Friday, 28 September 2007

La Brigata Foggia, part III

We resume at around 15.30 on 24 October 1917:

With the destruction of the bridge all communications with 43rd and 46th Divisions were at an end, since they were trapped on the right bank of the Isonzo, and their retreat was cut off. There was no immediate command in the town of Caporetto itself. The order for the explosion of the bridge must have been at some stage given by a senior officer – but when? Perhaps it had been issued in an uncertain and unclear fashion. I concluded that the decision must have been based on the supposition that the enemy was still on the right bank of the Isonzo and could be prevented from crossing the river – but this was not at all the case, and given that the Germans had already crossed the river, the destruction of the bridge served no useful purpose.

From 16h enemy fire increased considerably in intensity, and we suffered several losses. Lieutenant De Meis of the 858 Machine Gun Company was very seriously wounded in the chest, after courageous and irreproachable conduct all through that difficult day, and he deserves recognition for his devotion to duty.

We were beginning to run out of cartridges for the machine guns. I detailed the men to gather up those boxes which had been abandoned here and there along the road through town by panicked troops, while still hoping for supplies to be brought up, as [the divisional chief of staff had] promised. Meanwhile enemy patrols approaching on the opposite bank of the river could be seen ever more clearly through the fog. I had received neither orders nor news for some hours. But no word came back from the many patrols I had sent out.

Nonetheless my men, defending the crossing place, declared themselves ready to attack, confident of the firm resistance of the troops stationed to their right. [This was important since as seen earlier, Germans were advancing up the valley on the near bank of the river also.] As the munitions were exhausted, first one then another machine gun section was forced to fall back until only one section of 857 Company was still in the line.

Suddenly to our right a dramatic silence fell, as all rifle and machine gun fire there halted. In the fog, this had a certain impression upon us. We had received no notice that the troops to our right, of 34 Division, were to be withdrawn. On the contrary, they too had promised to send munitions to us. But the enemy fire grew steadily louder and more furious, and our guns did not seem to be responding. I sent my adjutant, Captain Mario Arola, to discover what was happening to our right; he returned just after 16.30 to say that he could find neither troops nor a command, but that a steady flow of men were still retreating from Caporetto in the direction of Robic.

We knew that reinforcements would be coming, and I was determined to hold on to the last. We would only withdraw to the valley floor behind us if the threat of encirclement seemed absolutely clear. I was ordering the rearrangement of our remaining machine gun posts for a better defence of the position, at about 17.00, and my few staff and I were making our way from one post to another when we suddenly found ourselves confronted by a large group of German soldiers. We had no idea the enemy had approached so close. Concealing themselves in one of the half-ruined buildings along the road, they were able to ambush and encircle us easily. Threatening us with rifles and bayonets, the enemy disarmed us so quickly that there was barely time to even think.

The last few remains of the Brigade, which had already so amply demonstrated its courage and its spirit of sacrifice, was now without any kind of leadership; the troops made one last attempt to escape capture, retreating along the valley, but they too were easily encircled and taken prisoner. Other isolated sections and many of my patrols had been isolated and encircled one by one, I later learned. On that hellish 24 October, the Brigata Foggia had done that it was humanly possible to halt the enemy advance. But due to circumstances which it does not fall to me to investigate, the sacrifices of blood made by regiments could not hope to dam up the invading tide.

Colonel Pisani only experienced the first day of the battle. By 22h on 24 October, the combined German / Austro-Hungarian attack had advanced over 22 kilometres, taking some 20,000 prisoners. Of an estimated 4,500 men in the Brigata Foggia, 3577 were taken prisoner on 24 and 25 October. IV Corps lost well over 80% of its men. But the battle known initially as the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, and then simply as Caporetto, continued to rage. By the time the line began to stabilise on 12 November, the Italians had retreated over 150km, losing over 300,000 prisoners and leaving some 14,000 squared kilometres in enemy hands, while over 1 million Italians were now living under enemy occupation.

Pisani was sent first to the camp at Karlsruhe and then on to Cellelager, where the novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda had also been imprisoned, until he was repatriated on 28 December 1918. Cellelager, not far from Hamburg, hosted prisoners from the British, French, Belgian and Russian armies as well as a relatively small number of Italians, mostly officers. The various nationalities were however kept seperately and rarely met. Like most PoWs, Pisani related a catalague of deprivation and brutality experienced in the camp.

