Books:History, Books:Memoir, Books:War, Italy, Movies, Movies:Italy, Movies:WW I, War, WW I
World War I brought with it some 10 million combatant deaths, 23 million wounded. Two and one half million non combatants died from fire and sword, and another four and one half million of starvation and illness. In the competition for most deaths per population the Ottoman Empire won at 15% mortality rate in a population of 21.3 million. Tiny Serbia was neck and neck with no certainty in its numbers but as high as 815,000 dead out of a population of 4.5 million (18%). The United States barely shows up, at .13% dead while the French, at 4.25% of the population gone, suffered more than the United Kingdom at 2.2% largely because the war was fought on French soil. Russia, though withdrawing after the 1917 revolution, lost almost 2% of its population, just over 3 million. Two surprises are tiny Romania, caught in the Hapsburg encirclement and abandoned by Russia in 1917 lost 8.8 % of its population, and Italy. With a population roughly the same as France (35.6 vs to 39.6 million) Italy lost half as many soldiers (651,000 to 1,400,000) but almost twice as many civilians to disease and starvation (589,000 to 300,000). [For statistics see here.]
Yet in the outpouring of literature about the war, soon after and now, in this centenary of its beginning, contributions from Italy are sparse and hard to find. The English may lead in memoirs, histories and fictions. The US, for all its small, late, but pivotal involvement, has contributed much. Of French histories of the war I know little but novels or fictionalized memoirs such as Under Fire by Henri Barbusse [1916, during the war] were among the first, and are well known. Germany’s Erich Maria Remarque and his “All Quiet at the Western Front”  is the first among equals. For Italian contributions one has to search.
If Emilio Lussu’s A Soldier on the Southern Front, his memoir of one year, of the four he spent, on the Austrian-Italian front, high in the mountains above Asiago, is an example of what might have been, we are the poorer for it. Written at a distance of twenty years, in 1936 and only at the prodding of friends, it is a minor gem of war literature, too easy to miss in the dazzle of the bigs – Remarque, Hemingway [whose A Farewell to Arms is set in the same fighting] , Barbusse and others.
By the time Lussu began, Mussolini was years into his dictatorship. Lussu, having fled to Paris after killing a Mussolini squadrisiti invading his home in 1926 and then escaping from prison, wrote his memory at a convalescent center in Davos, to then return to Italy in August 1943 as a member of the resistance.
He aims to tell the story “stripped of my subsequent experience,” evoking “the war as we actually lived it, with the thoughts and feelings we had at the time.” At a distance of 20 years it is neither polemical nor didactic, nostalgic nor awash in sorrow, though irony runs deep. His voice seems to come with the same “habitual calm” noted by a fellow officer during the fighting. Even writing of fighting and fear he does not mine the details for emotional impact.
The trenches were improvised—on naked ground, with no deep digging, no bags of dirt, no parapets. … what we’d found were individual foxholes, scattered here and there, which each of us had tried to deepen, if not exactly with our teeth, then surely in large part with our nails. We were stretched out on our bellies, our heads just barely protected behind a rock or some clump of earth. Instinctively, with every burst of machine-gun fire, every hissing of a grenade, we made an even greater effort to squeeze our bodies into a smaller space and to become less vulnerable, pressing ourselves even further into the ground, flattened against the surface…
And as the big artillery comes into play,
Tornadoes of earth, rock, and body fragments flew up into the air, way high up, and fell back down far away. The hole produced by the explosion was big enough for an entire platoon. …
The whole terrain was shaking under our feet. An earthquake was devastating the mountain. Even now, at such a great distance in time, when our self-esteem, as part of an involuntary psychological process, highlights only those past feelings that seem most noble while repressing the others, I can still remember the dominant idea of those initial minutes. More than an idea, an agitation, an instinctive impulse: Save yourself.
