Your General Does Not Sleep
OUR new Divisional Commander, Lieutenant General Leone, was introduced to us in dispatches by our Army Corps Commander as ‘a soldier of proved courage and determination.’
I came across him for the first time at Mount Spill, near battalion headquarters.
Standing at attention, I gave him the latest information concerning our battalion.
‘At ease,’ said the General curtly. ‘ Where have you been fighting up to now?’
‘With my brigade, on the Carso, sir.’
‘Have you been wounded?’
‘What! You’ve been at the front since the beginning of the war and have never been wounded? Not even once?’
‘No, sir, except for a few slight wounds that did not necessitate leaving the battalion.’
‘But I mean serious wounds.’
‘I haven’t had any, sir.’
‘Were you present at all the fighting in which your brigade has taken part?’
‘Most extraordinary. Are you by any chance lacking in courage?’
I said to myself, ‘No one except an army corps commander can effectively deal with a man like this.’
Since I did not answer at once, the General repeated his question.
‘I think not,’ I replied.
‘Do you merely think not, or are you sure?’
‘In war one can be sure of nothing, sir,’I answered gently, and in the hope of propitiating him I added with the merest suggestion of a smile: ‘Not even of being sure.’
The General did not smile. I do not think he was capable of smiling. His steel helmet, with the chin strap fixed, gave him a metallic look. His mouth was invisible, and but for his moustache one might almost have thought he had none. His eyes were gray and hard.
He changed the subject.
‘Do you like war?’
I hesitated. Ought I to answer the question? There were officers and men standing round us, listening to what was being said. I decided to answer as best I could.
‘I was in favor of Italy’s participation in the war, sir, and at my university I was the leader of the interventionist group.’
‘That,’ said the General with terrible calm, ‘concerns the past. I’m asking you about the present.’
‘War is a serious matter . . . and it would be hard to say whether . . .’ He was staring at me with evident dissatisfaction. I went on: ‘At all events, I do my duty. In every way.’
‘I did not ask you,’ the General retorted, ‘whether you did your duty or not. In war, everyone does his duty, because if he doesn’t he risks being shot. I asked you whether you liked war.’
‘Whether I like war?’ I repeated despondently.
The General, inexorable, continued to glare at me. The pupils of his eyes seemed to have grown. They gave me the impression that they were revolving in their sockets.
‘You can’t answer?’ he insisted.
‘Well, it seems to me . . . I can say, at any rate, that I . . .’ I floundered in desperate search of a possible answer.
‘That personally — that is, speaking for myself, in a general way — I can’t really profess to have any particular liking for war.’
‘Attention!’ snapped the General.
I was already standing at attention.
‘Then you are in favor of peace?’ His voice bristled with surprise and contempt.
‘So, you are for peace,’ he continued, ‘like a silly woman who sees nothing beyond her home and all its comforts! Is that it?’
‘Well, then, what kind of peace do you want?’
‘A peace . . .’ A sudden inspiration came to my rescue. ‘A victorious peace.’
The General seemed reassured and asked me to accompany him to the front line.
Our trench was solidly built of stones and earth. The men could walk along it upright without being seen by the enemy. Our snipers kept a good lookout, firing through loopholes, from under cover.
The General peered through the loopholes, but this did not satisfy him. He had stones heaped in such a way that he could stand on them and look over the parapet through his field glasses. His head and shoulders were thus fully exposed.
‘Sir,’ I said, ‘the Austrians are remarkably good shots. It’s dangerous to expose yourself in this way.’
The General took no notice, but continued looking through his glasses. Two reports rang out from the enemy’s lines and the bullets whistled past him. Two more followed, still nearer. Only then did he get down, calm and unhurried. I looked at him closely. He had an air of arrogant indifference.
One of our sentries, a few paces off, was looking through his loophole and paying no attention to us. But a few men and a corporal of the 12th Company had gathered about us in a small group and were watching the General with more distrust than admiration. In the reckless demeanor of their divisional commander they evidently found some cause for apprehension concerning their own fate. He looked at them with satisfaction.
‘If you are not afraid,’ he said to the corporal, ‘do what your General has just done.’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied the corporal, and, leaning his rifle against the side of the trench, he climbed on to the mound.
Instinctively I seized him by the arm and pulled him down.
‘The Austrians are on the lookout now, sir,’ I said; ‘they won’t miss again.’
