Like many of the young men who were drafted into the Italian army during the First World War, my father's life and attitudes were profoundly changed by his experiences. Over the course of my childhood and during my teenage years, I spent many hours listening to my father and my uncles as they recounted the years of the war, the hardships they endured, the friends they lost, and the sacrifices they made. Some of these conversations took place between my father and I as we sat quietly together in the evening at our large kitchen table. Some were noisy exchanges between brothers and friends over wine and cards and incredibly smelly cigars. All of these recollections fascinated me.
I came to know my father as a man of strong convictions and of firm political viewpoints which were molded by the circumstances of his early life and by the turbulent and often frightening events which engulfed the whole of Italy before and during the war and in the years that followed. Through it all my father remained a sensitive and caring man. On my visits to his hometown in Italy, some 30 years after he had left for the last time, I met people who still remembered him with respect.
This article is my attempt to finally understand and summarize the way in which those events shaped my father's outlook. I also want to share what I learned with the rest of my family and my friends, many of whom are interested in how the Great War still influences our lives even today.
My grandfather, Luigi, and grandmother, Paolina, emigrated to the United States in the late l880s where Luigi worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania until l904. They would eventually have six children, three boys and three girls. Virgilio, born October, 1887, was the third child.
His childhood was spent in Pennsylvania, and no one could have predicted the remarkable circumstances which would later cause him to be drafted into the Italian army and positioned
right at one of the main breakthrough points of the Central Powers at the Battle of Caporetto.
Despite the difficulties of raising a family and enduring the hardships of a coal-miner's life, Luigi was able to save some money, and in 1904 he packed up his family and returned to Italy to buy property and start a farm in the province of Tuscany outside the resort hill town of Montecatini. After remaining in Italy for less than a year, Luigi, restless and hoping to further improve his lot in life, once again departed for America leaving his wife and five of his children behind in Italy to care for the farm while he returned to the coal mines of Pennsylvania. The oldest of his sons, Ernesto, was now in his teens, and clearly understood that life in America, even as a coal miner, was better than a future on the farm in Italy. He refused to remain behind, and he left with his father. Virgilio, still very young, felt abandoned and resentful. Nonetheless he found himself in the position of "man of the house". His mother, hoping he might grow up to be a priest, sent him to a parochial school where he was taught by Catholic fathers. Apparently, he was a good student. He finished the fourth grade, the equivalent of higher education for farm boys of the time in Italy. He was an avid reader all of his life, and often amazed me with stories about the history of Italy and the artists of the Renaissance. Although, he never respected the Church as an institution, he spoke highly of the specific priests who had taught him and later of Pope John XXIII.
While my father was growing up in Italy the relationship between the Church and State was quite strained. The King of Italy was excommunicated and the Pope considered himself a prisoner in the Vatican. Anti-clericalism was widespread even among believers.
Typical Tuscan Hill Farm
The economic situation was very bad, and while by Italian standards of that period, he wasn't poor, Virgilio knew that his life would have been much better in the United States. To makes ends meet, my father was apprenticed in several trades including shoemaking and smithing. His mother rented out some of the land, about thirty-five to forty acres, to a contadino (share cropper) and raised silkworms in the attic for extra money. I recall my father's complaints that he was forced to stay in Italy where there were many meatless days. He remembered that in the United States for Catholics only Fridays were meatless.
Growing up without a father, Virgilio became kind of wild and stubborn. His discontent grew as conditions worsened for the people of Italy. Clearly, even before the war, my father was gravitating to the socialistic point of view that would guide him his entire life. As I grew up I came to realize that his strongly-held views were partly the result of the early events in his life, but perhaps nothing effected him more than his military experience during the Great War and the turmoil that followed in its wake.
When Italy entered the war in 1915, the draft age was twenty, and my father was too young to be drafted. After a while the age was dropped to nineteen, and then by the end of the war it was lowered to eighteen. He was drafted at the end of 1916 and was sent to Lodi a few miles southeast of Milano for training.
He often spoke to me of the speed with which he lost his naivete. One story he told was about a spoon of his that somebody stole or "traded" for a rusty one just before an inspection. He didn't have time to find the culprit, so he decided to continue the tradition and managed to replace it by quickly "trading" it for another good one. He resolved to be more wary in the future.
Austrian Forces at the Isonzo Front Where Virgilio Served
His first letter home was written the night before he left for the front for service with the Alessandra Brigade:
Casa del soldato, [Soldier's House]
February 20, 1917
My dearest Mother.
I'm writing this to let you that I am leaving tomorrow. They issued us our battledress, but I don't know if I am going to the front. I have been assigned to the 256th infantry regiment, [this was an error it turned out to be the 156th] Courage let's hope God will help me. Give my best and a warm kiss to all.
