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Regularity and compactness reduce the appearance of ma.s.s; and you receive a profounder suggestion of size from a comparatively small pile of natural rocks than you do from the geometrical pyramids. In the same way an army whose formations are suddenly relaxed seems to swell enormously in numbers. You can drive through a region where a million men are stationed under regular military organization and get no idea of congestion, but if those men are suddenly dissolved from a closely knit body into a crowd of individual persons, the same country-side seems hardly large enough to hold them all.
[Sidenote: Discomforts of the retreat.]
So, as with that little party of Englishmen I started on the retreat in the early morning hours of October 28, we seemed to be engulfed in a constantly broadening flood of human beings. We were in a train, the men in open trucks, miserable enough under the cold, streaming rain, the officers crowded into a closed van with the baggage. When we started in the dark we had the train to ourselves, but as I awoke three hours later from an uneasy sleep and looked out of the van, the rest of the train already swarmed with Italian soldiers who had clambered upon it as it crept along at a snail’s pace. And when dawn came we saw ahead of us a long vista of trains stretching out of sight, while behind stood another queue of them, whistling impatiently like human beings at a ticket office; sometimes one of them would back a little and make the others behind it back too, all screeching furiously with their whistles exactly as if they were trying to shout, “Where are you coming to?”
[Sidenote: The one idea is to keep on moving.]
Along the railway, and on the roads at both sides of it, and across the fields beyond the roads, moved at the same time a crawling ma.s.s of people, all going in the same direction, all at about the same pace, without stopping, without talking to one another, every one of them just plodding slowly, wearily, persistently rearward. As you watched them you knew that each man had in his mind just one idea, to keep on moving like that until he knew that he was safe. There was no panic or fighting during the retreat except at isolated times and places; the situation was just this, that for the unique and imposed will that sways an army there had been subst.i.tuted a mult.i.tude of individual wills all striving independently for the same end of self-preservation.
[Sidenote: People seem unaware of the others.]
These dark, sluggish streams of men and vehicles and beasts crept tortuously over the country-side like the channels of a delta trickling to the sea. Here and there little eddies of stragglers had been thrown out to each side. It is a curious thing, which I have noticed under similar conditions before, that each person or little group of persons in this ma.s.s of human beings seemed almost unaware of the presence of the rest. You would see a family party of peasants gathered round their ox cart and making a meal of bread and raw red wine without so much as a glance at the motley thousands streaming by at their elbows; a soldier would strip off his wet clothes on the road’s edge to change them for some that he had looted from a wayside store with no apparent perception of the women trudging past; nor did they seem to notice him.
The niceties of convention are quickly dulled by fatigue, and it is only the easefulness of modern life that makes the coa.r.s.er little realities of human nature seem shocking.
[Sidenote: The crowds get clothes from stacked trucks.]
Among the trains that stretched out of sight along the line there were some trucks stacked with bundles of military mackintoshes, woolen helmets, shirts, thick socks. Some inquisitive soldier discovered these and disinterred a complete outfit for himself. A few minutes later he was a changed figure, with clean clothing in place of his own muddy, rain-soaked things, and a stiff blue mackintosh and sou’wester hat over all. The transfiguration attracted envious attention, and he was besieged with questions. Soon those trucks with their piles of white packages looked like giant sugar-basins swarming with wasps, and all around were throngs jostling one another for the next place on the heap.
It was all quite good-humored; they were all laughing, waving their arms, calling to friends on the trucks to throw them a shirt or a waterproof, and when these things came flying down to them they turned away with the satisfied smile of children. Nothing puts human beings in such thoroughly good temper as to get something for nothing.
[Sidenote: A litter of old clothes on the road.]
[Sidenote: Two Italian ladies follow the track.]