The General, with a furious look, reminded me of the vast difference in rank between himself and me. I let go of the corporal’s arm and said no more.
‘It’s all right, sir,’ said the corporal, and climbed up again.
Hardly had his head appeared above the parapet when a volley rang out. The Austrians were evidently waiting with their rifles covering the spot. The corporal was not touched. He remained there leaning against the parapet, his whole chest exposed.
‘Bravo!’ said the General. ‘Now you can get down.’
From the enemy trenches a single shot rang out. The corporal toppled backwards on to us. I bent over him. A bullet had gone clean through his chest, below the collarbone, and blood was trickling from his mouth. With half-closed eyes, scarcely able to breathe, he murmured to me: ‘It’s nothing, sir.’
The men gazed at the General with hatred in their eyes.
‘He’s a hero — a true hero,’ said the General, taking a silver lira piece from his pocket. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘drink a glass of wine when you get the chance.’
The wounded man made a gesture of refusal with his head and hid his hands. The General stood with the coin between his fingers and, after a moment’s hesitation, let it drop on to the corporal’s body. No one picked it up.
Continuing his tour of inspection of the front line, the General reached the end of the section occupied by our battalion and dispensed with my services.
I went back to battalion headquarters. The front line was seething with indignation. The news of what had happened had spread throughout the sector, largely owing to the stretcher bearers, who, in carrying the corporal to the dressing station, had told everyone they met about the incident.
It was hardly to be expected that an officer as intrepid as General Leone would remain inactive for long. He wanted at all costs to capture Monte Fior. Every day he was up in the front line, calculating distances, scribbling on maps, making plans. Finally he worked out a scheme consisting of a surprise attack in full daylight, with bayonets, to be carried out by my battalion, which was considered the one most familiar with the terrain in question.
The attack was fixed for the twentysixth. However, on the twenty-fourth, the Austrians fell back, abandoning Monte Fior to us in much the same way that we had abandoned it to them. Their retirement, which must have taken some days to carry out, had been cleverly concealed from us. When we discovered it, we promptly advanced, and had only a few encounters with scattered patrols that had been left in the front line.
The General was even bolder, when it came to a war of movement, than he had been in trench warfare. He gave orders that our troops were never, by day or night, to lose contact with the enemy, and insisted on our brigade commander’s remaining in person with our vanguard. Our brigadier, in spite of his advanced age, put himself at the head of the 1st Company and was killed in a skirmish with enemy patrols. It was a great grief to the entire brigade, for the men were much attached to him.
When General Leone heard of his death his determination was redoubled.
‘He must be avenged!’ he announced. ‘Avenged at once!’
His thirst for revenge was somewhat slaked by the tactics of the enemy. Their machine-gun detachments were fighting with dogged persistence, ready to sacrifice their own fives if by so doing they could check our advance. The General cast off his habitual calm. Climbing a tree, he took up his position at the top of it, like the captain of a ship at the masthead.
‘Forward, men!’ he shouted. ‘You must avenge your brigadier!’
‘If we were to avenge our brigadier in good earnest,’ growled Captain Canevacci to me, ‘we’d have two generals dead to-day. Our revenge would leave the post of divisional commander vacant once more,’
Towards evening, enemy resistance weakened. The General had come down from his tree and was marching on foot between the 2nd Battalion and ours, followed by an orderly leading his mule. From in front of us a voice suddenly cried: —
‘Halt! Ground your packs!’
‘Who was that?’ asked the General in a burst of anger.
It was a private of the 7th Company of the 2nd Battalion, on liaison duty, who, having come to a point where the path forked, had warned the men behind him to stop, so that the scouts might have time to find out which was the right track to follow. One of them had been killed only a moment before, and it was clearly unwise to continue the advance without reconnoitring the terrain. He was only obeying orders, as Captain Zavattari, of the 6th, pointed out to the General.
‘Have that man shot,’ ordered the General.
Captain Zavattari was an officer of the reserve and the senior captain of our regiment. In civil life he was head of a bureau in the Ministry of Education. It seemed inconceivable to him that he could have one of his men shot. He explained this carefully to the General.
‘Have him shot at once!’ replied the General without a moment’s hesitation.
Captain Zavattari went away, and, having questioned the scout, returned to the General, who immediately demanded, ‘Have you had him shot?’
