[Sidenote: The attitude of Constantine.]
I had just come up from Athens, where I had found the Allied diplomats still smarting under the memories of their ignominious experiences following Constantine's spectacular coup of the previous December, and it was by no means the least of these who had told me point-blank that he could not conceive how it would be possible that Saloniki should be returned to Greece after the war. Of course it was the Royalist Government that my distinguished friend had had in mind when he spoke, but there was not much to indicate at this time that the Greece of Constantine and his minions was not also going to be the Greece of after the war.
It was with this state of things in mind, and recalling his well known ambitions to found a Greater Greece—by extending Epirus north along the Adriatic, and bringing the millions of Greeks of Asia Minor at least under the protection of the Government at Athens—that I mustered up my courage and asked M. Venizelos offhand if he felt confident of being able even to maintain the integrity of his country as it existed before the war.
[Sidenote: What Greece must do for the Allies.]
"Not unless those of us Greeks who have remained faithful to the cause of humanity and our honor are ultimately able to lend the Allies material help in a measure sufficient to counterbalance the harm the action of the Royalists has caused them," was the prompt reply; "and by material help I mean military aid. We must fight, and fight, and keep on fighting, for it is only with blood—with Greek blood—that the stain upon Greek honor can be washed away. It is only our army that can save us, and that is why we have been so impatient of the delay there has been in equipping it and getting it to the front. The one division we have in the trenches now, and the two others that are ready to go, are not enough, but they are about all we have been able to raise so far. Thessaly is for us (as you may have seen in traveling across it), and would give us two more divisions at least; but our Allies have not yet seen fit to allow us to go there after them."
[Sidenote: Venizelos determines to aid the Allies.]
M. Venizelos spoke of a number of other things before I left him (notably of the extent to which the Russian revolution and the entry of America had helped him in his fight to save Greece), but it was plain that the problem uppermost in his mind was that of wiping out the score of the Allies against his country by giving them a substantial measure of assistance in the field.
"Do not fail to visit our force on the —— sector before you leave the Balkans," was his parting injunction. "There may be a chance of seeing it in action before very long, and if you do, you will need no further assurance of the way in which we shall make our honor white before our Allies and all the world."
[Sidenote: Unenviable position of the Venizelists.]
[Sidenote: Elaborate precautions against treachery.]
The Serbian and two or three other Armies have been worse off in a physical way, but no national force since the outbreak of the war has been in so thoroughly an unenviable position on every other score as was that of the Venizelists at this time. The Serbs and the Belgians had at least the knowledge that the confidence and the sympathy of the Allies were theirs. Also, they had chances to fight to their hearts' content. The Venizelists had scant measure of sympathy, and still less of confidence; and when their first chance to fight was at last given them, they were allowed to face the foe only after elaborate precautions had been taken against everything, from incompetence and cowardice on their part to open treachery. That this was the fault neither of themselves nor of their Allies, and had only come about through the perfidy of a King to whom they no longer swore fealty, did not make the shame of it much easier to bear for an army of spirited volunteers who had risked their all for a chance to wipe out the dishonor of their country.
[Sidenote: Spies sent in the guise of deserters.]
The thing that for a while made it so difficult for the Allies to know what to do with the Venizelist army was the almost ridiculous ease with which, under the peculiar circumstances of its recruitment, it lent itself to spying purposes. All the Royalists, or their German paymasters, had to do to establish a spy in the Saloniki area was to send over one of their Intelligence Officers in the guise of a deserter from the Greek army to that of Venizelos, and there he was! To send back information, or even to return in person, across the but partially patrolled "Neutral Zone" was scarcely more difficult, and it was the wholesale way in which this sort of thing went on that made it so hard for the Allies to decide just who the bona fide Venizelists were, and just how far it would be safe to trust a force to which the enemy still had such ready means of access.
[Sidenote: Tact and common sense used.]
There was nothing else for the Allies to do but "go slow" and "play safe" in dealing with the Venizelist army, and, under the circumstances, there is no doubt that a difficult situation was handled with a good deal of tact and common sense. Just how trying the situation of the Venizelists was, however, I had a chance to see one day when I happened to be at their Headquarters arranging for my visit to the Greek sector of the Front. Their troops had acquitted themselves with great credit in some gallantly carried out raiding operations, which must have made it doubly hard for them to put up with a new restrictive order just promulgated by the Supreme Command as a further precaution against the leakage of information to the enemy.
Just as I was about to take my departure, a copy of the new order was delivered to the Staff Officer with whom I had been conferring about my visit to the Front. He read it through slowly, his swarthy face flushing red with anger as he proceeded.
[Sidenote: A series of humiliations.]
"Have you heard of this?" he said, handing me the paper, and controlling his voice with an effort, "No man or officer of our army is to cross the —— bridge without a special permit from General Headquarters. It is only the latest in the long series of humiliations we have had to put up with. Just look at the way we stand. In Athens our names are posted as traitors who can be shot on sight. Here it isn't quite like that, but—well (he raised his hand above his head and let it fall limply in a gesture of despair), all I can say is that the only officers of the Venizelist army to be envied are those whose names are recorded here (indicating a file at his elbow). It's the death-list from day-before-yesterday's fighting."
[Sidenote: Venizelist troops succeed in big attacks.]
Owing to the delay in issuing my pass in Saloniki, I did not arrive at Greek Headquarters until the evening of the day on which the big attack had taken place, and it was day-break of the morning following before I was able to make my way up to the advanced lines. The Venizelist troops had taken all their objectives, and held them with great courage against such counterattacks as the surprised Bulgars—who, not expecting an attack from the Greeks, had made the mistake of massing too much of their strength against the British and French attacks to east and west—were able to organize against them. They had been busy all night "reversing" the captured trenches in anticipation of a determined attempt on the part of the reinforced enemy to retake them in the morning.
[Sidenote: Movement carried out without confusion.]
The hilly but well-metaled cartroad, along which by the light of the waning moon I cantered with an officer of the Greek staff, had been thronged all night with the surging current of the battle traffic—an up-flow of munition convoys and reinforcements, and back-flow of wounded and prisoners—but I could not help remarking the comparative quiet and absence of confusion with which the complex movement was carried on.
[Sidenote: The Greeks seem to understand the game of war.]
"Somehow this doesn't seem quite like the transport of a new army just undergoing its baptism of fire," I said to my companion. "I've seen things on the roads behind the western front in far worse messes than any of these little jams we've passed to-night. These chaps are as businesslike as though they'd been at the game for years."
[Sidenote: Veterans of the Balkan wars.]
"So they have," was the quiet reply. "Our army, as recruited so far, is a new one only in name. The men who attacked yesterday were of the famous S—— Division, which fought all through the last two Balkan wars and gained no end of praise from all the foreign military attaches for its great mountain work. It was this Division which scaled the steep range beyond Doiran and drove the Bulgars out of Rupel Pass."
[Sidenote: The Battle of "Rupel Pass."]
"The S—— Division," "Rupel Pass." Instantly I recalled how a British General, over on the Struma a few days previously, had pointed out to me a steep range of serried snow-capped mountains towering against the skyline to the northwest, and told me that the feat of the Greeks in taking a division over it at a point where even the wary Bulgar had deemed it impossible was one of the finest exploits in the annals of mountain warfare.
"The Italians have fought the Austrians at a greater altitude in a number of places in the Alps, and in our wars with the Himalayan tribesmen we have sent our Gurkhas twice as high. But all of that was after more or less preparation. Here, the Greeks simply started off and went over that range with only their rifles and the packs on their backs. I know of nothing to compare with it save the taking of Kaymakchalan by the Serbs last November in the operations which freed Monastir. Not many in Saloniki have had much good to say of the Greek as a soldier of late, but you may be sure that we can do with more men of the kind that crossed that mountain range, and there is no reason why Venizelos should not be able to bring them to us."
[Sidenote: A favorable position for observation.]
The hill from which we were to follow the action jutted out of the mountains into the plain like the bow of a battleship. So favorable was its position for observation—from its brow a wide expanse of mountain and valley was spread from twenty to sixty miles in three directions—that the British and French as well as the Greeks maintained posts there. We found the officers in both of the Allied "O. Pips" [signal corps talk for O.P., meaning observation post] highly enthusiastic over the work of the Greeks in their attack of the preceding day.
[Sidenote: The evening bulletin.]
We found two officers in the British Observation Post chuckling over the evening bulletin, which had just been delivered to them. "You have to read between the lines of Sarrail's 'Evening Hope' if you want to get at the real facts," said one of them. "It's what it fails to tell you, that you really want to know. Now, you might be able to gather from this that all the Balkan Allies have been doing quite a bit of attacking during the last day or two at various parts of the Front from Doiran west to Albania, but you have to go between the lines to find that our shifty Bulgar friend over there gave most of them as good or better than they gave him all the way. It's sad but true that in this, our 'Great Spring Offensive,' as the papers at home have talked of it, the whole lot of us—French, British, Russian, Italian, and even the Serb—have been fought to a standstill by the Bulgar. Far as I can see, the only gain we have to show for it is in the casualty lists."
I failed to see just what there was to chuckle about in such an interpretation of the glowing lines of the evening bulletin, and said as much.
[Sidenote: Successes of the little Venizelist army.]
"It isn't funny in the least," was the reply, "and it would seem still less so if we could see at close range some of the things that are lying out on a hundred miles of these accursed mountain sides as a consequence of what has happened. But what did strike us as a bit rich was the fact that, of all the Allies, this little piece of the Venizelist army, which we have held in leash all winter while we made up our minds as to whether it would be safe to slip or not, is the only one of the whole lot of us that has taken all the objectives set for it."
