Monday, November 20, 2006

The Three Sacred Rivers

During the First World War, Italy sided with the Allies against the German/Austro-Hungarian Alliance. The majority of the fighting occurred through the Friuli & Veneto regions. It was the scene of savage & bloody fighting for over 3yrs running from the lower plains (near Gorizia), up into the Dolomites.

The battles left a physical scar on the landscape (as will be described in this blog) & a psychological scar on the Italian people. The total cost of Italian war dead: 600,000.

The most famous battle on this front is the Battle of Capporetto. In 1917, after years of stagnant trench-warfare, German & Austro-Hungarian forces (including one unit led by a young officer by the name of Rommel) launched a surprise attack on the Italian forces located near Capporetto (now in Slovenia).

In a tactical retreat (some would say rout), Italian forces withdrew, firstly, to defensive lines on the River Isonzo; then defensive lines on the River Tagliamento & finally defensive lines on the River Piave. It was at the Piave that the Italians made their stand. Their defensive positions held until French & British reinforcements could be brought in. These reinforcements then helped with the offensive launched in mid-1918 to retake the ground lost.

So much blood was split over these three rivers, they have now become the three sacred rivers.

Why the history lesson ?? Well...the front line ran through close to where my relatives live. There are many stark reminders of the blood spilt all over the region (in trenches, in fortified positions). The most sobering examples are three sites in particular (two of which I visited this time around):

Redipuglia: just outside Trieste, it is a massive, terraced monument, containing the remains (& names) of over 40,000 known dead & the remains of over 60,000 unknown dead of the Italian 3rd Army. The remains originally rested on the hill across the road, but Mussolini had the new monument built & the remains moved. It is also here, that the remains of the unknown soldiers from the Russian Front (of the Second World War) are sent for processing;

Sacriso di Oslavia: overlooking the city of Gorizia & the border with Slovenia, this stark, white monument contains the remains (& names) of over 20,000 Italian soldiers. Over four floors, you are presented with a wall of names. The monument also has three smaller side-towers, each containing the names of 12,000 unknown dead. My cousin & I arrived late in the afternoon at this monument. We were busy exploring the lower level when the lights suddenly went off & we heard the door close. I thought...Oh Crap !! We’ve been locked inside the monument !!! It took me awhile to find my cousin as the echoes down in the lower ground level made it hard to pin-point where he was. We eventually caught up & made our way to the front door…it was locked. Luckily, we could open it from the inside so we made our way out. There, waiting for us, was the caretaker. From the look on his face, I got the feeling this wasn’t the first time this had happened !! That would’ve been an interesting night if we couldn’t get out…locked in a tomb !!

Monte San Michele: is to the south of Gorizia (itself the front line) & was the scene of savage fighting as the two sides fought, for over 14 months, to gain control of the heights. The mountain was won & lost many times during that period. It wasn’t until 1916, that the Italian forces regained control. The total cost of Italian dead on this mountain: over 100,000. Today, the battlefield has been left pretty much as it was. Some areas have been restored but a lot of it is overgrown with tree so it’s hard to get a real sense of what it could have been like. My cousin & I spent over two hours exploring the area: wandering through Italian & Austrian command bunkers, traced trench lines around the mountain, followed trench lines down the mountain for about 700m, explored gun positions, etc...

That’s enough of the history lesson for now. Sorry that this has been a bit of a serious post but visiting these places left quite an impression on me. On a happier note, my next series of posts will be from the Emerald Island.

Until then...take care



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