‘No, sir. He was merely carrying out his orders. In calling out “Ground your packs,” it never occurred to him that he might be exhibiting slackness or indiscipline. One of the scouts had just been killed, and a halt was necessary to reconnoitre the terrain.’
‘Have him shot all the same,’ replied the General in an icy tone. ‘An example must be made.’
‘ How can I have a man shot when he’s committed no crime?’
The General did not have Captain Zavattari’s juridical turn of mind, and he flew into a rage.
‘ Give orders at once for a firing squad,’ he shouted, ‘and don’t force me to have you shot too, by my own carabineers.’
Captain Zavattari realized that there was nothing to be done unless he could find some expedient for saving the scout’s life.
‘Very well, sir,’ he replied.
‘ Carry out the order and report to me at once.’
Captain Zavattari went forward again to his company, which had halted to await orders. He ordered a firing squad to fire a volley at a tree trunk and made the stretcher bearers place the body of the scout who had just been killed on a stretcher. He then returned to the General, followed by the stretcher bearers and their burden. The men, who knew nothing of the reason for so macabre a stratagem, stared dumbfounded at one another.
‘The man has been shot,’ said Captain Zavattari.
Seeing the stretcher, the General stood at attention and saluted it proudly. He appeared deeply moved.
‘Let us salute our country’s martyrs! In war, discipline is a grievous necessity. Let us honor our dead!’
A violent hailstorm had reduced the temperature to freezing point, and we were all drenched to the skin. We had a blanket each and a sailcloth cover, but we were still wearing our summer kit. The cold was unbearable. At midnight we were allowed to light fires, as the enemy was some way off and the wood hid us from sight.
We were sitting round the fires. The fir branches burned with a resinous smell. The men were discussing in whispers the events of the day. Suddenly a stentorian cry resounded through the wood.
‘Keep a good lookout! Don’t sleep! The enemy is not far off!’
Who could it be?
‘Keep a lookout! Anyone who falls asleep is a dead man. Your General does not sleep. Be on your guard!’
It was General Leone.
The cavernous voice shattered the silence of the night. I had just left my place near one of the fires, where I had been sitting beside our battalion commander, and was standing near the men of the 12th Company, who were crouching in groups about the blazing branches. They were quite unaware of my presence.
‘Keep a lookout! Your General is here. Don’t sleep!’
The voice was coming nearer and nearer. The General was walking through our battalion.
‘The madman is awake,’ whispered a private of the 12th.
‘ Generals are better dead than awake,’ commented another.
‘ Is no one going to have a shot at that butcher?’ whispered the first speaker.
‘I’m going to. I’m going to have a shot at him.’
The speaker was an oldish man who until now had said nothing and who seemed exclusively intent on warming himself. He was sitting next to the sergeant.
The men were huddled so closely round the fire that the flames lit their faces, and I could recognize each one. The sergeant was kneeling motionless, his hands held out to the flames. He said nothing.
‘If he shows himself, I’ll shoot him,’ repeated the same man. And I saw him take up his rifle and load it.
‘ Keep a lookout! Be on your guard! ‘ thundered the General.
He suddenly became visible, between two of the fires, about fifty paces away. He was wearing his trench helmet and a long gray cloak. A thick scarf was wrapped round his neck and shoulders. He walked with measured step, shouting with both hands to his mouth. In the flickering light he looked like a phantom.
‘Curious, isn’t it?’ I said suddenly. ‘The General doesn’t seem to need any sleep.’
The soldier lowered his rifle. The sergeant sprang to his feet and offered me his place by the fire.
General Leone was directing all the preparations for the forthcoming attack in person. From early morning onwards he was always to be found in the front line, accompanied by the regimental commander. The General liked to see to everything himself. His tenacity of purpose was even greater than his daring. This time he was determined to break through.
Rumors had spread during the night that a number of batteries of different calibre were to take part in the operations. So those accursed trenches and barbed-wire entanglements were going to be blown up for us at last by the artillery!
The field guns could not be said to be arriving en masse. However, General Leone was determined to produce one, at least, for our benefit. He had a 75 gun dragged up to the front by way of mule tracks and mountain paths. Where its companions were, none of us ever discovered. Probably they too had been sent like ambassadors extraordinary, to the various brigades scattered over the plateau. They must have remained silent, however, for we never heard their voices.