A sporting instinct and a grim sense of humor—the readiness to admire a brave foe and the ability to extract amusement from discomfiture—are the two things that have conspired to make the British soldier so uniformly successful in treating those "twin impostors," Triumph and Disaster, "just the same."
[Sidenote: The view across the Vardar.]
The sky was lightening and throwing into ghostly silhouette the line of the mountain ridge across the Vardar by the time we had pushed on out along the communication trench to the Greek Observation Post on the extreme brow of the hill. Since midnight the enemy "heavies" had been coughing gruffly under the mist-blanket that overlaid the plain, dappling it with alternately flashing and fading blotches of light till it glowed fantastically like a lamp-shade of Carrara marble; star-shells, fired with a low trajectory, popped up and dove out of sight again, throwing a fluttering green radiance over the white pall which swathed the battlefield.
[Sidenote: The Bulgar preparing to go over the top.]
The mist-mask must have fended the day-break from the plain long after it was light upon the hill from where we watched, for it was not until the range of serrated peaks to the east of Doiran was all aglow with the red and gold of sunrise that the higher-keyed crack of the enemy's field-guns came welling up to tell us that the Bulgar was getting ready to go over the top. The flame-spurts—paling from a hot red to faded lemon as the light grew stronger—splashed up against the mist-pall as the jet of an illuminated fountain rises and falls, and down where the battered first-line trenches faced each other the dust-geysers of the exploding shells rolled up in clouds to the surface of the thinning vapors as the mud of the bottom boils up through the waters of an agitated pool.
[Sidenote: The Allied artillery opens.]
For a minute or two the ragged line of the barrage wallowed forward through the outraged mist alone. Then, as a sudden flight of rockets spat forth from the Greek first line to warn that the enemy infantry was on the way, all the Allied artillery that could be brought to bear opened up and began dropping shells just behind where the murky mist-clouds marked the swath of the Bulgar barrage.
For the space of perhaps two or three minutes the fog-bank swirled and curled in swaying eddies as the shells came hurtling into it; then—whether it was from a sudden awakening of the wind or through the licking up of its vapors by the first rays of the now risen sun, I never knew—almost in the wave of a hand, it was gone, revealing a broad expanse of trench-creased plain with a long belt of gray figures moving across it in a cloud of dust and smoke.
[Sidenote: Lively hand-to-hand fighting.]
"It isn't much of a barrage as barrages go on the western front," said Captain X—— half apologetically. "Their artillery won't do much harm to us, and, I'm afraid, ours not much to them. And we'll hardly be having enough machine guns emplaced to sting them as they ought to be stung for swarming up in masses like that. But if it's only a second-class artillery show, I still think I can promise you—if only the Bulgar has the stomach for it—a livelier bit of hand-to-hand fighting than you might find in a whole summer of looking for it in France. Do you see those little winking flashes all along where the infantry are moving? Some of them are from bayonets, but most are from knives. A great man with the knife is the Bulgar. Did you ever hear that song about him they sang at a revue the British 'Tommies' had at Saloniki? It was a parody on some other song that was being sung in the halls in London, and went something like this:
[Sidenote: A Bulgar song.]
I'm Boris the Bulgar, The Man With the Knife; The Pride of Sofia, The Taker of Life. Good gracious, how spacious And deep are the cuts, Of Boris the Bulgar, The Knifer—
"Now for it! Look at that!"
[Sidenote: The barrages lift and the Greeks advance to meet the Bulgars.]
I never did hear just what it was that Boris was a knifer of, for at that juncture the two barrages—having respectively protected and harried to the best of their abilities the advancing wave of infantry down to within a hundred yards or so of the Greek trenches—"lifted" almost simultaneously on to "communications," and that lifting was the signal for the opening of the climacteric stage of the action. Without an instant's delay, a solid wave of Greeks in brown—lightly fringed in front with the figures of a few of the more active or impetuous who had outdistanced their comrades in the scramble over the top—rose up out of the earth and swept forward to meet the line of gray. The gust of their first great cheer rolled up to us above the thunder of the artillery.
"Now for it!" repeated X——, focussing down his telescope and steadying himself with his elbows. "I think you'll find the show from now on worth all the trouble of coming up to see."
[Sidenote: the Bulgars break and retreat.]
I do not attempt to account for what happened now; I only record it. It may have been that the Allied artillery had wrought more havoc in that advancing wave of men than had been apparent from a distance, or it may have been that the enemy artillery had done less to the entrenched defenders than it was expected to do; at any rate, the line of gray began to break at almost the first impact of the line of brown, and the great hand-to-hand fight that X—— had promised me was transformed into a Marathon.
[Sidenote: Greeks have always beaten the Bulgars.]
"As I expected," muttered my companion. "'Boris' has no stomach for a fight to-day with the man who licked him yesterday, and will lick him to-morrow and go right on licking him to the end if they'll only give him a show. The Bulgar never has stood up to the Greek, and he never will."
[Sidenote: The Greek Staff is in a mountain valley.]
[Sidenote: Scarcity of nurses.]
The Greek Staff shared a round bowl of a mountain valley, a few miles back from the front lines, with a clearing station. The equipment of the little hospital had mostly been provided by the British Red Cross, but the Venizelists had made a brave effort to furnish the staff themselves. There were two French-trained Greek surgeons, a Greek matron, Greek orderlies, and two Greek nurses. Since the attack began there had been work for a dozen of the latter, but—as it had been impossible for the women of most of the Venizelist families to get away from Old Greece—no others were available. An English nurse, who had marched in the retreat of the Serbians, and a French nurse from a Saloniki hospital had volunteered to step into the breach, and these five women were courageously trying to make up in zeal what they lacked in numbers.
[Sidenote: Working double hours.]
"We are not enough for a double shift since the fighting began," Madame A——, the matron, had said to me the night of my arrival; "so we are accomplishing the same end by working double hours. We are working to atone for the dishonor our King has brought upon our country, just as our men are fighting to atone for it; and the harder we all work and fight the sooner it will come about."
The last thing to catch my eye as I looked back from the rim of the valley when I rode away at midnight had been the flash of a bar of light on a white uniform, as a tired figure had drooped against the flap of a hospital tent for a breath of air.
[Sidenote: Women nurses go without sleep.]
"If any one of those women has had a wink of sleep in the last three days," Captain X—— had said as we reined in to let a string of ambulances go by, "it must have been taken standing. I have been up most of the time myself, and never once have I looked across to the clearing station but I saw some sign of a nurse on the move."
[Sidenote: Venizelos at the nurses' mess.]
Madame A—— had asked me to drop in at the nurses' mess for luncheon in case I got back from the trenches in time, and this, by dint of hard riding, I was just able to do. Three or four powerful military cars drawn up at the hospital gate indicated new arrivals, but as to who they were I had no hint until I had pushed in through the flap of the mess tent and found M. Venizelos seated on a soap-box, vis-a-vis Madame A—— at a table improvised from a couple of condensed milk cases. At the regular mess table, sitting on reversed water-buckets, were three French flying officers and a civilian whom I recognized as the private secretary of M. Venizelos. Two nurses were just rising from unfinished plates of soup in response to word that a crucial abdominal operation awaited their attendance at the theatre.
"Most of the Provisional Government has come out to pay us a visit this morning," said Madame A——, showing me to a blanket-roll seat at one end of the mess table, "and we are lunching early so that it can get back to Saloniki to take up the reins of State again. The General has carried off the Admiral and the Foreign Minister, but I have managed to keep the President for our banquet. He has made the round of the hospital and spoken to every man here—that is," she added with a catch in her voice, "to all that could hear him. We've—we've lost three men this morning just because there wasn't staff to operate quickly enough."
[Sidenote: A strange banquet at which the guests contribute.]
That was, I think, one of the strangest little "banquets" I ever sat down to. Every one travels more or less "self-contained" in the Saloniki area, and whenever a party is thrown together the joint supplies are commandeered for the common good. The mess menu was a simple one of soup, tinned salmon, rice, and cheese, but by the time M. Venizelos's hamper had yielded a box of fresh figs, a can of the honey of Hymettus, and a couple of bottles of Cretan wine, and the French officers had "anted up" cognac, some tins of flageolet for salad, and a tumbler of confiture, and the English nurse had brought out the last of her Christmas plum-cake, and I had thrown in a loaf of Italian pan-forte and a can of chocolates, the little crazy-legged camp-table had assumed a passing festal air.
[Sidenote: No one speaks of war at the feast.]
A number of toasts were proposed and drunk, but no one spoke of the nearer or remoter progress of the war. M. Venizelos adverted several times to the wonder of the spring flowers as he had seen them from the road, especially the great fields of blood-red poppies, and I overheard him telling Madame A—— some apparently amusing incidents of his early life in Crete. But it was not until, the banquet over, he had settled himself in his car for the ride to Saloniki that he alluded to any of the things with which his mind must have been so engrossed all the time.
"So you thought that our troops had all the best of the enemy this morning?" he said with a grave smile as he shook my hand.
"Incomparably the best of it," I answered.
[Sidenote: Why Venizelos is confident in the power of Greece.]
"Then perhaps you will understand why I felt so confident that the Bulgars would not have come into the war if they had known that Greece would stand by Serbia. And you will also understand why I feel so confident that our military help to the Allies will be a very real one, perhaps enough of a one even to save Greece from herself."
This was, I believe, the latest occasion on which M. Venizelos visited his troops at the front. Before another fortnight had gone by the forces of the "Protecting Powers" were moving into Old Greece, and in a month Constantine had abdicated and opened the way for the return of his former Prime Minister to Athens.
[Sidenote: The maker and Savior of Modern Greece.]
From the time of the Balkan wars of 1912-13 to the outbreak of the present one Venizelos was often referred to as "The Maker of Modern Greece." After this war he may well be known as "The Savior of Modern Greece"; and of the two achievements there can be no doubt that history must record that the one of "saving" was incomparably greater than the one of "making."
