Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Saturday, 25 June 2011 11:50 UK

The forgotten British soldiers of Italian WWI battle

Andrew Martlew at the Magnaboschi British Cemetery

Many tourists visit northern France and Belgium to see the cemeteries where soldiers killed in World War I are buried, but other British WWI war graves are less well-known or remembered, as army chaplain Andrew Martlew observes.

If the soldiers who lie in the British military cemetery at Granezza had died a few months earlier, their graves would have had a constant stream of visitors and their memorials at Tyne Cot or the Menin Gate would have been part of our national folklore.

But in the mountains of northern Italy, I was the first British person to sign the visitors' book this year, and hardly anyone remembers that the British fought alongside the Italians in World War I.

They became the first British troops to cross the pre-war boundaries into enemy territory. They advanced so fast that it was two days before their rations caught up with them

In the autumn of 1917, the British Army was fighting the third Battle of Ypres, the one they called Passchendaele.

The Italians were fighting the Austrians, and the Germans, at the twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, the one they called Caporetto - and they were losing, terribly.

Ernest Hemingway tells the story in A Farwell To Arms, and an English nurse is at the heart of that book - but the British soldiers who came to strengthen the new front line seem to have disappeared from sight.


They came straight out of the trenches of Flanders, from the cold and rain, the mud and the poison gas.

As they travelled down through France, the days got warmer.

In Italy, they had oranges and figs thrown to them as they marched to reinforce the Italian line.

Some were lucky, they moved into trenches that were on warm, dry hills.

The Italian Army at the battle of Caporetto, 1 November 1917
The Italian Army came under heavy attack at the battle of Caporetto

Others were not so fortunate. The swamps north of Venice meant a return to the familiar mud, with the added joys of mosquitoes and malaria.

But in the early spring they left the Venetian plain and marched towards the foothills of the Alps which rise, without preamble, straight from sea-level to 3,000ft (900m) and more.

They managed the ascent by marching for 20 minutes then stopping for 10, through an achingly long day. And they found a very different world.

In many places, the pinewoods were still standing as they are now. Cool and shady today, but then still covered with snow and liable to burst into flames during Austrian artillery bombardments.

And the trenches are still there too.

If you know where to look, and are prepared to scramble up steep hillsides, you can still trace the trench systems. But they are nothing like the military engineering of Flanders.

No complex dugouts with wooden walls and beds for officers. Here the trenches were hewn and blasted out of solid rock.

Pre-battle tea

They zigzagged without military sense as they followed fissures in the limestone. And when incoming artillery fire struck the rock, shrapnel from the shells was augmented by razor-sharp splinters of rock.

And there they stayed, up in the hills of the Asiago Plateau, through the summer of 1918, until 1 November.

Map of Italy

Early that morning, with so little notice that the British troops did not get their pre-battle cup of tea, they attacked, and found the Austrian Army crumbling before them.

They became the first British troops to cross the pre-war boundaries into enemy territory. They advanced so fast that it was two days before their rations caught up with them - through woods, up and down precipitous slopes that dropped hundreds of feet at a time until, on 4 November 1918, their armistice was signed.

But there had been a cost.

Not the slaughter of the Somme, perhaps, but the sons of 712 families lie in the five small cemeteries in the woods along unpaved roads in the hills around Asiago.

Like all Commonwealth war cemeteries, they are immaculate. Surrounded by walls of rough-hewn grey granite blocks, the grass is neat - the tidy plants along the rows of white headstones waiting to flower in the clear mountain sunlight, and the only sound, beyond the wind whispering through the trees, is birdsong, pure and sweet.

Thin black cross

But the memorial that affected me most, as I traced the British progress, was not a British cemetery, nor yet the white arch of marble that towers over the town of Asiago, where both Italian and Austrian bones are interred together.

Cemetery at Granezza, Italy
The cemetery is a reminder of times of alliance and animosity

What touched me most was a modern war memorial in a medieval village a few kilometres from Trentino, at a place where British soldiers stopped at the end of the war.

Carved in black on a gleaming slab of polished cream stone and separated by the upright of a thin black cross are 17 Italian names from WWI - when we were allies - and seven from WWII - when, for some of the time, we were enemies.

Perhaps that is why, as the fascists took control of Italy, the British role in the Italian war was quietly put out of sight.

Although the British cemeteries survived, as silent, perhaps inconvenient, but still protected witnesses of a former alliance. As they do to this day.

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