Artillerymen and infantry made a wide breach in our trench and ran the gun into it so that the wheels were outside and the carriage inside the trench. As soon as the Austrians saw it, they opened fire. The gun, with its armored shield, was not damaged by rifle fire, and the General ordered the lieutenant in command of the artillery to start firing.
The General, the Colonel, Captain Bravini, and I were standing near, under cover of the trench. After the first few rounds General Leone, his usual grim expression unchanged, began to rub his hands with satisfaction, looking round at the men as though to say: ‘See what your General has brought you!’ The men seemed indifferent, obviously unable to appreciate the importance of the gift.
As soon as the gun got into action, enemy machine-gun and rifle fire slackened and then stopped altogether, except for a single expert sniper who was posted directly opposite. Aiming with everincreasing skill and precision, he tried to pick off the gun layer by firing through the sighting aperture in the shield. The artilleryman increased the rate of fire, and the noise of the gun, together with that of its shells bursting on the enemy’s trench, drowned the small, persistent crack of the rifle. The General was still rubbing his hands together.
‘Well done!’ he said to the artillery lieutenant. ‘Well done!’
From Val d’Assa, not less than five miles away, a battery of 155’s began to fire on us. In a few moments a veritable hail of shells was falling round the gun. The gunners took no notice, but stuck to their post. Some of the shells fell in front of our trenches and others on those of the enemy. Our gun had found a useful auxiliary. The General’s enthusiasm increased.
‘Bravo!’ he said again to the artillery lieutenant. ‘I’ll get you a promotion for service in the field.’
The sniper’s aim was becoming more and more accurate. He was firing methodically. A shot finally penetrated the aperture and smashed the gun layer’s arm. Without a word, he showed it to the officer, who took his place at the gun. The sniper went on as before.
The battery of 155’s ceased fire, apparently satisfied. Our gun continued firing, but its shells were falling now on the enemy’s barbed wire, now on their trenches, without the slightest effect. It was clear that it could have gone on all day with the same result.
The Colonel, who up to now had been standing silently at the General’s side, exclaimed, half to himself, ‘All this is perfectly useless.’
The General did not appear annoyed. He turned to the Colonel and said, ‘Do you really think so?’
‘No use at all,’ replied the Colonel, positively; ‘absolutely none, sir.’
I looked at the Colonel in astonishment. It was the first time he had ever dared to disagree with an officer higher in rank than himself.
The General reflected for a moment. He stroked his chin and appeared to be deep in thought. He too could not fail to see that the little 75 was utterly impotent against such solid trenches and extensive barbed-wire entanglements. While he was considering the matter, the artillery lieutenant was also hit in the arm. A sergeant promptly replaced him.
As the lieutenant passed us, bandaging his arm, the General suddenly seemed to make up his mind. Clapping him on the shoulder, he ordered him to cease fire. Then, turning to the Colonel, he said, ‘Now we’ll try the Farina cuirasses.’
Eighteen Farina cuirasses were thereupon brought into the trench. It was the first time I had seen them. They were of thick armor plating, made in two or three pieces, to cover the neck and shoulders and to protect the body almost as far as the knees. Each one could not have been less than a hundred pounds in weight. A helmet, also extremely heavy, went with each cuirass.
The General stood looking at them. With a scientific air he began: —
‘These are the famous Farina cuirasses, which very few people know about. They admit of the most daring exploits in broad daylight. It’s a pity there are so few of them — only eighteen in the whole army corps. But all those eighteen are ours!’
A group of men, standing a few yards away in the trench, heard him, and one of them remarked: ‘I’d rather have a flask of decent brandy myself.’
‘To us alone,’ continued the General, ‘has the privilege been given of possessing these cuirasses. The enemy have rifles, machine guns, and artillery; but with a Farina cuirass one can get through anywhere.’
‘Anywhere — that is, relatively speaking,’ commented the Colonel, who seemed in a heroic mood that day.
The General took no notice and looked at the Colonel as though he had raised a purely technical objection. The Colonel was slow and passive by temperament, but once in a while he would allow himself to overstep the bounds imposed on others. He had the stature of a giant and a large family fortune, two qualities not without their effect.
‘I have already come across Farina cuirasses,’ he went on, ‘and they didn’t make a very good impression on me. But perhaps these are better.’