[Sidenote: What the influence of Venizelos may do.]
It is still too early to make it worth while to endeavor to forecast what is on the knees of the capricious war-gods of the Balkans, and there is no use in trying to deny that the Bulgar—just as long as Germany has the power and will to back him up—will take a deal of beating. But that Venizelos will be able to make the army of reunited Greece a potently contributive factor in bringing about that devoutly-to-be-wished consummation may now be taken as assured.
Copyright, World's Work, January, 1918.
* * * * *
We have seen in a previous narrative the difficulties which the Italians encountered in conducting their campaign against Austria. As a result of German falsehood and propaganda, the Italian line was weakened and penetrated by a great German army, and the Italian lines were swept back. They finally held, however, and the strength of their resistance is indicated in the following pages.
THE ITALIANS AT BAY
G. WARD PRICE
[Sidenote: Udine as it seemed before the war.]
Udine was a typically quaint and sleepy little Italian town galvanized into unnatural life and prosperity. Every one who has spent a week in Italy can put the picture of the place before his imagination in a moment: streets of dark, restful, Gothic cloisters; a broad piazza flanked by a graceful loggia; remains of medieval fortification of which the towering gate-houses still narrowed each entrance to the town; a general air of pleasant tranquillity and of a well-being that was a legacy from the more spacious days of centuries gone by. The nature of the place was that of mellow old wine, very gracious, rich with associations that brought a glow to the palate of memory, but for all that something of which one wanted only little at a time. A glimpse of Udine as she had been for centuries was delightful, to dwell there would seem like being buried alive.
[Sidenote: Bustle and congestion when Udine becomes Army Headquarters.]
To this forgotten township of the old Venetian province had come suddenly in the spring of 1913 all the bustle and congestion of the headquarters of the whole Italian Army. For the next two and a half years you could hardly find a room in Udine to sleep in; the people of the place opened large modern restaurants and cafes for the officers and soldiers who crowded its streets; big shops filled the gloom of the old arcades with an incongruous expanse of plate-glass windows; the good burgesses of Udine made money and waxed fat.
[Sidenote: A tactical dead-lock on the western front.]
It seemed, indeed, as if the steady shower of war prosperity that had fallen upon them for two years might last until that indefinite, but to most minds far-off, day when peace should come. For it was the general opinion that in the West, at least, the war had reached a condition of tactical dead-lock. Trench warfare had petrified movement, except in laborious shifting of a few hundred yards at a time, hardly perceptible on a small-scale map. The day of sweeping advances, of sudden retirements, was over. At a reasonable distance behind that unbudging wall of trenches you were as secure from personal displacement by the war as if you were at the other end of Italy; indeed, no earlier than the beginning of this month of October some people had arrived with their families at Udine from other parts of the country to carry on trades connected with the life of the army.
[Sidenote: General Cadorna praises the British batteries.]
I myself set foot in Udine for the first time on October 20. I was going back to the Macedonian front, where for two years I had been the official correspondent of the British Army, and I had asked the War Office to authorize me to visit on the way the British batteries which since April had been cooperating with the Italian Army on the Isonzo. General Cadorna had given them high praise in a message to the British Government after the fighting in which they had taken part in May, and I thought it would be interesting to see British and Italian troops side by side in the field for the first time.
[Sidenote: Visits to the Italian front yield important information.]
Visitors to the Italian front used to find most convenient arrangements made to give them a rapid idea of conditions there. Lying almost entirely among mountains, the line presented unusual opportunities for survey from dominating heights, and there were many places where, at leisure and in virtual safety, one could watch the Austrian intrenchments from close range. Fast cars took you up to these vantage-points, and a number of staff-officers, speaking perfect English and knowing every detail of the front and its history, raised these visits from the level of sight-seeing excursions to opportunities for learning a great deal that was important and technical.
[Sidenote: The Austro-German offensive begins.]
The very last of these journeys, which had been made by visitors of every country, took place on October 24, the day that the great Austro-German offensive began, and I remember how, as we drove along in the rain, all our talk was of the bad news of that morning—that the enemy, reinforced by a huge number of divisions brought secretly from the Russian front, and profiting by a night of rain and fog, had thrust down into the valley of the Isonzo between Plezzo and Tolmino, carried, apparently by surprise, two Italian lines across the ravine after a short and very violent bombardment, and then, pushing on, had captured Caporetto, thus cutting off the Italian troops on Monte Nero and the other mountains beyond the Isonzo, and opening a most serious gap in the very center of the Italian line.
[Sidenote: Gorizia has suffered from the war.]
[Sidenote: A shell interrupts the sight-seers.]
The day was one of evil omen. We went to Gorizia, that pretty Austrian spa that was taken by the Italians last year, and has suffered from the war as much as Udine, its neighbor across the old frontier, has prospered. In the heart of the town its old castle towers up from an isolated crag, and from the battlements you can look across the valley to the Italian and Austrian lines on the slopes of San Marco opposite. Scores of parties like our own had made this visit to Gorizia Castle, and to-day the driving rain and valley mists made observation so bad that it seemed more than usually safe to show oneself above the ramparts on the side toward the enemy. Yet we had not been there three minutes—a group of two well-known American correspondents and one Italian, with an Italian officer, and myself—when an Austrian six-inch shell burst with a crash hardly ten feet from the right-hand man of our line. A black wall of flying mud towered up and blotted out the sky; three of us were thrown headlong by the force of the explosion. Only the fact that the shell had fallen deeply into the rain-softened bank of earth on top of the battlements saved the names of the last four visitors to the Italian front from being recorded on graves in Gorizia cemetery.
"I've brought people here seventy or eighty times," said the officer who was with us, "and nothing like that has ever happened before."
"We've evidently brought bad luck," said some one, and so, little though we guessed it, we had.
[Sidenote: The Italians expect an Austrian push.]
During the first fortnight of October it had been a remark frequently made throughout Italy that an Austrian push was probable before the real winter set in. I had heard this likelihood discussed by people at the Chamber of Deputies on my way through Rome, but without serious significance being given to it. The Austro-Swiss frontier had been closed for five weeks, always a sign that important movements of troops were going on in the enemy's country; something more unusual was that even the postal mails from Austria to Holland and Scandinavia had been suspended.
[Sidenote: Cadorna believes the enemy will use large reserves.]
According to the talk one heard in Italy, Cadorna had already had in mind the chance of a strong autumn attack on his army when he arrested his own offensive in September after capturing by a brilliant stroke the greater part of the Bainsizza plateau beyond the Isonzo, taking thirty thousand prisoners and one hundred and fifty guns. The French and British general staffs, it was said, had asked Cadorna whether he meant to go on with his offensive, for which they had contributed contingents of guns. Cadorna's reply had been that he had strong Austrian forces against him, of which he knew the total, but that he also believed large reserves of unknown quantity were available for use against him, owing to the collapse of the Russian Army. In these circumstances he preferred to consolidate and prepare rather than to continue to challenge forces that could not be exactly estimated.
Both the increase of enemy strength on the Italian front and the paralyzing uncertainty under which the Allies labored, were directly due to the debacle of the Russian Army during the summer. The means by which commanders-in-chief arrive at the indispensable knowledge of what forces they have against them is through a highly organized intelligence department, working in close cooperation with the similar departments of the other Allied armies.
[Sidenote: How the enemy's strength is ascertained.]
Each of these departments, by interrogating prisoners and reading papers found on enemy dead, by collating the reports of the air service, by minutely sifting the enemy press, arrives at a fairly accurate knowledge of the enemy's order of battle on the front of its own army. So essential is this system to the successful carrying-on of operations that raids are often specially organized on the enemy trenches with the sole object of capturing prisoners who may be able to give information that will clear up some point about which there is uncertainty. All the knowledge of the enemy's dispositions thus collected by each of the Allied armies is open to all of them; it is exchanged and compared and collated, so that they finally arrive at a fairly complete knowledge of the distribution of the enemy's forces in each one of the theaters of war.
[Sidenote: The Russian intelligence department collapses.]
Now, when the Russian Army went to pieces in the summer, its intelligence department collapsed with the rest. The Russian Army has taken virtually no prisoners for a long time, and consequently the facts about what troops the Austrians and Germans have on that front have not been ascertainable. It was known that the enemy used to have about one hundred and thirty divisions there, but no one could tell whether they still remained or whether they had been brought away to be held in reserve for some sudden operation on another front.
[Sidenote: The attack by the Austro-Germans a surprise.]
In this way it came about that the sudden attack by an unexpectedly large Austro-German force upon the Isonzo line took the Italians by surprise, with the result that they lost in three days not only all they had won in two and a half years of hard fighting, by sacrifices and sufferings and labors beyond human estimation, but also the larger part of that rich north-eastern department of their country which was for centuries the metropolitan province of the great Venetian republic.
[Sidenote: Enemy has a great number of fresh guns.]
On October 22 we learned at Italian headquarters that ten German divisions, about one hundred and twenty thousand men, had arrived behind the enemy front on the Isonzo and were concentrated in reserve round Laibach. This was the first time in the whole war that German troops had met the Italians on this front. The number of new Austrian divisions was reported to be even greater. Many new batteries of heavy caliber had also arrived and were registering their ranges; indeed, when the attack actually came, it was found that the number of fresh guns was even greater than had been thought, for some of them did not reveal their position by registering, but, taking their ranges from guns earlier in position, fired not a round until they joined in that terrific first bombardment with which the attack opened on the morning of October 24.
[Sidenote: Italians expect to hold west side of Isonzo.]
