Archive for History
When I was a sprite, we observed November 11 as “Armistice Day.” At some point which I am not going to pause to identify — perhaps it was when the last veteran of the First World War passed on — this occasion was recast as “Veterans’ Day.”
Something similar occurred in Italy, at some point I’m not going to identify; November 4, the date on which the Austrian surrender took effect, is now labeled “Armed Forces Day.”
Call it what you will, here the memory of the hideous calamity of “The First War” or “The War of ’15-’18,” as they also name it here, has not faded. On or near every parish church in Venice you will find a plaque listing the names of the local boys who never returned (names of the fallen of the Second War have also been added).
On the base of the flagpole in Campo Santa Margherita the names of two of Lino’s uncles are inscribed, last name first, the way they do it here: GREGOR ANGELO GREGOR FRANCESCO. When Lino and his twin brother arrived in 1938, his mother named them for her deceased brothers. So I suppose I’m also linked in a way to the Great War.
For those whose interest tends more toward the logistical, many organizations have labored to reconstruct or recover whatever remains along the battle front of the Alpine crest — ruined barracks, partially collapsed trenches, snarls of rusty barbed wire, assorted unexploded bombs, and similar bellicose elements left by men who fought because they were ordered to do so and died because that’s what’s likely to happen in a war, not to mention during an entire winter near the screaming tops of naked mountains: Avalanches, frostbite, disease, not to mention falling chunks of mountain dislodged by the mutual detonation of mines.
Speaking of elements which were left behind, sometimes one of the men himself reappears, revealed by a melting glacier or shifting rockslide. Just think, corpses of forgotten Austrian and Italian soldiers still strewn about those picturesque Alps.
Last August we spent a few days in the Valle dei Mocheni, our favorite valley not far from Trento. Before the War, this area belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, so when the first shots rang out, Austrian troops were sent into the high valleys to repulse the Italians.
We went further up into a side valley called the Valcava, and passed a sparkling morning walking even further up to the “FeldKapelle,” a reconstructed field chapel at 6,049 feet (1,844 meters) in an area which had been an outpost of the Austrian Kaiserjager and Standschutzen, Austrian infantry corps reorganized as mountain troops to combat the Italian Alpini, the oldest active mountain infantry in the world.
What I love about this place — apart from the fact that it ever existed, which I hate — is that it was repaired by the Alpini of the nearby village of Fierozzo, with the collaboration of the neighboring villages of Palu’ del Fersina and Frassilongo. They made it their project, with the help of archaeological advisers and historians, to restore the chapel and some small nearby structures. You might have thought it would have been the Austrians who’d want to remember their comrades, but here it appears that the Italians wanted to remember their enemies.
As for the denouement of four years of slaughter, here is the succinct report from Wikipedia:
By October 1918, Italy finally had enough soldiers to mount an offensive. The attack targeted Vittorio Veneto, across the Piave. The Italian Army broke through a gap near Sacile and poured in reinforcements that crushed the Austrian defensive line. On 3 November, 300,000 Austrian soldiers surrendered.
On October 29, the imperial authorities asked Italy for an armistice, but the Italians continued to advance, reaching Trento, Udine, and Trieste.
On 3 November, Austria-Hungary sent a flag of truce to the Italian Commander to ask again for an armistice and terms of peace. The terms were arranged by telegraph with the Allied Authorities in Paris, communicated to the Austrian Commander, and were accepted.
The Armistice with Austria was signed in the Villa Giusti, near Padua, on 3 November, and took effect on 4 November, at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Peace at last.
Then they all got busy with the paperwork. It wasn’t pretty either. Field-Marshal Earl Wavell said of the Paris Peace Conference: “After the ‘war to end war’, they seem to have been in Paris making the ‘Peace to end Peace.’”
So let’s not look back, let’s face forward. Take tomorrow, November 5: Some notable events that occurred on this day were: The Gunpowder Plot (1605); Italy annexes Tripoli and Cyrenaica (1911); Bulgarian troops in Constantinople blockade drinking water (1912); Britain annexes Cyprus (1914); Britain and France land forces in Egypt (1956). There actually is no end to it all.
So I’m going to go back to thinking about the Mass of commemoration held each year at the FeldKapelle. This year the priests officiating were don Daniele Laghi and don Hans Norbert Slomp. Why can’t it always be like this? I mean, without millions of people having to die first.
I am currently wandering around Europe in the highly entertaining company of Samuel Clemens, reading his account of the long and complicated trip he took in 1867 and wrote up in “The Innocents Abroad.”
It’s nice to get away from Venice for a while, speaking of tourism. And I’d accompany the famous Mark Twain wherever he wanted to go, even if it were downtown Bugtussle, Oklahoma. Still, his five-months-long voyage of discovery is, in many respects, better experienced from afar. This way you don’t have to put up with the insufferable man he nicknamed The Oracle, for one thing, and also you don’t have to spend any money.
The ideal travel companion, in my view, needs not only a galvanized stomach, an indestructible curiosity and no need for sleep, but a sense of humor more finely tuned than any Stradivarius. To laugh at others and at oneself is harder than it looks, but Twain has got the touch.