‘Certainly they’re better,’ replied the General. ‘With these one can go anywhere. The Austrians—’
He lowered his voice and glanced suspiciously at the enemy trenches, to make sure he could not be overheard.
‘The Austrians have spent enormous sums,’ he continued, ‘have spent enormous sums in trying to steal from us the secret of how to make them. But they haven’t succeeded. Colonel, will you be so kind as to order out the work squad?’
The squad consisted entirely of volunteers, including the sergeant. They put on the cuirasses, the General himself giving a hand in tightening a buckle here and there. Each man had a pair of wire cutters.
‘They look like mediaeval warriors,’ he remarked.
We were silent, and the volunteers did not smile. They got ready hurriedly, with a determined air. The other soldiers watched them anxiously. What, after all, could these men do, even if they succeeded in getting through the barbed wire and reaching the enemy line?
We made another breach in the wall of the trench. The sergeant saluted the General, who responded gravely, standing at attention, and then led his men out of the trench. They followed slowly owing to the weight of the steel, bent over in two in order to protect their faces, for the helmets covered only their heads, temples, and the napes of their necks.
The General remained standing at attention until the last of them had left the trench. He then turned and said gravely to the Colonel, ‘The Romans owed their victories to their cuirasses.’
An Austrian machine gun started to enfilade them from the right. Another immediately opened fire from the left. I looked at the men around me in the trench. Their faces were contracted with grief. They knew well what was happening. The Austrians were waiting at the gaps in the wire, and the sappers were under a cross fire from two machine guns.
‘Forward!’ shouted the sergeant to his men.
One after the other they fell, every one of them. Not a single man even got so far as the enemy’s wire.
‘Forward . . .’ the sergeant repeated, over and over again, as he lay wounded in front of the barbed wire.
The General was silent. The men in the trench looked at one another aghast. What was going to happen to them now?
The Colonel went up to the General and said, ‘ Have we got to attack at nine, all the same?’
‘Certainly,’ replied the General, just as though he had foreseen that things would turn out precisely as they did. ‘My division will attack along the whole of its front line at nine sharp.’
Captain Bravini took me by the arm and said, ‘Our turn now!’
He removed the stopper from his flask and drank the whole of its contents.
At the end of that day there were no more than two hundred men left in my battalion, and we were reduced to three officers.
When we had finished bringing in the dead and wounded, which the Austrians allowed us to do without firing a shot from their trenches, I lay down and tried to sleep. My head seemed light as air, almost as though I were breathing with my brain. I was exhausted, yet I could not sleep.
It was a bright sunny day. The entire front was quiet, except that, borne by the wind, the sound of an occasional shot reached us from the Val d’Assa. A cheerful voice suddenly broke in upon our silence.
It was a young cavalry lieutenant. We shook hands and introduced ourselves to each other. It appeared that he belonged to the Royal Piedmont regiment, and was attached to Army Headquarters. This was the first time he had come up to the line; he had never before seen a trench. He was not on duty, but had come of his own initiative to have a look at the front line and see for himself how we lived there. He was impeccably dressed, with white gloves, crop, cavalry boots, and spurs, and was accompanied by an orderly.
‘You’d better look out,’ I warned him at once, ‘for in that bright new uniform of yours you’ll be a target for all the expert snipers in the enemy lines.’
He joked about these snipers. Even his accent amused me. He spoke gracefully, with a good deal of affectation, pronouncing his r’s more or less in the French manner.
My appearance was so disreputable that I almost felt as if I were in the presence of someone of higher rank. Little by little, however, I managed to overcome the feeling of inferiority that a man who is filthy feels in the presence of one who is clean. In a very few minutes we were on excellent terms.
I led the way and we went into the front-line trench. He had no fear and was determined to show us that he had none, which is always very dangerous in the line. I kept on saying to him, ‘Do as I do,’ ‘Bend down here,’ ‘Touch the ground with your hands, here,’ ‘Stop here’; but he did not bend down, touch the ground, or stop. He wanted to look at everything, through the loopholes and over the parapet. I made endless efforts to persuade him to be more prudent.
We stopped in a traverse, to take advantage of the shade. He said to me, ‘I think you infantrymen are too cautious. Caution never won a war.’
It was a peculiarly unfortunate remark, an affront both to me and to my esprit de corps.
