Read THE ITALIAN SUMMER OFFENSIVE, 1917: CHAPTER XIX of With British Guns in Italy A Tribute to Italian Achievement, free online book, by Hugh Dalton, on ReadCentral.com.

A LULL BETWEEN TWO STORMS

From the beginning of October the Battery were hard at work on their winter quarters.  We had two large dining and recreation huts for the men, one for the Right Section and one for the Left, fitted up with long wooden tables and benches.  These huts were dug into the bank, one on either side of the road leading up from the Battery position to Pec village.  The dug-outs were improved and made watertight and the Officers’ Mess and sleeping huts were moved up from the river bank into the Battery position itself.  Everything was very comfortable and handy.

We maintained close relations with an Italian Battery next door commanded by a certain Captain Romano.  His men helped us in putting up our huts, which were of Italian design, and we had frequent exchanges of hospitality.  Romano was a Regular officer, about 28 years old, with twinkling brown eyes and a voice like a foghorn even when speaking from a short distance away, but a fine singer.  He had a wonderful collection of photographs, was a good Gunner and popular with his men.

On the 9th I spent the night in Lecce O.P. on Hill 123, overlooking Hills 126 and 94.  It was named after the Lecce Brigade who made it, one of the best Brigades in the Italian Army.  When they were in front of us, we saw a good deal of them.  Now the Parma Brigade were holding the line and the British officer in the O.P. used to take his meals at the Brigade Headquarters.  Things were rather active that evening.  At half-past five in the afternoon the enemy opened a heavy bombardment, increasing to a pitch of great fury, on our front and support trenches.  Our own lines down below me were blotted out from sight by dense clouds of crashing, flashing smoke.  Just before six the Italian Brigadier asked me for a heavy barrage from all the British Batteries.  A big counter-bombardment was now working up from our side.  I spoke on the telephone to Raven, who told me that all our Batteries were firing “double vivace.”  At a quarter past six the Austrians attacked.  There was a terrific rattle of Italian machine gun fire, almost drowning the sound of the heavier explosions, and a stream of rockets went up from our front line calling for more barrage.  The attack was beaten off by machine guns and hand grenades.  A few Austrians reached our parapet, but none got into our trenches.

Firing died down about a quarter to seven, and the Brigadier came up to the O.P., very pleased with the support we had rendered, and asked that a slow rate of fire might be kept up.  Later on an Austrian telephone message was overheard, which suggested that the attack was to be renewed just before dawn, after a gas attack.  We kept on the alert, but nothing happened.  Two of our Batteries went on firing at a slow rate all night.  When dawn broke, it was evident that our bombardment had been very destructive.  The enemy’s trenches were knocked to pieces; uprooted trees, planks, sandbags and dead bodies lay about in confusion.  It was thought that owing to our fire some Austrian units, which were to have taken part in the attack, could not, and others would not, do so, in spite of a special issue of rum and other spirits.  I saw also, motionless amid the Austrian wire, a figure in Italian uniform, one of a patrol who had gone out four nights before, and had not returned.

On the 12th I went out with a Sergeant, a Signaller and Corporal Savogna, a Canadian Italian, on a Front Line Reconnaissance on the northern side of the Vippacco, in the Second Army area.  The day was wonderfully clear and we could see the everlasting snows beyond Cadore.  We went through Rupa to Merna and, being evidently spotted, were shelled with 4.2’s and forced to proceed along a muddy communication trench knee deep in water.  At Raccogliano Mill we visited the Headquarters of the Bergamo Brigade, which was holding the line.  A guide took us along the front line, which had been considerably advanced here in August and September, and again by a successful local attack a few days before.  We went down one Caverna in which, on the occasion of this last attack, a Magyar officer and 25 men surrendered.  The Austrian sentry, also a Magyar, had been fastened by the leg to the doorpost outside the entrance to the dug-out.  In the Italian bombardment one of his feet was blown away, but his own people had done nothing for him.  Now his dead body lay out in the open behind the new Italian front line.

On the 14th Jeune went on leave to England, no one having any expectation that anything of importance was likely to happen in the near future.  In his absence I acted as Second-in-Command of the Battery.

On the 19th we heard that the Italian High Command was preparing another big offensive from the Bainsizza against the Ternova Plateau, and the same day the Intelligence Report contained the information that a series of German Divisions had been seen detraining at Lubiana since the beginning of October, and that, owing to the Russian collapse, a thousand Austrian guns had been moved across from the Russian to the Isonzo Front since the middle of September.  We had noticed a perceptible increase in the enemy’s Artillery activity for some time, but this, we thought at the time, was purely defensive.  There had also been a week of heavy rains, but the Vippacco, after rising rapidly and threatening to flood us all out, fell eighteen inches in one night.  It swept away a number of Italian bridges, however, from Merna and Raccogliano further up stream, and we saw pieces of these rushing past in the swift current.

On the 21st the Major and I motored to Palmanova and bought some winter clothing at the Ordnance.  An Austrian twelve-inch howitzer, whom we had christened “Mr Pongo,” was shelling all day at intervals, chiefly in the back areas.  An unpleasant beast, we agreed, who wanted smothering!

On the 22nd it was evident, from the Austrian shelling, that quite a number of fresh heavy howitzers, both twelve- and fifteen-inch, had appeared behind the Austrian lines.  A few, no doubt, of those thousand guns from Russia!  Listening to their shells whistling over one’s head like express trains, and to their (happily distant) deep crashes on percussion, one realised very vividly the immediate military effects of the Russian collapse.  We heard that the Italian offensive was not coming off after all.

On the 23rd we heard that a big Austrian attack was expected last night and might come that night instead.  We received orders to clean up and prepare, in case of necessity, the old position at Boschini on San Michele, which the Battery had occupied when they first arrived in Italy.  This, I thought, seemed rather panic-stricken.  Romano’s Battery had similar orders.  It would be annoying to leave our present position after all the work put into it to make it habitable for the winter.  But I noted that the atmosphere was tinged with apprehension.