1917 to 1918

Robby and I looked around for a suitable spot to set up our station.  We decided that the spot where the guns were was too enclosed, and as there were lots of trees it would adversely affect our signals. Higher up the ridge and on more open ground was a little cottage.  We went to look around and found an old Italian there, presumably a smallholder.  We tried to make him understand that the Austrians were only 400 yards away, and in any case he couldn’t stay in a military zone.  He was most reluctant to go, but eventually he did.  He turned up again some weeks later and when he saw what we had done to his house he broke down and wept. We didn’t see him again.  Here in Italy, as in France and Belgium, was one more instance of ordinary people trying to carry on their ordinary lives  almost under the very wheels of the guns.  I felt sorry for the poor old chap and hope that he was compensated after the war for any damage to his property. So near to the line it is doubtful if it survived anyway.

We had to get the Battery Commanders permission to use the house, and also his authority to run a telephone line from the battery switchboard to the house.  He came up with us to look round.  He was very dubious because it was too open and the cottage stuck out of the landscape like a sore thumb. We said that nearer to the guns the aircraft would never find our ground signals.  He had to concede that one so he agreed but laid down conditions.   We were not to show ourselves more than necessary during daylight, no fire until after dark, and no light to be shown.   We were to build a dugout immediately. We were joined by three others from the battery whose duties, like ours, only occupied daylight hours.

The house was typical Italian farmhouse. Two up, two down, with earth floors downstairs.  One end of the building was a stable with a loft above. Only one window, a small landing window, faced towards the Austrians, and all the windows had wooden shutters, so were easily blacked out at night.  The fireplace was just a raised flat open hearth.  There was plenty of wood to be had, so each night we had a pleasant fire to sit around.  We lived and slept in this one room and in the other room we started to dig for shelter in an emergency.  After digging the hole we should have roofed it over with timber and sandbags, but as it was winter and things were so quiet we became a bit careless about safety measures which we were to regret later. 

This was a home from home and with a fire each night we were really snug, despite the cold nights and occasional snow.  We even did a bit of cooking for supper.  We smashed up army biscuits into crumbs, these we mixed into a paste with water, and rolled in a cloth.  This we boiled as for  a roly-poly pudding, and with a little jam  saved from teatime, we had a passable supper. This went on until one by one we started to get dreadful attacks of indigestion and nightmares and so we called it a day.

We did have one piece of luck.  One morning I was on my way down to the gun position when I met one of the signallers who was trying to find a fault on a telephone circuit.  The wire was laid along the ground and every time he picked the wire up to look for fractures, it was snatched from his hand.  After a minute or two of this he began to blow his top, thinking that somebody was having a game with him Then further along the path I saw a scurry of dead leaves, and then a hare with its leg caught in the wire. We went along to the hare and as we approached it screamed like a child.  The signaller hit it on the head with a heavy pair of pliers and we found there was a complete twist of wire round the hare’s leg. We talked about this for a long time afterwards but could never really fathom how this could have happened.  However it did and we had one hare on our hands. We had no means of cooking a hare so decided to barter it with the officers mess for something that we could cope with.  We got six tins (three each) of “Mackonacki”.  Each tin a complete meal of meat, gravy and vegetables, and it only needed heating up in boiling water. We had our best supper ever that night.

We did some very successful shoots with aircraft observation from this position.  On one occasion after we had been firing for about a half hour, there was a daddy of an explosion in the target area.  The observer in the aircraft said he couldn’t see the target for smoke, but to carry on shooting without detailed observations.  The plane stooged around for some time but smoke still obscured the target, so the observer signalled us to carry on the good work, but he couldn’t see anymore and was going home.

Within a few weeks of our arrival here it would be Christmas.  We all chipped in to a fund to buy some small pigs for our Christmas dinner.  Some of the lads built an outdoor oven with sheets of iron, brick rubble and anything handy, and a butcher in the battery undertook to kill and dress the pigs.  The Christmas Pudding came in with the rations.  Three small porkers were bought. They were killed and dressed, and hung up under the trees to set in the cold night air. The next morning they had gone, and we never did find out who had roast pork for dinner on Christmas day.  We did have roast beef as a change from the eternal stew, since we now had an oven.

I don’t think that I shall ever forget that Christmas day.  There had been no sort of arrangements made for a truce, but there was not a shell nor a bullet exchanged by either side.  It was so quiet and peaceful and everybody so relaxed.  Even the sky was completely empty of aircraft.  We all got together for our dinner and afterwards had a rip-roaring sing-song.  This unofficial truce wasn’t quite complete and although it did not affect us in any way it is probably worth relating. The British fighter aircraft being used on the Italian front was the Sopwith Camel.
This was a very fine machine in it’s day and one of the famous pilots flying a Camel on this front was Major Bishop, a Canadian. I think at the end of the war he had over 50 kills to his credit.      He was one of the few pilots allowed to fly as a lone wolf, the majority having to fly in formation flights of three or more.  He flew over the Austrian lines bent on mischief and somewhere in the rear he found a train picking up Austrian officers going on leave.  He flew along the length of the train several times giving it bursts from his guns and then he returned. ({refer to note below}} This next part of the story refers to the Christmas Day raid when Captain William Barker, also a Canadian pilot dropped a large Christmas card on and Austrian airfield before attacking. Instead of landing on his own airfield he landed on the field of our R.F.C Squadron just to make a social call and have a drink with the lads. Apparently he was stalked at a safe distance by an Austrian plane who watched where he landed.  Next morning, Boxing day, the sky overhead was full of Austrian planes and very soon I heard that my Squadron was the target. The fighter planes were
alerted but they were too late. The following morning they came over again but this time the fighters got an early warning and the Austrians lost about a third of their number.

