British guns in Italy

This material comes from 'With British Guns in Italy, A Tribute to Italian Achievement', by Hugh Dalton, reprinted by Project Gutenberg.

THE ITALIAN SUMMER OFFENSIVE, 1917

CHAPTER XIV THE OFFENSIVE OPENS

On the 18th of August I got up at half-past four in the morning. There was a mist in the air, which cleared away as the day grew warmer. The big bombardment in what the journalists called the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo began at six o'clock and went on continuously all day. Once the thing was started, I had little to do except to change occasionally the rate of fire,--"_lento_," "_normale_," "_vivace_," "_celere_" and "_double vivace_" by turns. The first part of the day I was in charge of the Right Section of the Battery and sat most of the time on a wooden bench at a table under a tarpaulin among the acacias. By my side sat a telephonist in communication with the Battery Command Post, some four hundred yards away to the left, beyond the Left Section. My only other apparatus was a megaphone, a notebook and pencil, and a pipe. Occasionally I would go and stand by one of the guns, to check the gun-laying and to see that the guns were recoiling and coming up again without undue violence. One had also to guard against a dust cloud being raised by the blast of the guns, thus giving away our position to the enemy. To prevent this, we formed a chain of men every half hour to pass water-buckets from hand to hand, from the river just behind us down the sunken road, to lay the dust in and around the gun pits. But under an Italian August sun the ground soon grew parched and dusty again.

The Austrians did not shell much till the evening, when they nearly hit our Mess and shell-shocked a man of another Battery in the road close by. But the Italian bombardment all day was very heavy, and our guns and theirs were to go on firing all night. Just before midnight I relieved the Major in the Command Post, and he and the rest of the officers went to bed. So I sat there wakefully among the acacias, awaiting any sudden orders from the Group to switch or lift to new targets, or to vary the rate of fire. Every now and then I took a walk round the Battery to see that all was working correctly, and every hour the N.C.O.'s in charge of each gun brought in their fired tubes to the Command Post and reported how many rounds had been fired in the preceding hour and how many tubes misfired.'

This next quote comes from describes the beginning of the Austrian offensive in October 1917.

PART IV, THE ITALIAN RETREAT AND RECOVERY

CHAPTER X, THE BEGINNING OF THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE

'I had a troubled night. In the early morning we were bombarded with gas shell and had to wear respirators from a quarter to three till four o'clock. We were firing from five till six and again steadily from a quarter past seven onwards. We got orders to move back that night to Boschini, on San Michele. I thought this a great mistake. Later in the day our move was cancelled, as the two forward Batteries which pulled out last night would not be in action on San Michele till to-morrow. They had been last heard of stuck fast in a crush of traffic at the bottom of the hill at Peteano. A strong team of horses were straining their guts out in vain attempts to pull an Italian twelve-inch mortar up the hill. It was this which had caused the block. Those two forward Batteries might have lost their guns in a quick retreat, I thought, but hardly we. It seemed to be feared, however, that the two bridges across the Vippacco might go.

That day we were shelled heavily with every kind of weapon, from fifteen-inch downwards, especially the Left Section in the afternoon. We had, as usual, marvellously good luck, and only had one casualty, and that a slight wound. The spirit and endurance of the men were wonderful. Enemy planes were over all day; we counted twenty-two between daybreak and four p.m. Some hovered overhead and ranged their guns on us. Several times we put our detachments under cover and ceased fire owing to the shelling. My own gun was half buried by a great shower of earth kicked up by a 9.45, which pitched right on top of the bank in front of us. But Cotes, my Sergeant, and myself, crouching under cover of the girdles, were quite unhurt. The rest of the detachment had been ordered down into their dug-out. Another time the enemy neatly bracketed our Command Post with twelve-inch, and several of us within were uncomfortably awaiting the next round. But luckily for us he switched away to the right.

We had to fire hard most of the day, especially in the afternoon and evening. It had been exhausting and almost sleepless work for the detachments for several days past, for Darrell and a working party of forty were away preparing the reserve position on San Michele, and we had hardly any reliefs for the guns. The Major, too, looked very tired and frayed, but, whenever our eyes met, he gave me a smile of encouragement and leadership. That evening, during a short break in the firing, he asked me, since he himself could not leave the Command Post, to go round and "buck the men up" and thank them on his behalf for the way in which they had behaved. "So long as the Major's pleased, we're satisfied," said one man. Another, a Bombardier who afterwards got a Commission, and had been with Darrell on a reconnaissance on Faiti a few days before and had nearly been killed on the journey, said, "Well, Sir, we were thinking of the boys in the Front Line today." And well he might, for it had been a hellish bombardment up there. After delivering my message to the men, I walked up and down the road in front of the guns for a few moments in the short silence, realising how the Alliance of Britain and Italy was burning itself more deeply than ever into our hearts in these days of trial.

That night the enemy attacked again, and we lost Faiti and Hill 393, and had to fire on them. I heard afterwards from the Group that Colonel Canale, when he gave the order to fire on 393, was almost weeping on the telephone. Next day we counter-attacked and retook Faiti, but 393 remained in Austrian hands. Rumours and denials of rumours came in from the north. It was said that we had lost Monte Nero and Caporetto, and that German Batteries had kept up a high concentration of gas for four hours on our lines in the Cadore. And we knew that the Italian gas masks were only guaranteed to last for an hour and a half in such conditions, and that each man only carried one.'