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Two indispensable companions are always with me on late-life trips across the seven continents. Leading the way is my excited-to-be-there, take-everything-in life companion.  Can’t go without her.  The other, more variable, is the book or two of history, memoir, fiction, poetry of the places we are exploring.  On a recent trip to Italy I was particularly interested in the Dolomite mountains on the northern border with Austria, stunning in photo and travel guide but also scene of some of the most costly fighting of World War I.

Dolomite Trenches

Trenches at 9,000 feet

My interest in the geography of war is not as a history buff of gore, courage and glory, tactics, strategy or diplomacy but as a war-resister.  How is it that war has taken place in such and such a place and such and such a time, typically with so little resistance from those who will do the actual fighting? Since at least the French Revolution, armies have been formed with strong elements of popular participation, persuaded and led by those with social leverage surely, but in large part voluntarily and with initial great excitement.  How do these men, and the women (until recently) in non-combat support, experience the desire to be in a war? Why are there so few voice resistance?  How do feelings and judgments change as death becomes a companion? I’ve been reading journals, novels, histories and commentary on WW I since the 100th anniversary of its beginning on July 28, 1914.  From the Dolomites I found a journal written by an Alpini officer, Paolo Monelli, which seemed promising.  It was written immediately after the end of the war, in 1920, and published soon after with the title Il Scarpe al Sole.  Along with it I read a fascinating history, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919, written by British historian, Mark Thompson.  Some chapters are about the same area in the Dolomites Monelli was in, while others cover the ferocious Austrian-Italian fighting on the Carso Plateau, the Italians trying to take, and the Austrians trying to defend, the important port city of Trieste.

As it happens, we had been in Italy for ten days, walking the banks of the Arno in Florence, when the 100th anniversary of the Italian declaration of war against Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915 occurred. In ten more days we would be in the Dolomites where some of the bitterest — and most useless– fighting had taken place.


Paolo Monelli won’t be known to many Italian readers, much less American.  Nevertheless, in his day he was not a man of little consequence.  A world champion skier in 1913, when Italy entered the war — which he had agitated for– he joined the Celebrated Alpine Regiment and was later decorated for bravery several times.  After the war he wrote for several newspapers, including years in Poland, Germany, Greece and Paris, and as a war correspondent when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.  During the Second World War, even though back in uniform, he continued as a journalist, often in battle zones. After the war, he was a journalist, acted in movies,  translated and wrote several books.  The first of twenty tree books to his credit, and perhaps best known, is, Le Scarpe al Sole, which, literally is “Shoes (or boots) to the Sun”, a soldier’s slang expression of the time to mean “dead.” The one English translation I’ve found opts for  Toes Up.

Books Toes Up MonelliMonelli, in an afterword for the 4th printing in 1928, calls it his “war diary,”and says it is a smoothed together collection of notes he wrote from 1915 to 1918 during his time with the Alpine Regiment, and in an Austrian prisoner of war camp; he takes pride that there is no after experience re-writing or re-remembering; it is all what we might now call, “contemporaneous” notes.  This explains the sometimes curious effect of reading what appears formally to be a seamless narrative, but which stylistically is a mix of descriptions of soldiers’ days, the terrain of the Dolomites (the Italian Alps), of soldierly grousing over command incompetence, (including a few bold sallies, unusual in texts of the time, and for which he apologizes in his afterwords,) remembered verses of song, lines from Dante’s Inferno, declarations of his own anger, sorrow and patriotic pride all decorated with flights of purple prose about the mountains, clouds, flowers and grasses, the experience of the great out of doors, when not under shell fire.

Far less fictionalized than other similar WW I memoirs (Sigfried Sasoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer Emilio Lussu’s A Soldier on the Southern Front or Under Fire by Henri Barbusse,) it is both less interesting as a piece of organized and presented writing, and more interesting as a record of direct, in situ, responses to his experience.  Unlike most published WW I soldier-writers, he his not driven by regret, or loathing or anything resembling an anti-war position. Despite passages about the fear, the cold, the whine of shells and friends dying, the three or so years, including several months as a prisoner of war in Salzburg, are recounted as somewhat of a young man’s adventure, as one might write today of an Outward Bound camp, a triathlon or a summer spent fighting brush fires.

To be fair, this way of seeing the war, as much of an adventure, with awe-struck visions of nature alongside fear, cold and hunger was not unique to Monelli.  In the White War, Thompson tells us that many letters home from soldiers up in the mountains, as does Monelli, expressed similar sentiments.  Another journal writer, on a mountain further east, along the Slovenian border, expresses it:

“There they were, in the distance, silver, from the green at the base all the way up to the clouds, snow-white, sunset-pink, sparkling with an infinite beauty.

What irony!

In the whiteness, those shades of pink, who knows how much sorrow, how many cries of rage, how much infinite pain….”

Newspaper writers, chief among them Luigi Barzini for “Corriere della Sera,” the powerful Milan based paper,  who was almost as well known as General Cadorna or Prime Minister Salandra, wrote column after column of heroic adventure in soul stirring –and redeeming– locales. Until returning veterans brought real stories home, every newspaper reading Italian believed as Monelli did.

