle in the United States of America.