[added on back]
Today Nappa [a friend] wrote me. Give my regards to every one who asks about me. Addio, addio until peace arrives! Pray for me!
He was sent to the Isonzo River Front. Previously in that sector Italy's Second and Third Armies had failed in nine major offensives to advance any great distance against the Austro-Hungarian forces facing them. He quickly learned the difficulties of life for the frontline soldier. One of the major gripes was the meagerness of their mess (rancio) both in quantity and quality.
The mess was different depending on rank between officers, NCO's and the troops. The privates were paid only a few lira every week (less than a lira per day), but they were sometimes able to buy smokes and meals in nearby towns. When they couldn't pay for a restaurant meal, they left grenades on the table as a token payment. The restaurant owners usually politely declined to accept them.
After hearing a vague promise of improved food, and in order to avoid the monotony and make-work jobs at the front, Virgilio volunteered to be an Arditi, a specially-trained assault trooper. This meant that he would spend less time in the advance trenches and would be saved for special operations, raids, assaults or specific defensive situations.
Having completed two weeks of training for this new force, he returned to the Alessandra Brigade at the front near the river town of Tolmino. There he participated in various raids and in the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo. Both of these larger actions featured some limited advances by the Italian Army, but resulted in horrendous casualties. Unlike Caporetto, which was more a fiasco than a battle for him, father never talked about fighting in these actions or about facing and killing other men. He wrote some letters during this period, and he told me various stories about his life as a soldier which portray his frame of mind and the declining state of the Italian Army. In the next section I have pieced these stories together in roughly chronological order.
Arditi Uniform & Kit
One of his proudest moments, he said, was when he helped rescue an opposing soldier who was wounded in no-mans-land. Believing correctly that the enemy troops would not shoot him while he was helping their comrade, he volunteered to go out unarmed and drag him back. The gratitude of the soldier, who was of Polish ancestry, was so great that he presented Virgilio with his prayer book as a memento. Later my father learned that the wounded man had died of his injuries.
As a reward my father received two weeks of leave and was allowed to return home. Sadly, much of this well-earned time was lost in travel. This two-week period and his training time to become an Arditi were the only periods in which he was allowed to leave the front between February and October.
Another incident he recalled happened one night when a sudden storm came up while he was starting out on a raid. Visibility dropped to almost zero, and the attack was mercifully called off. In the diminished light my father couldn't find his way back to his line. He grabbed the tail of one of his unit's mules and allowed the animal to lead him to safety. He later spoke highly of the mules and their battlefield common sense or intelligence, feeling it was superior to that of the army leadership. My uncles concurred, relating many cases, when, under heavy fire, the loose mules would find places of comparative safety. One would do well, they agreed, to follow a mule's lead. Horses, and officers they said, could just as easily lead you into danger.
Once Virgilio's anti-elitist feelings got the better of him. He was on a raid when an Austrian officer refused to surrender his sidearm to him because my father wasn't an officer. He furiously ripped the officer's pistol away and gave him a kick in the pants sending him off with the enlisted prisoners. Even so, his superiors must have been pleased with his performance in these raids. Although he was offered corporal's stripes several times, my father always declined promotions preferring not to be in command of his comrades.
On the 12th of May, the 10th Battle of the Isonzo started and continued through the first week of June. After the battle the letters he wrote home had a decidedly negative tone. On June 27th he wrote of his depressed emotional state, of his unhappiness with his own father, and of his need for money. Later, on July 27, he wrote again of being depressed, but made a point of mentioning that he was in good physical health. The family was to learn six days later that he had almost been killed on July 2nd, and several friends had been killed, wounded or captured at that time.
The Italians expected the 11th Battle of the Isonzo to break the Austrian line and open the road to Trieste. Impressive gains were made, some of the most successful of the war, but the offensive fell short of victory. In the course of these operations, the Italian army suffered unbelievably heavy casualties, and the spirit of the troops declined further.
Later I listened to my father and two uncles discuss their experiences during this period. Their talks revealed much about the hardships that they had endured. They vividly recalled the grinding misery-the cold, the mud, the poor food and most of all the leadership of a dumb and brutal high command. They carried a real contempt for their officers, especially Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna. They told of being in dugouts for long periods of time while the enemy was bombarding the Italian lines. They recounted having to live with rats which fed on the dead and helpless wounded. The rats were so quiet and light on their feet that the sleeping soldiers were only aware of their presence when they felt the brushing of the cold tails as the rats ran across their faces. One of my father's comrades, intending to save some bread from dinner for the next morning, stashed it under his cape rather than storing it in his metal mess kit. When he awoke, he discovered that the rats had chewed through his woolen cape and had eaten the bread.
To comprehend the way in which the Battle of Caporetto became a disaster for the Italian Army and to understand what happened to my father and his unit in the early hours of the battle, it is important to consider the relative positions of the two armies as the battle started.