The nature of the fighting in the mountains added to this retention of romanticism, quite different from the experience of industrial carnage, of being a cog in a machine, which the soldiers on both sides of the Western Front had, and indeed the Italians on the Carso plateau and along the Isonzo river had, fighting back and forth across the hot, “howling wilderness of stones sharp as knives,” trying to take, or hold, Trieste.  Fighting in the mountains was often in small unit combat, not large force maneuvers; it took skills and knowledge always part of mountain life — topography reading, climbing, sheltering, carrying– and so the whole experience was for many of them the “adventure’ Monelli tells us of in Il Scarpe al Sole.


We know from the full title — Boots to the Sun: A Chronicle of the Sad and Happy Adventures of an Alpine Soldier, of Mules and of Wine— that this will likely not be a bitter, condemnatory memoir.  From the opening words we see that, whatever injuries or losses he may reveal in the coming pages, the predominant emotion will be of nostalgia.   Written in 1920, a bare two years after the end of hostilities, he says “There must still be some men, disheartened by the grayness of civil life  … who feel their hearts heavy with regretful longing.”   When he remembers himself, casting off the lethargy of the rear lines and going to join a combat brigade, he writes that he is off to “righteous war.”

I read Le Scarpe al Sole, as I have all such books, to try to understand the motives and feelings of those who fought.  What might we learn?  How did they go to war, with reluctance or with happiness?  What was their experience, of others and of themselves, under fire?  How did they react to their killing of others, and how react to that reaction? Is there something in them, in the fighting, which is also true of those who declare and command the war? What can be conveyed, especially, to those young men (usually) who, before experience, conceive of war as a grand test of manhood, and a necessary passage into it?

Though Monelli’s book doesn’t stand with the great classics of war memoirs there is value in reading it, if only because he gives voice to what in fact is the predominant human feeling about war — that it is a grand, and necessary, adventure.  His greatest fear, and that of many others, was of getting into the fight too late, of “missing out on it.”

“What a good breeze war had blown across the old rubbish,” he says, and “Perhaps, it is the leavening of youth which makes us dance upon the tightrope of danger with such acute raptures.”  He writes that as he was marching along before a battle, “I was thinking of the happiness of recounting in the future the adventures I am living now.”

He asks himself, in “an examination of conscience”  if  “it was boredom with my empty life… the attraction of the risky game … of not being able to bear not being where others have been … or a humble, honest love of my country…” which gave my “greedy consent to the life of war.”

Thus, the value of the book for me: he has the virtue of honesty.


As in all journal-based war writing, fictionalized or not, progress through time is linear from entry to the war, or  training, through the march to the front, the baptism of fire, the comradeship of other men, the fear, overcoming the fear, the gruesome death of friends, through to the end of service — and in at least the case of Paul Bäumer of All Quiet on the Western Front, to death.  Monelli uses no writerly techniques of flash-back, multiple narrators, or long philosophical, or background, excursions.  There are however several mannerisms, of a time and place certainly, though reflecting a hasty, unmediated journal writing as well. Here, a favorite tactic, a stream of images, phrases without verbs, to speed the arrow along but which seem somehow flying askew, as if describing war in all its beauty.

“The strange spectacle of snow at night, the embroidery made on the wire, the soft masking of the pines: old words and tunes that bewitch my grumbling spirit with an ever-fresh beauty.”


“The infantry soldier … tattered, lousy, dirty, stuck fast in earth and mud, which get mixed up with the hard bread and cold rations that he munches, and when a shell comes has to rub his face in the muck to make himself small; who sleeps between alarm and a kick, anyhow, clipped tightly by his accouterments, under a tent, exposed to the elements even when it rains or snows when, as now, October once more piles snow upon the ground — scrape away the snow if you want to make a bit of fire, and never ending wet everywhere; who fights his best fight on the day of battle, yet is always engaged in that other hourly fight with rats, with insects, with frost, with the routine orders that forbid him to take off his clothes even when resting, with the store clerk who cheats him of his win, and with the post that loses his letters…”

Description of cold and fear and battle occur, but often softened through a scrim of romanticism.

“Zanella is coming too, with a bottle of wine. I don’t ask by what miracle he has found a bottle of wine on the ravaged mountain-side—but I fasten myself to the bottle-neck, and, lo, the red sun lights up again in my body. I am a good soldier again; a kick propels a reluctant man into the hole and flatters my cowardice. The men, spread along the ditch of snow, yell out their torment of the damned through the rattle of musketry.

Descriptions of killing are tossed off, even with admiration:

“Faoro … a good soldier he is, with the eyes of a cat, … went alone with his bayonet against four Bavarians, put two to flight, killed one, and took one prisoner.”

