Letters from the Italian Front
By Marchesa Louise de Rosalie to Ethel Mather Bagg
[The National Geographic Magazine, July 1917]
Did I tell you some time ago of two Sicilian peasants who had never done anything but work the earth before the war? Each has lost his right arm, and has since learned to wood-carve so well that both have been employed by a great firm which manufactures fine furniture and frames, and they earn seven or eight francs a day. These two men wanted to take me to the front, because they feel I have so many precious things to distribute, and they are enchanted with the comfort bags.
How can I thank you for your generous gift of the anesthetic novo caiene? It is thoroughly practical in those tiny boxes, each one of which contains sufficient for so many operations. I am taking it up to the front personally, and I have put aside some rubber gloves to take up also.
Your rubber sheeting goes off this week, all cut up into 90-centimeter lengths, with four rings in the corners, of metal. Thirty of the sheets went up to the Trentino hospitals, in which the Contessa is interested—a front where there has been so much fighting lately. Some I sent to Contessa I., a splendid woman, one of the most active in Italy, for her hospitals in Bologna and near Gorizia. Others were sent to a new hospital, where C. has friends among the nurses and doctors and where there are 1,000 beds of half-ill and half-wounded men.
You cannot, I think, realize what a luxury all rubber goods are here in Italy and the joy they give. Mrs. M. is sending me cases that are doubly precious, for there are things on the list like catgut or crinoline that simply can't be had for love or money.
I am now erecting two barracks for a restaurant, where the officers can eat at a fixed price and cheaper. The barracks and the tables are going to be constructed with my savings, and the walls are being decorated with the colored pictures of the Domenica del Corriere. I am also instituting a bath for the soldiers. All the plans are ready. You will see how nicely it is coming out.
I hoped in your last letter to receive the announcement that you had sent me some gauze as protection against the flies. It is very hot here, and the hospitals are full of wounded. There are no ventilators, and these poor boys suffer from the heat, and especially from the flies. You will understand they cannot always manipulate their hands, either because they are wounded or because of being tied in abdominal bandages; therefore they have no way of “shooing” away these trying pests. The netting would protect the soldiers, and so they could be comfortable even in the daytime.
In these days of feverish and exacting work you will read that we are going forward.
Recently I organized a ceremony in the graveyard—discourses and a funeral mass. The school children strewed marguerites on the tombs of the fallen heroes.
In my recreation hut I have from 300 to 400 soldiers every evening. They are happy. I give them a cinematograph show; then they play tombola, oca, dominoes, etc. I am arranging the marionette theater and hope to have it ready soon.
I cannot tell you how keen was my enthusiasm when I received your cases and your dear letters. I had everything immediately put in the little rustic room ahead of mine, and we will distribute the material where the greatest need is. Everything is precious here. We are full of work, and your tamarinds with this heat and your iron frames to keep the bed covers from touching the wounded men are very practical. Work is certainly not lacking, and I assure you that I have passed through a month which forever will be impressed on my life.
We are much exposed to shells, and sometimes they wound the men at the very door. Lately two hand grenades fell 30 meters away from the hospital; but we are all calm and think that God will protect us in this mission of love. Our splendid soldiers give us such a great example of courage and sacrifice, patience and faith, that one near them feels unworthy.
Our hospital is the most advanced in this zone, and therefore we receive the most gravely wounded. Naturally we cannot do everything that we want to; but I think it would be worse if we were not here, and with the moral part, coupled with the help at the bedside, we can comfort so many stricken bodies, so many poor lacerated hearts.
I have not written so frequently of late because I am dead tired when I at last get to my room. I fall asleep quickly, but we are often awakened at night by gas attacks and must go down to safety with our gas masks on. So one sleeps when one can. My soul has been obliged to go through a process of adaptation to the surroundings, to the visions, to the continual surprises; but little by little one acquires the courage to face it all.
Since arriving here I have never had time to write any letters except to B. and to Mother, because the work and suffering we face are so overwhelming and demand every waking moment.
I cannot even begin to tell you what I suffer every day, for my poor wounded are all the gravest cases. It seems this is the most advanced hospital where there are women nurses working, so you can imagine the amount we found to be done and which, little by little, we are accomplishing, according to the means we have at our disposal. And then every day we have visits from enemy shells, which prove indeed that we are in the War Zone.
But who thinks of danger when working for stricken brothers?