On the east side of a bend in the Isonzo River, about forty miles north of the Adriatic, lies the town of Tolmino. This town is encircled by mountains which had been fought over for two years. North of Tolmino the Italians had crossed the Isonzo to the east and were on the peaks and slopes of the mountains. Directly west of Tolmino there was a bridgehead where the Austrians held positions west of the town. This put the Austro-German forces in a position to get behind the Italian units to the north of town. Even before the battle started, German units were already positioned behind some of the Italian units. My father's unit was one of these.
In the photograph below, he and his mates waited just to the right of the snowbound peak in the top range near a village named Dolje. His opponents occupied all the ground in the foreground, including the town of Tolmino and peaks around it on both sides of the river.
The Town of Tolmino
My father spent the night of October 23/24 under hours of fierce bombardment in a mountain dugout above Dolje. They were fortunate not to be gassed as had happened in many in other sectors. In the early morning there was a pause, and then the shelling started up again at 6 am followed immediately by an assault. Virgilio's unit was ordered to a section in the front line where Germans were attacking. He was in the second group advancing in very heavy fog. Ahead they heard the sound of a fire fight. There was lots of shouting...then quiet.
Virgilio was Deployed on the Ridge Just Right of the Top Center Peak
Virgilio's group was ordered to take a defensive position below the crest of the ridge. The men had a small mortar, but no machine guns. Out of the fog they could see a line of soldiers coming down the hill. In the poor visibility, the colors and cut of the uniforms made them appear at first to be Italian soldiers. Finally, when they could see the collar insignia, they realized that they were German. The Italians then opened fire with rifles and mortars. The lieutenant of father's section was hit and went down. He was thought to be dead. This later proved to be untrue as Virgilio subsequently encountered him in a POW camp. The unit retreated after holding the position for some time. The Germans did not pursue them and things were quiet for a while.
The numbers of wounded were not great, but the Italians were nearly out of ammunition. They anxiously awaited orders, but none came. At noon they decided to return down the river to report to headquarters. On the way down they spotted a German machine gun emplacement, but it seemed to be defending in the wrong direction. My father's group fired a few shots, and the enemy scattered, confused by the presence of the Italians behind them. Continuing back to headquarters, my father and the others passed numbers of dead Italians. Some lay alongside their breakfasts--most, if not all, were victims of gas.
Along the road they spotted a large group of Italian soldiers from various types of units, Bersagliere, Alpini, artillery, infantry, etc. Thinking that this group was being formed for a counterattack, they moved to join them. As they approached
they realized that these men were all prisoners, and some of them could be heard shouting, "The war is over!" There was only one guard for hundreds of captives. Virgilio's group didn't know what to do.
Should they fight or should they surrender? There was still time to escape. Could they still fight on? If so, where? And to what objective? They had to make a decision. They had no ammo; they were in a valley with enemy occupying all the high ground. Across the river on a road parallel to theirs columns of Germans marched toward Caporetto. The decision appeared to be made for them. My father and his fellow Arditi, who were among the best-trained troops of the Italian army, lay down their weapons and joined the line of prisoners on the way to a prisoner of war camp.
Virgilio and His Mates Just Before Caporetto
All Would Perish or Be Captured in the Battle
From what I have learned about Caporetto, this incident seems representative of what happened to the 250,000 Italian soldiers who were captured in battle. Units disintegrated from the top down. Headquarters were captured, small units, then isolated, lacked direction, ammunition ran out, and the well-prepared enemy was suddenly everywhere. The Italian Second Army didn't get beaten in combat, rather it dissolved under the demands of operating as a cohesive unit.
Prisoner of War
Later, my father could only recall one vivid sight from the grim march to the prison camp. He remembered seeing an ancient castle on a perfectly-round island in the middle of a beautiful lake. This was later identified as Lake Bled near the Slovenian town of the same name.
Lake Bled: Virgilio Passed This Way
He often told me of the strict discipline, if not downright harshness, to which was subjected by his Austro-Hungarian captors. He believed that the Hungarians were the worst of his jail keepers. Often as I was growing up, he spoke about the hunger he experienced. As a child, whenever I left food on the plate, he would chide me, saying that when he was a prisoner my leftovers would have been a feast for many. He was always distressed to see food wasted. He never used the expression, "take what you want, but eat what you take", but I understood the concept early on.
As a youth in Italy, during one of his apprenticeships, he learned to make lime or mortar. Because these skills were necessary for rail construction, my father became part of a group of prisoners which was sent to Albania to work on a railroad. They left from either Trieste or Pola and sailed south between the islands and the mainland of Dalmatia, always fearful of submarine attack. In Albania, because of his construction skills, he received better treatment and rations than previously.