I'm in the process of revising an article on Caporetto which discusses the role of middle-ranking and senior officers in the Italian defeat. For me, this account from Pisani illustrates graphically how even the best intentioned and most professional officers were unable to change the course of the day given the failure of communications and the chain of command. Once the initial tactical breakthrough had been made, the Italians were unable to contain the enemy. The arrangement of the defensive lines was hopelessly inadequate in this respect. The desertion or capture of some key officers simply rendered the situation more fraught.

The beauty of Pisani's account is that it is clear, comprehensible and vivid. From his report you can visualise the muddy, chaotic mass of men, trucks and horses clogging the tiny mountain roads, the mysterious and disorientating racket of ceaseless artillery fire echoing around the fog-bound valleys, the infuriating sense of impotence as events slip beyond anyone's control, the dawning realization of the full scale of the disaster. It's as good as an official report gets.


ursus arctos said...

Terrific indeed, and incredibly vivid, as much for what it doesn't describe (all that he didn't know) as for what he was able to see.

What was the context in which he wrote it? Was it a formal requirement upon repatriation, or was he trying to combat the myths of cowardice and treason that had taken root while he was emprisoned?

There is obviously a tendency in such accounts to minimise any personal failings, but from the excerpts you've posted this one seems quite free of both that and the frenzied finger-pointing at others that usually accompanies the assertion that "we did all we could".

It is a fascinating story, and an example of the kind of "military history" that deserves to be known much more widely. Grazie mille for sharing it with us.

Spangly Princess said...

You are correct in your surmise that there were repatriation debriefings. These were held for all officers, and the more senior were required to describe in detail the events leading up to their capture. Many, including Pisani, wrote their accounts while still prisoners, and thus without the benefit of any supplementary documentation to jog their memories. As well as submitting the written record they also had interviews in which they were assessed (the interviewers' notes & judgements are very interesting too...)

Last week I worked my way through some 25 of these accounts, from generals, brigadiers and regimental colonels. Only one other account rivalled this one for clarity or interest.

Some officers were placed under investigation for cowardice or dishonorable conduct following their debriefings, others given a 'non-promotable' tag. Pisani though was praised very highly by the interviewer.

Richard said...

That was fascianting reading. It appears the WW1 Italian military was as badly run as the British version parodied in Blackadder Goes Fourth. I'm pleased that Pisani survived, and had some recognition upon repatriation.

I've also just read your piece on memories of wartime Rome. It was compelling stuff. The next chance I get to go to Rome, I will certainy be visiting the museum at Via Tasso. Googling around the other day, I was amazed to discover the brouhaha a few months back about Erich Priebke - how astonishing that an SS officer from Via Tasso, who was put in charge of the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, should be granted day release from house arrest in modern Rome...the mind boggles.

I wonder if you know what happened to Celeste di Porto? I've read bits and pieces about her, but she seems to drop off the radar after 1946.

ursus arctos said...

Indeed, the Priebke story was absolutely surreal, especially to someone who had recently moved to Italy from Germany.

And since it is question time, Spangles, do you know what happened to Pisani post-1918? Did he stay in the military?

Spangly Princess said...

Pisani was a career officer not a reservist or wartime conscript so remained in the military after the war. He had no major health problems after his PoW camp and had not been wounded, nor did he in his debriefing interview suggest that he'd like to retire. And there were no 'contra-indications' to his promotion. So although I don't know I assume he stayed in the army. I haven't come across him anywhere else yet.

The Priebke thing was most bizarre and caused a lot of people here in Rome to get very upset, as you can imagine. The Fosse Ardeantine are a big deal here. (There was a guy in a Spurs hat at the protests, I couldn't help but notice).

ursus arctos said...

We're everywhere . . .

The Priebke story is yet another indication of the degree to which the country in which we live has not come to grips with the reality of its 20th century history.

And we live with the consequences of that pretty much every day, as I was once again reminded by the posters advertising the "Festa Tricolore" here in Milan next week, which will feature Berlusconi, Bossi and Fini (the only one of the three, who gets a whole evening to himself).

Spangly Princess said...

ah how lovely. I have a book on teh post-war extreme right, lots of pictures of "post-fascist" Fini giving the Roman salute at funerals of murdered scumbags and suchlike.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing that, SP.

- Juventino