I write in the hall of the hospital; it is the first day I have had a moment's respite, for here it is a continual coming and going of wounded men, who arrive either to die after a very short time, or after a few days to be transported to hospitals farther from the front. One needs a great moral courage, which I am able to give, little by little, with prayer and faith in all that is good.
"THE ENEMY IS BEING DRIVEN BACK"
It is quite impossible for me to write to you coherently tonight. A long letter I may not send, and if I began to describe I should write for hours. We have been here now for 48 hours. The Isonzo is three-quarters of an hour's walk across the meadows, and on the hills, just about 10 miles away, the battle has been raging since our arrival. The big guns roar and thunder day and night; but we are already so accustomed to the noise that we often forget the sound and talk quite lightly of different things. They are pounding as I write, as though they would break off bits of the mountain and crumble parts of it to pieces.
Under my window hundreds of camions pass day and night—one long procession—carrying up fresh troops and ammunition, carrying down the wounded or those who have stood the strain of the fighting so long that they are being brought away to rest a little. At night the sky is fully illuminated by the flashes of explosives.
I was in the cemetery this afternoon. They have knocked down part of the wall to enlarge it, and the soldiers were busy digging new graves, so as to have them ready. There was military music in one of the camps near by and it was really comforting to hear it.
Strange, we have a feeling of perfect security and the sensation of believing that the enemy is being beaten back and back and will never cross the Isonzo again.
This little town was Austrian a short time ago. Except for a very few simple peasant folk and a few others in little shops, I am the only woman in the town, with its thousands of soldiers, and every half hour of the day I gain some new, unexpected impression impossible to describe by letter—very difficult even by speech.
I write by the light of one dim candle and leave you now to go to dinner with M. and R. and three officers.
My life here seems a dream, and will always seem a dream when I look back upon it. I have been motoring today over the country recently devastated by shells, visiting some recreation huts established here by an English woman. Poor, miserable places they are; but all there is just at present in this district, and consequently much appreciated.
The cold north wind, so dreaded in this part of the world, has been blowing cruelly across this desert country all day. The artillery is firing thunderously and the Austrian searchlights lit up the sky last night. In this little town there has been comparative quiet for the last few days, but a strange, busy movement is beginning again today. Camions and mules pass and pass, and I am told we are to attack again. We arrived in the midst of one attack and it was indeed a wonderful experience. The traffic on the streets, the sound of the big guns, the prisoners being brought in, and then, after it was all over, the troops returning to rest back of the line, told eloquently of the happenings in the trenches.
M. and I and four officers spent a strange evening yesterday in the house of a priest here, whose parish was Austrian a few months ago, before the Italian occupation. Upon learning that he was an excellent musician, we persuaded him to play for us selections from Grieg, Wagner, and even La Boheme. Almost always when there was a pause in the music we heard the cannon, but paid no attention unless they sounded very near, so near that the windows rattled, in which case every one listened a moment and looked strangely at each other, but seldom said anything.
A VISIT TO THE HOSPITAL WHERE MUTILATED FACES ARE REMADE
I received your letter when in the midst of tragedy and horrors beyond all description. We are now having a most interesting time in this picturesque town of Bologna. We thought to end our trip in two days, but shall be here for four, seeing hospitals, orphanages, and establishments for the mutilated. We are just off to a soldiers' club, at whose head is a remarkable priest.
A splendid woman, who does wonderful work here, thinking I wanted to see everything, brought me yesterday to the hospital where they make over poor wounded and demolished faces, and all the doctor's pet faces, in the process of healing, were shown me. I was extremely interested; but the sight of one or two was quite sufficient to demonstrate what wonders had been achieved, and I did not want to see more. But there was no way out of it; I had to stay. In a way it was good for me to learn at first hand what real suffering means.
After seeing the faces in process of restoration, I was taken into the medication room, where men were having their healing limbs treated in agonizing machines to prevent them from becoming permanently stiff. They were wailing and moaning from pain; two of them yelling. Coming out from under the influence of chloroform after his operation, one kept begging and begging, “Oh, let me die. Oh, let me die; I can stand no more.” One had a broken spine—a young officer.
PHONOGRAPHS CHIEF DELIGHT OF SOLDIERS
A soldier, with my cases of hospital supplies, instruments, etc., left Rome day before yesterday for a tiny village near Gorizia. Another sack went off yesterday to the high Alps in the Cadore, carried, I think, by the four Garibaldi brothers. M. and I are busy at present trying to bring aid to the Italian prisoners in Austria and helping to start recreation huts all along the Italian front. A few already exist, but hundreds are needed. The Austrians have them all along their lines, six kilometers behind the fighting zone, I am told, which is a proof that they are not a luxury, but an absolute necessity. They exist, as you know, in great numbers along the French and English fronts in France.
