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November 4, The Unknown Soldier

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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.

The map shows how far into northeast Italy the  Central Powers’ forces penetrated. The Italian line held at the Piave River, now universally known as the “river sacred to the fatherland.”  Lino’s father was taken prisoner on the Asiago Plateau and spent the rest of the war in a camp in Germany.  From “World War I.” The World Book Encyclopedia. © World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher.  All rights reserved. This image may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

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.

Here is the scene as depicted by “La Domenica del Corriere.” Meaning no disrespect, it clearly would have made an excellent third act to a tragic opera.

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.

The monument known as Il Vittoriano, in Rome. The “Altar of the Fatherland,” where the casket was placed is in the center, beneath the statue of the goddess Roma in the golden niche. (Photo: Alessio Nastro Siniscalchi)

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. 

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.

She wasn’t weeping, she was eating something.  Life insists on going on.




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I’m thinking about  World War I today, partly because yesterday, May 24, used to be a date engraved in every Italian’s consciousness.   Yet it passed unremarked in any way, which to Lino is yet another sign of the general deterioration of just about everything.

We were walking along the fondamenta yesterday morning when all of a sudden Lino said: “It’s May 24! …‘il 24 maggio l’esercito marciava…” and he was off, declaiming the four long  stanzas of the “Legend of the Piave.”  

This is one of the great patriotic songs, immortalizing the departure of the army to war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire on May 24, 1915.    Some of the  most ferocious battles  toward the end took place along the Piave River.    maps_44_italy_piave_1600It is a pleasant little stream which starts in the Alps and empties into the sea not far from Venice, but more importantly, it formed the front which finally stopped the enemy advance and led to its ultimate defeat.     The Piave is therefore also  known as   “The river sacred to the motherland.”  

Schoolchildren  used to be taught these impressive chunks of poetry and as you see, it stuck.   This feat was perhaps made a little easier by singing; the music of “The Legend of the Piave”  is so distinctive that you can’t get it out of your mind  no matter what you try to put in its place.   Everybody knows it.   It was in the serious running to be designated the Italian national anthem.  

“My father  fought in the war,” Lino was telling me, “on the Asiago plateau.   He was taken prisoner, and they took him to Trento, to  the Castle of Buonconsiglio.   He took me there once, when I was little, to show me.   We went into the big room and he said, ‘That’s where the judge was sitting, and that’s where the bench was where I was sitting.’   He always told me he was going to take me to Asiago to show me the trenches he was in, but he never did.   I’ve always been sorry.  ”

The military judge’s job was very simple.   All  he had to do in order to know what to do with a prisoner was to ask where he came from.   Large areas of what are now Italy only became demarcated as such after hideous battles.     So if the prisoner came from Venice, or anywhere south of there, he was treated as a normal prisoner of war because he was fighting for his own country, Italy.   Lino’s father got sent to the internment camp at Mauthausen for the rest of the war, came home, and went back to work driving the train from Venice to Trento.

If, however, the captured soldier came from Trento or Trieste or any of the many northern, now-Italian,  towns which were then still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire,  he was considered a traitor and dealt with accordingly.   Firing squad,say, or hanging (Nazario Sauro, August 10, 1916), or hanging and garroting (Cesare Battisti, July 12, 1916) —  it was all good.   img_8359-sauro-compThese are famous martyrs of the Italian resistance.   Despite living in Austrian territory they considered themselves Italians were fighting for Italy, while according to the Austrian viewpoint  they were supposed to be fighting against it.   These men were epic heroes.   I can’t understand why their life stories haven’t been turned into tragic operas.   Where is Verdi when you need him?  

So the First World War, which to many of us seems extraordinarily remote,  is still part of the lives of  many people — like Lino — still walking around loaded with memories.   Did I say memories?   He and his twin brother, Franco, have lived their entire lives carrying the names of   two of their mother’s brothers who were killed in the war.   Every Venetian parish, as well as the Jewish Ghetto, displays a memorial plaque listing the names of the local boys who died in the carnage.   The names  of Lino’s doomed uncles  are  inscribed on the  memorial in Campo Santa Margherita.    Whenever I go by I  stop to look; I have this odd feeling that they’re part of my family.  

