Luca Campigotto

In the Best Years, the Saddest days

For weeks on end, I walked through the mountains with the final words of a letter running through my head—a letter written by a soldier on the front to his girlfriend: “write often, write to me again”. As I trudged uphill, tripping, climbing, the solitude of that soldier kept me company and seemed to renew my energy. The backpack holding my camera was undoubtedly lighter than the 35 kilo loads they had to haul back then, and though the tripod in my hand seemed at times to sway back and forth like a rifle, no one was going to shoot me. And so, I went on thinking, “write to me again”—and your words of love will silence my fear and fatigue.

The war fought in the mountains of Italy was a war like no other, and utterly senseless. For three years, tens of thousands of men, many of them not yet twenty years old, hunted each other down among rocks and crags in a grand and cruel game of hide-and-seek. A true theatre of war, in which the armies’ outposts were often so near to one another that the soldiers could hear voices rising from the enemy trenches. Hopelessly near, at times, rendering all bombardment impossible, given the great risk of hitting your own troops along with the enemy.

A war fought under the constant threat of snipers, frostbite on the mountaintops and thirst on the Karst Plateau. A war in which the soldiers, to conquer their unbearable fear, often charged into battle drunk on grappa. Where men climbed out of the trenches into an incomprehensible bedlam of screams, noises and smoke shrouding the air. Cries of fear blended with the shouting of commands. The wounded howled in pain amidst cannon blasts and raining shrapnel. A war so senseless that, on one or two occasions, the Austro-Hungarian troops lowered their machine guns, with which they were mowing down the assaulting Italians, and invited their enemies to desist and put an end to the carnage. While to the rear, a paradox within a paradox, the Carabinieri awaited, threatening to shoot any of their own soldiers who dared retreat.

A war in which, every now and then, perhaps at Christmas or Easter, the armies would say enough is enough and hash out an hour long cease-fire. Troops from both sides descended into the valley of the no-man’s-land to trade cigarettes, grappa and chocolate. Only to call the truce off, go back to their positions, and start shooting again.

“Gebirgskrieg” was the name the Austro-Hungarians gave to the conflict, mountain war. An experience at the very limit of man’s ability, a trial of strength which, at such high altitudes, became almost a competitive sport. Entire units were made up of expert climbers who, under the cover of darkness and with their leather-soled shoes to muffle their footsteps, ventured up even the steepest cliffs just to conquer a single patch of rock—territorial gains often of little signifiance, which they would then lose the next day and perhaps re-conquer a week later. And all of this in a wondrous natural environment, surrounded by a landscape which could prove merciless, under metres of snow, or enchanting, carpeted with green fields in the summer.

When, at a certain point, the trench war seemed to have come to a complete stalemate, they thought up an even more original military strategy: a landmine war. Ceaselessly, with incredible courage and technical skill, the military engineers burrowed into the ground with picks and shovels, digging an average of four metres per day, driving their tunnels under enemy territory and placing their explosive charges. Exactly how these explosions would effect the conflict was often unforseeable, but doubtless they would alter the region’s orography—at Col di Lana, as so happened, after a series of explosions set off by the two armies, the rocks rolled back almost exactly to where they’d come from. Often, an army digging one tunnel could hear their enemies burrowing another. There were times, even, when the enemy could be heard tunnelling both from above and below, sometimes with an automatic drill, at which point their opponents would come to the quick conclusion that the they’d lost the battle and set about hurriedly excavating a retreat tunnel, in a labyrinth of rock which at any moment could come crashing in on top of them. And then, the charges exploding at night—a terrifying boom and the rumble of rocks, bursting apart, soaring through the air and falling back to earth. Meanwhile enemy soldiers, who’d been catapaulted into the air—as recorded in the diary of one survivor—came raining down like dummies in the flash of the explosion.

“The joy of looking out from mountain peaks,” someone once wrote whose name eludes me. To contemplate from on high the sublime spectacle of the earth’s formations, stretching out, twisting, pressing toward the horizon. The majesty of the grey rocks that suddenly light up with red, pink and orange. To put such savage splendour into words is difficult, these places still scattered with trenches, tunnels, tangles of barbed wire, and rusted food cans. An open air museum. A heroic scene of immense beauty—a patchwork of silences, today broken only by the wind or the cries of marmots. A magnificent spectacle in all directions, for the mountains often leave us with an almost mystical feeling of estrangement.

Up at these peaks, the echo of the Great War still rings with its full intensity, bouncing off the countless tales of war, memories and episodes, the relics conserved in village museums. As a photographer I found myself overcome by emotional impressions, by the rhetorical temptations that come with every journey into memory. At the end of each day’s walking, I ran into one local or another who would ask me if I had been to such-and-such a hilltop, or what about the one next to it, and had I seen this particular crenel or cave. Each day the list grew, as testimony that the war had been fought everywhere, on every inch of rock. From the Slovenian border to Lake Garda the mountains bear the traces of war, in the stones and wooden remnants of fortifications. The perforated rock at the mountain crests is a fretwork scattered with relics. An archaeology of war.

“In the best years, the saddest days”—so goes an inscription found in the Carnia mountains. All at once, we’re flooded by a multitude of sepia-toned images. Harrowing photos of another time. Faces of the early twentieth century rise to the surface, with moustaches, with crew-cuts. The faces of highlanders, or terroni sent to fight in the North. You can almost see them, pressing together up the steep slopes. A hologram army. Under their breath, they tell tales of pain, of fear and daring. In the countless dialects of Italy, they teach us History.


from the book Theatres of War, Milan 2014

copyright © 2013 Luca Campigotto

Luca Campigotto