The secretary of the Y. M. C. A. in France is here—a delightful young enthusiast—and we are doing all we can to get permission for him to work here. Mr. Davis told me the other day that in one of his huts in France one Sunday morning 10,000 letters were posted. So you can imagine how the paper bills mount up.
Oh, if you could have seen 14,000 soldiers, as I did in the little village where I was stopping at the front, coming down from the terrific fortnight's fighting in the trenches! They were quartered in the village and in tents in the surrounding muddy fields—deep, sticky mud characteristic of the Corso. There was much rain, thunder-storms, and a cruel north wind blowing; yet all the diversion they found awaiting them was the osteria (bar). What they absolutely revel in is phonographs, but these are too expensive to ask for.
The inhabitants of this village were all Austrians until a short time ago, for we were on conquered territory and always spoke of going back to Italy. Sign-posts by the road still exist with Austrian designations upon them.
We arrived in the midst of a great attack, taking place about six kilometers away. The Austrians fired on our little village before our arrival and just after we left, but not during our stay. The cannon roared and thundered day and night, and the sky at night was ablaze with flashes of explosions, enemy search-lights, green signal rockets, etc.
After about three days the fighting ceased and the men came down from the hills to rest. Then it was that my heart ached that there were no recreation huts, warm and bright and cheerful, for them to go to. A few days before we left an even greater attack began. It started at night, during a thunder-storm, and it was quite impossible to say which were resounding peals of thunder and which the firing of the 305's. By the time we reached Rome the papers were full of reports of the amazing advance the Italians had made.
BEAUTIFUL EXPRESSION ON FACES OF THOSE WHO HAVE BRAVED DEATH
Such an extraordinary sensation, being surrounded by thousands of men who for months have faced death day and night! It gives a peculiar and very beautiful expression to many of the faces. The church was crowded, all seats taken and aisles packed, when they came down from the trenches and before they returned. I have never been so moved and impressed and could not bear it more than once.
Many who had just arrived had not had time for a bath and change, so the uniforms were tattered and stained and the fortnight's (they generally remain about a fortnight at a time in the trenches) beard was still upon the young faces. They knelt for half an hour at a time, immovable as images, in front of the different altars, praying to their favorite saints and madonnas in thanksgiving or supplicating for protection. The church was lit only by the candles they had bought, very short or very long, according to the number of “soldi” they could afford to pay; and then, with the organ, they sang a beautiful song composed since the war, “Oh, Santa Madonna prega per noi.”
One cloudless, sunny afternoon I shall never forget. In the little cemetery, just outside the village, the sound of the artillery was continuous, but rather far away. Over our heads Italian aëroplanes were flying, and suddenly from the blue came a strange rattle, an Austrian mitraliatrice, that was trying to bring them down. Several soldiers were working silently at some tombs of their comrades; one with a portrait bas-relief made by the simple soldier friend. In a corner of the cemetery other soldiers were busy digging new graves to have them ready for the men who were fighting a few kilometers away and would not return alive. Mingled with the sound of the spades was a little song of the soldier outside of the cemetery gate, singing as he looked for the mules.
And the never-ending procession I saw every time I looked out of my bedroom window! Day and night the camions went up on one side of the little street taking munitions, bread, etc., while thousands of mules and men tramped by, the mules bearing water and food for the soldiers, and brightly painted Sicilian carts carrying fodder for the mules. On the opposite side of the street came down another procession, made up of empty camions to be loaded again and Red Cross ambulances bringing in the wounded. Through our tiny village 120,000 loaves of bread passed each day.
I was talking to a young nurse, 21 years old, who came down from a hospital in the high Alps by toboggan last week. At noon, when hanging out her sheets to dry in the sun, they often freeze stiff. The sentinels must sometimes be changed every ten minutes, so as not to die with the cold. Some of the men are fighting on peaks, where supplies can reach them only by the teliferica (you know, the baskets slung to a wire that pulls them up thousands of feet), or by cords and ladders up perpendicular walls of rocks.
This afternoon I attended a party at the Villa Mirafiori, where there are about 83 wholly helpless victims of the war. They had a lottery and some gifts. Kind friends gave me 45 francs, with which I was able to buy a number of gifts for them—knives, pipes, etc. Four of the boys had lost both hands—strong, competent-looking men, so good and patient and serene. It is terrible to be so entirely well otherwise and yet so helpless.
