life on monte pau

 
 

1918


The time came all too soon and six of us were loaded onto a tender with our equipment.  We were three stations, two of us to a station.  My partner was a much older man than myself, but he was junior to me in the service.  We were soon through the foothills, and then on to the mountain road, with its sharp turns on the corners as we climbed. At a thousand feet or so we passed the last house which, as it happened, was the equivalent of a pub. We didn’t stop, but this was the last sight of civilisation I was to have for six months. 


The higher we went the more hair-raising the journey became.  The road was good but narrow, just room for two vehicles to pass.  There was nothing at the edge of the road to stop a vehicle going over, and looking out of the tender at times it looked a fearsome drop.  All supplies had to come up on these roads. so that there was quite heavy traffic all the time.  Incidentally, British army lorries were not geared for this sort of terrain so we had taken over a number of small Fiat lorries which were built for this sector of the front.  The scenery was breathtaking and constantly changing.  It was sunny with blue skies so we didn’t notice any particular change of temperature.
  Eventually, at something over eight thousand feet,  we ran out of road and it was at this point I had to leave the party. Before putting me and my partner off, the driver decided to turn round. To do so he backed the tender right to the road edge,  we all shouted and swore at him, but he made his turn.


A few hundred feet above was a small cluster of wooden huts and this was my destination. It was a group  headquarters of Italian artillery.  The Italians had not previously made use of aircraft for artillery observation, so this was in the nature of an experiment.  It wasn’t easy without interpreters and I got the impression that they weren’t all that interested. 


At 8,000 feet plus, we were above the tree line, and the terrain looked very bare and gaunt.  One couldn’t live in dugouts in this sort of country, so huts were put up in fairly sheltered spots, and in an emergency we had to shelter in tunnels bored into the mountainside by Italian engineers. From the road there was a track leading up to the huts above, and it took me and my partner two or three trips to get all our gear up there.  We reported our arrival to the Italian officer and he arranged our accommodation in one of the huts which we had to share with several of the Italian artillerymen.  With one exception they were away all day and only used the hut for sleeping. The exception was there all day. He was a sort of hut orderly, and I had a feeling he resented our intrusion. We had to use the hut as a wireless station and install our equipment as well as sleeping  quarters,  so I took  as much of the hut as I needed.  He wanted to restrict me to a small portion, so we had a blow up. I couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand me, but we each got the gist of it.  I continued to use  as much of the hut as I needed, but friendly relations were never restored.  A pity really because we got on very well with the others, and most evenings we gathered round for a chat - under difficulties - but we made progress.  One of them was particularly knowledgeable about Italian opera, and he used to sing some of the best known songs. We even got round to learning one or two ourselves. In particular I remember La Donna Mobile.


We were on a mountain called Monte Pau which was 8,500 feet high.
((The height of Monte Pau is 1420 meters, or 4,658 feet, there may have been some language problems.)) We were only about 200 feet from the top.  Over the top the mountains fell away to a plateau called the Asiago Plateau.  It was here that the infantry were at grips.  Only a few yards from our hut, the mountain fell almost sheer to the valley 8,000 feet below.  Monte Pau seemed to be the end mountain of a range, and another range started possibly thirty to fifty miles away across the valley.  In the early days nothing would induce me to go near the edge and look down, but eventually I did it on hands and knees, and later I was able to walk to the edge and stand there. I have even looked down on aircraft flying along the valley hundreds of feet below.  We often amused ourselves by kicking a small piece of scree over the top and watch its progress. Long before it was out of sight a whole avalanche of loose scree would be going down with clouds of dust.  I often wondered where they finished up. This was  one of the surprising thing to me. I had always thought of mountains as great solid masses, yet here they were rotting giants. Indeed, one of the hazards of getting about was the loose scree.  I have mentioned the tunnels bored in the mountain for shelter purposes, but only shelter from exploding shells. Inside, the rain which had fallen on the summit finds its way down through the crevices and constantly drips in large droplets. In a very short time you could be soaked.


