lower altitude on Monte Pau

 
 

July to October 1918

Early in July it was decided that we should move our station to the guns, presumably to shorten the lines of communication. So we dismantled and were taken to the new position, which was at a lower altitude and in the tree line. When we got there they had no accommodation for us, so we had to use make-shift arrangements. At night Silvio and myself slept in a tiny two-man tent. If we wanted to to take any clothing off we had to do so outside the tent and then crawl in and pull out clothing in behind us. I have no idea where Angelo slept, but presumably he turned in with the Italian gunners.


A few days later some timber arrived for our hut. When I saw it I  laughed, there was just about enough for a rabbit hutch. I called Angelo across and he blew his top when he saw what there was. Without more ado he borrowed an axe from somewhere, and went up the mountainside, and set about the pine trees. I don’t know how many pines he felled but it looked a ghastly sight to see these lovely trees laid low. Angelo cut them into lengths and we carried them down, a piece at a time to the spot chosen by Angelo for the hut. There were four growing pine trees standing roughly in a square, and these he used as his corner posts. The floor was built two feet off the ground, with steps up. The result was a Western style cabin with the floor, roof and three sides built of solid pine logs.  For the front, after allowing for a door and large window, we used the timber originally supplied.


It was very roomy and eventually we had five sleeping in it. Moreover, Angelo built five beds and constructed a wood-burning stove out of sheets of galvanized iron. With all this solid timber around us I felt a bit safer from shell splinters.  During the nights spent in the tent when we were on the receiving end of Austrian artillery activity, the sound of shell splinters made me feel a bit vulnerable.  The floor of solid rock was not too comfortable either, all the bumps seemed to be in the wrong places. But now thanks to Angelo here was comfort indeed.


The fourth member of our household now arrived. He was Ezzio, an Italian wireless operator. He was a nice chap and fitted in with us fine and of course it made things just that much easier, as we could now do two hours on and four off. The fifth member of the household was an RAF corporal. It was his job to visit the various stations to to check up on problems etc, and when he called on us he like what he saw and asked if he could make it his headquarters. We agreed and through him we found two other stations not far away and so started a sort of social circle, which lead to some very enjoyable evenings which I will enlarge on later.


The only fly in the ointment was that we were back on the Italian Army diet, and there was no British Unit near enough to ration with. One compensation though, about a quarter of a mile away was a Salvation Army canteen at which I could get a cup of tea each day except Sunday.  This was always a petty grievance with me. The war took no account of the day of the week, but Sunday was always a tea-less day. Quite often I had forgotten it was Sunday and made the journey in vain.


The  site we were on was roughly on a level with the road, so transport could come right up to the battery positions. The Italian army horse transport always gave me a lot of amusement. Unlike the British horse transport where a pair of horses would be matched for size and colour, the Italians harnessed together anything that had four legs. You would see a great gaunt old horse and alongside it a donkey on the basis I suppose that every little helps. If you take horses, ponies, donkeys and mules, the permutations are endless, but they were all extremely funny in my eyes. As was always the case the animals were extremely nervous, they knew the perils. I remember an occasion  when just a pony and cart arrived bringing some sheets of corrugated iron.  The driver lifted off the iron and dropped it on the rock-hard ground with a crash.  In a flash the pony, was away terrified.  Whether it was ever stopped or went over the top I never knew.


Italian cigarettes were dreadful things and any Italian soldier would pay over the odds for an English cigarette.  Knowing that Angelo had English contacts I suppose he was pestered a bit for cigarettes, so on occasion he and I would go off into the mountains on a canteen hunt. I would buy up as many cigarettes as I could get from the British Army canteens, and Angelo paid me. I don’t know what he charged for them  but no doubt it was a useful little sideline. He had done so much for us he deserved some little service in return.  Moreover Angelo had his contacts too, and was able to get bottles of wine, mainly Vermouth, for which we developed a taste and this enabled us to hold convivial evenings with our friends.


One of our visitors was a Scots lad who was a lone operator with a British eight inch gun.  All of our eight inch weapons were Howitzers, with the exception of this one gun, which was an experimental weapon.  Judging by the reaction of the Austrian artillery when the lone gun went into action, I should say it was an unqualified success.  Poor  old Jock had a hell of a time, and if anyone deserved a medal for bravery, he did.  I hope he survived the rest of the war.
Whenever they attempted a shoot, the Austrians hit back with all they had, and invariably put the gun out of action for days at a time.  On one occasion Jock’s aerial was brought down, amongst other damage, and when the R.A.F. plane lost contact they flew low over the gun site to see Jock struggling to put up a new aerial with shells bursting all round him.  The pilot was so impressed that he made a point of coming up by road a few days later to meet Jock and have a chat with him.  We never spent any convivial evenings at Jock’s place, it was too vulnerable, but I did go along on a number of occasions to see him when things were quiet.


Our other two friends were a bit higher up than we were and we used to alternate between their hut and ours.  I have mentioned the danger of loose scree.  One night as four of us left their hut we walked on to some loose stuff, and it went down, all four of us with it. Fortunately the slope was not too steep and instinctively we grabbed each other.  We finished up about fifty feet further down, still on our feet standing in a solid square, holding each other up.  We had a good laugh, but  it could have been serious had the slope been more steep, or the floor further down.  One really hectic evening was on my twentieth birthday. We disposed of quite a few bottles on that occasion and for the first time in my life, my bed really did go round and round.  We checked up on our visitors next day, and found that they had all got back safely.


Angelo’s special lighting system deserves a mention.  While we used a trusty candle, Angelo had his own arrangement.  It was the empty shell of a Mill’s Bomb into which he had inserted a sort of metal holder and a wick.  Nightly he filled it with petrol, and after lighting it, hung it over his bed suspended by a piece of wire. It gave off more black smoke than light.  One evening he re-filled it, the outside casing and his fingers were still wet with petrol and Angelo said “Light it Tomasso”. I told him not to be a fathead and to wipe it dry first. He insisted, and so I lit it.  It all caught fire, Angelo dropped it on the floor, lighted petrol spilled all over the floor and we were in trouble.  Somebody, I don’t remember who, grabbed my blankets to put out the fire. I wasn’t going to have my blankets burned, I would never get any more, so I went for him. While he and I were having a set-to round my bed, the others managed to put the fire out.  It all finished up with a good laugh but Angelo was never allowed to forget his faux pas.


It was now getting into October.  The weather was still quite pleasant, in fact, apart from the June blizzard, the weather throughout the seven months had been wonderful.  Certainly much more pleasant than it would have been down below on the plains.  By now matters had taken a turn for the better on the Western Front and the Germans were in a bad way.  It was inevitable that the Italian Front would have to make an attempt to punch a hole through the Austrian lines and so help to bring the fighting to an end.  The River Piave had been chosen as the point to give a gigantic punch, and my sojourn in the lovely Alps was due to end.


One afternoon late in October, I had instructions to pack up and R.A.F transport arrived to take us down the mountains and back to Squadron.  I was excited at the prospect seeing civilization again after seven months, but poor old Angelo seemed very sad.  He was a wonderful comrade and I hope that he found his wife and family again and no worse for their unfortunate experience.  It was good-bye all round and we were away.



             Tom Herbert’s Story  - WW1 Begins  -   Work and Play  -  R.F.C. 1917  -  Barrack Life -

To The Front Line  -  Menin Road  - Entrained  -  France to Italy  -  Montello  -  Easter -

Monte Pau  -  Angelo  - Log Cabin  -  Vittorio Veneto  -  Bordighera  -  Blighty  -  Notes  -  Links