Italy's War Problems

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Italy's War Problems is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the Daily Express, 27 june 1916.

Italy's War Problems

Daily Express (p. 4)




My second day on the Italian front was devoted to a view of the mountain warfare in the Carnie Alps. Besides the two great fronts, one of defence (Trentino) and one of offence (Isonzo), there are very many smaller valleys which have to be guarded. The total frontier line is over four hundred miles, and it has all to be held against raids, if not invasions.

It is a most picturesque business. Far up in the Roccolana Valley I found the Alpini outposts, backed by artillery which had been brought into the most wonderful positions. They have taken 8-inchs guns where a tourist could hardly take his knapsack. Neither side can ever make serious progress, but there are continual duels, gun against gun, or Alpini against Jaeger. In a little wayside house was the brigade headquarters, and here I was entertained to lunch.

It was a scene that I shall remember. They drank to England. I raised my glass to Italia irredenta — might it soon be redenta. They all sprang to their feet and the circle of dark faces flashed into flame. They keep their souls and emotions, these people. I trust that ours may not become atrophied by self-suppression.


The Italians are a quick, high-spirited race, and it is very necessary that we should consider their feelings, and that we should show our sympathy with what they have done instead of making querulous and unreasonable demands of them. In some ways they are in a difficult position. The war is made by their splendid King, a man of whom every one speaks with extraordinary reverence and love — and by the people. The people with the deep instinct of a very old civilisation understand that the liberty of the world and their own national existence are really at stake. But there are several forces which divide the strenght of the nation.

There is the clerical, which represents the old Guelph or German spirit, looking on Austria as the eldest daughter of the church — a daughter who is little credit to her mother. Then there is the old nobility. Finally there are the commercial people who, through the great banks or other similar agencies, have got into the influence and employ of the Germans. When you consider all this, you will appreciate how necessary it is that Britain should in every possible way — moral and material — sustain the national party.

The last day spent on the Italian front was in the Trentino. From Verona a motor drive of about twenty-five miles takes one up the valley of Adige, and past a place of evil augury for the Austrians — the field of Rivoli. As one passes up the valley one appreciates that, on their left wing, the Italians have position after position in the spurs of the mountains before they could be driven into the plain. If the Austrians could reach the plain it would be to their own ruin, for the Italians have large reserves. There is no need for any anxiety about the Trentino.

Finally, after a long drive of winding gradients, always beside the Adige, we reached Ala, where we interviewed the commander of the sector, a man who has done splendid work during the recent lighting. "By all means yon can see my front. But no motor-car, please. It draws fire, and others may be hit beside you."


We proceeded on foot, therefore, along a valley, which branched at the end into two passes. In both very active fighting had been going on, and as we came up the guns were baying merrily, waking up most extraordinary echoes in the hills. It was difficult to believe that it was not operations of thunder. There was one terrible voice that broke out from time to time in the mountains — like the angry voice of the Holy Roman Empire. When it came all other sounds died down into nothing. It was — so I was told — the master gun, the vast 42-centimetre giant which brought down the pride of Liège and Namur.

We passed a burst dug-out by the roadside, where a tragedy had occurred recently, for eight medical officers were killed in it by a single shell. There was no particular danger in the valley, however, and the aimed fire was all going across us to the fighting lines in the two passes above us. That the right, the Valley of Buello, has seen some of the worst of the fighting. These two passes form the Italians left wing, which has been pushed in by the concentrated fire.

When we arrived at the spot where the two valleys forked we were halted, and had we were not permitted to advance to the advance trenches, which lay on the crests above us. There was about 1,000 yards between the adversaries. I have seen types of some of the Bosnian and Croatian prisoners, men of poor physique and intelligence, but the Italians speak with chivalrous praise of the bravery of the Hungarians and of the Austrian Jaeger. Some of their proceedings disgust them, however, and especially the fact that they use Russian prisoners to dig trenches under fire.


Nothing could be more cool or methodical than the Italian arrangements on the Trentino front. There are no troops who would not have been forced back by the Austrian fire. It corresponded with the French experience at Verdun, or ours at the second battle of Ypres. It may well occur again if the Austrians get their guns forward.

That night found me back at Verona, and next morning I was on my way to Paris, where I hope to be privileged to have some experiences at the front of our splendid allies. I leave Italy with a deep feeling of gratitude for the kindness shown to me, and of admiration for the way in which they are playing their part in the world's fight for freedom.

They relieve to a very great extent the pressure on the Russians who, in spite of all their bravery, might have been overwhelmed last summer during the "durch bruch" had it not been for the diversion of so many Austrian troops. The time has come now when Russia, by her advance on the Pripet, is repaying her debt. But the debt is common to all the Allies. Let them bear it my mind.

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