Most serious was the situation, but even yet no one grasped how bad the reality was going to be. It was generally accepted that all ground beyond the Isonzo would have to be abandoned, but it seemed beyond all doubt that the Italians would be able to make good their defense along the steep ridge that forms the western side of the Isonzo valley. As you looked from those heights across the river, it was like looking from the wall of a medieval castle; you dominated everything, and behind you were great Italian guns ready to fill the gorge of the Isonzo and the slopes beyond with a barrier of bursting steel.
But one of those combinations that have often helped the Germans in this war helped them to the success that seemed impossible. It was made up of the secrecy with which they had been able to complete their preparations, of the luck of surprise and bad weather, and above all of the fatal failure in their duty of certain detachments of the Italian forces.
[Sidenote: German propaganda has created disaffection in every Allied country.]
[Sidenote: Soldiers everywhere are weary of war.]
One of the successes of this year's German offensive was the creation in the heart of an efficient and gallant army of this canker of disaffection by propaganda that has been as energetic and as dangerous to our cause as any of the enemy's operations in the field. In every Allied country it has been active; among the English it is at work corrupting labor, preying on the nerves of the overstrained worker, and whispering any subtle lie that will sap his will and undermine his spirit. In France one fractional part of the widespread organization that carries on this treacherous work is being exposed by the revelations in the Bolo case. In Italy the Germans cunningly twisted fanatics, both socialist and clerical, into agents for forwarding their work, and they had flooded the country with money to corrupt the army which they had not been able to beat in the field. The individual soldiers of every country, including above all the Central empires themselves, are dead-weary of the war, but the enemy alone has had the cunning and the baseness deliberately to exploit this feeling to his profit, working through the agency of bought traitors and hired spies. And so the Austro-Germans had managed to imbue a limited part of the Italian Army with the distorted idea that the quickest way to regain the longed-for comforts of peace was to refuse to fight and thus open the way for a rapid Austrian victory.
When this ferment of disloyalty had done its work, the Germans were ready to attack the particular sector of the line held by the troops that it had most affected. These were on the left wing of the Italian Second Army, which held the front of the Isonzo from Plezzo down to Tolmino, and it was on that point that the enemy directed his first thrust.
[Sidenote: The news of the taking of Caporetto.]
The news of the taking of Caporetto on the morning of October 24 had about as startling an effect at Italian headquarters as would be produced on the British front if it were suddenly announced that the Germans were in Ypres. Not only was Caporetto a town on the Upper Isonzo which the Italians had seized by dashing forward across the frontier the very morning that war was declared, but it also stood at the head of a most important strategical valley leading back into the mountains on which the Italian main line lay, and from the town lead several easy roads that follow various routes into the plain beyond. Already the enemy was pressing in force along those roads. The Italians had, indeed, fallen back to reserve positions, but were the enemy to win through—as he did within two days—he would be on the flank and almost in the rear of the whole Italian Army of a million men.
[Sidenote: Rapid progress of the Germans is difficult to explain.]
[Sidenote: Italian outposts are surrounded.]
Just how the Germans progressed so fast that by noon on October 24 they had a machine-gun posted on the square in Caporetto still remains, eight days later, incompletely explained. All that is really known is this: at 2 a.m. they started a very violent bombardment. When the shelling suddenly stopped after only two hours, the Italians regarded the interruption merely as a lull, for the artillery preparation for an infantry attack in force usually lasts much longer. With the valley hidden by darkness, mist, and rain, and seeing more dimly than usual through the mica of their gas-masks, the Italians knew nothing of the German infantry's advance up the valley from the Santa Lucia bridgehead, south of Tolmino, until the enemy had actually reached their wire. In this way the Plec line of defense across that reach of the Isonzo known as the Conca di Plezzo, a line specially designed to check an offensive from Santa Lucia, was captured by surprise, and then German troops poured down into the river gorge from Mrzli on its eastern side, until the valley was full of the enemy, and Monte Nero and the other Italian outpost positions on the heights beyond the Isonzo were completely surrounded.
[Sidenote: Violent fighting on the Bainsizza plateau.]
The valley being in their possession, the Germans wasted no time. Pushing northward along the river, one detachment occupied Idersko and Caporetto; another proceeded to assault the height of Starijok, just above Caporetto; yet another strong force made a frontal attack on the ridge of Zagradan, which runs like a wall along the Italian side of the river, and after fierce fighting took Luico, one of the pivots of the defenses upon it. Elsewhere he had attacked at the same time with less definite result. Mount Globocak was seized by surprise. It was an Italian big-gun position, and orders were given for it to be retaken at any cost. So a distinguished brigade of bersaglieri was sent up to counter-attack, and drove the Germans from the captured guns down the slopes of Globocak again. North of Caporetto, too, the angle of the Italian line at Zaga had been assailed, but had resisted, and across the river on the Bainsizza plateau the most violent fighting of all took place, as a result of which the Italian line was withdrawn from Kal, and the heavy guns and equipment were sent back across the Isonzo, though the Italian counter-attacks on the Bainsizza were carried out with such dash that they captured several hundred Austrian prisoners.
[Sidenote: Danger that the Italian Army may be trapped.]
Now the enemy's plan stood out in all its formidable strength and strategy. He had opened a gap in the Italian front; through this gap he was pouring overwhelming forces. Already the rest of the Italian Second Army and the Third Army on the Carso to the south of it were outflanked. If the whole of that great force was not to have its line of communications cut and be surrounded, it must be immediately and rapidly withdrawn for a great distance. An immense sacrifice of Italian territory was imperative if the Italian Army was to be saved from a trap by the side of which the fall of Metz was the capture of an outpost. During the afternoon of October 25 the general order of retreat was given.
[Sidenote: Austrians use seventeen-inch howitzers.]
I went up again to visit the British batteries which were with the Third Army on the afternoon of the twenty-fifth, and from one of their observatories watched the heavy shelling. The Austrians were using huge seventeen-inch howitzers, and the explosions of their gigantic shells, each weighing a ton, was like a small eruption. A solid block of piebald smoke as big as a cathedral sprang into the air and it was a minute or more before the last of it had drifted away.
[Sidenote: Monfalcone the most romantic point in the fighting line.]
And as the sun was setting I went down to Monfalcone, to a place which could not be mentioned then, but which was at the same time probably the oddest and the most romantic point of the world's fighting-line. Monfalcone was for the Austrians a sort of combination of Birkenhead and Bournemouth. There were important ship-building yards there, and it had besides popularity as a seaside place. In the shipyard the Austrians had left an eighteen-thousand-ton liner, of which the hull was complete and the decks built in.
[Sidenote: Tools of constructive labor are dropped.]
To reach the ship you passed through a yard that was a rusty monument to the futility of war. There were all the tools of constructive labor just as they had been dropped when this nightmare of destructive passion burst upon the world; weather-reddened traveling cranes rusted to the tracks on which they will never move again; trucks overturned, a lathe smashed by a shell that had torn a wide gap in the roof above. Here, where the air used to tremble all day long with the clang of giant hammers, there was now silence and desertion, and the offices from which great ships were controlled on their voyages to far-off seas had become the barracks of Italian artillery-men.
[Sidenote: The partly built Austrian liner.]
There was a big wooden staircase that the Italians had built leading up to the various decks of the great liner, and, once on board, you could walk out to the forward bridge of the ship where from a sort of conning-tower you looked out at the Austrian trenches less than a mile away without the possibility of being seen. An odd observation post, neither asea nor ashore, and to make the confusion of elements more complete, the gunners whose guns barked continually from just behind it were sailors of the Italian Navy, dressed not in blue, but in military gray-green.
[Sidenote: A view of coveted Triest.]
Triest, the coveted city, lay ten miles away in full view, and each night the Italians saw its windows answer with flashes of dull gold the last rays of the sun setting behind Italy. As you looked from Monfalcone across the dreamy blue of the empty gulf between, the town lay like a stone image, lifeless except for the white smoke curling gently from a single tall chimney into the quiet evening air. Much nearer along the coast was the Castle of Duina standing on an abrupt cliff. It belongs to the Grand Duchess of Thurn and Taxis, who used to gather parties of poets, painters, and writers there to stay in what was like a legendary palace looking down from its high headland upon the sunlit, sail-flecked Adriatic, stretching away into the shining distance.
[Sidenote: The Italians are evacuating the Bainsizza plateau.]
It was from that last fair glimpse of Triest that you turned back to the grave realities of situation. On the next morning, the twenty-sixth, the Italian supreme command announced that the Bainsizza plateau was being evacuated. It had been won with great losses and gallantry in August, and the Italians had laboriously equipped it with roads and military establishments to create a firm taking-off place for the next attack upon the crest of Mount Gabriele, which was expected to drive the Austrians back for five miles up the Vippaco valley, on the way to Laibach, one of the back-doors to Triest.
The same day came the news of the fall of the Italian Government, which had been attacked during the fortnight by a strange combination of the advanced wing of the pro-war party who considered that the ministry was not displaying enough firmness in its conduct of the campaign, with the pacifist socialist party who denounced the Government for infringing the constitutional rights of the people in the interests of militarism. A feeling of malaise was in the air. All the elements of success were present in the Italian Army except the most important of all, the psychological element.
[Sidenote: Evacuation of Udine.]
By this time motor-lorries had already begun to pour back through Udine, and in the streets the Signal Corps were taking down the telegraph-wires. You saw little parties of father, mother, and children suddenly emerge from house or shop, each with hand-luggage. If you looked closely you generally saw that the woman was crying.
[Sidenote: Air fights between Germans and Italians.]
On the twenty-sixth there were frequent attempts to reach Udine by German flyers who were new to the ground. It was the first time that the Italian Air Corps had had to deal with a German attempt to contest their supremacy and they came well out of the trial. Ten enemy machines were brought down during the day, two individual Italian airmen accounting for three each. When the enemy machines were sighted heading for Udine the jarring scream of a siren gave the alarm, and the police cleared the streets.