‘That is because we have only our legs to count on,’ I retorted. ‘In a ticklish moment, if an infantryman finds his knees shaking, he can’t move a step forward. You are more fortunate. You may be dying of fear, but the legs of your horses will carry you all the same.’
Only later did I repent of having spoken like this; for the moment I was satisfied with my answer, thinking that the cavalryman had been put in his place. He made no reply.
We had now reached loophole No. 14.
‘This,’ I explained to him, ‘is the best loophole in our sector, but it can be used only at night, when the Austrians are sending up rockets. During the day it’s forbidden to look through it. The enemy have got it covered with a fixed rifle and there’s always someone there to fire it. Several of our officers and men have been killed or wounded in that way. The men amuse themselves by holding up bits of wood or paper, or coins attached to a small stick, and the bullets never miss the loophole and always strike the target.’
We both examined the aperture. It was no longer merely a hole made in the wall of the trench and closed with a stone. The men had fixed up an armored loophole which had been found in the ruins of Asiago. It was a heavy steel plate, with an opening for observation which could be closed with a shutter, also made of steel. Keeping under cover, I raised the shutter, and waited for the bullet. But the enemy did not fire.
‘The sentry’s asleep,’ said the lieutenant.
I let the shutter fall back into its place and then opened it once more. The sun shone through the aperture as if through a lens. There was a whistling noise, accompanied by the sound of a shot. The bullet had passed through the opening.
My cavalry friend thought he would like to try this himself. He lifted the shutter and held the end of his crop in the opening. Another shot rang out and the crop was broken. He seized a piece of wood, fixed a coin to it, and repeated the experiment, saying that he would have something to talk about at Army Headquarters that night. The coin, struck in the centre, flew off the piece of wood, with a hissing sound. I went on up the trench to show him the next loophole.
‘From this one,’ I explained, ‘you can see another section of the line, which is of less importance. There’s no danger here. Over there you can see a heap that looks like a sack of coal. It’s used to mask a machine-gun emplacement. We spotted it a few nights ago, when it was firing after an alarm. We’ve already informed the regimental commander, so that if there is an attack it can be knocked out with a mountain gun.’
‘So you’ve got some guns?’
‘A few are beginning to reach us. Look over there, more to the left. What seems like a white spot is really a loophole commanding the other sector. And there, by that thick patch of fir trees, is a deep ravine. The line is not continuous after that, but begins again on the other side of the ravine.’
I thought he was behind me, looking at what I was pointing out. The loophole was a large one and there was room for two in front of it. Then I heard his voice, speaking from a little distance away.
‘The knees of an officer of the Royal Piedmont regiment,’ he was saying, ‘are steadier than those of his horse.’
A rifle shot followed his words. I turned to find my cavalry officer stretched on the ground by loophole No. 14. I hurried over to him, but he was already dead. A bullet had struck him in the forehead.
Orders to make ready for fresh operations arrived at the same time as the news that the colors belonging to the two regiments of our brigade had been decorated with gold medals for valor. The Brigade Commander wished to celebrate the event and paraded all the officers at Brigade Headquarters. After the parade we walked back to the front line. In order to get back we had to pass the headquarters of the 1st Battalion.
We had just arrived there when a report came in that General Leone had been killed by an explosive bullet in the chest. It must be confessed that we were all jubilant at the news. Captain Zavattari invited us to stop at his headquarters, where he had some bottles of wine opened for us. Glass in hand, he addressed us as follows: —
‘Gentlemen. I think it may be permitted to a representative of the Ministry of Public Education and a senior captain to raise his glass and drink good fortune to our Army. Emulating the fine tradition of certain virile peoples, amongst whom it is customary for the relatives to celebrate the death of a member of their family with feasting and dancing, we — not being in a position to do more — drink to the memory of our General. No occasion this for tears, gentlemen, but for joy — kept, of course, within suitable bounds. The hand of God has been seen upon the Asiago plateau, and, without complaining of the delay with which Providence manifests the Divine Will, we may perhaps agree that it was high time! He has left us. Peace be with him. Peace with him, and joy amongst us. And may we, now that he is dead, at last respect a general whom we detested while he was alive.’
We were all standing there with our glasses raised when, from amongst the fir trees, there appeared a mounted officer. I was facing the path and saw him first. He was coming straight towards us.
‘I can’t believe it!’ I exclaimed.