More than all that, he, unlike many returning travelers we have all known and tolerated (or not), is usually interesting and occasionally informative and always, ALWAYS amusing, especially when he says something that totally nails the truth.
A fairly well-known example, still worth repeating, is from his first night in Paris:
After dinner we felt like seeing such Parisian specialties as we might see without distressing exertion, and so we sauntered through the brilliant streets and looked at the dainty trifles in variety stores and jewelry shops. Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and participles.
But that isn’t the best. The best is his portrait of the Old Travelers.
Old Travelers are hard to find because by now everybody’s on the road. Nobody can travel like he did anymore, as we all know, because if we haven’t already been there, we’ve read or heard about it by one of a million means. There will always be somebody who has preceded us to the remotest peak of the Gandakush Pass or some fleck of a barely-populated mini-Micronesian atoll. No surprises left.
But in his day foreign travel was still relatively difficult and expensive, so the Old Traveler was still at large, prepared to ruin the enthusiasm of any honest beginner.
And here is what he has to say about the ones he found in Paris:
The Old Travelers — those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know …
But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate and drivel and lie. We can tell them the moment we see them. They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled. Then they open their throttle valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know anything. They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast! But still I love the Old Travelers. I love them for their witless platitudes, for their supernatural ability to bore, for their delightful asinine vanity, for their luxuriant fertility of imagination, for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!
If you are ever tempted to behave in this manner toward a fellow traveler (so to speak), be aware that the ghost of the sage of Hannibal, Mo. will be fleering at you from somewhere on high. It would be safer, and certainly more polite, merely to reply to whatever the less-traveled person may have said with the impregnable response with which H.L. Mencken is said to have answered every letter responding to his editorials in the Baltimore Sun: “You may be right.”
As you might imagine, during the past almost-week the shipwrecked cruise ship has taken over everybody’s thoughts and conversations here (as is probably the case in the rest of Italy).
Yesterday I got what I hope may be my final dose, as I sat in the doctor’s waiting room. Because he only comes to the neighborhood two hours a week (one on Wednesday, one on Friday — no appointments), the room tends to fill up fast. I suspect some of the old dears come over mainly to have the chance to indulge in a good long chinwag. They pretty much all know each other, and it’s better than a cafe’ because you don’t have to buy anything in order to sit and talk. They rarely say anything new on any topic at all — but if you do it right, it can take quite a while to contribute all the comments, opinions, and third-party bits of information to the information-mulching bin.
From this interminable gabfest about the Costa Concordia, I came home with many interesting things to consider.
1. Castello is populated entirely by experts on navigation. I heard so many detailed analyses of the fine points of the engineering, construction, and behavior of very large ships that I can’t believe they, including the grandmothers, aren’t all retired admirals.
2. None of the people present would ever consider, not even for a moment, going on a cruise. The implication is that they’re too smart to risk their lives on a vehicle and in a medium that is so inherently dangerous, and which any intelligent person would long since have known.
3. The ship is too big to make any kind of sense — 4, 429 people on board! This fact naturally sent up warning flares, confirming the intelligent people in their decision not to have taken a cruise on it.
4. The captain screwed up.
First prize for originality goes to the lady sitting next to me, whose observation was the following: “And they even had a climbing wall on the ship! What does anyone need with a climbing wall?” This was said with a whiff of scorn, which gave me the unpleasant sensation that in her opinion, you can virtually assume that a ship with a climbing wall is going to come to a bad end. I’m not saying that she believes it deserved to hit the rocks, or that the people who were on it were another race of people who require things that are obviously no earthly use to decent people who know enough to stay at home and hang out at the doctor’s office. But to her, the climbing wall was ominous.
The subject of abandoning the ship also got a certain amount of attention because everyone — including me — is utterly fascinated and bewildered by Capt. Francesco Schettino’s behavior. The exchange between him and Capt. Gregorio De Falco of the Capitaneria di Porto in Livorno is harrowing, right up to the point where De Falco orders the captain to return to the ship, and he refuses.
A few commentators (not in the waiting room) have confessed a sort of shame that a nation which had produced such immortal seamen as Columbus, Vespucci, Verrazzano, Da Mosto, Caboto, had come to this. Italy has, in fact, been blessed by any number of men who had — as the saying here goes — “balls squared.” And they aren’t all world-famous.
There is one who is famous only among Italian and/or World War II buffs, whose name deserves to be added to the list if for no other reason than to provide a counterweight to the crushing gravity of the current situation. Of course I realize that a hero in Column A can’t do much to redeem a caitiff in Column B. But I still want you to know about him.
His name is Salvatore Todaro (1908 – 1942), and I am not referring to Salvatore “Black Sam” Todaro, the mobster. Our Salvatore (whose name means “savior” — keep this in mind) was a submarine commander and came from Chioggia, just down the lagoon from Venice. Just to indicate that mariners from Chioggia aren’t necessarily limited to tying and untying the vaporettos at each stop.