We see here an absence of the heroic boast, which at times rises to ironic reflection. Writing about orders to leave the trenches and go on attack he writes,
Life in the trenches was over. Now, they had told us, we would be counterattacking, maneuvering. And in the mountains. Finally! … we would finally be liberated from that miserable life, lived fifty or a hundred yards from the enemy trenches, in that ferocious promiscuity, in a constant series of bayonet assaults to the tune of hand grenades and rifle shots fired at loopholes. We would stop killing each other, every day, without hate. The war of maneuver would be something else. A successful maneuver, two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand prisoners, just like that, in a single day, without that horrific, generalized slaughter; just the success of an ingenious strategic encirclement.
The thread of irony sometimes reaches full sarcasm, usually in the voices of others. When the troops are ordered off Mt Fiori which they have defended from the Austrians, to fall back to Mt. Spill, one captain refuses the order and when threatened with loss of command, curses
“I’m relieved of my command? But the Italian army is under the command of the Austrians! It’s a disgrace!”
The incompetence of the Generals is noted throughout:
“General , sir, we’re just going from one blunder to another out there today!” The general sprang to his feet. I thought he was going to throw me out. He came over to me and threw his arms around me, crying. “Son, that’s our profession,” he replied.
A film was made from the novel in 1970. Titled Uomini Contro [Men Against] in Italian and Many Wars Ago in English it was directed by Francesco Rosi and features Mark Frechette (fresh from Zabriskie Point fame) as Lt Sassu, the author (Lussu). Rosi was of the post-neorealist generation of Italian directors and had been assistant to Luchino Visconti [in La Terra Trema, among others.] The film, shot in color, lacks some of the gritty realism of the post war cinema though it heightens the criticism of war implicit in the book through long battle sequences, one following another. Much more film time is given to them, as I recall, than in other films of it’s genre, and that war — All Quiet on the Western Front, in either the 1930 [Lewis Milestone] or the 1979 [Delbert Mann]version, for example. Rosi’s intent, as he reveals in an interview included on the DVD, was to make a movie ‘with a message.’ The American war in Vietnam was in its ugliest year and memory of the war in Korea was not yet cold; he wanted to make a statement about “the behavior of men,” and the stupidity of war, not only half a century before but in his own time. As such, the movie is more bluntly anti-war than the book itself. It was also made against opposition. As he says in the interview, no school text at that time had any account of the “atrocious absurdities” that had taken place in the Italian army.
In one incredible scene Rosi adds an event Lussu did not speak of, which he had found in photographs taken by his own father. Soldiers who had exhibited cowardice are taken into no-man’s land and shackled, to trees or posts, and left, exposed for the duration of their ‘sentence’ to firing from both sides.
Interestingly, however, Rosi allows General Leone to be a less damnable person than I think readers of the book would take away. He is a ‘prisoner’ of his own ideas of discipline and order, says Rosi, not a ‘madman’ but a ‘fanatic.’ Perhaps we judge him in the book through the lens of today, to his greater discredit, but I think Lussu had little patience or sympathy for him, either.
In fact, Lussu, when he saw the movie, is said to have complained that the lighter moments, at times even the humor, of his book had been stripped away. As when he writes:
Later that afternoon the mayor invited all the officers back to the town hall to enjoy a glass of wine and a speech. In a trembling voice, he read: “It is a great honor for me, et cetera, et cetera. In the glorious war that the Italian people are fighting under the ingenious and heroic command of His Majesty the King …”
On the word “king,” we all snapped to attention, as we were required to do, with a loud and simultaneous clacking of heels and spurs. The sudden blast of that military salute reverberated in the municipal great hall like a gunshot. The mayor, a profane civilian, couldn’t have imagined that his modest reference to the sovereign would provoke such a clamorous demonstration of constitutional loyalty. He was a distinguished gentleman and, with forewarning, he certainly would not have failed to appreciate , in the appropriate measure and degree, such a patriotic act. But taken in this way, completely unawares, he flinched and made a slight jump that raised him several centimeters above his normal height. All the color drained out of his face. He turned his uncertain gaze toward the group of motionless officers and waited. The sheet of paper with the words of his speech written on it had dropped out of his hands and was lying, like a culprit, at his feet.
