Did I know where he was going to go? I said I didn’t but that some of the other cars were at Caporetto. He hoped he would go up that way. It was a nice little place and he liked the high mountain hauling up beyond. He was a nice boy and every one seemed to like him. He said where it really had been hell was at San Gabriele and the attack beyond Lom that had gone bad. He said the Austrians had a great amount of artillery in the woods along Ternova ridge beyond and above us, and shelled the roads badly at night. There was a battery of naval guns that had gotten on his nerves. I would recognize them because of their flat trajectory. You heard the report and then the shriek commenced almost instantly. They usually fired two guns at once, one right after the other, and the fragments from the burst were enormous. He showed me one, a smoothly jagged piece of metal over a foot long. It looked like babbitting metal.
“I don’t suppose they are so effective,” Gino said. “But they scare me. They all sound as though they came directly for you. There is the boom, then instantly the shriek and burst. What’s the use of not being wounded if they scare you to death?”
He said there were Croats in the lines opposite us now and some Magyars. Our troops were still in the attacking positions. There was no wire to speak of and no place to fall back to if there should be an Austrian attack. There were fine positions for defense along the low mountains that came up out of the plateau but nothing had been done about organizing them for defense. What did I think about the Bainsizza anyway?
I had expected it to be flatter, more like a plateau. I had not realized it was so broken up.
“Alto piano,” Gino said, “but no piano.”
We went back to the cellar of the house where he lived. I said I thought a ridge that flattened out on top and had a little depth would be easier and more practical to hold than a succession of small mountains. It was no harder to attack up a mountain than on the level, I argued. “That depends on the mountains,” he said. “Look at San Gabriele.”
“Yes,” I said, “but where they had trouble was at the top where it was flat. They got up to the top easy enough.”
“Not so easy,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “but that was a special case because it was a fortress rather than a mountain, anyway. The Austrians had been fortifying it for years.” I meant tactically speaking in a war where there was some movement a succession of mountains were nothing to hold as a line because it was too easy to turn them. You should have possible mobility and a mountain is not very mobile. Also, people always over-shoot downhill. If the flank were turned, the best men would be left on the highest mountains. I did not believe in a war in mountains. I had thought about it a lot, I said. You pinched off one mountain and they pinched off another but when something really started every one had to get down off the mountains.
What were you going to do if you had a mountain frontier? he asked.
I had not worked that out yet, I said, and we both laughed. “But,” I said, “in the old days the Austrians were always whipped in the quadrilateral around Verona. They let them come down onto the plain and whipped them there.”
“Yes,” said Gino. “But those were Frenchmen and you can work out military problems clearly when you are fighting in somebody else’s country.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “when it is your own country you cannot use it so scientifically.”
“The Russians did, to trap Napoleon.”
“Yes, but they had plenty of country. If you tried to retreat to trap Napoleon in Italy you would find yourself in Brindisi.”
“A terrible place,” said Gino. “Have you ever been there?”
“Not to stay.”
“I am a patriot,” Gino said. “But I cannot love Brindisi or Taranto.”