{{The story of the bombing of the bombing of the squadron is attributed to a reprisal by the Austrian Air Force for an attack on Christmas Day 1917 by Billy Barker. Major Billy Bishop was in Washington DC at this time.}}

It was still winter and although we had snow and frost it wasn’t too severe.  After Ypres it seemed so quiet and we had no real frights as yet.  Some evenings, when we had money, we walked about three miles back to the farmhouse, where we could sit and drink cheap Italian wine.  Really it was dreadful stuff but there was nothing else, and anyway it was cheap. Invariably there were buckets of boiled chestnuts available and we could help ourselves ad lib.  We got to know these people very well and they were always pleased to see us.

One of the minor irritations in our cottage was mice. We were overrun.  At night they kept us awake with their scrabbling and sizzling noises.  The sizzling noises came from the direction of the fire and we decided that they preferred their food cooked and so made use of the hot embers.  One day when I went down to the ruined village I found a wire mousetrap.  It was shaped like an inverted basin and the entrance was through the top.  Once in, there was no way out.  We put some scraps in overnight and in the morning it was packed tight with mice.  It was a better trap than any I have encountered since.

On our side of the River Piave, about a quarter mile in front of us,
was a large monastery.  Because of its position and the strength of its walls, it was undoubtedly used as part of our defence works.  No doubt for this reason the Austrians decided to shell it and demolish it. When we heard all these shells bursting in front of us, we became curious  and  found that from the landing window we had a grandstand view of the proceedings.  The shooting was very accurate, it was a large building anyway, but each found its mark and great clouds of dust and debris flew into the air with each shell burst.  There were four of us at the landing window, and as artillery wallahs we appreciated the accuracy of the shooting. Then one of the gunners made a slight error and his shell, instead of hitting the monastery came on towards us. We couldn’t afterwards remember just at what point, or how, we came down those stairs. We only knew that at the moment the shell burst just beyond the cottage, we were all of a heap at the bottom of the stairs.  From that moment we lost interest in the shooting, but kept a wary ear cocked for any more strays, because we were right in the line of fire.

Even this incident didn’t inspire us to put in more work on our shelter, which really was quite useless in its present condition.  The walls of the house were so thin and we had weakened the structure further by cutting out some of the joists for roofing the dugout, I felt sure the place wouldn’t stand up to the slightest blast. Then one afternoon later a heavy shell burst almost a mile away. I felt the impact in the ground, but then was astonished to see the whole window-frame toppling from the downstairs window. It fell almost at my feet and not a pane of glass was even cracked.  This added to my doubts about the structure of the house and I decided in the event of trouble I would get clear, if possible, and lay up in broken ground nearby.

Inevitably our Waterloo arrived. I was outside the cottage one morning when an Austrian plane flew over very low and circled us twice.  It was so low I could see the observer peering down from his open cockpit. If I’d had a rifle I’m sure I could have pipped him.  Anyway, it was not unusual to have a hostile plane over, although this one was rather interested in us, so we regarded it as just routine.  About two hours later, however, everything happened. My mates dived into the hole dug inside the house, I cleared out and laid up outside. For about a half hour they flung everything at us.  A small brick out-house at one end of the building went up in a cloud of dust and smoke, tiles were being ripped off the roof with shell splinters and I expected at any minute to see the house go up.  I had made my choice, and although I was in the open I clung to mother earth and hoped for the best.  The shelling stopped, and apart from the out-house and a few tiles everything was intact, but within a radius of about 300 yards, our once lovely surroundings were pockmarked with a hundred or more shell holes.  I made my way into the house and there, down the hole, were my mates still holding a door above their heads.  It looked so funny I had to laugh.

This was the end of our happy household.  It was much too dangerous to stay, as without doubt the Austrians would have another go at the building as soon as they could see it was still intact.  So we moved down to the gun positions and took up our abode once more in a dugout.  It was now getting into Spring and in consequence things were livening up, so we were glad of something more solid over our heads.  There was one very bad day for us when there was a direct hit on one of our gun positions and almost the whole gun crew was wiped out.  One of those killed was the old chap with the walrus moustache. Then a night or two later there was a direct hit on a dugout next to us on our right.  I don’t know how many were killed or wounded, but the cries of the injured were dreadful to hear.  A few day before Easter we had orders to pull out.  We were to go to the mountain front.

{{Refer to “Christmas Day Raid 1917” on Links - the story of of the bombing of the Squadron is attributed to an attack on Christmas Day 1917 by Billy Barker, also a Canadian pilot. Major Billy Bishop was in Washington DC at this time.}}

       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