A Glimpse of the Italian Army in Action

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A Glimpse of the Italian Army in Action is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Daily Mirror on 27 june 1916.


A Glimpse of the Italian Army in Action

The Daily Mirror (27 june 1916, p. 5)

How I Was Shelled in a Motor-Car.

One meets with 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 came 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 condition, of extraordinary difficulty. But if that is so, you will ask, why is it that the Italians 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.

There remains the other front, the opening by the sea.

Here the Italians had a chance to advance over s 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 Austrians divisions, 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 cleat. A. to the future, it is very easy to prophesy. They will continue to absorb large enemy armies. Neither side can advance far, as matters stand. But if the Russians advance and 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 Italians will do it.

Let me descend for a moment to my own trivial adventures since leaving the British front.

Of France I hope to say more in the future and so I will pass at a bound to Padua, where it appeared that the Austrian front had politely advanced to meet me, for I was wakened betimes in the morning by the dropping of bombs, the rattle of aircraft guns, and the distant rat-tat-tat of a Maxim high up in the air.

I heard when I came down later that the intruder had been driven away and that little damage had been done.

The Italian headquarter town, which I will call Nemini, was a particular victim of these murderous attacks.

I speak with some feeling, as not only was the ceiling of my bedroom shattered some days before my arrival, but a greasy patch with some black shreds upon it was still visible above my window which represented part of the remains of an unfortunate workman who had been blown to pieces immediately in front of the house. The air defence is very skilfully managed, however, and the Italians have the matter well in hand.

I was anxious to see the Italian trenches in order to compare them with our British methods, but save for the support and communication trenches I was courteously but firmly warned oil.

The story of trench attack and defence is no doubt very similes in all quarters, but I sat convinced that close touch should be kept between the Allies on the matter 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.

Having got this general view of the position I was anxious in the afternoon to visit Monfalcone, which is the small dock-yard captured from the Austrians on the Adriatic.

The civilian cuts a ridiculous figure when he enlarges upon any small adventures which may his way — adventures which the soldier endures in silence as part of his every-day life. On this occasion, however, the episode was all our own, and had a sporting flavour in it which made it dramatic. As we approached Ronchi we could see shrapnel breaking over the road in front of us, but we had not yet, realised 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 fifty miles an hour. The village was near, and it seemed that we had got past the place of danger. We had, in fact, just reached it.

There is no use telling me Austrian gunners can't shoot. I know better.

At this moment there was a noise as if the whole four tyres had gone simultaneously, a most terrific bang in our very ears, merging into second sound, like a reverberating blow upon an enormous gong. As 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, according to one of my Italian companions, who was himself an artillery officer, about ten metres above our heads. They threw forward, however, and we, travelling at so great a pace, shot from under them.

The good Colonel B. wrung my hand in silence. They were both distressed, these good soldiers, under the impression that they had led me into danger.

As a matter of fact, it was I who owed them an apology, since they had enough risks in the way of business without taking others in order to gratify the whim of a joy-rider.

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