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Swellboy on… a historic Italian mountain

A remarkable episode from history, courtesy of an Italian pen-making company

Swellboy on… a historic Italian mountain

Image: Brijesh Patel

June 25 2011
Nick Foulkes

At the moment I am writing a book about a pen company. Montegrappa is an Italian writing instrument maker of remarkable virtuosity and I have been spending some interesting days at its factory: as you know, there are few things I like more than a factory visit where I gaze in rapt incomprehension of the tasks being carried out before my eyes.

However, as well as the factory, I have been up the Monte Grappa. You see Montegrappa is actually in the shadow of the eponymous mountain; you can see it from the owner’s office. By contrast, you would need pretty good eyesight (or Google Earth) to see Mont Blanc, even though it is the highest mountain in the Alps, from the Hamburg HQ of Montblanc.

However, what I had not expected was the backstory. Monte Grappa was witness to some of the hardest fighting of the first world war. As a Briton, my view of the Great War is pretty much exclusively that of the Western Front: the mud, the gas, the slaughter. Occasionally other aspects of the conflict intrude: the Battle of Tannenberg that Solzhenitsyn brings to life in August 1914; the debacle of the Dardanelles (reported by a young Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert); and the treaty of Brest Litovsk that brought together revolutionary Bolsheviks and the aristocratic representatives of the Imperial courts of Berlin and Vienna. But my knowledge of Italy’s involvement in the Great War is embarrassingly scanty, and yet the war here was just as brutal as elsewhere.

I spent a day going up the mountain, and was amazed how, after almost a century, the First World War was still present. Stopping at an inn for espresso, I came across a back room made over into a museum; cabinets crammed with the detritus of the dead, everything from pens made from bullets, toothbrushes, ceramic pipebowls and other poignant personal effects, which I find more eloquent when it comes to articulating the wastefulness of war than the lists of statistics that risk commoditising death. I was told that the unusual number of ponds in the meadows were in fact bomb craters and in certain places the hillsides were pockmarked with declivities, each testifying to the landfall of some horrifying and frightening missile. Given the ferocity of the bombardment, it is remarkable to think of anyone surviving here, and yet this thitherto anonymous mountain in Italy’s pre-Alps became a symbol of national resolution.

Like so many tales of heroism, it is born out of disaster. In the hours before dawn of October 24 1917, Austrian guns opened up a ferocious artillery barrage along the mountainous front line above what is now the Slovenian town of Kobarid, then called Caporetto. The Austrian forces varied this diet of heavy artillery with gas attacks. All that the Italians, whose antiquated gas masks were useless against the new gases being used by the Austro-German forces, could do was cower in their shallow trenches under this terrifying, concentrated onslaught. Just before daybreak the dreaded crump of the mortars could be heard as they lobbed their deadly payloads into the Italian line, and then, out of the mist and rain, the Kaisers’ troops began their advance.

Italian positions were cleared using terrifying new flamethrowers, and trench mortars which exploded on contact, their deadly shrapnel ricocheting around the adamantine mountain rock. By nightfall they had punched a huge hole in the Italian line along the Isonzo front and captured 15,000 prisoners.

As the determined German and Austrian troops raced through north-eastern Italy, entire Italian divisions simply ceased to exist. The plains of the Veneto were submerged under a tide of human misery, a seemingly endless apocalyptic panorama, walking wounded, roving gangs of deserters, hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, chaos everywhere, the stench of death tangy in the chill autumn air.

Barely two weeks later, on November 9, the Austro-German advance arrived at the banks of the Piave river, and at last its progress was halted by the swollen turbid waters rather than concerted Italian resistance. The Austrians and Germans were exultant. With the sort of optimism that the experience of three years of warfare should have dulled, the Austrian and German commanders promised their troops that they would be celebrating Christmas in Venice. Victory seemed assured. An army of almost a million men destroyed in a fortnight… no wonder that campaign medals celebrating this triumph were already being struck in Vienna. However, their advance depended on clearing the Italians out of the Grappa massif, which is literally the last mountain before the plain: apparently on a clear day you can make out St Mark’s Square on the coast.

The top of the Monte Grappa which the Italians held, and from which they launched their counterattack in the autumn of 1918, still has the many hundreds of metres of tunnels that formed the Italian fortress, with the embrasures from which artillery and machine guns spewed death, and the peak is covered with a vast, monumental funerary park in white stone, containing the remains of the thousands who fell.

If you happen to be in the area this summer, set aside a day to visit; it is an impressive and humbling experience.

See also

People, Italy