And when an invocation to the beauty of dying for one’s country is given, Lussau remembers:
The mayor continued. “Beautiful and sublime attractions. Unhappy is he who cannot feel them! Because, oh gentlemen, it is beautiful indeed to die for your country …” This allusion didn’t appeal to anyone, not even the colonel. The judgment was a classic, but the mayor was not the most suitable person to make us appreciate, literarily, the beauty of death, even such a glorious one. Even the demeanor with which the mayor had accompanied his exclamation had been inappropriate. It seemed as though he’d wanted to say, “You are more beautiful dead than alive.” A sizable portion of the officers coughed and looked at the mayor disdainfully.
Because of the film’s greater concentration on the actual fighting, it loses some of the wider view Lussu brings, here a description of refugees in full flight:
The population of the Seven Communes was pouring down onto the plains in disarray, dragging along on their oxcarts and mules, old people, women , and children, and what little furniture they’d been able to salvage from their homes so hurriedly abandoned to the enemy. The farmers driven off their land were like shipwreck survivors . Nobody was crying, but their faces were blank. This was the convoy of pain. The carts, creeping along, seemed like a funeral cortege.
In the text we get a sense of the nationalities involved: Austrian-Germans, Bosnians, Slavs, Italian speaking Croats. We are surprised by the constant drinking, especially before an attack. When Lussu meets a senior officer and declines a drink, the Lt. Col. takes out a notebook and jots down “met a lieutenant who didn’t drink liquor, June 5, 1916.”
When an order to “take the saddle” is received, the major responds:
“So it’s the saddle we’re supposed to attack?”
“Give me a drink,” the major shouted to his orderly.
And it’s not just the Italians. The Austrians are on the attack:
From the Austrian ranks came an odor of brandy, thick, condensed, as though it were bursting forth from some dank wine cellars, closed for years. During the singing and the shouts of “Hurrah!” it seemed as though the cellars were throwing open their doors and inundating us with brandy.
Several scenes from the book are heightened to almost intolerable sorrow, as good movies can do, through powerful visuals. In one, the General orders the mostly peasant soldiery to put on anti-machine gun armor (Farina armor) and go out to cut the barbed wire which is impeding an assault. Dressed like space-age knights in armor, the men walk awkwardly out to their doom: machine guns cut them to pieces.
Why the men follow such clearly cretinous orders, even if not willingly, is shown by several scenes of ‘decimation,’ in which men are set before firing squads for failure to follow them, for self-mutilation or for mutiny. Both memoir and movie show a general mutiny at the front, thought by some to have happened only among French troops in April of 1917.
Another scene, indelible in memory, is when the Italians, in wave after wave, shouting Viva Savoia! (the Royal house) are mowed down by Austrian machine-guns. The field is strewn with bodies, writhing and still. A few look up, or rise on hands and knees as if to recommence their rush forward. From behind a stone wall sheltering one of the machine guns, a half dozen Austrians stand and shout, waving their arms. “Italians! Italians! For the love of god! Stop coming!”
[The troops in the movies, normally played by extras, are in fact from the Yugoslav army, where the battle scenes were shot.]
Both movie and book are welcome additions to what we can know of the war, or as Rosi says, not the war, but war as a universal phenomenon. Whether an introduction for some or a reminder of detail and behavior for others, Lussu and Rosi help us to see a war that spawned enduring agony across Europe. By their accounts, remembering it during this 100th anniversary year should be of the bitter lessons, not the false nostalgia of courage under fire, lives gladly given and families properly proud.
Not the “Their Name Liveth for Evermore,” chosen by Rudyard Kipling, from Ecclesiasticus, for the Menin Gate at Ypres, in glorifying memory to the dead whose bodies were never found, but Siegfried Sassoon’s response to it:
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.