A short story I wrote as my final project for WWI Literature this past semester about the Italian Front. We read some diary entries from one Italian infantryman, Virgilio Bonamore. The main character of this story, Zani, is mentioned briefly in Bonamore’s diary.
Don’t tell mother–I don’t want her to worry any more than she already does–but we’re heading back up soon. This time to Monte Russo. But don’t worry little brother, I’ll be fine as usual. Me, Bonamore, Meda, Bellora, Vergani and Negri–we’re the lucky ones and we stick together. Bonamore is always saying it’s because of his girl he hasn’t bit it yet. I think that’s nonsense but I’d be happy to let him believe what he likes if he’d just shut up about her for ten seconds!
It’s weird, when we are on rest further down in some village here or there, I don’t feel so very far from home. But when we go up it’s a different world. I’m not sure which has killed more of my comrades– the mountains or the Austrians. I think it’s a close call.
I wish I could be with you. We could joke around like we used to. But I do have fun with my comrades. They’re almost like my brothers now too. Although it’s different because they treat me like the little brother because I’m the youngest–with you I’m used to being the older!
Well grub’s come. I’ll try to write again once we are in position. Give my love to everyone and tell mother not to worry about me. We’ll clean out the Austrians in no time.
P.S. If you can manage it could you ask mother and father to send me some more socks? Mine are worn through and always soaking wet. I’d rather not lose my toes to frostbite like some of the boys!
A tall figure, the height of a man but with the lankiness and slight shoulders of a boy, walked quickly through the crowded streets of Vicenza, Italy. In the distance towering mountains turned purple-grey in the setting sun. As he passed people greeted the boy.
“How’s the family, Enzo?”
“Heard from your brother lately?”
But Enzo barely noticed. In his pocket his hand clutched a dirty letter tightly. As he walked his fingers clenched and unclenched around the paper as if together hand and paper were his own beating heart. Zani had sent word a couple days ago to tell him his unit was being sent up to the front again. Monte Nero. Nicknamed by the Italians Monte Russo–Blood Mountain.
Still clutching the letter, Enzo walked into the church and kneeled down to pray. Please keep my brother safe Lord. Please.
Late that night it seemed Enzo’s prayer had been answered. Zani sprinted forward across the ridge, head down. Just behind him more than twenty Bersaglieri were crushed by a rock slide set loose by the Austrians’ fire. Most of them were instantly swept off the narrow ridge and dropped with the rocks hundreds of feet before landing with a crunch unheard by their comrades above. Zani barely registered that he had escaped the same fate by seconds. There was no time. As long as they were on this ridge they were completely exposed—but it was the only way to the front lines.
Damn these mountains.
Zani kept running. In front of him a man lost his footing and toppled off the side of the ridge. Seconds later he heard the man behind him grunt and fall. Hurt or dead, Zani didn’t know, but if he stopped to find out he would certainly join him. Finally Bonamore’s boots whipped around a rocky corner in front of him. They had made it off the ridge.
The march continued but at a slower pace now that they were again covered by the mountain. Hours passed and still they climbed up, ever up. When they reached the front trench all Zani wanted to do was collapse and sleep for hours, but judging by the state of the troops they were relieving, that wasn’t going to happen.
They were a pitiful sight. Their gaunt faces, staring eyes and mud-caked uniforms gave them the appearance of hunted animals. Zani wondered how many they had been before their shift in this sector; they seemed very few in number now.
Zani dropped his pack on the trench bottom and made to follow it, desperate for sleep, but Captain Rossi appeared, “Zani, Negri. Sentry duty.”
The rest of the night passed in eerie silence between shifts of watch and sleep. Zani stood looking over the barrel of his rifle at the Austrian lines above as the darkness gradually softened to grey. Hardly any movement or sound traveled across the rock that separated him from the men trying to kill him–the men he was trying to kill. It unsettled him more than a shelling. Shells and bullets, blood and death, noise that shakes body and soul–that’s what you expect on Monte Russo. Not this ghostly silence.
The illusion was soon shattered though. Men came up the trench to relieve Zani and the other sentry. Breakfast was brought up–meager, tasteless and stale but wolfed down all around. One of the first to finish, Ricci lit a cigarette and stood up to stretch, lazily lifting his head just over the trench. A crack rang out and Ricci fell. Blood seeped out from his helmet and soaked his still-lit cigarette on the ground beside him.
“Damn fool!” said Captain Rossi as he watched the stretcher bearers carry the body away. But really it wasn’t his fault. This sort of thing happened all the time, especially since the Austrians had the high-ground.
At 9 am, as if the guns were set on a timer, an intense barrage started. Zani heard the familiar hiss of a shell coming towards him and dove into the nearest dugout, practically landing on Meda. Shrapnel, dirt and bullets swarmed the air like hornets. Another close hit and part of Vergani’s earlobe eloped with a splinter.
The barrage continued. Hour by hour the men crouched, tense and ready at any moment to repel the assault that would surely follow. The Austrians seemed to be pouring every ounce of metal they had into the 21st Battalion. Then all at once the steady hiss and boom stopped. Zani and his comrades emerged from the dugouts and fastened their bayonets. It was time.
