With the Italians

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

With the Italians is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times and various newspapers on 27 june 1916.


With the Italians

The Times (27 june 1916)



By A. Conan Doyle.

Making every possible allowance for one's personal feelings of obligation to one's hosts, I come away from the Italian front 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 extra-ordinary difficulty.

First a word as to the Italian soldier. He is a type by himself, with a very special dash and fire, covered over by a very pleasing and un-assuming 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. 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. Caesar told how the big Germans used to laugh at his little men until they had been at hand-grips with them. The Austrians could tell the same tale. 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 why is it that they have not made me impression upon the enemy's position ? The answer lies in the strategical position of Italy. 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 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. There remains the other front, the opening by the sea. Here the Italians cleared the plain, crossed the river ; now they are faced by barbed wire, machine guns, cemented trenches, and every other device which has held them as it has held every one else. But remember what they have done for the common cause. They have in a year occupied some 40 Austrian divisions. 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. As to the future, if Austria has to draw her men to the East there will be a tiger spring for Trieste. If manhood can break the line, then I believe the Dorando will do it.

And they are excellently led. Cadorna is an old Roman, a man cast in the big simple mould of antiquity, Irugal in his tastes, clear in his aims, with no thought outside his duty. Every one loves and trusts him. Porro, the Chief of the Staff, 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.


My first experience of the Italian line was at the portion which I have called the gap by the sea, otherwise the Isonzo Front. The Isonzo 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 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 50 yards of them.

The story of trench attack and defence is no doubt very similar in all quarters, but close touch should be kept between the Allies on the matter of new inventions. At present there seems to be a very imperfect sympathy. When I was on the British lines they were dealing with a new method of clearing barbed wire. But on the Italian front I found that the same system had been tested for many months. In the use of bullet-proof jackets the Italians are also ahead of us. 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.


I was anxious to visit Monfalcone, the small dock-yard captured from the Austrians on the Adriatic. The only road to it ran close to the Austrian position at the village of Ronchi and afterwards kept parallel to it for some miles. As we approached Ronchi we could see shrapnel breaking over the road in front of us, we but we had not realized that it was precisely for vehicles that the Austrians were waiting and that they had the range marked out to a yard. We went down the road all out at a steady 50 miles an hour. At this moment there was a noise as if the whole four tires had gone simultaneously a most terrific bang in our very ears, merging into a second sound like a reverberating blow upon an enormous gong. All I glanced up I saw three clouds immediately above my head, two of them white and the other of a rusty red. It was our pace that saved us. The motor was an open one, and the three shells burst about ten metres above our heads. They threw forward, however, and we, travelling at so great a pace, shot from under. Before they could get in another we had swung round the curve and under the lee of a house.

We found an ambulance lorry and a little group of infantry huddled under the same shelter with the expression of people who had been caught in the rain. The road beyond was under heavy tire as well as that by which we had come. Had the Ostro-Bosches dropped a high explosive upon us they would have had a good mixed bag. But apparently they were only out for fancy shooting and disdained a sitter. Presently there came a lull and the lorry moved on, but we soon heard a burst of firing which showed that they were after it. My companions had decided that it was out of the question for us to finish our excursion. We were able finally to make our retreat on foot. So ended my visit to Monfalcone, the place I did not reach.