Menton And BardonecchiaThe First Battle of Menton commenced at dawn on 8 October. Having bombarded the foe for a whole week (wasting valuable shells), General Cadorna was ready. He arose well before dawn, prayed for a half hour, and went to the map room in his Turin headquarters. His staff officers were already there, reviewing plans one last time and telephoning field commanders. All served at Cadorna's pleasure and knew failure would cost them their jobs. It would all begin in minutes.
The first ray of light poking through the window caught everyone's attention.
Eighty miles southwest, whistles blew and up the men went. Having heard the barrage over the past week, they were confident. Blowing whistles and cries of andiamo! emptied the trenches. Elite units had reputations to defend, having trained for years to fight this battle. Over the next few days, they would learn just how good they really were. Clad in white and light grey combat jackets (1), elan and adrenaline suppressing fear, the Bersaglieri and Alipni led the charge. Behind them followed the regular troops, scornfully dubbed "the mules"; peasant conscripts from central and southern Italy. Veterans of the Turkish war, having expected another pushover, were rudely surprised. Boys too young to have fought then didn't know what to expect. No matter who they were, the Italians pushed towards the shelled rubble of Menton.
General Mario Nicolis di Robilant (2) commanded Italy's Fourth Army from Sanremo, a mere twelve miles from the fighting. His aides worried they were too close and in danger; di Robilant replied that if his men risked their lives then so should he. Besides, Sanremo was a long way from Turin... meaning he could run things without Cadorna's interference. There was no physical danger, yet di Robilant's task was as hard as that of the fighting men. He had to coordinate an operation along a twelve-mile front with delayed and incomplete information. Early reports were not promising, and by midmorning, he had abandoned the timetable. Just reaching Nice would be an accomplishment.
Di Robilant urgently telephoned his junior officers, not to reprimand but to analyze. How far had they come since dawn? Were their losses from machine-gun positions, infantry, artillery, or something else? How was terrain working against them? Few of these majors and lieutenant colonels had answers; contact with field forces was slow, and many of the captains and lieutenants leading the men were missing or killed. Nonetheless, the picture was depressingly clear.
The French had been more than ready for the attack. Their infantry was intelligently deployed, sheltered on the far sides of mountains and in ravines. Immense concrete fortifications, clearly designed by experts, enhanced nature's defences. Perfectly sheltered, the French poured fire on the exposed Italians. Mobile 75mm guns could shoot from ledges and move quickly if need be. Mines had destroyed the mountain tracks across which di Robilant's men needed to advance. It appeared all that week of bombardment had done was to waste Italy's strategic shell reserve.
Worst of all, from di Robilant's perspective, he had opposed nearly all of this. Having studied the battles on the Western Front, he had pushed for a brief, intense bombardment, and a more concentrated attack. His journal would prove as much at his court-martial. Yet Cadorna had issued orders from Turin over his head. Arguing would have cost him his career, and disobedience was unthinkable for a career soldier. All he could do was fulfill the orders he had received as best he could. Judgment from Cadorna and posterity would come after the job was done. The attack had to go forward.
Across the lines in Grenoble, General Paul Maistre's war was proving just as hard.
Maistre ought to have been happy. Militarily, things were going well. Communication with his frontline officers was far easier than di Robilants. French captains and lieutenants sat in broadly intact positions with maps and field telephones; regimental and divisional headquarters received routine and detailed updates from the front. Supplies travelled to fixed positions rather than having to cross no-man's-land, keeping French soldiers well-supplied. Casualties from the bombardment and morning fighting were high but manageable. The rubble of Castellar and Menton provided additional cover for French troops, denying the enemy roads. Maistre lamented the destruction while appreciating its utility. Against his expectations, it seemed clear Nice would hold.
Yet Joseph Joffre was unhappy.
The war was a week old. Cadorna had revealed his hand and struck on the southern extremity of the front with the bulk of his army, and all Maistre had done was defend. Joffre was pleased with how the defences (which he'd helped design) were holding up, but survival was not progress. Italy's commitment to Nice had to have weakened the rest of their front: it was now or never. He telephoned Maistre at noon on 9 October; the attack towards Turin was to begin in thirty-six hours. Maistre knew how readily Joffre disposed of subordinates. If he questioned his superior, he would be sacked and the offensive would go ahead. If he simply agreed, the offensive would go ahead, thousands of his countrymen would die to little gain, and then he would be sacked for failing to deliver.