The Piave, let it not be forgotten, was also  where Ernest Hemingway was wounded at the age of 19, after only two weeks at the front.   Because his poor eyesight prevented him from enlisting as a soldier, he volunteered to work with the  Red Cross ambulances bringing soldiers down from the action on Monte Pasubio.    

He was sent to Fossalta di Piave, a town on the river not far from Venice.   At midnight on July 8,  1918, an Austrian mortar hit the trench where he had gone, more out of curiosity than merely to distribute cigarettes and chocolate.  

The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn’t hurt a bit at the time,” he wrote to his parents from the American Hospital in Milan, “only my feet felt like I had rubber boots full of water on.   Hot water… But I got up again and got my wounded into the dug out… I told him in Italian that I wanted to see my legs, though I was afraid to look at them.   So we took off my trousers and the old limbs were still there but gee they were a mess.   They couldn’t figure out how I had walked 150 yards with a load with both knees shot through and my right shoe punctured in two big places… ‘Oh,’ says I, ‘My Captain, it is of nothing.   In America they all do it!   It is thought well not to allow the enemy to perceive that they have captured our goats!”  

When the bravado wore off, he was left with nightmares, insomnia — I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body — five months of physical therapy, and his vivacious American nurse, Agnes von Kurowski.   In the end, she jilted him and shattered his soul into more pieces than the shrapnel ever had.    

Bombs even fell  on Venice here and there (there were victims in Cannaregio).   There is even an unexploded bomb which was retrieved from the roof of the basilica of the Frari, and which is mounted on the wall near the Pesaro altarpiece as a memento to this small, perhaps, but marvelous moment of salvation.

Speaking of bombs, there is a  slowly disappearing stone  in the Piazza San Marco.   It has been worn away by millions of undiscerning feet.   Sometimes I pause and just watch people walk over or past it, oblivious, snapping their pix, thinking about work, looking for a bathroom.   It marks the spot where an Austrian bomb fell on September 4, 1916,   five steps from the entrance to the basilica.  It is just another stone, mute, but eloquent.











Every barracks and City Hall in Italy (as here,  at the entrance to City Hall in Venice) displays a large bronze plaque made of melted-down enemy cannons.     img_8364-diazIt gives the full text of the address given by General, later Marshal,  Armando Diaz, chief of general staff,  announcing the Italian victory of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the end of the war.   It manages in very few lines not only to report the precise details of the enemy’s  undoing  but to convey every emotion conceivable in the victors of a struggle beyond human comprehension.

The war against Austria-Hungary which, under the high command of His Majesty the King, the Italian Army, inferior in numbers and means, initiated on May 24, 1915, and with unwavering and tenacious valor conducted fiercely without interruption for 41 months, is won.

The gigantic battle engaged on the 24th of  last October and in which took part 51 Italian divisions, three British, two French, one Czechoslovakian, and one American regiment, against 73 Austro-Hungarian divisions, is finished.  

The rapid and daring advance of the XXIX Army  Corps on Trento, blocking the enemy’s means of retreat in Trentino, overwhelming them  on the west by the troops of the VII  Army and on the east by those of the I, VI, and IV, determined yesterday the total ruin of the adversary’s front.    From Brenta al Torre the irresistible surge of the XII, the VIII, and the X Army, and of the cavalry divisions, drove the fleeing enemy even further back.

On the plains, His Royal Highness the Duke of Aosta rapidly advanced at the head of his undefeated III Army, longing to return to the positions which they had already victoriously conquered and had never lost.

The Austro-Hungarian Army is annihilated; it suffered grave losses in the fierce resistance of the first days and  in  the pursuit it has lost huge quantities  of materiel of every sort  and virtually all of its stores and warehouses.   It has left in our hands about 300,000 prisoners with entire general staffs and not less than 5,000 cannon.

The remains of what once was one of the most powerful armies in the world is ascending, in disorder and without hope, the valleys which it had descended with such proud security.   DIAZ

For me, though, the most powerful and poignant epitaph to  war — military, emotional, or both —  is what Hemingway  wrote as one of    the 40-some endings he  crossed out for “A Farewell to Arms”:  

Many things have happened.   Everything blunts and the world keeps on.   You get most  of your life back like goods recovered from a fire… It never stops.   It only stops for you.   Some of it stops while you are still alive.   The rest goes on and you go with it.”

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