A Soldier on the Southern Front: The Classic Italian Memoir of World War I
by Emilio Lussu, translated by Gregory Conti
Rizzoli Ex Libris; reprint edition, 2014
He greeted me very warmly and offered me a glass of brandy.
"Thanks," I said. "I don't drink liquor."
"You don't drink liquor?" the Lieutenant Colonel asked me, concerned.
He pulled a notebook out of the pocket of his battle jacket and wrote,
"Met a lieutenant who didn't drink liquor, June 5, 1916."
The odd exchange above could have easily come from the British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, but in reality it is a recollection in the memoir of Emilio Lussu, A Soldier on the Southern Front: The Classic Italian Memoir of World War I. A rediscovered memoir, or testimony as addressed by the author, the book was originally titled Sardinian Brigade in 1938. As the author stated in the preface of the first printing of the work: "The reader will find neither romance nor history in this book, it consists simply of personal memories put together in somewhat haphazard fashion."
Emilio Lussu fought heroically throughout the war but chose to narrow the events in the memoir to June 1916 through July 1917. In an Afterword, Mark Thompson explains that although many of the names were fictionalized, the majority of the people and events are real, no matter how absurd and often tragic.
|Italian Troops on the Asiago Plateau
Throughout the book, Lt Lussu shows some of the dry wit that will be a mainstay of humor but absurdity on the Italian front. Sent on a mission with a platoon, he comes upon the commander of another regiment sitting at a table drinking brandy. In fact, as the colonel pointed out each of the positions he did so with his brandy bottle in his hand. Suddenly a firefight starts in the dark and a prisoner is taken. Upon further inquiry, it is a man from Lussu's regiment; the Italian regiments were firing at each other, not the enemy. This type of scene repeatedly happens in the memoir.
The book is full of futile frontal assaults up mountains or on high plain with sparse or no artillery support and little ammunition against a prepared Austrian Army. Throughout the futility, patriotic but drunken inept leadership commands the soldiers. There is just as great a chance to die from friendly fire as there is from an enemy sniper. If the units do not respond with enough vigor, then summary execution by their leaders are not only threatened but carried out.
Events such as these are frequent on the southern front of the Great War. I recommend Lussu's memoir and also Mark Thompson's The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919, to gain an appreciation of this overlooked part of the history of the war.