In this way the whole track soon became a litter of old clothes, which the retiring soldiers trampled into the mud. Amid all this chaos one kept on meeting utterly incongruous figures, for with all the world road-worn, shabby, and dirty, to be clean and well-dressed is to be grotesque. Amid this mult.i.tude of haggard, unwashed, unshaven, dead-beat males, I noticed two Italian ladies treading delicately over the rough ballast of the railway-track. They had naturally brought with them in their flight the most valuable of their possessions, which were of a kind to be most conveniently carried on their persons. Against this gray background of mud and rubbish and a disbanded army their two figures glittered with a brilliance that would have been conspicuous in the rue de la Paix. Heavy sable furs and m.u.f.fs almost bowed their shoulders; each finger had two or three rings that flashed in the light; round their necks were gold chains hung with pendants, and yet, instead of the air of self-satisfied ostentation that might well have gone with a display so lavish, there were only two pathetically little, frightened, perplexed faces, and an uncertain gait that did not promise much further progress along that ankle-wrenching railway-line.
By this time I had left the train, which had taken thirty hours to cover fifteen miles, and was walking ahead along the track. There was always the chance that something might happen to the two bridges farther on over the Tagliamento, and I wanted to be on the same side of the river as the telegraph office when that occurred.
[Sidenote: The Tagliamento bridges dominate the retirement.]
These bridges were the feature that dominated the whole movement of retirement. In military terms, they const.i.tuted a defile upon its route.
Everything had to converge upon one of those three narrow pa.s.sages, and until they were crossed there was no security for the Italian Army.
Rear-guard actions were, indeed, fought at intermediate places such as the line of the Torre, west of Udine, where General Pet.i.ti di Roreto made a stand with six brigades, the valley of the Judrio, the heights above Cormons. But such efforts could do no more than delay the enemy’s advance; the respite that the Italian Army so urgently needed to pull itself together, to rea.s.semble its units, redistribute its artillery, and, in short, gather into one hand again the scattered threads of control, could be found only behind the Tagliamento River, forty miles back from the old front line.
[Sidenote: Rain fills the Isonzo and holds back the enemy.]
Fortunately from Sat.u.r.day night through Sunday night, the first period of the retreat of the fighting troops as distinct from the rearward services of the army, it poured torrentially with rain, and this, while increasing the hardships endured by the men, contributed in two ways to their salvation; for one thing it swelled the swift and now bridgeless Isonzo, which the enemy had to cross, brimful, and turned the Tagliamento, usually a trickle of water in an untidy stony bed across which a man can wade, into a broad deep flood; it, furthermore, kept the Austrian and German aeroplanes from following up to sweep with bomb and machine-gun the tightly packed road where they could have ma.s.sacred victims by the hundred and might have turned the retreat into a hopeless rout.
Though the men exposed in open trucks or sludging along the muddy roads and swampy fields had cursed the rain bitterly, its value to our side became conspicuously plain when Monday morning broke bright with autumn sunshine.
[Sidenote: Troops fill the village of Latisana.]
It was about ten o’clock on that morning when I reached the village of Latisana, where was the southernmost bridge across the Tagliamento. The streets of the little town were simply chock-a-block with troops which were pouring into it from converging roads. Two or three Italian officers, splashed to the eyes with mud and hoa.r.s.e with shouting, had organized some control at this point, or otherwise nothing would have moved at all. Pushing soldiers this way and that, seizing horses’ heads, straining their voices against the din of clattering motors, they held up each stream of traffic in turn for a few minutes and pa.s.sed the other through.
[Sidenote: An English soldier keeps his air of efficiency.]
[Sidenote: Men in great need of food.]
Conspicuous in his khaki among this spate of Italian gray, stood an English soldier contentedly munching dry brown bread. The motor-bicycle at his side indicated him as a despatch-rider belonging to one of the batteries. It would have been hard to say whether machine or man was the more travel-stained. The cycle’s front wheel was badly bent, evidently by some collision; the soldier’s hand was bound with a dirty rag, and his face clotted with the blood of a congealed scratch, the result of having been pushed off the road by a motor-lorry in the dark and falling head-long down a stone embankment. Yet about both mount and man there was still an air of efficiency and unimpaired fundamental soundness that was encouraging, and the mud-plastered figure saluted the English officer at my side with a flick of the wrist that would have pa.s.sed on the parade-ground at Wellington Barracks. Two guns of his battery, he reported, were three or four miles back down the road; the men were dead-beat, but the worst was that they had had nothing to eat for thirty-six hours, owing to the tractor that had their rations on board catching fire and burning them; they had picked up sc.r.a.ps of bread that other troops had dropped, and some of them had tried and appreciated cutlets from a dead mule; they needed food to restore their strength for they had been working hard without sleep for two days and nights. It had been forty-eight hours of continuous hauling on those heavy guns, which were constantly getting edged off the road by other traffic, and which had to be unhitched every time the tractor stopped because it was so overloaded that it would not start with the full weight of its tow. So the officer had sent him on ahead to scout for food, and he had just found a _sosistenza_ where they had given him a sack of bread to take back.