"Oui, General." The hardest words he'd ever said in his life. It would have made no difference, he told himself until his death. Sometimes he even believed it.
Bombardment commenced at midnight on 11 October 1915; the men went over the top at Bardonecchia six hours later.
As a sergeant, he got the whistle. "Everyone ready?", he whispered.
Thirty grimy faces stared back at him. Platoon A (les Alphas Alpines, they called themselves) of the 202nd Line Regiment, Ninth Army, had taken a beating. His predecessor had passed down his sergeant's stripes after bleeding out in Picardy. First Lieutenant Lapin had gone home on one leg; his replacement clutched an early-morning brandy three miles back of the line. Henri, Guillaume, and the boys from Bordeaux were all dead; nine fresh-faced replacements stood in a corner. Have to watch them, try to keep them from getting killed. Lapin would have done the same for me. But the old guard survived. Mathieu Chambre had saved him from a machine-gun a lifetime ago at the Marne; he'd returned the favour at Artois. Corporal LaRouche and he had spent twelve hours in a sap last August, whispering stories and sharing rations. Have to try for their sake. But it all felt so unreal.
"Synchronise watches, gentlemen. Time is... five fifty-seven!" His palms were sweaty as he triple-checked his bayonet. It seemed the most important thing in the world. Mountain wind blew snow by. "Whose fucking idea was this again?" If the Italians were about to kill him, defeatism was the least of his problems. Mathieu chuckled and said something lewd about General Maistre. Thank God for gallows humour.
"Five fifty-eight!" Resignation took hold of him now. The machine, the Army, had won. He would go over the top in a hundred- no, ninety-nine- seconds, as certain as the earth would keep spinning and mountain snow would fall. Him and his friends were no longer individuals, not even part of les Alphas Alpines. They belonged to the French Army, which meant they would go over the top- pour la glorie! Dwelling on the possibilities was pointless when he couldn't affect them. Worry wasted energy.
"Five fifty-nine!" He mentally apologised to the God Whose name he'd taken in vain. Would the Sacraments make a difference if worst came to worst? He hoped so.
Dix, neuf, huit...
"Bon chance, tout le monde."
...sept, six, cinq, quatre...
Everyone grabbed the ladders.
trois, deux, un...
"VITE! VITE! VITE! VITE! VITE!"
Les Alphas Alpines scrambled up the ladders, rifles in hand. Machine guns and rifles erupted a second later. Hell broke loose from its chains and leapt onto the Italian mountains.
"COVER!" He threw himself down, scraping his hands... was his wrist broken? He hissed as blood seeped across his sleeve. "Stay behind me, stay together, and good luck!" He leapt to his feet, rifle in hand, and scrambled behind a boulder. Shoot, duck, reload, repeat. Recoil punched his chest. A million rifles assaulted his ears, broken only by screams. His heart raced, drowning out the pain from his wrist and weight of the rifle. Another man crouched behind him and he leapt around, pocket knife in hand.
"It's me, Sergeant!" Mathieu was covered in gravel and blood. Sweat poured from his face and grime caked his beard. "Corporal LaRouche is down, sir", he screamed.
"Take cover or you'll join him. Come on, we've wasted enough time here- RUN!" They sprinted across broken rock like mountain goats. Bullets tugged at his jacket and struck near his feet. Hunting me, the bastards. His blisters howled and his back ached under the weight of the pack, his heart seemed about to explode, and his lungs were on fire- but there was no time. Mathieu cried something but his words were lost. Leaping over a corpse, he crashed into a foxhole and bit against the pain from his wrist. His vision cleared and there was Mathieu. "So tell me", he panted, "what happened?"
"Je ne sais pas." Mathieu had a broad, Gallic shrug. "One minute he was up, the next... this is worse than the West."
"Who would have thought", he rasped, "that the Italians had all this in them? We-" A crashing shell threw them from the foxhole, slamming them into a bush. His wrist burned with pain- he couldn't move his hand. "Merde!" He knelt down and threw his pack aside. Every breath was a struggle. Nausea rose inside him, but he fought it down. Have to get out of here...stupid to kneel like this...have to...