One of a soldiers’ fears, ever present, is that, while away at war, their wives are making cuckolds of them, and he gives voice to it. [This fear, incidentally, added to the post war anger of returning soldiers against those who had not fought, and against the Socialists in general who, alone among the great European parties, had held to their opposition to Italian “intervention” as it was called.  This anger, in turn, was the seed-bed for the rise of fascism, eventually led by Mussolini but certainly not created by him.]

The most obvious fear of all, has its place:

“…the resumption of the bombardment. Preceded by a gusty whine— one’s whole soul bent on not thinking about it, so as not to go through the agony of waiting for it—the 13-inch shell comes over and bursts. The whole summit trembles, shakes, and rears up.”

He is not reluctant with the arresting image, if occasionally overwrought

“The white-enameled mountains…”


“The moon calls the muster of the other mountains—they re-emerge from the darkness and gaze threateningly.”


“…once more to put out my head and look at the possibilities of the future without fear of getting a bullet in it.”

This sentence encapsulates his out-of-register language, poeticizing the terrible experience, yet intriguingly inventive.

“…then the machine-guns begin their hurried sewing in the darkness, tirelessly stitching up with the threads of death the shell-torn hem of night.”

The translation by Orlo Williams, and published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921, is serviceable, if not remarkable, with not a few instances of language aged by the years.

“I have dug my slack soul out of the matutinal ignobility of bed, and I lash it devoutly, according to the counsel of St. Cherubino. What pride can I have had up to now in the eagle’s feather, and the destiny of carrying it into a righteous war, when I was dallying in the easy life of the rear? Now, in the cold morning, I am leaving for my battalion. I shall scan the eyes of the comrades who have preceded me, and of the soldiers who will be entrusted to me, to see what marks are left on them by having lingered on the confines of life and having come back. And I shall anatomize my heart, to know with what purity it is preparing for the holocaust.”

Williams tells us in the preface that Monelli wrote to reflect a certain Alpini dialect, almost impossible to convey in English and that therefore he has picked a “neutral, soldierly slang.” It’s not too bad,  but I always wonder when certain Americanisms like “pow-wow” and “dough” (for money) come from the mouths of Italian troops.

He writes of the feelings that rose in all nationalities, soldiers and junior officers, of irony if not outright anger at the brass:

“He says too few of us got killed. He says we ought to have taken the position.”

The irony:

“He stands stiff and frowning on the path, looking at us pass by. Then the buzz of a motor; lounging back in his car, he goes back to his castle. He’d better hurry up, for the enemy artillery is beginning to nose round here too, and this is no place for him.”

and the anger:

“But those generals whose plans went wrong, the supreme rulers who could not keep our conquests and gave incoherent or fatal orders, are blathering away now, picking holes in the dead and missing and defiling the fine deeds of heroism with bureaucratic slime.”

Never an anti-war former soldier, but neither, despite his interventionist feelings, a proselytizer of the mystical strains of violence the fascists were soon to praise.  He is nothing if not an honest celebrant of the  determination and courage of the men he served with, who “breathed courage like this sturdy wind,” convinced of the sanctity of sacrifice, the nobility of death.  He describes much — the days without rest, the “shell that blinds and buries.”  Though he will say that war “is no pleasant game,” he never leaves off affirming that it “was desired by our youth …as the finest adventure of our lives.”
The closing pages, written after he had tried twice, unsuccessfully, to escape an Austrian prison in Salzburg, and has been demobilized from the army, still rings, for all his hardship, with the thrill of the adventure and disdain for those who avoided it.

“It is right that those who were not with us should try to belittle the war, should talk of war-psychosis, should take advantage of the rapid wearing out of the words “hero,” “khaki,” and “trench,” and should prefer to consider the war a vast four years’ lunacy from which their wisdom kept them well away. But we who know how much they cut off their own lives will only pity these mutilated beings, who make a noise, perhaps, only to cover their remorse, who seek each other’s company and count their heads, taking courage from numbers to deprecate the stronger. Nor will we boast of our deeds, nor will we provoke them. Would you hit a blind man because he does not admire your picture? A gulf separates us, which no communion of faith and no community of interest can fill.


Monelli re-entered the army at the start of WW II, this time of course on the side of the Germans and against their former allies. He soon continued his journalism, even while in uniform.  As the Allies began their march up the Italian peninsula, and the king signed an armistice, Mussolini was arrested, he found, as did many Italian military people, his inner anti-fascist.  Strong enough in his case to write a book which might be interesting for those students of Italy and the turn to fascism:  ”Mussolini: The Intimate Life of a Demagogue.

A long appreciation, in Italian, of the book is here. [You can use Google to get a flawed sense of its meaning in English.]
It turns out a film has been made of Le Scarpe al Sole, 1935,  as well. It doesn’t get high marks on Italian movie sites, principally because of its bravura treatment of the men happily going off to war — which you can see a bit of in this clip.

The filming locations are mostly in Belluno, Veneto, Italy, where in fact much of the fighting took place, and which has a particular interest for me as I was in nearby mountains, while reading the book.

Trench Wire in the High Dolomites, 9,000 feet


For a few more, see Google +, here.