[I drew the map. For a more orthodox one, try here )
The Foggia Brigade had been involved in heavy fighting through August and early September 1917 in the successful operations around the Bainsizza. Though spirits were high, the Brigade had lost many men and from mid-September new men began to arrive to make up the losses. These conscripts were mostly older men who had little training and no front line experience. Each machine gun unit was sent 50 of the new arrivals, none of whom had ever operated a machine gun previously; we hoped that there would soon be a halt to operations so that we could train the men properly in tactics and in the correct handling of the weaponry. New platoon commanders also arrived, since many platoons were being led by sergeants after losing their officers. These new officers proved as inexperienced as the new men: most were cadets, very young and full of enthusiasm but with little training and a deal of naivety. Meanwhile the Brigade had also requested more experienced officers to take up company and battalion commands, and these had duly arrived. But most had come direct from the colonies, and though experienced in administration and organisational matters, had never before seen combat. The brigade was also very short of munitions for its machine guns and rifles; of hand-grenades; of communications flares and other kinds of engineering materials.
On 23 October 1917 the Brigade was placed at the disposal of 34th Division, in IV Army Corps which was under the command of General Alberto Cavaciocchi. Brigade headquarters were to relocate to Luico [Livek], behind Monte Kuk, and the Brigade sent to hold the Luico-Matajur line along the southern slopes of the Matajur, just south of the town of Caporetto. We moved up towards Caporetto during the night of 23/24 October, into wholly unfamiliar mountainous terrain. We had not rested properly since 21 October, but there was no time to be spared.
At 2am on 24 October the enemy bombardment began, and the long-expected offensive was under way. The rain was relentless and dawn brought little light: the entire valley was shrouded in a thick winter fog. In the early hours the 280th infantry regiment was ordered to go up the valley to Saga; soon after 10.15 the 282nd was ordered to join it there. Both regiments were to act as reserves at the disposal of the 50th Division holding the third line there. Meanwhile the 281st regiment, along with both machine gun companies and brigade command were sent to support 46th Division at Ladra on the far bank of the Isonzo, at the foot of Monte Rosso: such that by noon, the Brigade command effectively consisted of only one regiment.
All kinds of terrible rumours were soon circulating but my men were not so easily swayed, continuing to follow the orders they were given. Nonetheless they were reluctant to advance and coercive measures were required in order to keep the troops going up to the lines in the face of so many retreating units. Advancing towards Ladra I was informed that the bridge over the Isonzo at Idersko had been destroyed, and we were forced to go via the town of Caporetto some 3 kilometres north, since these were the only two river crossings in the entire sector. But this turned out later to be untrue, as I crossed the bridge at Idersko myself that very evening, as a prisoner of the Germans.
Arriving at last at divisional HQ I met my new commanding officer, General Amadei, and the officers of the Caltanisetta and Alessandria Brigades conferring with him. Both brigadiers seemed tired and alarmed. After hearing all reports, Amadei at this point ordered a general retreat of the division. He had not heard from General Cavaciocchi at Corps Headquarters, but felt he had no other choice. Our previous orders to defend the crossing at Idersko were rescinded, and the Foggia brigade was sent instead to defend the vital remaining bridge, the Ponte Eiffel at Caporetto.
So we turned around and began to make our way back along the road we had just struggled to come up. There was total confusion, the road was almost entirely blocked by a mass of troops, carts, horses, trucks, artillery pieces, mules, and supplies. Officers' cars were unable to make any headway, and it was very hard to execute or even to transmit any orders. At this point, the various components of the Brigade became separated, in the chaos, the freezing fog and the rain.
Brigade Command and II Battalion of the 282th infantry arrived at last at the Ponte Eiffel at around 14.30, to find the crossing was crowded with retreating troops. Adding to our problems was that the commander of 282°/II Battn, Captain Giovanni Di Filippo, was nowhere to be found. The battalion's various platoons were under the command of non-commissioned officers or young untried cadets, who could not possibly command a battalion, and I was forced by circumstance to temporarily take direct control of the unit. I expected De Filippo to arrive at any moment, thinking him merely lost in the fog, or the confusion around Caporetto. But he never arrived: he had abandoned his post. Eventually, my inquires revealed that he had been with the regimental commander, Lt-Colonel Sluto, rather than with his unit, while we were at Ladra. And when Sluto was seriously wounded, De Filippo and one of his Lieutenants, Pedacci of 9th Company, decided to accompany their wounded commanding officer to the rear. Leaving their respective units without a word, they abandoned the Brigade, and no more was heard from them!
Treachery, deceit, idiocy and drama to come in part II.