While he was in Albania my father contracted a bad case of malaria, due perhaps to the primitive public health conditions in that country. By this time, the war was ending and Austria was experiencing severe food shortages. Believing that sick prisoners would be unable to work, and thus would be of little use to the Italian military, the Austro-Hungarians opted to repatriate those with serious health problems. My father was one of these prisoners. Possibly civilized concern or good "PR" for the coming peace talks may have influenced that decision.
Virgilio remembered little of his repatriation except seeing the huge Ferris wheel in Vienna from a train. He always maintained that it was the first and largest in the world, at least before the First World War. He arrived at the Brenner Pass just as the war
ended. He and the other prisoners were turned over to an American Red Cross worker in uniform. They were sent to Italian hospitals, as my father said, to be "fattened up" before going home on leave. He never spoke to me about this visit home.
Soon we shall be civilians!
Virgilio [top rt.] and Fellow Machine Gunners, Late 1919
After his leave, Virgilio was stationed near Rome at Civitavecchia to finish his military service. Apparently his time as a prisoner didn't count toward fulfilling his obligation. He was sent to a machine gun class and became a machine gunner for a while. Just before his discharge he was transferred to a supply group where he said life was easier and was even able to visit Rome.
Sometime in early 1920 or very late in 1919, Virgilio was discharged. He returned to the family farm, and his attention was once again drawn to conditions at home. Italy was in turmoil, and the Fascist party was rising. His contempt for Benito Mussolini was boundless. Being both a social democrat and a first-rate hardhead, he was immediately in conflict with the Black Shirts. In 1922 he became a Communist, not just because of socialist leanings, but because he had a revulsion to what he believed to be the jingoist, warmongering, anti-leftist, and opportunistic attitudes of Mussolini. Most of all, he was convinced that only the Communist party offered an effective resistance to Fascism.
He was later to be disappointed by the failure of the left and the democratic forces to oust Mussolini after the murder of deputy Mateotti. As a known "subversive", i.e. anti-fascist, life was becoming increasingly difficult, even dangerous for him. He was seriously wounded in fighting the fascists. He almost died. A bullet hit his belt buckle, went through his stomach and ended up in his right leg where it remained for the rest of his life.
Fearing for his safety, his mother urged him to register at the American Consulate to certify his American citizenship in case it became necessary for him to leave Italy in a hurry. It was around this time that he married Luisa Toci. Three of Luisa's
brothers had served in the military, and two were wounded in action. The oldest was Peppe (Guiseppe) who had fought previously in Libya and served on the Carso with the Third Army for most of the World War. The next brother, Attilio, who served on the same front as my father and also in the Trentino (mountain) zone, survived a mine explosion under his trench. The youngest, also named Virgilio, served in the Army as a machine gunner in the Trentino. He was shot in the arm during an Austrian attack and never regained full use of the limb.
On Ship Duilo Bound for America
Meanwhile, as his mother had feared, growing pressure from the Fascist regime made it necessary for Virgilio to leave Italy, and he returned to America alone in 1924. After arriving in New York, he went to New Eagle, Pennsylvania, near Charleroi, where he had been born. He worked in coal mines for three months then became a hod carrier and learned to lay bricks.
A year later he was able to send for Luisa and they spent their first winter together in Pennsylvania. The severe winter and a longing to see her brothers, caused Luisa to decide that they, too, should go to California. At the end of 1925 they left Pennsylvania and traveled to Oakland near San Francisco where they were reunited with my mother's brothers. This point marks the culmination of Virgilio's Caporetto Odyssey. Finally, my father was able to return to the country of his birth and begin a new life.
I was born in 1927 and attended schools in the Bay Area. At 17 I enlisted in the Marine Corps--with my father's reluctant permission. After the service, I attended San Francisco State College, and in 1950 married the girl next door, Noreen Wilcox. We are still happily married.
The Author [L.] & His Parents, 1945
Virgilio was employed as an industrial and construction worker for the rest of his life. However, he never forgot his past experiences, and remained active in anti-fascist politics. During World War II he was an auxiliary policeman with the Civil Defense. America was his country, and he had become a staunch believer in democracy.
My father lived until February, 1976, and my mother until September, 1977. He was destined to return to Italy one more time during his lifetime. In 1959 he and my mother traveled there on vacation. My father was able to revisit the places where he had grown up and where he had spent some of the difficult war years. This time he was with his son and his family, including his two grandchildren, Gail and Mark. My father and mother spent the rest of their days in Oakland - a long way from Caporetto - happily tending their large fruit and vegetable garden, enjoying the company of their many friends, and anticipating the future of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in America.
Virgilio's Family About 1971
I would like to receive comments on this article and hear about other individuals who served on both sides of the Italian Front during the Great War. Click here to contact: Leo Benedetti.
Back: Luisa, Virgilio, Noreen, the Author
Front: Grandchildren Mark and Gail