From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
WHAT ITALY HAS DONE FOR THE COMMON CAUSE.
GREAT WAR OF DESPERATE VENTURES.
By Sir A. CONAN DOYLE.
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 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 on 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 little 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 fighting in so rotten a cause. But from the first to the last, the Alpini have had the ascendency in the hill fighting, as the line regiments have against the Kaiserlichs on the plain.
Caesar told how the big Germans used to laugh at his little men until they had been at handgrips with them. The Austrians could tell the same tale. The spirit in the ranks is something marvelous. 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.
THE TWO FRONTS.
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 on 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 every one 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 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.
As 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 Dorandos will do it.
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. Every one 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.
So much for the general situation. 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 work of the Austrian aeroplanes is, however, very aggressive behind the Italian lines, for they have the great advantage that a row of fine cities lies at their mercy, while the Italians can do nothing without injuring their own kith and kin across the border. This dropping of explosives on the chance of hitting one soldier among fifty victims seems to me the most monstrous development of the whole war, and the one which should be most sternly repressed in future international legislation — if such a thing as international law still exists.
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 on 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.
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 general curve of both lines being marked, as in Flanders, by the sausage-balloons which float behind them. 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, but so far as the infantry goes, there is none of that constant malignant petty warfare with which we are familiar in Flanders. 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 off.
The story of trench attack and defence is, no doubt, very similar in all quarters, but I am convinces that close touch should be kept between the Allies on the matter of new inventions. The quick Latin brain may conceive and teat 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 head-quarters might give some valuable advice. At present the Italians have, as I understand, no military representatives with our armies, while they receives 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 headquarters, but surely our Allies should be on another footing.
Having got this general view of the position I was anxious in the afternoon to visit Monfalcone, which is the small dockyard captured from the Austrians on the Adriatic. My kind Italian officer guides did not recommend the trip, as it was part of their great hospitality to shield their guest from any part of that danger which they were always ready to incur themselves. The only road to Monfalcone ran close up to the Austrian position at the village of Ronchi and afterwards kept parallel to it for some miles. I was told that it was only on odd days that the Austrian guns were active in this particular section, so determined to trust to luck that this might not be one or them. It proved, however, to be one oi the worst on record, and we were not destined to see the dockyard to which we started.
A NARROW ESCAPE.
The civilian cuts a ridiculous figure when he enlarges upon any small adventures which may come his way — adventures which the soldier endures in silence us part of his everyday life. On this occasion, however, the episode was all our own, and had a sporting flavour in it which made it dramatic. I know now the feeling of tense expectation with which the driven grouse whirrs onwards towards the butt. I have been behind the butt before now, and it is only poetic justice that I should see the matter from the other point of view.
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. 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 a second sound like a reverberating blow on 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. The air was full of flying metal, and the road, as we were told afterwards by an observer, was all churned up by it. The metal base of one of the shells was found plumb in the middle of the road, just where our motors had been. There is no use telling me Austrian gunners can't shoot. I know better.
CAUGHT IN THE RAIN.
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 yards above our heads. They threw forward, however, and, travelling at so great a pace, we shot from under. Before they could get in another we had swung round the curve and under the lee of a house. 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 or business, without taking others in order to gratify the whim of a joy-rider. Barbariche and Clericetti, this record will convey to you my remorse.
Our difficulties were by no means over. We found an ambulance lorry and a little group of infantry huddled under the same shelter with the expression of people who bad been caught in the rain. The road beyond was under heavy fire, as well as that by which we bad come. Had the Ostro-Boches dropped a high explosive on 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 waited for some time, therefore, and were able finally to make our retreat on foot, being joined later by the car. So ended my visit to Monfalcone, the place I did not reach. I hear that two 10,000-ton steamers were left on the stocks there by the Austrians, but were disabled before they retired. Their cabin basins and other fittings are now adorning the Italian dug-outs.
(Copyright, 1916, by A. Conan Doyle, in the United States of America.)