The Smiling Soldiers
( Originally Published 1916 )
MY month's tour on the Trentino and Cadore front has left me the impression of a harmonious whole, where every detail of the complicated machinery at work is accomplished thoroughly, serenely, and confidently both by officers and men.
I can see them now in their smart, serviceable grey-green uniforms, with their dark, vivid faces, and their bright black eyes as they come and go, some riding or walking, others building huts, chopping wood, mending their clothes the sunny Italian smile always on their lips. .
They have invaded the solitary grandeur of these mountain passes, undaunted by the obstacles which Nature has placed in their way to keep her solitude undisturbed ; undismayed by the lack of roads, the snows, the wind, the rain, they have brought with them up here the sun and warmth of their homes, and the life and radiance of their cheerful, ever-ready smile. The beauty of the scenery is not lost on them either ; perhaps as a compensation to the grim horrors of war, the Powers that be have conceded to the little grey-green Italian soldier the privilege to fight his battles in these beautiful surroundings, knowing how keenly susceptible he is to anything that appeals to his innate sense of beauty. Be this as it may, at any rate he is sensible to the grandeur and beauty that he sees ; it helps him, and keeps his cheerful spirit alive. Often have I heard the soldiers commenting enthusiastically on the glorious mountain scenery.
The keen mountain air exhilarates them ; the knowledge that they are fighting to restore to Italy what was hers makes them absolutely confident of success, so they smile, and they sing as they work ; thus do the sons of that land from which has come all the beauty and the art of the world, beautify and uplift even the dull routine of warfare.
The Italian soldier is sober, both in eating and in drinking. He has not many wants a piece of bread and fruit, and, when he can get it, some of his beloved macaroni, that is all he needs. He is wiry, hardy, and enduring, notwithstanding this simple fare. He is also very handy and ingenious, and finds a way out of unexpected difficulties, as in the case of the remedy that he invented in an encampment which I saw.
It was in a heavily-wooded forest, the ground was muddy and damp, no ray of sunlight getting through the thick foliage. So in a few hours, platforms were built well above the ground, the little white tents were placed on them, nestling snugly amongst the thick branches ; and from afar one could think that an immense flock of huge white birds were taking a rest on the green-topped trees. Up there the soldiers had air, light, and sun-shine, and they were happy and could smile once more.
Another ingeniously built camp was the one I saw on a bare rocky hillside. The tents were placed irregularly apart from one another, so that, seen from some distance, they looked like big round boulders practically undistinguishable from the grey rocks of the mountain.
This was done in one of our very advanced positions in Val d'Ampola, where the enemy could through field-glasses practically see every detail on our side, and the work had to be done at night.
The Val d'Ampola is sacred ground for us ; it was there that Garibaldi and his handful of men won a victory over the Austrians in 1866. The men of 1915 know this, and they are proud to feel that today, after all these years, they are again treading the same road, this time, please God, to keep it for ever.
My last memory of Val d'Ampola is one that, more than any. words can do, typifies the spirit of cheerfulness that prevails amongst our soldiers. Near the mountain stream that rushes down the narrow valley, our men have built with tree branches a little " pergola " about four or five feet wide, they have placed in it a rustic bench and table, and during their leisure time they sit there, discuss the war, and talk about their distant homes. A big square signboard has been nailed on a post near the entrance, and on it, in uneven order, is written in awkward, ill-formed letters, " All' Osteria del Buon Umore."
That is how our men understand their war " the guerra Santa," as they call it. They fight it willingly, cheerfully, smilingly. They have not gone into it lightly ; they know full well the greatness of the task before them, the many hardships and the weary days they will have to face ; they realise all this, but yet they smile and sing as they work, for they went willingly into this great enterprise, and when at last they come to meet their long-lost brothers of Trento and Trieste, they want to greet them with joy and laughter in their hearts, and bring to them all the warmth and the light and the radiance of the gentle smile of their common mother Italy.
That is why I want henceforth our soldiers to be called by all " the smiling soldiers," for in their smile is their strength, and by their smiling courage will they gain their victory !