He never saw the bullet. One moment he was staggering, the next he was on his back. He'd only thought he'd hurt before. Pain, stench, and fear boiled up until he exploded, covering himself in blood and vomit. He was too weak to be ashamed. Death couldn't be so bad, could it? Just a quick blow and then off into the unknown. Not what the Father confessor said last night. But he is back of the line. The chaplain and the new Lieutenant were drinking in the rear. The generals were in Grenoble. And here he was. The fearful human had become a trapped animal. He thrashed and screamed, as much from anguish as physical pain. He had lost. Everything he had done- before the war and during it- had been a waste. Life culminated in this agony. He had failed. He was already dead; fighting was useless.
If fighting is useless, why bother? If I cannot gain anything, why make the effort? What will a few minutes of struggle buy me? Peace washed over him. He had lost but no longer had to fight. Everything he loved- France, Julie, the platoon- was moot. A few moments from now he would be with God, for better or worse. Pain remained but tension faded. "Medic!", a man cried in the distance. The din faded and blue sky became black.
His internal lights turned back on. Sensation spread through him. He remembered his breathing and heartbeat. Every thud, every rise and fall of his chest, felt new and fresh He was still alive, he realised, brain foggy from unconsciousness. Bright light and weakness kept his eyes shut, but he heard footsteps. Panic rose- but no. "C'est moi", said a distant voice. "le Docteur. Vous avez a un mal, n'est-ce pas?"
"Docteur...", he groaned, trying to wiggle his arm. Pain shot through him. He forced his eyes open for a second and saw a sling. "What is this?"
"Rotto in due punti, ed è tutt'altro che il peggiore. Ti hanno sparato alla stessa spalla, ricorda. Una benedizione che non hai una ferita d'uscita, e i tuoi tendini in qualche modo rimangono intatti. Altrimenti avremmo dovuto... sarebbe stato terribile. Così com'è, sarai qui ancora per qualche giorno. Dopo il servizio di retromarcia per un po'."
«Di servizio. Capisco . » Il disgusto aumentò. Come aveva fatto ad arrivare fin qui? Cosa farebbero gli Alpha senza di lui? Promuovi il caporale, o un altro soldato semplice se è morto, e vai avanti con la fottuta guerra! "Come ha fatto... dove siamo?"
Il Dottore fece una smorfia. "Quasi dodici ore da quando sei stato ferito - sei stato messo fuori combattimento mentre noi operavamo, più facile così - e le linee non si sono mosse. Bardonecchia resisterà a meno che - o forse fino a quando - il nostro sbarramento livellerà queste montagne. Da quello che ho sentito, i nostri compagni a sud a Nizza stanno difendendo così come ci sono gli italiani qui. È..."
È uno spreco completo. Poteva riempire le parole del Dottore abbastanza facilmente. La tua ferita era un completo spreco. "Non importa", mormorò. "Ancora venti giorni a Torino, o così dice il generale Maistre, n'est-ce pas?" Pierre Soilon rise amaramente e vomitò sopra il pigiama dell'ospedale.
- Tali unità normalmente indossavano il nero ma in combattimento avrebbero avuto bisogno di mimetizzarsi. Basato su questa immagine; certamente non la fonte più affidabile. Aperto alla correzione.
- Questo signore , che ha recitato in First Isonzo di OTL. Un altro caso di generali con nomi stranieri!
The only point of attention is that Robilant OTL is the general even more than Cappello and Badoglio, more independent and less obeying the indications of Cadorna: for example, he used to use the orders of the Supreme Command to ignite the cigars. This is because, due to his bonds of friendship with the King, Cadorna could not drive him out. As proof of his acting on his own terms, following the breakthrough of Caporetto he was ordered by General Luigi Cadorna to retire near Mount Grappa, but Robilant, caring highly, ordered to resist indefinitely, which caused the capture of about 11,500 men, trapped by the forces of Otto von Below. But since Robilant, another since you can keep ITL, was scandalously lucky, when it was decided to give the order to retreat, he took the wrong road,
confusing the Germans and managed to avoid the encirclement ... Fortunately, obeying Cadorna for once, that it is not true that he did not know how to learn from his mistakes (unlike the French and the English, he hastens to reply and better, the tactics of the sturmtruppen with the Arditi), Robilant accepts both to abide by Cosenz's plans (yes, always him, who had a plan just in case) to set up a defensive line on the Piave, and to adopt an elastic defense, thus stopping the German offensive ...