Everyone looked round. It was General Leone. Mounted on a mule, his trench helmet pressed firmly over his eyes, an alpenstock lashed to his saddle and field glasses hanging round his neck, he came trotting along, a sombre look on his face.
‘Gentlemen, attention!’ cried out Captain Zavattari. We stood at attention, without having had time to put down our glasses. Captain Zavattari, too, was standing stiffly, glass in hand.
‘What happy event are you celebrating?’ asked the Divisional Commander in a surly tone.
There was general embarrassment. Zavattari pulled himself together and replied in a voice that seemed to come from beyond the tomb: —
‘The gold medals which have been awarded to our colors.’
‘Let me join in your toast,’ said the General.
Zavattari offered him his own glass, which had not been touched. The General drained it at a gulp, gave it back, and then, putting spurs to his mule, trotted quickly away.
During the quiet days that followed, rumors circulated in the brigade that we really were going to be sent down the line into rest billets at last. In any case we talked of nothing else among ourselves. General Leone came to hear of it and replied with a divisional order which ended thus: ‘All officers and men must understand that until the war has been won the only rest permitted is in death.’
Although the fact had no repercussions on the history of the war, I must, for the better comprehension of what follows, put it on record that I was now promoted to command of a company. On the same day, as if to celebrate my promotion, the Austrians brought up a trench mortar and fired a few rounds at the trench that was held by my company.
From the evidence supplied by an unexploded shell we discovered that it had a calibre of 37 millimetres. Only a few shells were fired at a time, first at one loophole and then at another, and two of our sentries were wounded. In spite of all our efforts to spot its position, we failed to discover whether it was in the trench or some way behind it. Every day, at different times and without warning, this mortar fired on us.
The Divisional Commander heard it and asked for an explanation. The Brigade Commander passed on all the information he had, but General Leone was not satisfied and came up to the line to see for himself.
When he arrived, I was in the trench. My company was holding the left sector of the battalion front, extending to within a few paces of loophole No. 14, which was situated at the highest point. Farther to the right and immediately beyond it was Lieutenant Ottolenghi’s machine-gun section, with its two guns, which was attached to us. He was responsible for the extreme right flank of the sector.
General Leone did not call at Battalion Headquarters, but came straight to the trenches. I saw him and went to meet him. He at once asked me about the trench mortar, and I told him all I knew. When I had finished my report, he overwhelmed me with questions, so that I was again amazed at his interest in details and his wish for mathematical accuracy on the most insignificant points. He wanted to examine, one by one, about fifty loopholes, and he stayed in the sector held by my company for not less than an hour.
‘Your loopholes,’ he informed me at last, ‘are sighted downwards like the holes in the tower of the Palazzo della Signoria. They seem to have been made for catching grasshoppers instead of observing the enemy trenches.’
I took care not to smile, for he had spoken with his grimmest expression. Nevertheless, I explained to him why the loopholes in my sector had had to be made differently from those elsewhere, the reason being the lay of the terrain and the position of the trees and rocks on our front.
‘It is not the fault of those who made them,’ I said, ‘but of the nature of the terrain. Look at this loophole, sir. If we were to move the field of fire farther to the left, we should come up against those fir trees and be able to see nothing. If we move it to the right, we are blocked by that rock. And we can’t raise it, because those bushes would screen us.’
The General patiently examined everything. Every now and then he would look through his field glasses.
‘You’re right,’ he said at last. ‘The loopholes couldn’t have been constructed just as we should have liked. Rut how am I going to find out the position of that accursed trench mortar? I want to silence it by artillery fire.’
The General had become reasonable and moderate. By the time we had arrived at the last loophole in my sector he had even become polite.
‘We first met at Mount Spill, I believe.’
‘You’re lucky. You’ve not been killed yet.’
To my great surprise, he took out his cigarette case and offered me a cigarette. But he didn’t light his, so I could not very well light mine.
We had now entered the sector belonging to the machine-gun section and I was walking in front of him, leading the way. Lieutenant Ottolenghi, who had probably been warned, came towards us. I pointed him out to the General, explaining that he was the officer in charge of that sector, and stood back, leaving them face to face.
‘Show me what loopholes you have,’ said the General to Ottolenghi. ‘I suppose you know them. Have you been in this sector long?’
‘More than a week, sir. I have readjusted all the loopholes myself, so I’m familiar with all of them.’
