G. WARD PRICE Udine as it seemed before the war.
Udine was a typically quaint and sleepy little Italian town galvanized into unnatural life and prosperity. Every one who has spent a week in Italy can put the picture of the place before his imagination in a moment: streets of dark, restful, Gothic cloisters; a broad piazza flanked by a graceful loggia; remains of medieval fortification of which the towering gate-houses still narrowed each entrance to the town; a general air of pleasant tranquillity and of a well-being that was a legacy from the more spacious days of centuries gone by. The nature of the place was that of mellow old wine, very gracious, rich with associations that brought a glow to the palate of memory, but for all that something of which one wanted only little at a time. A glimpse of Udine as she had been for centuries was delightful, to dwell there would seem like being buried alive.
Bustle and congestion when Udine becomes Army Headquarters.
To this forgotten township of the old Venetian province had come suddenly in the spring of 1913 all the bustle and congestion of the headquarters of the whole Italian Army. For the next two and a half years you could hardly find a room in Udine to sleep in; the people of the place opened large modern restaurants and caf s for the officers and soldiers who crowded its streets; big shops filled the gloom of the old arcades with an incongruous expanse of plate-glass windows; the good burgesses of Udine made money and waxed fat.
A tactical dead-lock on the western front.
It seemed, indeed, as if the steady shower of war prosperity that had fallen upon them for two years might last until that indefinite, but to most minds far-off, day when peace should come. For it was the general opinion that in the West, at least, the war had reached a condition of tactical dead-lock. Trench warfare had petrified movement, except in laborious shifting of a few hundred yards at a time, hardly perceptible on a small-scale map. The day of sweeping advances, of sudden retirements, was over. At a reasonable distance behind that unbudging wall of trenches you were as secure from personal displacement by the war as if you were at the other end of Italy; indeed, no earlier than the beginning of this month of October some people had arrived with their families at Udine from other parts of the country to carry on trades connected with the life of the army.
General Cadorna praises the British batteries.
I myself set foot in Udine for the first time on October 20. I was going back to the Macedonian front, where for two years I had been the official correspondent of the British Army, and I had asked the War Office to authorize me to visit on the way the British batteries which since April had been cooperating with the Italian Army on the Isonzo. General Cadorna had given them high praise in a message to the British Government after the fighting in which they had taken part in May, and I thought it would be interesting to see British and Italian troops side by side in the field for the first time.
Visits to the Italian front yield important information.
Visitors to the Italian front used to find most convenient arrangements made to give them a rapid idea of conditions there. Lying almost entirely among mountains, the line presented unusual opportunities for survey from dominating heights, and there were many places where, at leisure and in virtual safety, one could watch the Austrian intrenchments from close range. Fast cars took you up to these vantage-points, and a number of staff-officers, speaking perfect English and knowing every detail of the front and its history, raised these visits from the level of sight-seeing excursions to opportunities for learning a great deal that was important and technical.
The Austro-German offensive begins.
The very last of these journeys, which had been made by visitors of every country, took place on October 24, the day that the great Austro-German offensive began, and I remember how, as we drove along in the rain, all our talk was of the bad news of that morning that the enemy, reinforced by a huge number of divisions brought secretly from the Russian front, and profiting by a night of rain and fog, had thrust down into the valley of the Isonzo between Plezzo and Tolmino, carried, apparently by surprise, two Italian lines across the ravine after a short and very violent bombardment, and then, pushing on, had captured Caporetto, thus cutting off the Italian troops on Monte Nero and the other mountains beyond the Isonzo, and opening a most serious gap in the very center of the Italian line.
Gorizia has suffered from the war.
A shell interrupts the sight-seers.