Saturday, October 27, was the day of general exodus.
[Sidenote: Batteries hold rearward positions.]
I left Udine early on Saturday morning, in the car of the British general commanding our artillery contingent on the Italian front, to go up to the batteries and see how they got on in the retreat. We crawled out toward the front along roads blocked with rearward-moving traffic for which there was no organization, and after lunching at the general's headquarters at Gradisca, I went on to Rubbia, just across the Isonzo, to the south of Gorizia, where was the group headquarters of the batteries. Already the supply service of the Third Army were pouring in a black mass along the road, screened at the side and overhead by rushmats from the observation of the enemy. Voices and hammering under the long wooden bridge across the Isonzo at Rubbia were signs that the Italian engineers were putting in position charges of explosive to blow it up when as much material as possible had been brought over. Some of our batteries had already been withdrawn to rearward positions not far from group headquarters and were firing as fast as the guns could be reloaded. The others were still in their old emplacements a mile or so farther forward, being shelled terrifically by the Austrian twelve-inch batteries, but having extraordinary luck. They were using up as much of their ammunition as they could, because it was becoming clearer every moment that the Italian transport service was not going to be able to supply the lorries to move the shells, which were big enough for fifty of them to make a full lorry-load.
[Sidenote: Lack of motor lorries to move ammunition.]
A major from one of the batteries came into group headquarters while I was in the mess. He was dark under the eyes after a couple of sleepless nights, for his men had been working hard all round the clock to get the ammunition back from the forward dumps, labor that afterward proved wasted, as there were no lorries forthcoming to carry it farther on. Sixty twelve-inch shells and one aeroplane bomb a yard away from one of his four guns was the afternoon's experience of his battery, and only one man wounded made up the casualty-list for the same period.
"And I'm going to have a damn good dinner to-night whatever happens," he announced. "Goodness knows when we shall eat or sleep again. So the fowls and the rabbits we had in the battery are being killed this afternoon."
[Sidenote: English and French artillery dependent on Italian transport.]
There were Austrian shells falling on the hill by group headquarters, but none fell on that dense-packed road along which military traffic of every kind and shape crawled and stuck and crawled on again. The tension grew greater at our headquarters. The guns needed tractors to move them, and motor-lorries were required to carry the battery stores. For the English artillery contingent had no transport of its own, the arrangement having been that this should be supplied by the Italians. The French artillery contingent with the Italian Army, on the other hand, was independent in this respect.
The organization with regard to the transport of guns is different in the Italian and the British armies. The British system is that every gun shall have its motor or horse-haulage permanently assigned to it, so that it is always mobile at a moment's notice. In the Italian army the mechanical transport service provides haulage for all units when required, and as it is only in extraordinarily exceptional circumstances that every single thing in the army needs moving at once, they are able to effect considerable economies over the British method, which constantly keeps large numbers of lorries and tractors and cars, together with their drivers and mechanics, idle, since the units to which they are attached are not at the moment in need of transport.
[Sidenote: Doubtful if all the British guns can be moved.]
By the time it was dark on Saturday evening the likelihood of all the British guns getting away seemed doubtful, and the Italian artillery colonel who supervised their employment as corps artillery came to our group headquarters to say that preparations must be made for blowing the last of them up, and that in any case each tractor must tow more than one gun and come back for others directly it had got its first tows behind the Isonzo.
[Sidenote: Enormous conflagration of military stores.]
And now the darkening landscape suddenly began to spring out into brilliant points of light, as everywhere behind the Italian front, supply-depots, military stores, and vast collections of wooden sheds were set in a blaze. Gorizia was the site of a special conflagration, and the enemy gun-fire was steadily increasing, till sometimes the barrage rose to a single prolonged roar, and you could not have got a knife edge between the bursts.
By 7.30 p.m. six of our guns were across the river and the rest were now firing like field artillery, with no other batteries between them and the enemy. They kept up this protection of the retreat of the infantry so long, in fact, that the last round of all, at about 10 p.m., was fired just before the gun was hitched to the tractor, and there was yet another gun that had its breech mechanism smashed for fear it might have to be left behind.
[Sidenote: Abandoned ammunition is exploded.]
[Sidenote: Like a volcanic eruption.]
The bright moon hung in a pale-green sky, looking down on a dozen roads each crawling like a black snake with the close press of retreating troops. As I was making my way back to Gradisca the whole firmament leaped into sudden brilliance and every feature in every face among the throngs around me on the road stood out for several seconds under a ghastly light. Then followed from behind Monte Michele, a deep, rolling roar. It was the first of the explosions of the great abandoned stores of gun-ammunition behind the front. From then till dawn the night sky was continually breaking into a glare like that of gigantic sunset, and the crash of destroyed artillery ammunition shook the ground. The less brilliant, but steadier, glow of burning stores and sheds and houses was constantly multiplied, and the flash of every new explosion revealed fresh masses of black smoke rising in sharp outline against the lurid horizon. It was an apocalyptic spectacle; nothing short of a volcanic eruption could produce those tremendous effects of infernal illumination. Millions of pounds' worth of material, all the fruits of two and a half years of labor, were burned and blasted out of existence in a few hours.
[Sidenote: The necessity for speed.]
[Sidenote: Valuable stores abandoned for lack of lorries.]
The difficulty that complicated the Italian evacuation of their war-zone was the fact that every hour the need for speed became more urgent, if utter disaster was to be averted. A unit would be given twelve hours to get to the point on the railway where it was to entrain and then an hour later its time-limit would be reduced to two hours. A headquarters might be told that a sufficient supply of motor-lorries would be available to evacuate all its material and that it had better begin getting rid of chairs and tables and its superfluous stuff at once, but no sooner had these less important stores gone than word would come that no more transport was available and that all the immensely valuable stores and reserves of ammunition that still remained, must be abandoned, as no lorries could be found for them.
[Sidenote: Difficulties in a sudden retreat.]
[Sidenote: Every officer tries to save his supplies.]
Moving a great army is an affair of time-tables. There is room for only a certain amount of men and material on the roads and railways at one time, and every man and every wagon above that maximum becomes a factor of confusion and retards the movement of the whole mass to a dangerous degree. The sudden retreat of an army is often reduced to chaos, first, because a thoroughly worked-out plan of general retirement exists but rarely in the strong-boxes of any general staff, and secondly, because in the absence of a time-table drawn up in detail and strictly enforced, the elementary principle of self-preservation leads every unit of the army to put itself on the road as quickly as it can get transportation. This is not to say that confusion is an invariable indication of personal panic; but it is very natural, and even very proper, that every battery commander, the director of every military store and depot, and the leader of every body of troops which is not definitely ordered to remain, should have the individual determination that his particular command shall not fall into the hands of the enemy. The artillery officer firmly resolves that he will save his guns at all costs; the heads of supply departments are in charge of valuable stores which their army needs for its very existence and which would be of great aid to the enemy if captured, and the troop-leader naturally argues that it would be futile to allow his men to be cut off when a general retreat has already been ordered. So if the organization of withdrawal is left to the discretion of the people involved in it, as it has to be when the whole thing has not been deliberately arranged beforehand, confusion is almost inevitable.
[Sidenote: Fear of being cut off by the enemy.]
[Sidenote: Only severest means can stop civilian traffic.]
[Sidenote: Modern war is a wild fury of destruction.]
Moreover, the enemy always seems to be advancing much faster than he really is. Under the discouragement that every army feels in falling back, it is easy to credit the pursuer with exaggerated powers of rapid motion; the defeated soldier forgets that the miles are just as long and weary for his adversary trudging painfully after him as they are for himself. Rumor, too, spreads wildly among tired and disheartened men. Enemy cavalry, enemy armored motor-cars, hurrying ahead to cut him off—that idea haunts the mind of each man in an enforced retirement. A further complication is caused when, as was the case in the Italian withdrawal, the civilian population is also desperately anxious to be gone before the arrival of the enemy. The news of the forthcoming evacuation of territory spreads backward with rapidity, and the roads along the route of the retreating army fill at once with unregulated, disorderly swarms of frightened civilians and their household baggage, hastily stowed on slow-moving dilapidated carts that are likely to break down at narrow points of the way and block whole miles of military traffic for hours at a time. The Italian Army had to endure a great deal of that kind of complication. Theoretically, of course, a general could throw back cavalry and mounted police along the line of his retreat and forbid any civilian traffic whatever under pain of military penalties; but it is very difficult to use such measures against your own countrymen threatened with invasion, specially when the whole aim and object of your war is to free men of your own race from foreign domination. And not only does the sentimental reason of saving fellow-citizens from the yoke of an invader forbid this course, but also considerations of common humanity. In the old wars, when the danger-area of fighting was restricted to the places where opposing troops actually came into contact, there was no particular danger for the civilian inhabitants remaining in invaded territory; though their property might suffer from the enemy's requisitions, their lives were likely to be safe. But wars of this modern character spread destruction broadcast over a whole region. A rear-guard action will involve a rain of shells that may smash to pieces any village on the line of retreat; gas may be used, creeping into the refuges where the non-combatant population has taken shelter, and choking them there like vermin in a hole. War is no longer a civilly organized affair of pitched battles; it is a wild fury of destruction, raging across the whole country-side like a typhoon.
If the English batteries on the Italian front had brought with them to Italy their full organization of transport, they could have saved all their ammunition and stores, their ordnance workshops and supplies. As it was, they had been incorporated in the Italian Army as corps artillery on the Italian basis; they had to take their chance of getting transport along with every one else, and consequently of all their equipment they could save only the guns themselves, which after all was what chiefly mattered.