I am giving a marionette show at the villa in a few days. There is no form of entertainment so popular. I gave one for 450 soldiers last week in the big hospital here. The men were almost hysterical with merriment for nearly two hours. I am soon giving a show for a hospital in which Contessa Cadorna is especially interested. The show costs me between 50 and 60 francs each time, but it is money well spent.
HOSPITAL ON MULE-BACK FOLLOWS TROOPS
Since becoming one of the representatives of the Surgical Dressings Committee (Contessa de Robilant is the other representative), I find myself in touch with several hundred hospitals all over Italy, especially up at the front, and you cannot imagine how agonizing it is to be suddenly in this position and with comparatively so little to distribute.
Our work is recognized by the War Office, and we are given all sorts of rights of free transportation to the front, of course. Contessa de Robilant goes up about once a month to the hospitals herself, and has arranged for soldiers to take up our supplies about once a week. Her husband is the general who commands all the troops up in the Dolomites. Two of her daughters, splendid girls, nurse in a hospital which is packed upon mules and follows the army every time it advances. They work high up in the mountains, and are in Rome on leave now, as the snow is so deep in the advanced posts where they are stationed that there is at present no fighting.
The cold is so intense that their sheets freeze at noon when they hang them out to dry in the sun. They have 200 men or so come down daily from the trenches to get baths and changes, and I try to send them woolen clothes, fresh socks, etc.; for when there is an ample supply of these the men leave their soiled ones to be washed and mended and return greatly refreshed. The girls are so pretty and such competent little nurses, just over 20 years of age! They came down from their hospitals on sleds a few weeks ago, as many of the roads were deep in snow.
Before going to the front they were nursing in a hospital down in the plains. When the soldiers in a ward where one of them was engaged heard she was leaving, they cried like children, hiding their heads under the sheets lest their companions should see them and make sport of their tears.
Through the Contessa de Robilant, I am in touch not only with all the hospitals in the Dolomites, but also with those in Albania and Saloniki and in the Corso. In fact, in the matter of being in close touch with the hospitals our organization is perfect. Our work is sanctioned by the War Office, which permits us to send our things up to the front very quickly and satisfactorily by special soldiers. It is wonderfully satisfactory to have such facilities, but heartrending not to have a great deal more to send.
A great and terrible advance is expected by every one in a month or six weeks and everybody is getting ready for it.
Our dear overgrown waiter, who serves us dinner upstairs, will be enrolled tomorrow. He makes me think of the story of Alice in Wonderland: so tall, just a child, and possessed of such immense hands. He has spent most of his life in Trieste in a café serving coffee. When war broke out he was interned. Then he escaped from the internment camp and got back to Italy, his real home being near Udine. And now he philosophizes as he clears away the things at night:
“Who would ever have thought it, Signora, nearly three years ago? And instead of being finished, as we thought it naturally would be, it seems as though it were just going to begin.”
A SENTINEL TO GUARD HENS
I went to a hospital of 1,200 beds today. All cases in Rome go there first and then are distributed according to their ailments. Some stay permanently in the hospital while convalescent, and sometimes batches of wounded Austrian prisoners arrive in the great place. They always interest me. One is not allowed, as a rule, to talk to them; but I have conversed with them several times.
The colonel at the hospital made a rather touching appeal the other morning. He had built a chicken-house in the hope of having as many eggs for the hospital as possible, and wanted 50 hens immediately. M. presented him with 40 day before yesterday, and we went over to receive them and to pay on delivery. An expert among the wounded soldiers, a peasant, was found, and he chose those fowls he was sure would lay immediately.
You would have been amused at the whole scene—the farmer and wife, in costume, on a little cart, under a huge umbrella, arriving in state from the country, the very long discussion on the different points of each chicken, the crowd of soldiers, and the nuns gathered about the group. The chicken-house had just been completed, but the key had not been made; and so, to provide against any of the hens being stolen, a poor soldier had to stand sentinel all night.
I heard a story recently from an Alpine in Rome that you would like. A sentry in the high Alps, over 9,250 feet above sea-level (St. Moritz is 5,500), is on duty three hours and stands under a little roof, the snow falling steadily. Whenever this sentry or the one who replaces him is relieved, he has to be dug out by his companions. A long passage is shoveled out of the snow up to the little cave under the roof.
