Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Thirteenth Battle of the Isonzo

The western edge of Slovenia is marked by the Soca River, which today carries legions of kayakers and rafters from the Julian Alps to the Adriatic Sea.

A hundred years ago, however, the course of the Soca (better known as the Isonzo, from the Italian) defined one of the fiercest battle fronts of WWI.   All along the river and its surrounding mountains, Italian troops struggled to make headway against Austria-Hungary and its German allies from 1915-18.

Today the area houses an excellent museum in Kobarid (known, more infamously as Caporetto, again in Italian), which labors to show the grim nature of the conflict with little heroic fanfare.

The battles on the Isonzo managed to combine all of the horror and futility of trench warfare on the Western Front with the travails of mountain warfare: frostbite, avalanches, and grueling topography.
The Sisyphean nature of the Italian advance can be measured by the names of the battles.  The fact that an "Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo" was necessary does not speak well to the results of the first ten.

When the Twelfth Battle arrived in 1917, it was the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans who took the offensive, and this time they managed a decisive result, one of few in the entire war. The Italian front collapsed leaving hundreds of thousands of casualties and prisoners behind. The Austrians reached the Piave River near Venice, hundreds of kilometers to the west.

The victory at Caporetto was illusory, though -- a year later it would be the turn of the Austrian Army to fold due to lack of supplies and internal disintegration, and the Italians would recapture the region at the end of the war.  

But the Falvy Family had a special interest in seeing Caporetto.   The boys' great-grandfather, Dezső Győrgyfalvy (Sr., not to be confused with his son, Dean's father) fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Twelfth Battle at the age of 20.   Dezső was shot in the lung and left on the battlefield for dead; only when a comrade went searching for his body later was he found to be still alive. The medics believed he had no chance of survival and refused to evacuate him, so his comrade had to carry him to safety on his back. According to family lore, Dezső's father, who had already lost two other sons in the war, traveled to the front to nurse him through his recovery. Though he lost the use of one lung, Dezső did survive the war (and the next one) and lived to the age of 68, the last 10 of which he spent in exile in the United States.
Miles was fascinated by this story, but also found it hard to grasp the idea that if Dezső had not managed to survive the war, Miles himself would not exist (at least not in any recognizable form). Truth be told, his dad finds the difficult to grasp as well!


It was a memorable visit to a beautiful but haunting place.


As we moved up the road to Bovec and the Alps, it was good to see the river put to use in more peaceful pursuits, as Italians, Slovenians, Germans, Hungarians and Austrians seem to enjoy a bit of good whitewater.


There was one final reminder of WWI in store for us -- an incredible road carved into the mountainside of the Julian Alps by Russian prisoners of war to supply the Austrian side of the Isonzo front.   We scaled its 50 switchbacks wondering at madness fighting a war amid such scenery.  


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