[Sidenote: A marching army does not seem as numerous as the same in confusion.]
Discipline is a camouflage of numbers. A thousand men marching past in column of fours does not make upon the mind the same impression of multitude as the sight of half that number in a disordered rabble. Regularity and compactness reduce the appearance of mass; and you receive a profounder suggestion of size from a comparatively small pile of natural rocks than you do from the geometrical pyramids. In the same way an army whose formations are suddenly relaxed seems to swell enormously in numbers. You can drive through a region where a million men are stationed under regular military organization and get no idea of congestion, but if those men are suddenly dissolved from a closely knit body into a crowd of individual persons, the same country-side seems hardly large enough to hold them all.
[Sidenote: Discomforts of the retreat.]
So, as with that little party of Englishmen I started on the retreat in the early morning hours of October 28, we seemed to be engulfed in a constantly broadening flood of human beings. We were in a train, the men in open trucks, miserable enough under the cold, streaming rain, the officers crowded into a closed van with the baggage. When we started in the dark we had the train to ourselves, but as I awoke three hours later from an uneasy sleep and looked out of the van, the rest of the train already swarmed with Italian soldiers who had clambered upon it as it crept along at a snail's pace. And when dawn came we saw ahead of us a long vista of trains stretching out of sight, while behind stood another queue of them, whistling impatiently like human beings at a ticket office; sometimes one of them would back a little and make the others behind it back too, all screeching furiously with their whistles exactly as if they were trying to shout, "Where are you coming to?"
[Sidenote: The one idea is to keep on moving.]
Along the railway, and on the roads at both sides of it, and across the fields beyond the roads, moved at the same time a crawling mass of people, all going in the same direction, all at about the same pace, without stopping, without talking to one another, every one of them just plodding slowly, wearily, persistently rearward. As you watched them you knew that each man had in his mind just one idea, to keep on moving like that until he knew that he was safe. There was no panic or fighting during the retreat except at isolated times and places; the situation was just this, that for the unique and imposed will that sways an army there had been substituted a multitude of individual wills all striving independently for the same end of self-preservation.
[Sidenote: People seem unaware of the others.]
These dark, sluggish streams of men and vehicles and beasts crept tortuously over the country-side like the channels of a delta trickling to the sea. Here and there little eddies of stragglers had been thrown out to each side. It is a curious thing, which I have noticed under similar conditions before, that each person or little group of persons in this mass of human beings seemed almost unaware of the presence of the rest. You would see a family party of peasants gathered round their ox cart and making a meal of bread and raw red wine without so much as a glance at the motley thousands streaming by at their elbows; a soldier would strip off his wet clothes on the road's edge to change them for some that he had looted from a wayside store with no apparent perception of the women trudging past; nor did they seem to notice him. The niceties of convention are quickly dulled by fatigue, and it is only the easefulness of modern life that makes the coarser little realities of human nature seem shocking.
[Sidenote: The crowds get clothes from stacked trucks.]
Among the trains that stretched out of sight along the line there were some trucks stacked with bundles of military mackintoshes, woolen helmets, shirts, thick socks. Some inquisitive soldier discovered these and disinterred a complete outfit for himself. A few minutes later he was a changed figure, with clean clothing in place of his own muddy, rain-soaked things, and a stiff blue mackintosh and sou'wester hat over all. The transfiguration attracted envious attention, and he was besieged with questions. Soon those trucks with their piles of white packages looked like giant sugar-basins swarming with wasps, and all around were throngs jostling one another for the next place on the heap. It was all quite good-humored; they were all laughing, waving their arms, calling to friends on the trucks to throw them a shirt or a waterproof, and when these things came flying down to them they turned away with the satisfied smile of children. Nothing puts human beings in such thoroughly good temper as to get something for nothing.
[Sidenote: A litter of old clothes on the road.]
[Sidenote: Two Italian ladies follow the track.]
In this way the whole track soon became a litter of old clothes, which the retiring soldiers trampled into the mud. Amid all this chaos one kept on meeting utterly incongruous figures, for with all the world road-worn, shabby, and dirty, to be clean and well-dressed is to be grotesque. Amid this multitude of haggard, unwashed, unshaven, dead-beat males, I noticed two Italian ladies treading delicately over the rough ballast of the railway-track. They had naturally brought with them in their flight the most valuable of their possessions, which were of a kind to be most conveniently carried on their persons. Against this gray background of mud and rubbish and a disbanded army their two figures glittered with a brilliance that would have been conspicuous in the rue de la Paix. Heavy sable furs and muffs almost bowed their shoulders; each finger had two or three rings that flashed in the light; round their necks were gold chains hung with pendants, and yet, instead of the air of self-satisfied ostentation that might well have gone with a display so lavish, there were only two pathetically little, frightened, perplexed faces, and an uncertain gait that did not promise much further progress along that ankle-wrenching railway-line.
By this time I had left the train, which had taken thirty hours to cover fifteen miles, and was walking ahead along the track. There was always the chance that something might happen to the two bridges farther on over the Tagliamento, and I wanted to be on the same side of the river as the telegraph office when that occurred.
[Sidenote: The Tagliamento bridges dominate the retirement.]
These bridges were the feature that dominated the whole movement of retirement. In military terms, they constituted a defile upon its route. Everything had to converge upon one of those three narrow passages, and until they were crossed there was no security for the Italian Army.
Rear-guard actions were, indeed, fought at intermediate places such as the line of the Torre, west of Udine, where General Petiti di Roreto made a stand with six brigades, the valley of the Judrio, the heights above Cormons. But such efforts could do no more than delay the enemy's advance; the respite that the Italian Army so urgently needed to pull itself together, to reassemble its units, redistribute its artillery, and, in short, gather into one hand again the scattered threads of control, could be found only behind the Tagliamento River, forty miles back from the old front line.
[Sidenote: Rain fills the Isonzo and holds back the enemy.]
Fortunately from Saturday night through Sunday night, the first period of the retreat of the fighting troops as distinct from the rearward services of the army, it poured torrentially with rain, and this, while increasing the hardships endured by the men, contributed in two ways to their salvation; for one thing it swelled the swift and now bridgeless Isonzo, which the enemy had to cross, brimful, and turned the Tagliamento, usually a trickle of water in an untidy stony bed across which a man can wade, into a broad deep flood; it, furthermore, kept the Austrian and German aeroplanes from following up to sweep with bomb and machine-gun the tightly packed road where they could have massacred victims by the hundred and might have turned the retreat into a hopeless rout.
Though the men exposed in open trucks or sludging along the muddy roads and swampy fields had cursed the rain bitterly, its value to our side became conspicuously plain when Monday morning broke bright with autumn sunshine.
[Sidenote: Troops fill the village of Latisana.]
It was about ten o'clock on that morning when I reached the village of Latisana, where was the southernmost bridge across the Tagliamento. The streets of the little town were simply chock-a-block with troops which were pouring into it from converging roads. Two or three Italian officers, splashed to the eyes with mud and hoarse with shouting, had organized some control at this point, or otherwise nothing would have moved at all. Pushing soldiers this way and that, seizing horses' heads, straining their voices against the din of clattering motors, they held up each stream of traffic in turn for a few minutes and passed the other through.
[Sidenote: An English soldier keeps his air of efficiency.]
[Sidenote: Men in great need of food.]
Conspicuous in his khaki among this spate of Italian gray, stood an English soldier contentedly munching dry brown bread. The motor-bicycle at his side indicated him as a despatch-rider belonging to one of the batteries. It would have been hard to say whether machine or man was the more travel-stained. The cycle's front wheel was badly bent, evidently by some collision; the soldier's hand was bound with a dirty rag, and his face clotted with the blood of a congealed scratch, the result of having been pushed off the road by a motor-lorry in the dark and falling head-long down a stone embankment. Yet about both mount and man there was still an air of efficiency and unimpaired fundamental soundness that was encouraging, and the mud-plastered figure saluted the English officer at my side with a flick of the wrist that would have passed on the parade-ground at Wellington Barracks. Two guns of his battery, he reported, were three or four miles back down the road; the men were dead-beat, but the worst was that they had had nothing to eat for thirty-six hours, owing to the tractor that had their rations on board catching fire and burning them; they had picked up scraps of bread that other troops had dropped, and some of them had tried and appreciated cutlets from a dead mule; they needed food to restore their strength for they had been working hard without sleep for two days and nights. It had been forty-eight hours of continuous hauling on those heavy guns, which were constantly getting edged off the road by other traffic, and which had to be unhitched every time the tractor stopped because it was so overloaded that it would not start with the full weight of its tow. So the officer had sent him on ahead to scout for food, and he had just found a sosistenza where they had given him a sack of bread to take back.
"You all right yourself?" asked my officer-companion.
"Quite all right, sir, thank you," he answered, and slinging the bulging sack across his shoulders, the despatch-rider straddled his battered bicycle and set off on a sinuous path through the wedged traffic, with his bent front-wheel writhing like a tortured snake.
[Sidenote: Finding the way to reach Padua.]
[Sidenote: Walking single file through the mud.]
This news of the existence of a sosistenza was good hearing. I myself had not the least idea of how to get to Padua, the nearest place from which I could hope to send a telegram, except by walking there; and Padua was sixty miles along the railway-line. Two days' walking, two brown loaves the gift of the Italian officer in charge of the bread-depot, and a stick of chocolate; it was a prospect of no allurement. I stepped into place in the long trail of refugees and started, however. It needed no more than two hours of stumbling over sleepers and crunching on the rough stone ballast of the track to make of me as tired and dull-witted a hobo as the rest. We all walked in single file, keeping as far as possible to a strip of soft mud at the side of the line where the going was easier, and one's whole mind had become before long entirely concentrated on nothing more than the increasing soreness of two tired feet and the gradual development of a blister on a big toe. From Portogruaro onward, however, my own personal luck changed, and by getting one lift after another I reached Padua the same night.