Ottolenghi led the way, the General followed, and I brought up the rear; behind us were the two carabineers whom the General brought with him when he came into the line and my orderly. All was quiet in the trench. During the whole of the General’s inspection the trench mortar had given no sign of life, though sometimes from the enemy lines came a single rifleshot, to which our sentries replied.
‘Here, a little farther on, is the best loophole in the sector,’ said Ottolenghi. ‘All the terrain in front can be observed from it as well as the whole of the enemy line. I don’t think a better loophole exists than No. 14.’
‘Let me have a look at it,’ said the General.
‘Loophole No. 14!’ I said to myself. As I had not been in the sector for several days I concluded that Ottolenghi had abolished that loophole and given the number to another.
Ottolenghi stopped at the first bend in the trench. There was no alteration in the loopholes; they were just the same as before. There, standing apart, higher than the rest and more conspicuous, was loophole No. 14 with its steel shutter. Ottolenghi stopped on the farther side, leaving it between himself and the General.
‘Here it is,’ he said to the General, lifting the shutter and suddenly letting it fall again. ‘The aperture is small and only one person can look through it at a time.’
I struck some stones with my stick, to attract Ottolenghi’s attention. I tried to catch his eye in order to signal to him to stop this. He wouldn’t look at me. He understood me well enough, though he would not meet my eye. His face was pale, and my own heart seemed almost to have stopped beating. I instinctively opened my mouth to call the General back, but no sound came. Possibly my agitation prevented me from speaking. I do not want in any way to underestimate my responsibility at that moment. The General was in danger of being shot. I could have prevented it, and I did not say a word.
The General planted himself in front of the loophole, close to the steel shield, bending his head until he almost touched it, and then lifted the shutter and put his eye to the aperture. I shut my eyes.
I cannot say how long I waited. But I heard no shot. Then the General said, ‘It’s splendid. Splendid!’
I opened my eyes and saw that he was still at the loophole. Without moving away from it, he went on: —
‘It looks to me now . . . as if that mortar were in the trench. Still, it’s not easy to say. . . . It might be . . . where the line of the trench is broken . . . but I’m not sure. What a good view this gives! An excellent loophole. Of course the mortar may be mounted a few paces behind the trench . . . in the wood.’
Ottolenghi proceeded to prompt him.
‘Look to the left, sir. Can you see a white sandbag?’
‘Yes, easily. I can see everything.’
‘I think the mortar’s over there. There’s nothing to be seen, no smoke or anything, but the noise comes from that direction. Can you see, sir?’
‘Don’t move, sir. Have a good look at it.’
‘It’s possible you’re right.’
‘If you’ll permit it, sir, we could open fire. I could bring a machine gun into action. They might then open fire with the mortar as a counter-measure.’
‘Very well. Do as you say.’
The General stepped back from the loophole and let the shutter fall. Ottolenghi ordered a machine gun to open fire, and the General then returned to the loophole and once more lifted the shutter.
The mortar did not fire. There were merely a few single shots from the enemy trench. The General took his head away from the loophole two or three times in order to speak to Ottolenghi, and the sunlight then shone through the aperture. While the machine gun was firing, the General observed the result first with the left eye and then with the right.
The sound of isolated shots and the tapping of the machine gun did not wake the sniper with the fixed rifle. The General left the loophole. Ottolenghi was much upset.
‘I’ll have some bombs thrown,’ he said to the General. ‘And then you can have another look, sir.’
‘No,’ replied the General, ‘that’s enough for to-day. But I congratulate you. To-morrow I’ll bring my Chief of Staff here so that he can have a good look at the enemy positions. Good day.’
He shook hands with each of us and, followed by the two carabineers, went off, leaving us alone together.
‘You’re mad,’ I said to Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi, scarlet, seemed unable to stand still for one moment.
‘Shall we see whether that fool of a sniper will wake up if we open the shutter again?’
He took a small coin out of his pocket, held it lightly between his thumb and forefinger, and, opening the shutter, placed it in the aperture, through which the sun was still shining. The whine of a bullet and the sound of a shot reached us at the same moment, and the coin went spinning away into the fir trees.
Ottolenghi, beside himself with rage, was stamping about, swearing as I had never heard him swear before.
‘And now,’ he spluttered, ‘now he’s going to send us the Chief of Staff! ‘
That night we dismantled loophole No. 14.