The Austrian wire cutters reached the Italian’s line of barbed-wire and began cutting to make way for the attackers. Most of them were shot down promptly by the Italians but, looking uphill, the Bersaglieri had a hard time getting a clear shot. Zani, pouring sweat despite the altitude’s chill, shot again and again, desperate to not let it come to hand-to-hand. He was hardly a rookie but he had not yet killed a man with his bayonet.
The first several waves of Austrians were cut down by Italian guns before they reached the trench but they just kept coming. Zani began to run low on ammunition. Next to him Bellora was completely out. An animalistic desperation seized Zani as he saw the blue line of men and metal barreling down towards them and heard the order “Prepare to go over!”
The first one should have been the hardest but Zani saw a rifle thrusting towards him and did not hesitate to thrust in return as he stepped out of the trench. In his battle fever he stabbed too hard, and spent precious seconds yanking his bayonet out of the Austrian’s ribs. Seconds passed, or hours. Zani felt in adrenaline and saw in red. Around him men of both sides fell, crying out for help but Zani heard nothing but the roar of blood in his ears. He killed automatically, aware only that he was still alive, he was still alive.
Only one sound finally penetrated his frenzy. “Zani! Zani!” He recognized that voice.
Zani whipped his head around, searching desperately for Virgilio in the chaos. He found him just a few paces away struggling hysterically to free his rifle, but the bayonet was buried full-length into an Austrian’s sternum and would not come free. Zani sprinted over to him, put his boot on the Austrian’s shoulder and yanked with Virgilio. After several intense seconds the gun came free and they both fell backwards. From the ground they saw the fight waning; not a man stood within 10 yards of them on any side.
Virgilio took advantage of the lull to clean large chunks of flesh and bone off the end of his rifle. He didn’t notice a concussed Austrian to his left coming to. The confused, frightened man awoke amongst a pile of dead bodies and flew into the manic heat of a cornered tiger. He grabbed his weapon and lunged at the closest living thing–Virgilio. Zani saw him lunge and without thinking tackled him. They wrestled. Zani got a hold of his field knife and thrust it deep into the Austrian’s chest.
Panting he sat there straddling the dirty blue uniform below him. Almost as suddenly as it had come, the bestial heat drained from him. He became aware of the Austrian’s blood soaking his pant leg. For the first time that day he looked into the blank face of a man he had just killed. His eyes were the same color as Enzo’s. A sudden need to scream, to tear off his olive-green uniform—now browned from blood and filth—to curl into a ball and hide from those hauntingly familiar eyes seized Zani. But then Virgilio clapped his shoulder from behind and the impulse was gone.
“Hey, little brother, you saved my bacon! Thanks.”
“It’s hardly the first time, Bonamore. But you’re welcome. Again.”
“Don’t get smart with me, little man.”
Virgilio helped him up. Together they stood for a moment trying to comprehend. Then-“Damn I’m thirsty. Let’s get a drink,” said Virgilio. Slowly they walked back to the trench.
In the coming days they endured more shelling and several raids, but nothing of the scale of the first. Both sides were exhausted and low on supplies. Food was scarce. Sleep even more so. On July 31st they got word that they were to be relieved that night. While others not on duty slept, Zani wrote a letter to Enzo.
We’ve just about made it! We are going to be relieved tonight and I will be out of danger for a bit. I can’t wait to sleep. I haven’t slept or eaten in days. If I make it down all the horrors of the last few days will be nothing more than a bad dream, like all the other times. It’s hard while you’re still here, surrounded by it all, to not think about it, but once you’re away all is forgotten. We’ll sleep, eat, smoke and play cards. Maybe even get warm for once! I’ll write you again once we’ve made it to the rest area. I hope to get leave soon. It’d be nice to see everybody and get away from these damn mountains for a bit. I bet you won’t even recognize me now. War’s aged me so that I’m still a boy and yet an old man all at once!
As soon as dark fell they were packed up and ready to go, but the relief didn’t come ‘til past midnight. They trudged wordlessly down at a steady pace–as exhausted as they were, they were eager to reach safety and rest–until they came to the exposed ridge. They crossed single file, walking crouched and slow. Zani barely breathed, afraid that the Austrians would see the fog lifting into the cool air from their warm, panting mouths. The first group made it across. Then the next. Third Company was not halfway across when a series of clangs–the sound of something metal falling, hitting periodically against rock–rang out. Shouts from across the ravine pierced the thin, chill air. Several Bersaglieri cursed loudly. Then chaos descended.
“Run for it!” yelled Captain Rossi. They all started sprinting across the ridge. Bullets and rock shards spewed into the air like huge, deadly droplets of spit from a sneeze. Zani’s tired legs burned and his lungs cried for air but he kept going, trying desperately to outrun death.
An unseen bullet whipped across the ravine and buried itself in Zani’s skull.
Just ten meters behind, Virgilio watched Zani topple mid-step into the black of the ravine.
I promised Zani I’d write you for him if anything happened. I wouldn’t do it for anyone else, but Zani was like my little brother.
We got relieved late on the 31st. It was that damn ridge. We were crossing it and the Austrians wouldn’t give it a rest. Zani took a shot in the head. Died instantly–didn’t feel a thing. If it’s any consolation, that’s the way we all hope to go when the time comes.
I’m Sorry (what else is there to say?),