“You all right yourself?” asked my officer-companion.
“Quite all right, sir, thank you,” he answered, and slinging the bulging sack across his shoulders, the despatch-rider straddled his battered bicycle and set off on a sinuous path through the wedged traffic, with his bent front-wheel writhing like a tortured snake.
[Sidenote: Finding the way to reach Padua.]
[Sidenote: Walking single file through the mud.]
This news of the existence of a _sosistenza_ was good hearing. I myself had not the least idea of how to get to Padua, the nearest place from which I could hope to send a telegram, except by walking there; and Padua was sixty miles along the railway-line. Two days’ walking, two brown loaves the gift of the Italian officer in charge of the bread-depot, and a stick of chocolate; it was a prospect of no allurement. I stepped into place in the long trail of refugees and started, however. It needed no more than two hours of stumbling over sleepers and crunching on the rough stone ballast of the track to make of me as tired and dull-witted a hobo as the rest. We all walked in single file, keeping as far as possible to a strip of soft mud at the side of the line where the going was easier, and one’s whole mind had become before long entirely concentrated on nothing more than the increasing soreness of two tired feet and the gradual development of a blister on a big toe. From Portogruaro onward, however, my own personal luck changed, and by getting one lift after another I reached Padua the same night.
[Sidenote: British guns wait to cross.]
[Sidenote: An Italian colonel attempts to keep order on the bridge.]
[Sidenote: A panic is started.]
[Sidenote: Austrian aeroplanes are overhead.]
[Sidenote: Italian officers check panic.]
[Sidenote: Airplane opens fire on the road.]
Gradually the throng at the Latisana bridge increased, and eventually no less than eleven of the British guns attached to the Italian army were drawn up at the side of the road waiting their turn to cross. The English colonel who commanded the group to which they belonged had arrived and was using the funnel of the bridge to collect his scattered units. The men refreshed with the bread that they had received from the Italian food-depot, were resting by the side of the road; an Italian artillery colonel, under whose command the guns had been when on the Third Army front as corps artillery, was on the bridge trying to hold up the onpressing, unbroken string of heterogeneous traffic long enough for the English guns to be edged into the procession. Then suddenly one of these things happened to which an army in retreat is peculiarly liable.
How it started no one seems to know. One theory is that Austrian soldiers dressed in Italian uniforms had been hurried on ahead by the enemy to mingle with the retreat and spread such panics. What actually happened was that several men galloped up all at once on horseback shouting, “The Austrians are here.” Immediately the crowd, hitherto patiently waiting its turn to cross the bridge, made one simultaneous push toward its opening. Beyond the river there was the whole country-side to scatter over; on this side they could expect no other fate than to be caught helplessly in a trap. It was like a stampede in a burning theater; the desperate eagerness of every person in the crowd to get on the bridge stopped almost any one from getting there. Carts and people at the edge of the road were shoved down the embankment by the weight of the dense ma.s.s surging along its center. And then to add to the terror of the moment there was heard above the shouts and oaths of the struggling mob a low, foreboding hum, the characteristic drone of Austrian aeroplanes. It is hard to see what could have come of the situation but complete and b.l.o.o.d.y disaster if it had not been for the decided action of some Italian officers. By main force they thrust into the middle of the entrance to the bridge and checked the panic with sheer personal determination. The sound of their authoritative voices brought back the sense of discipline that had momentarily gone. Under their orders the pushing throng sorted itself into some order. A jibing mule was summarily shot to clear the road, and so in a few minutes, despite the constant approach of the low-flying enemy aircraft, a way was cleared for the English guns to cross the bridge. They were scarcely over when the first Austrian machine, swooping down, dropped bombs and opened fire with its machine-gun on the tight-packed road. The attack did not do much damage, though one British Red Cross car was filled as full of holes as a pepper-pot; but the experience showed how much worse the retreat would have been had not the heavy rain of the week-end kept the Austrian airmen in their hangars.