The day was one of evil omen. We went to Gorizia, that pretty Austrian spa that was taken by the Italians last year, and has suffered from the war as much as Udine, its neighbor across the old frontier, has prospered. In the heart of the town its old castle towers up from an isolated crag, and from the battlements you can look across the valley to the Italian and Austrian lines on the slopes of San Marco opposite. Scores of parties like our own had made this visit to Gorizia Castle, and to-day the driving rain and valley mists made observation so bad that it seemed more than usually safe to show oneself above the ramparts on the side toward the enemy. Yet we had not been there three minutes a group of two well-known American correspondents and one Italian, with an Italian officer, and myself when an Austrian six-inch shell burst with a crash hardly ten feet from the right-hand man of our line. A black wall of flying mud towered up and blotted out the sky; three of us were thrown headlong by the force of the explosion. Only the fact that the shell had fallen deeply into the rain-softened bank of earth on top of the battlements saved the names of the last four visitors to the Italian front from being recorded on graves in Gorizia cemetery.
"I've brought people here seventy or eighty times," said the officer who was with us, "and nothing like that has ever happened before."
"We've evidently brought bad luck," said some one, and so, little though we guessed it, we had.
The Italians expect an Austrian push.
During the first fortnight of October it had been a remark frequently made throughout Italy that an Austrian push was probable before the real winter set in. I had heard this likelihood discussed by people at the Chamber of Deputies on my way through Rome, but without serious significance being given to it. The Austro-Swiss frontier had been closed for five weeks, always a sign that important movements of troops were going on in the enemy's country; something more unusual was that even the postal mails from Austria to Holland and Scandinavia had been suspended.
Cadorna believes the enemy will use large reserves.
According to the talk one heard in Italy, Cadorna had already had in mind the chance of a strong autumn attack on his army when he arrested his own offensive in September after capturing by a brilliant stroke the greater part of the Bainsizza plateau beyond the Isonzo, taking thirty thousand prisoners and one hundred and fifty guns. The French and British general staffs, it was said, had asked Cadorna whether he meant to go on with his offensive, for which they had contributed contingents of guns. Cadorna's reply had been that he had strong Austrian forces against him, of which he knew the total, but that he also believed large reserves of unknown quantity were available for use against him, owing to the collapse of the Russian Army. In these circumstances he preferred to consolidate and prepare rather than to continue to challenge forces that could not be exactly estimated.
Both the increase of enemy strength on the Italian front and the paralyzing uncertainty under which the Allies labored, were directly due to the debacle of the Russian Army during the summer. The means by which commanders-in-chief arrive at the indispensable knowledge of what forces they have against them is through a highly organized intelligence department, working in close cooperation with the similar departments of the other Allied armies.
How the enemy's strength is ascertained.
Each of these departments, by interrogating prisoners and reading papers found on enemy dead, by collating the reports of the air service, by minutely sifting the enemy press, arrives at a fairly accurate knowledge of the enemy's order of battle on the front of its own army. So essential is this system to the successful carrying-on of operations that raids are often specially organized on the enemy trenches with the sole object of capturing prisoners who may be able to give information that will clear up some point about which there is uncertainty. All the knowledge of the enemy's dispositions thus collected by each of the Allied armies is open to all of them; it is exchanged and compared and collated, so that they finally arrive at a fairly complete knowledge of the distribution of the enemy's forces in each one of the theaters of war.
The Russian intelligence department collapses.
Now, when the Russian Army went to pieces in the summer, its intelligence department collapsed with the rest. The Russian Army has taken virtually no prisoners for a long time, and consequently the facts about what troops the Austrians and Germans have on that front have not been ascertainable. It was known that the enemy used to have about one hundred and thirty divisions there, but no one could tell whether they still remained or whether they had been brought away to be held in reserve for some sudden operation on another front.
The attack by the Austro-Germans a surprise.
In this way it came about that the sudden attack by an unexpectedly large Austro-German force upon the Isonzo line took the Italians by surprise, with the result that they lost in three days not only all they had won in two and a half years of hard fighting, by sacrifices and sufferings and labors beyond human estimation, but also the larger part of that rich north-eastern department of their country which was for centuries the metropolitan province of the great Venetian republic.