[Sidenote: British guns wait to cross.]
[Sidenote: An Italian colonel attempts to keep order on the bridge.]
[Sidenote: A panic is started.]
[Sidenote: Austrian aeroplanes are overhead.]
[Sidenote: Italian officers check panic.]
[Sidenote: Airplane opens fire on the road.]
Gradually the throng at the Latisana bridge increased, and eventually no less than eleven of the British guns attached to the Italian army were drawn up at the side of the road waiting their turn to cross. The English colonel who commanded the group to which they belonged had arrived and was using the funnel of the bridge to collect his scattered units. The men refreshed with the bread that they had received from the Italian food-depot, were resting by the side of the road; an Italian artillery colonel, under whose command the guns had been when on the Third Army front as corps artillery, was on the bridge trying to hold up the onpressing, unbroken string of heterogeneous traffic long enough for the English guns to be edged into the procession. Then suddenly one of these things happened to which an army in retreat is peculiarly liable. How it started no one seems to know. One theory is that Austrian soldiers dressed in Italian uniforms had been hurried on ahead by the enemy to mingle with the retreat and spread such panics. What actually happened was that several men galloped up all at once on horseback shouting, "The Austrians are here." Immediately the crowd, hitherto patiently waiting its turn to cross the bridge, made one simultaneous push toward its opening. Beyond the river there was the whole country-side to scatter over; on this side they could expect no other fate than to be caught helplessly in a trap. It was like a stampede in a burning theater; the desperate eagerness of every person in the crowd to get on the bridge stopped almost any one from getting there. Carts and people at the edge of the road were shoved down the embankment by the weight of the dense mass surging along its center. And then to add to the terror of the moment there was heard above the shouts and oaths of the struggling mob a low, foreboding hum, the characteristic drone of Austrian aeroplanes. It is hard to see what could have come of the situation but complete and bloody disaster if it had not been for the decided action of some Italian officers. By main force they thrust into the middle of the entrance to the bridge and checked the panic with sheer personal determination. The sound of their authoritative voices brought back the sense of discipline that had momentarily gone. Under their orders the pushing throng sorted itself into some order. A jibing mule was summarily shot to clear the road, and so in a few minutes, despite the constant approach of the low-flying enemy aircraft, a way was cleared for the English guns to cross the bridge. They were scarcely over when the first Austrian machine, swooping down, dropped bombs and opened fire with its machine-gun on the tight-packed road. The attack did not do much damage, though one British Red Cross car was filled as full of holes as a pepper-pot; but the experience showed how much worse the retreat would have been had not the heavy rain of the week-end kept the Austrian airmen in their hangars.
[Sidenote: The army reaches Tagliamento.]
So the retiring army reached the Tagliamento, and completed the first stage of its retreat. Once behind that barrier the Italians could be sure of a certain breathing space, but to secure its protection was the most difficult part of their rearward movement. To the constant convergence which the lack of more than three bridges rendered necessary must be attributed much of the confusion of the retirement and the abandonment of the military equipment that was still to the east of the Tagliamento when the pressure of the enemy finally compelled their destruction.
[Sidenote: Germans try to cross the upper course of Tagliamento.]
[Sidenote: Enemies who cross are killed or captured.]
The Germans fully realized the formidable obstacle to the retreat of the Italians which this rain-swollen river constituted, and they made a determined effort to secure for themselves a passage across its upper course while the Second and Third Armies to the south were not yet behind the stream. There is a bridge a few miles west of the town of Gemona which was not being used by the retreating army because of its comparatively flimsy construction. The Tagliamento, then very high, was, like many mountain streams, subject to very rapid rises and falls. Therefore, part of the enemy advance-guard, which was following up the Italian retirement was pushed on ahead to try to obtain control of this bridge at Gemona, for use at any rate when the waters had sunk a little. This German detachment forced its way across the bridge with considerable courage, some of them being swept away by the swift stream pouring over it, but on the other bank they were immediately faced with stout resistance by the Italian rear-guard, and with their backs to the river virtually all the enemy who had crossed the Tagliamento were killed or captured.
[Sidenote: Gallant conduct of the rear-guard.]
The gallant and skilful conduct of the rear-guard of the Italian army is, indeed, the brightest part of the gloomy story of the retreat.
[Sidenote: The Italian armies are on the defensive.]
[Sidenote: The war now a struggle against invaders.]
The cavalry, specially, played a distinguished part in covering the retirement. Charging machine-guns with the lance, and holding commanding positions until they were virtually cut off, these regiments had very heavy losses. A retreat where circumstances make it impossible to get the whole of the army away imposes upon the rear-guard a call for special self-sacrifice, since the moment never comes, when, the whole of the main body being safely past, it can break off the combat and itself retire, its duty done. In the withdrawal of the armies that were along the front in the Cadore and Carnic Alps, occasions of this kind occurred several times during the week throughout which the retreat lasted, when rear-guard detachments were completely surrounded. At Lorenzago a force in this position succeeded in cutting its way back to join the main body again; west of Gemona, however, the remnants of the Thirty-sixth Division were so thoroughly engulfed by the advancing Austro-German forces that, having used up all their ammunition, they were obliged to surrender. And so, gradually, not without moments of discouragement almost amounting to despair, the Italian armies, which ten days before had been fighting on Austrian territory with every prospect of carrying still further a series of victories that had lasted two years and a half, found themselves on the defensive far back of their own borders, awaiting the attack of a triumphant and advancing foe. It had been a terrible trial for them and for the nation at their back. Almost in one night, dreams of imperial expansion, cherished with an enthusiasm that gave them an air of virtual reality, faded into a remoteness beyond reckoning. The war that had been from the first gloriously offensive, was suddenly transformed into an outnumbered struggle against invaders who had already seized half of one of the richest provinces of Italy. Yet, though numbed by the shock and stricken to the heart by the realization of her disaster, Italy reacted well. There was no talk of yielding to be heard, only anxious discussion of the best means of organizing the further resistance that would so soon be necessary.
For though the great majority of the Italian army had succeeded for the moment in escaping from the grasp of the Austro-Germans, the enemy was steadfastly pursuing. Encouraged by a victory that must have more than realized his most ambitious hopes, reinforced by captured guns and material, he would wait only long enough to get sufficient strength into position before hurling the whole of his weight once more against the Italian line.
[Sidenote: Impossible to meet the second shock on the Tagliamento.]
To meet this second shock on the Tagliamento was not possible. The river itself quickly became, as the rain stopped and the waters fell, too easily traversable an obstacle to be worth fortifying. The line which it would have imposed upon the Italian army was, moreover, too long to be held in the depth desirable for resistance to the attack of superior numbers. So the Tagliamento was occupied as an intermediate position only long enough to shield the further retreat of the army and its transport behind the broader and deeper stream of the Piave.
[Sidenote: The new stand behind the Piave.]
[Sidenote: Winter rains will delay enemy's heavy guns.]
Here at the time of writing the Italian forces are in position and the enemy's advanced detachments have begun to register ranges and destroy possible observation posts across the river with such artillery as they have so far had the time to bring up. Whether the Piave line and the rest of the Italian front to the westward, which has had to be modified in conformation with the general movement of retreat, can be held indefinitely, will probably be a question of heavy guns. If the enemy can bring up his larger artillery before reinforcements of the same character arrive from France and England, a further retreat from north and east to another river line may well be necessary. Fortunately the winter rains that have set in make for delay in the arrival of such cumbrous war-engines as the Austrian seventeen-inch mortars, and it may be that persistent mud and rain will compel the Austrians to be satisfied with holding the considerable tract of territory that they have won.
[Sidenote: Danger that Venice must be abandoned.]
[Sidenote: Cathedrals and palaces are protected by sand bags.]
But all preparations are being made to face the conceivable eventuality of another retirement. The most serious consequence that this would entail would be the abandonment of Venice and the necessity of bringing that inestimable city within close range of the destruction of war. Even at this early stage, therefore, while the danger to Venice is as yet not urgent, the Italian Government is doing its best to surround her with the protection of such neutrality as the conventions of war, for what they are worth, secure to undefended and unoccupied towns. No person in uniform is allowed to enter the place and the civilian population is being encouraged to leave by free railway transport and subventions to support them until they can settle elsewhere. Even in such tragic hours Venice keeps up her old tradition of light-heartedness. The cafes round the great piazza are full in the evenings with a cheerful crowd. Moreover, to go into St. Mark's is to enter a sort of neolithic grotto; the pillars, set about with sand-bags, have the girth of the arcades of a Babylonian temple; bulging poultices of sacks protect each fresco; as a building it reminds one of a German student padded for a duel. The Doge's Palace, too, is more hidden with scaffolding than it could have been when it was being built; each of those delicate columns of different design is set around with a stout palisade of timber balks. Venice, indeed, looks like a drawing-room with the dust-sheets on the furniture and the chandeliers in bags, and to complete the parallel, the family is going away before one's eyes.
Sad days for Italy, days unimaginable a month ago. There must, indeed, be virtue in the Allies' cause since such ordeals as these still leave our courage high.
Copyright, Century, March, 1918.
* * * * *
The bottling up of the Harbor of Zeebrugge and the attempted closing of the Harbor of Ostend formed what was probably the most brilliant single naval exploit of the war. These daring and successful attempts are described in the narrative following.
BOTTLING UP ZEEBRUGGE AND OSTEND
THE OFFICIAL NARRATIVE
[Sidenote: The Vindictive as she lies in Ostend Harbor.]