[Sidenote: The army reaches Tagliamento.]
So the retiring army reached the Tagliamento, and completed the first stage of its retreat. Once behind that barrier the Italians could be sure of a certain breathing s.p.a.ce, but to secure its protection was the most difficult part of their rearward movement. To the constant convergence which the lack of more than three bridges rendered necessary must be attributed much of the confusion of the retirement and the abandonment of the military equipment that was still to the east of the Tagliamento when the pressure of the enemy finally compelled their destruction.
[Sidenote: Germans try to cross the upper course of Tagliamento.]
[Sidenote: Enemies who cross are killed or captured.]
The Germans fully realized the formidable obstacle to the retreat of the Italians which this rain-swollen river const.i.tuted, and they made a determined effort to secure for themselves a pa.s.sage across its upper course while the Second and Third Armies to the south were not yet behind the stream. There is a bridge a few miles west of the town of Gemona which was not being used by the retreating army because of its comparatively flimsy construction. The Tagliamento, then very high, was, like many mountain streams, subject to very rapid rises and falls.
Therefore, part of the enemy advance-guard, which was following up the Italian retirement was pushed on ahead to try to obtain control of this bridge at Gemona, for use at any rate when the waters had sunk a little.
This German detachment forced its way across the bridge with considerable courage, some of them being swept away by the swift stream pouring over it, but on the other bank they were immediately faced with stout resistance by the Italian rear-guard, and with their backs to the river virtually all the enemy who had crossed the Tagliamento were killed or captured.
[Sidenote: Gallant conduct of the rear-guard.]
The gallant and skilful conduct of the rear-guard of the Italian army is, indeed, the brightest part of the gloomy story of the retreat.
[Sidenote: The Italian armies are on the defensive.]
[Sidenote: The war now a struggle against invaders.]
The cavalry, specially, played a distinguished part in covering the retirement. Charging machine-guns with the lance, and holding commanding positions until they were virtually cut off, these regiments had very heavy losses. A retreat where circ.u.mstances make it impossible to get the whole of the army away imposes upon the rear-guard a call for special self-sacrifice, since the moment never comes, when, the whole of the main body being safely past, it can break off the combat and itself retire, its duty done. In the withdrawal of the armies that were along the front in the Cadore and Carnic Alps, occasions of this kind occurred several times during the week throughout which the retreat lasted, when rear-guard detachments were completely surrounded. At Lorenzago a force in this position succeeded in cutting its way back to join the main body again; west of Gemona, however, the remnants of the Thirty-sixth Division were so thoroughly engulfed by the advancing Austro-German forces that, having used up all their ammunition, they were obliged to surrender. And so, gradually, not without moments of discouragement almost amounting to despair, the Italian armies, which ten days before had been fighting on Austrian territory with every prospect of carrying still further a series of victories that had lasted two years and a half, found themselves on the defensive far back of their own borders, awaiting the attack of a triumphant and advancing foe. It had been a terrible trial for them and for the nation at their back. Almost in one night, dreams of imperial expansion, cherished with an enthusiasm that gave them an air of virtual reality, faded into a remoteness beyond reckoning. The war that had been from the first gloriously offensive, was suddenly transformed into an outnumbered struggle against invaders who had already seized half of one of the richest provinces of Italy.
Yet, though numbed by the shock and stricken to the heart by the realization of her disaster, Italy reacted well. There was no talk of yielding to be heard, only anxious discussion of the best means of organizing the further resistance that would so soon be necessary.
For though the great majority of the Italian army had succeeded for the moment in escaping from the grasp of the Austro-Germans, the enemy was steadfastly pursuing. Encouraged by a victory that must have more than realized his most ambitious hopes, reinforced by captured guns and material, he would wait only long enough to get sufficient strength into position before hurling the whole of his weight once more against the Italian line.
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