Clouds and storms played tricks up here.  Some days the cloud formations were below and instead of seeing the valley one looked down on a huge bed of fluffy white cotton wool.  There was always an urge to jump into it.  Some days we were at cloud level and it was so wet and chilly and, of course, visibility was only a few feet.  Thunder storms just rolled round the mountains and we were in the heart of one in a jiffy.  I remember one evening such a storm arrived, I disconnected the wireless equipment and twisted the aerial lead round the earth lead for safety. I and my partner laid our blankets on the floor and settled down to read.  Our Italian friends decided to use our “knocked up” table to write letters.  This meant that the aerial and earth wires were under their very noses.  Suddenly the lightning caught the aerial,  there was a bang and the hut seemed to be full of red fire. I have never experienced anything like it. Our Italian friends ran for it and we didn’t see anything more of them for about a week.


This excluded the “exception” who stayed on to keep his malevolent eye on us.  He did make a run for it on one hilarious occasion.  About seven o’clock one morning while I was on duty, he was still in the land of nod.  Incidentally unlike us who slept on the floor, he had a camp bed.  A hostile plane came over just above us and the anti-aircraft guns blazed away at him like mad.  What goes up must come down it is said, and I heard a buzzing noise which got louder and louder, and then with a crash a nose cap from a shell crashed through the roof of the hut, and fell on his bed, just between his legs.  An inch or so either way and it must have injured him.  He grabbed his tin hat and a blanket and made a bolt up the mountainside to the nearest tunnel, with his shirt tail flapping in the morning breeze.  We dashed to the hut door and cheered and laughed him on his way.  Heads appeared from everywhere wondering what the hilarity was all about, and when they caught sight of our fleeing friend they joined in too.  It was rather mean of us but it was good while it lasted.


All this time we were on Italian army rations which were not so good.  Most of all we missed our cup of tea.  Our mainstay was a loaf of bread per day.  It was not our sort of bread, almost black and it tasted rather sour.  There was more roughage than flour, even pieces of green stalk in it and it was so hard it would stand up to a game of football.  I learned to eat it with relish just to stave off the pangs of hunger.  There was no breakfast, only a drink of coffee flavoured with aniseed.  The midday meal was a lump of meat with greasy looking almost clear water.  No vegetable of any kind.  I could never recognise the flavour of the meat and knowing the Italians, it was I’m sure a bit of worn out horse or a poor old moke.  The evening meal was either boiled rice or macaroni flavoured with either pulped tomato or some black beans.  With the evening meal was a small quantity of cheap Italian wine.  You will notice the small intake of fluids and the important role the loaf of bread played.  Occasionally we were issued with one cheroot made of Italian tobacco.  The first one I tried to smoke nearly killed me, after that I gave them away.


Apart from the shortage of fluids for drinking purposes, there was none for washing except the rain which we managed to collect from the roof of the hut on rainy days. This we stored in bottles and rationed it out, hoping it would last out until the next storm.
About a half pint would have to suffice for teeth, shaving and washing in that order.  Luckily up here we never really seemed to get dirty, it was such a clean atmosphere.  After a copious rain we would allow ourselves some extra water and, under the stars, eight thousand feet up, I would strip off and have a good wash-down.  Quite chilly but very refreshing.


Apart from a race of huge rats there was no animal life up here.  I didn’t even sight an eagle, but no bird with a grain of sense would come anywhere near the mad humanity who turned these lovely mountains into a battlefield.  I doubt if the rats really belonged here because there was no natural food.   I did encounter a sizable snake on one occasion.  I had been down to the road below and on my way up again I saw this snake moving along just above me.  Had I kept going we should have met face to face.  I had no idea what sort of snake it was so I stood still and let him pass on his way.  What on earth was there for him to live on up here? When the weather had really warmed up we used to be visited, in the late afternoon, only a few yards from our hut, by a swarm of fireflies.  They were extremely beautiful with their fluorescent bodies glowing with various colours from reds to purples.


Reverting to the rat population, they were a pest.  Anything left outside a tin, even our soap, was eaten.  Even though on occasions I bewailed the loss of soap, it amused me to think of the consequences for the misguided rat responsible. As we lay on the floor and slept at night it was a common occurrence to be awakened by a rat tugging at one’s hair. They probably looked on it as good nesting material. One night I was awakened by a rat standing on my face. I was not completely conscious of the fact until he moved and put one cold foot on my eyelid.  I suppose we were fortunate never to have been bitten.




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