Thursday, 27 September 2007

La Brigata Foggia, part II

[The men are not all from Foggia; they will be from all over the country. Bear in mind that by October 1917, after 30 months of war, few units would have had their original composition in any case. But in fact the names of Brigades in this era refer not to the origins of the recruits but to the location of the Brigade's permanent peace time headquarters. Recruitment however was organised nationally not territorially. The front line before the German/Austrian-Hungarian attack ran more or less parallel to the river in this sector, along the peaks of Monte Rosso & Monte Nero.] Back to Col. Pisani.

There was no real time to properly organise the defence of Caporetto and Ponte Eiffel. In the confusion of milling people, vehicles and horses it was impossible for my men to take up the correct defensive positions. I and III battalions arrived eventually, though they had lost some men along the way. We did everything we could in the situation. I organised the machine guns as best I could to defend the bridge, taking up positions in the cemetery outside the town. Mid-way through the afternoon, Major Rodolfo Allegra, commanding officer of I battalion, announced that he was feeling unwell. Ignoring my requests that he stay, he climbed into a horse-drawn cart and set off along the road leading to Robic and Starselo, abandoning his command. By now the brigade was disintegrating, and such troops as remained to me I took under my personal command. I was already in de facto command of I and II battalions, and I now oversaw the arrangements of the machine gun companies also. Meanwhile Brigade Command itself was severely reduced: the only officers who remained to me were two medical officers, who offered a staunch example of duty and dedication throughout the day, and a solitary Lieutenant, an older reservist from the Territorial Militia. These three men alone of all my staff and assistants remembered that day what they owed to themselves and to the proud name of the Foggia Brigade.

We made desperate attempts to organise the retreat of 46 Division, to keep the troops and materials moving steadily back over the bridge and to maintain order. We also tried to organise transport for the wounded, many of who had simply been abandoned in the road, some on stretchers, others seated on the ground, whose escorts or stretcher-bearers had fled. We could hear them crying out or groaning through the fog, and it was imperative to move them on since their presence was having a demoralising effect on the defenders of the bridge. 10th Company, which had stayed behind at Idersko earlier in the day, now came up having retreated north along the right-hand bank of the river, and I sent them to join the defence in the cemetery. Meanwhile, at around 15h, Lieutenant Santalla of 7th Company, accompanied by Lieutenant Ramierez of our machine gun company, announced that they were going to make contact with the battalion commander. They disappeared into the rain and were not seen again.

Soon after 15h enemy patrols appeared on the left bank of the Isonzo around Caporetto, and could also, to our great dismay be dimly discerned on the right bank of the river further downstream around Idersko. We believed the bridge at Idersko to have been already destroyed, so although we knew that the Germans had taken Ladra and Smast we could not understand their arrival on this bank of the river.

The Brigade's responses to the enemy were beginning to be severely affected by our munitions shortages. By now it was impossible to be sure from where it was that the intense enemy machine gun was arriving; light artillery fire, with shrapnel and incendiary shells was also beginning to fall on our positions. Certain buildings in the town of Caporetto had caught fire. The Brigade's first combat losses of the day occurred: five men were killed and others wounded. I could not understand why no battery group [light artillery] had been stationed in Caporetto. This surely would have been a sensible precaution; while it could not have prevented the incursion of enemy patrols it would at least have held off the advance of major units on the bridge, and carried out vital counter-battery fire.

The Brigade had received no new orders for several hours at this point, but continued to defend the bridge from its right flank. Suddenly the chief of the divisional general staff arrived at my headquarters by the cemetery, to check up on the Brigade. I asked him for news from elsewhere along the front but he was unable to provide me with much information. I explained that my men were fighting well but that we were desperately short of supplies; he promised to order munitions to be sent to us directly upon his return to Divisional HQ. We saluted one another, and as he turned to leave, a huge explosion was to be heard from behind us.

My immediate fear was that the Eiffel Bridge had been blown up. But that would have been most strange given that protection of the bridge – which was currently well defended – was vital not only for the evacuation of precious materiel located along the road to Smast, but to secure the road for the retreating troops of the Division over what was now, we believed, the only bridge in the sector. It was essential also so that we could continue to support the many troops to our north fighting on the Volnik and [up towards] Ternova. The Chief of Staff refused to believe my suspicions but admitted that he did not know what orders had been put in place for the bridge. He and his captain headed back away into the town and I immediately sent to discover whether the bridge had truly been blown up. Alas there could be no further doubt. The bridge had been fully destroyed by the engineers, but it was impossible to know who had given the order. And the adjacent hut which housed the telephone exchange was also in flames. There was not even the time to discover who was responsible for such a terrible, unforgiveable error. Rumours abounded that a lieutenant of the engineers and ordered the explosion on his own initiative, and had immediately been executed by a captain of the divisional carabinieri, with his own pistol… but this was not a very credible story. We made every attempt to organise repairs to the bridge but it was utterly destroyed, and efforts to effect any kind of crossing failed.

Part III tomorrow, I expect. The Colonel's lot is not a very happy one. I made you another little map so you could understand about the river crossings. But some of the details which would make the developments of the battle clearer I have deliberately left out, so you have only the information which Pisani himself had as the day progressed.


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to part III. Nothing is more fascinating that war stories.

- Juventino

egan said...

This is really gripping stuff, thanks for translating it.

Richard said...

Very interesting. I take it you're a historian?

I'm reading everything I can find about the Nazi occupation of Rome at the moment. Is that one of your interests?

ginkers said...

I am rooting for Italy to win this one but I have a feeling I might be disappointed.

Spangly Princess said...

Glad you're enjoying it! I am very enthusiastic about my work and happy to be able to share it with people. Egan, copying and translating this primary material is an essential part of my research, so am just sharing...

Richard, yes indeedy I am. Check out my post here:

where's your interest in occupied Rome come from?

Richard said...


I've been obsessed with Italy for about ten years now, with my obsession narrowing more recently into a Rome thing. And an AS Roma thing, of course.

It seems that some of the more interesting writing on Rome in English is about the Nazi occupation. Ralegh Trevelyan's book has blown me away, and I've now acquired a second-hand edition of Mother Mary St Luke's diary. It's not very academic, but I like Alan Whicker's documentary on the war in Italy. I'm not sure about Robert Katz, though. Seems anti-British...

I wish I could read Italian, as I'm sure there must be a wealth of material out there. I struggle through Italian Wikipedia entries sometimes, but my Italian isn't up to much.

I look forward to reading the third instalment of your article, and the wartime Rome piece, tomorrow, when I'm sober. Great blog.

de vertalerin said...

Excellent translation, and the colonel himself is no slouch as a writer, is he?