He died in combat in 1942 with six medals for bravery, whose dedications contained such phrases as ”resplendent example of serene, intelligent courage,” and “a mystic devotion to duty understood in its highest and broadest sense.”
Here’s an example: The “Kabalo Affair.” Off the island of Madeira on the night of October 16, 1940, he attacked and sank a Belgian ship. He then saved its 26 sailors, and towed them toward safety aboard a raft. When the towing cable broke after four days, he took them all into the submarine till they reached the Azores, where he put them ashore.
As Lino tells the story, Todaro recounted later to have prayed fervently not to encounter any enemy ship on the way because he would have been forced to dive, inevitably killing his enemy passengers because the only place he found room to stash them was in the compartments which, in order to effect a dive, are filled with seawater. One of his few comments on the exploit was “I’m here to destroy ships, not men.”
I realize that you have to be born that way — they don’t teach it in Captain School. But they must teach something rudimentary of that nature, which did not immediately come to the mind of Francesco Schettino. Which in addition to the loss of life, makes me extremely sad.
The solemnity (more and/or less) of the past three days — All Saints Day and All Souls Day — dissolves today into the genuine solemnity of the annual commemoration of the end of World War I. November 4 (1918) is the date on which war against the Austro-Hungarian empire and its allies ceased.
It sounds so tidy: Victory. Peace. Ninety years have gone by. Let’s move on.
But every year the moving-on stops, to observe what is now called the Festa of the Armed Forces. Many civic monuments, and not a few of the parish memorials listing the fallen sheep of the local flock, are decorated with shiny fresh laurel wreaths given by the City of Venice. And a ceremony performed by veterans’ groups and other military elements is held every year on this day in the Piazza San Marco.
In Rome, the President of the Republic made the traditional visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which soldiers guard night and day.
France had established the first tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and the Italians wanted to do likewise. They had lost some 1,240,000 men, almost entirely on the northern front which had stretched some 400 miles, almost one-third of the entire Alpine arc. In what some have called history’s greatest mountain battlefield, the gathering and burial of unidentified soldiers had been going on for two years.
A commission was formed to choose one soldier from each of the eleven sectors of the front (Rovereto, Dolomiti, Altipiani, Grappa, Montello, Basso Piave, Cadore, Gorizia, Basso Isonzo, San Michele, and Castagnevizza). No identifying marks of any kind were to be permitted — no name, or rank, or serial number.
The eleven caskets were taken to the basilica of Aquileia, not far from Trieste. Here they were arranged in a line, and on October 26, 1921, a woman named Maria Bergamas from Gradisca d’Isonzo stepped forward to choose one.
Her son, Antonio, had been killed but his body had never been found. No one imagined, I’m sure, that one of the eleven victims could have been her son. She was there to represent all of the mothers, wives and women of Italy.
One eyewitness reported that she walked toward the row of eleven coffins, “with her eyes staring, fixed on the caskets, trembling…in front of the next to last one, she let out a sharp cry, calling her son by name, and fell on the casket, clasping it.” Strangely, there are less fervid accounts, also by eyewitnesses: “In front of the first coffin she seemed to become faint, and was supported by her escort of four veterans, all decorated with the Gold Medal for Valor. In front of the second, she stopped, held out her arms and placed her mourning veil upon it.”
As a journalist, I can’t grasp how there could be more than one version of the event, but I assume everyone was extremely keyed up.
In any case, one was chosen, placed on a gun carriage, lashed onto an open-sided train carriage,and covered with the Italian battle flag. Four other open carriages were attached, to contain the flowers which undoubtedly were going to be offered by the people along the way.
The train stopped at Udine, Treviso, Venice, Padova, Rovigo, Ferrara, Bologna, Pistoia, Prato, Firenze, Arezzo, Chiusi, Orvieto, and finally Rome. But in fact it stopped — was stopped, actually, by the throngs which had waited for hours to see it — at all the stations, even the tiniest. Some threw flowers, others clasped their hands and knelt.
The train arrived in Rome on the evening of November 3, and the casket was taken to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri near the station. Mourners passed all night to pay their respects.
The next day, November 4, 1921, the war would formally end at 3:00 PM. The cortege proceeded slowly down the Via Nazionale toward Piazza Venezia and the massive monument known as the Vittoriano, where the body would be entombed.
Total silence reigned. King Vittorio Emmanuele III walked behind the gun carriage bearing the casket. At the monument, the casket was lifted and carried by six veterans, all of whom had been decorated with the Gold Medal for Valor. Finally, it was placed in the space beneath the statue of the ancient goddess Roma. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrOMk91vCfo
You might be surprised, as I have been, to discover how many poems (at least in Italian) have been written about the Unknown Soldier. Some are even composed as accusations, reflections, admonitions, rebukes, spoken directly to the reader by the Soldier. There is also a number of songs about him and/or war, in the mold of the protest songs of the Sixties and early Seventies. They seem dated and futile.
Well, of course they’re futile. Just look around. Still, some respect for the fallen is the least we can do. Or apparently the most we can do.