The Italians have had no idea of, and no means of knowing, the amount of wonderful supplies being distributed in Italy by the clearing-house (I mean the Italians officially); but now they begin to know and are indeed impressed and appreciative. The Contessa has the lists of all that has been distributed since the beginning of the war, and is publishing them abroad, by word of mouth and in the papers.
The gentlemen of the clearing-house were so kind and nice to me this morning. Sita has just gone to Sagrado, a small village, formerly Austrian, on the Isonzo, near Gorizia. The hospital is right within sound and sight of where the terrible fighting is going on. It is about a quarter of an hour from where we were stopping with Ramiro last autumn. She has all the gravest cases that are brought in from the battle and cannot travel. She appealed for several things urgently, among others “archetti reggi-coperte,” iron frames to keep the bed covers from touching the wounded men, and the kind clearing-house people told me I might order 100 immediately.
ITALIAN CANTEEN IN AMERICAN CHURCH ENTERTAINS AMERICAN SAILORS
You read perhaps of a transport ship, English, sunk a while ago in the Mediterranean; 400 lost. The survivors are at Savona being looked after. English hospitals are being opened at the front in Italy, for some English guns are there now assisting in this terrific battle. I think they are going to try to transport men to Saloniki by land as much as possible, so as to avoid the sea. I am going this week to the station to meet the English troops. A canteen—which I shall also see this week—has been opened here in the American Methodist Church and school-rooms. They tell me the rooms are beautiful, and it promises to be the best club of the kind in Europe. The other day it was full of English soldiers and sailors and some American sailors! You can't think what a sensation that gives me. A woman working there spoke as though they expected a number of Americans soon.
I am sending you some post-cards. The Capitol Museum is closed, but Manolo had it opened one Sunday morning and brought some of his pupils to see the statues. These pupils look quite happy and normal in the photo; as a matter of fact, they are all minus legs and one has lost a hand besides. They are learning to draw and carve, and Manolo means to lead them in practical directions, so that they can use their talents industrially and earn a good living. Some are highly gifted.
Mother and I have been spending the afternoon at the new club for English and American soldiers and sailors, and talking and chatting with some fine Irish and English sailors today.
This is the anniversary of Italy's declaration of war. I will write later and tell you of the procession we are going to see in a moment. It is nice that this great national fête day should be practically on my birthday, the 24th; but I think the first shot was fired on the 25th.
Seventy-five shipwrecked Englishmen, many officers among them, are expected any day now in Rome. Mother and I are going to help receive them. We do not know whether they have just been shipwrecked or whether some days ago.
NURSES UNDER FIRE
I shall be relieved when Dians arrives safely in Italy. The inclosed letter may interest you; it came tonight from Sita. She has nursed a good deal in Milan since the war, and last Christmas was at the front, among some of the very worst cases; some she could not talk or tell me about, they were so terrible. The worst case she spoke of was under a tent, so shot to pieces he could not be moved at all. She had just to sit beside this heap of human shreds and do what she could to help and comfort him during those last terrible moments. I hope she will keep up her strength, so as to stay on now, for she is doing very good work, I imagine, and the hospitals with women have so many details attended to that are neglected in those which have only men on the staff.
Contessina di R. left her hospital, where comparatively little was going on, and went to Gorizia for this advance. During the worst part of the fighting she worked three days and three nights without changing her clothes. Her hospital was struck, and she moved the wounded to cellars which were fire-proof, as the building had been a bank. She slept, after the rush the first night, in an old castle. This also was struck by the Austrians in the night, and the unoccupied wing was demolished. A splendid, brave girl; no nerves! She said the noise of the bombardment was deafening.
The Alpini on the Dolomites mostly live in the valleys below and their wives mend their socks. A little wool saved many men's lives the other day. It was reported to camp hospital in X, 4,800 feet high, that some wounded had been caught in a snowstorm at an Alpine pass. The road was blocked, the temperature many degrees below zero. We phoned through the mountains for the Alpini, and promised to rig every man in new socks, scarfs, and woolens who would bring back a wounded soldier. The men disappeared and nothing was heard of them for eight hours, when, one by one, they returned, each carrying a wounded man on his back, so that not one was left behind. Don't you think that was a priceless bundle of wool? Such feats happen daily. Nobody here knows what those men are enduring, and the spirit that keeps them up we can never repay.
Our Surgical Dressing Committee has been splendidly organized now by the Contessa di Robilant. We are in one of the most beautiful old palaces of Rome, one in which the German Emperor was once entertained, and expressed great envy of the ball-room, saying that he could never return the hospitality in any room in Berlin that could compare to this!
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald