Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, December 20, 2019

Eyewitness: Lt. Emilio Lussu, Sassari Brigade

Lt. Emilio Lussu
Emilio Lussu was an Italian Alpini officer  during WWI, later a writer and staunchly antifascist politician. Born in Sardinia, he was assigned to the Sassari, or Sardinian, Brigade of the Italian Army. His memoir, Un anno sull’Altipiano (A Soldier on the Southern Front), 1938, captures the experience of of the war on the Italian Front in a way very similar to Henri Barbusse's Under Fire does for the Western Front.  Here are some of the passages that impressed me. The book covers the period in which Lussu's unit was redeployed from the Isonzo River sector to the Asiago Plateau to blunt the Austrian spring offensive of 1916.

We would finally be liberated from that miserable life, lived fifty or a hundred yards from the enemy trenches, in that ferocious promiscuity […]. We would stop killing each other, every day, without hate. The war of maneuver would be something else. A successful maneuver, two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand prisoners, just like that, in a single day, without that horrific, generalized slaughter; just the success of an ingenious strategic encirclement. 

Of course, I consciously waged war and justified it morally and politically. My conscience as a man and a citizen did not conflict with my military duties. For me, war was a harsh necessity, a terrible necessity, but to which I obeyed, as one of the many needs, ungrateful but inevitable, of life. Therefore I was making war and I had the command of soldiers. I did it therefore, morally, twice.

On the edge of the plateau, at thirty-five hundred feet, it was pure chaos. We’d arrived there on June 5 via Val Frenzela from Valstagna, under the tightest security measures, because it wasn’t clear where our guys were and where the Austrians were. 

It’s more than a year now that I’ve been fighting in this war, on just about every front, and I’ve yet to look a single Austrian in the face. Yet we go on killing each other every day. Killing each other without even knowing each other, without even seeing each other! It’s horrible! That’s why we’re all drunk all the time, on one side and the other. 

Quite often, our own artillery pounds us into the ground, shelling us instead of the enemy. . . The Austrians artillery fires on its infantry all the time, too

Italian Troops in the Asiago Sector

At one point, as Italian soldiers continue to be mowed down during an already failed attack, the enemy makes a surprising gesture:

Suddenly, the Austrians stopped shooting. I saw the ones who were in front of us, their eyes thrust open with a terrified look, almost as though it were they and not us who were under fire. One of them, who didn’t have a rifle, cried out in Italian, “Basta! Basta!” “Basta!” the others repeated from the parapets. The one who was unarmed looked like a chaplain.  “Enough, brave soldiers, don’t get yourselves killed like this!” We came to a halt for an instant. We weren’t shooting, they weren’t shooting. The one who seemed to be a chaplain was leaning out so close to us that if I had reached out my arm I could have touched him. He had his eyes fixed on us, and I looked back at him. From our trench a harsh voice cried out, “Forward! Men of my glorious division, forward! Forward against the enemy!” It was General Leone [a notoriously aggressive and reckless commander.]

The experience serves to evaluate life for what it is and not for what one would like it to be.

1 comment:

  1. This brings to mind Mark Helprin's fine novel, A Soldier of the Great War.