Those who recall High Wood upon the Somme—and they must be many, as it was after the battles of 1916—may easily figure to themselves the decks of H.M.S. Vindictive as she lies to-day, a stark, black profile, against the sea haze of the harbor amid the stripped, trim shapes of the fighting ships which throng these waters. That wilderness of debris, that litter of the used and broken tools of war, lavish ruin and that prodigal evidence of death and battle, are as obvious and plentiful here as there. The ruined tank nosing at the stout tree which stopped it has its parallel in the flame-thrower hut at the port wing of Vindictive's bridge, its iron sides freckled with rents from machine-gun bullets and shell-splinters; the tall white cross which commemorates the martyrdom of the Londoners is sister to the dingy, pierced White Ensign which floated over the fight of the Zeebrugge Mole.
[Sidenote: The Iris and the Daffodil which shared the honors.]
Looking aft from the chaos of her wrecked bridge, one sees, snug against their wharf, the heroic bourgeois shapes of the two Liverpool ferry-boats (their captains' quarters are still labelled "Ladies Only") Iris and Daffodil, which shared with Vindictive the honors and ardors of the fight. The epic of their achievement shapes itself in the light of that view across the scarred and littered decks, in that environment of gray water and great still ships.
[Sidenote: The three cruisers that were sunk at Zeebrugge.]
Their objectives were the canal of Zeebrugge and the entrance to the harbor of Ostend—theirs, and those of five other veteran and obsolete cruisers and a mosquito fleet of destroyers, motor-launches and coastal motor-boats. Three of the cruisers, Intrepid, Iphigenia and Thetis, each duly packed with concrete and with mines attached to her bottom for the purpose of sinking her, Merrimac-fashion, in the neck of the canal, were aimed at Zeebrugge; two others, similarly prepared, were directed at Ostend. The function of Vindictive, with her ferry-boats, was to attack the great half-moon Mole which guards the Zeebrugge Canal, land bluejackets and marines upon it, destroy what stores, guns, and Germans she could find, and generally create a diversion while the block-ships ran in and sank themselves in their appointed place. Vice Admiral Keyes, in the destroyer Warwick, commanded the operation.
[Sidenote: The conditions favorable for the attack.]
There had been two previous attempts at the attack, capable of being pushed home if weather and other conditions had served. The night of the 22nd offered nearly all the required conditions, and at some fifteen miles off Zeebrugge the ships took up their formation for the attack. Vindictive, which had been towing Iris and Daffodil, cast them off to follow under their own steam; Intrepid, Iphigenia, and Thetis slowed down to give the first three time to get alongside the Mole; Sirius and Brilliant shifted their course for Ostend; and the great swarm of destroyers and motor craft sowed themselves abroad upon their multifarious particular duties. The night was overcast and there was a drift of haze; down the coast a great searchlight swung its beams to and fro; there was a small wind and a short sea.
[Sidenote: The Vindictive heads for the Mole.]
[Sidenote: The wind helps make a smoke-screen.]
From Vindictive's bridge, as she headed in towards the Mole with her faithful ferry-boats at her heels, there was scarcely a glimmer of light to be seen shorewards. Ahead of her, as she drove through the water, rolled the smoke-screen, her cloak of invisibility, wrapped about her by the small craft. This was a device of Wing-Commander Brock, R.N.A.S., "without which," acknowledges the Admiral in Command, "the operation could not have been conducted." The north-east wind moved the volume of it shoreward ahead of the ships; beyond it, the distant town and its defenders were unsuspicious; and it was not till Vindictive, with her bluejackets and marines standing ready for the landing, was close upon the Mole that the wind lulled and came away again from the south-west, sweeping back the smoke-screen and laying her bare to the eyes that looked seaward.
[Sidenote: The star shells discover the ships and battle opens.]
[Sidenote: The Vindictive reaches the Mole.]
There was a moment immediately afterwards when it seemed to those in the ships as if the dim coast and the hidden harbor exploded into light. A star shell soared aloft, then a score of star shells; the wavering beams of the searchlights swung round and settled to a glare; the wildfire of gun flashes leaped against the sky; strings of luminous green beads shot aloft, hung and sank; and the darkness of the night was supplanted by the nightmare daylight of battle fires. Guns and machine-guns along the Mole and batteries ashore woke to life, and it was in a gale of shelling that Vindictive laid her nose against the thirty-foot high concrete side of the Mole, let go an anchor, and signed to Daffodil to shove her stern in. Iris went ahead and endeavored to get alongside likewise.
[Sidenote: Captain Carpenter in the flame-thrower hut.]
The fire, from the account of everybody concerned, was intense. While ships plunged and rolled beside the Mole in an unexpected send of sea, Vindictive with her greater draught jarring against the foundation of the Mole with every plunge, they were swept diagonally by machine-gun fire from both ends of the Mole and by heavy batteries ashore. Commander A.F.B. Carpenter (now Captain) conned Vindictive from her open bridge till her stern was laid in, when he took up his position in the flame-thrower hut on the port side. It is to this hut that reference has already been made; it is marvellous that any occupant of it should have survived a minute, so riddled and shattered is it. Officers of Iris, which was in trouble ahead of Vindictive, describe Captain Carpenter as "handling her like a picket-boat."
[Sidenote: The Vindictive's false high deck and gangways.]
Vindictive was fitted along the port side with a high false deck, whence ran the eighteen brows, or gangways, by which the storming and demolition parties were to land. The men were gathered in readiness on the main and lower decks, while Colonel Elliot, who was to lead the Marines, waited on the false deck just abaft the bridge, and Captain H.C. Halahan, who commanded the bluejackets, was amidships. The gangways were lowered, and scraped and rebounded upon the high parapet of the Mole as Vindictive rolled; and the word for the assault had not yet been given when both leaders were killed, Colonel Elliot by a shell and Captain Halahan by the machine-gun fire which swept the decks. The same shell that killed Colonel Elliot also did fearful execution in the forward Stokes Mortar Battery.
[Sidenote: Landing on the Mole.]
"The men were magnificent." Every officer bears the same testimony. The mere landing on the Mole was a perilous business; it involved a passage across the crashing, splintering gangways, a drop over the parapet into the field of fire of the German machine-guns which swept its length, and a further drop of some sixteen feet to the surface of the Mole itself. Many were killed and more were wounded as they crowded up to the gangways; but nothing hindered the orderly and speedy landing by every gangway.
Lieutenant H.T.C. Walker had his arm carried away by a shell on the upper deck and lay in the darkness while the storming parties trod him under. He was recognized and dragged aside by the Commander. He raised his remaining arm in greeting, "Good luck to you," he called, as the rest of the stormers hastened by; "good luck."
[Sidenote: The wounded and dying cheer.]
The lower deck was a shambles as the Commander made the rounds of his ship; yet those wounded and dying raised themselves to cheer as he made his tour. The crew of the howitzer which was mounted forward had all been killed; a second crew was destroyed likewise; and even then a third crew was taking over the gun. In the stern cabin a firework expert, who had never been to sea before—one of Captain Brock's employees—was steadily firing great illuminating rockets out of a scuttle to show up the lighthouse on the end of the Mole to the block ships and their escort.
[Sidenote: The Daffodil's part in the fight.]
The Daffodil, after aiding to berth Vindictive, should have proceeded to land her own men, but now Commander Carpenter ordered her to remain as she was, with her bows against Vindictive's quarter, pressing the latter ship into the Mole. Normally, Daffodil's boilers develop eighty pounds' pressure of steam per inch; but now, for this particular task, Artificer Engineer Button, in charge of them maintained a hundred and sixty pounds for the whole period that she was holding Vindictive to the Mole. Her casualties, owing to her position during the fight, were small—one man killed and eight wounded, among them her Commander, Lieutenant H. Campbell, who was struck in the right eye by a shell splinter.
[Sidenote: The Iris finds her work difficult.]
Iris had troubles of her own. Her first attempts to make fast to the Mole ahead of Vindictive failed, as her grapnels were not large enough to span the parapet. Two officers. Lieutenant Commander Bradford and Lieutenant Hawkins, climbed ashore and sat astride the parapet trying to make the grapnels fast till each was killed and fell down between the ship and the wall. Commander Valentine Gibbs had both legs shot away and died next morning. Lieutenant Spencer, B.N.R., though wounded, conned the ship and Lieutenant Henderson, R.N., came up from aft and took command.
[Sidenote: Terrible casualties on the Iris.]
Iris was obliged at last to change her position and fall in astern of Vindictive, and suffered very heavily from the fire. A single big shell plunged through the upper deck and burst below at a point where fifty-six marines were waiting the order to go to the gang-ways. Forty-nine were killed and the remaining seven wounded. Another shell in the ward-room, which was serving as sick bay, killed four officers and twenty-six men. Her total casualties were eight officers and sixty-nine men killed and three officers and a hundred and two men wounded.
[Sidenote: The demolition parties on the Mole dynamite buildings.]
The storming and demolition parties upon the Mole met with no resistance from the Germans, other than the intense and unremitting fire. The geography of the great Mole, with its railway line and its many buildings, hangars, and store-sheds, was already well known, and the demolition parties moved to their appointed work in perfect order. One after another the building burst into flame or split and crumpled as the dynamite went off.
[Sidenote: The enemy fights with the machine-guns.]
A bombing party, working up towards the Mole extension in search of the enemy, destroyed several machine-gun emplacements, but not a single prisoner rewarded them. It appears that upon the approach of the ships, and with the opening of the fire, the enemy simply retired and contented themselves with bringing machine-guns to the shore end of the Mole. And while they worked and destroyed, the covering party below the parapet could see in the harbor, by the light of the German star shells, the shapes of the block ships stealing in and out of their own smoke and making for the mouth of the canal.