The Asiago Plateau, WW1 by Antony Pittaccio
Have you seen the film? Testament of Youth͛? Or perhaps you have read the book? The story fills me with some emotion because my uncle, with whom I watched the battles raging in Cassino crouched behind a low wall, as mentioned in my previous article, fought in the same Battle of The Piave in WW1 to which Captain Edward Brittain was sent from France. When my uncle died some 30 years ago, my auntie was asked by the Italian Veteran Association if they could bedeck his coffin with the Italian flag. She thought it strange, but reasoned that perhaps it was normal for members of the association. Some days later,when they were sorting through his personal belongings, they discovered the reason why. My uncle had been awarded The Gold Medal for Military Valour, the highest Italian military medal. Yet, he never, ever mentioned a word about it to his family, friends, nor me.
So when I think of him, I also think of the brave young British lads who fought in the same battle, and who are very seldom mentioned. Our knowledge and ideas of WW1, seems limited to the terrible trench warfare in the muddy fields of the Western Front against the Germans. British forces also fought in the Southern Front against the Central Powers in battles that may not seem big compared with those in France, but which were perhaps the most decisive battles of WW1 because seven days after the defeat of the Austrian-Hungarian army, Germany surrendered. The film makes no reference to the Asiago Plateau, other than the death of Captain Britton, but briefly, two British Divisions with one in reserve were positioned on the plateau, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The Austrian– Hungarians launched a major offensive in June 1918 with the intention of surrounding the allied forces on the Piave and finally defeating them. One of their major thrust was to be via the Asiago Plateau.
The British forces on the plateau were inexperienced in that kind of warfare. Furthermore, 1500 were in hospital suffering from altitude sickness and other ilnesses. They were greatly outnumbered by the attacking enemy, well experienced in mountain warfare. Inevitably, the line was breached after 24 hours of fierce fighting. All seemed lost when suddenly, as written in the diary of Fusilier Norman Gladden, a Captain Stirling appeared on the parados and called for volunteers (did not order them) to counter-attack. Electrified by his example, the men clambered up after him, and after another 24 hours of hand-to-hand fighting regained lost ground and completely thwarted the Austrian offensive on the plateau. A fantastic, glorious feat against experienced Alpine troops. Cooks, orderlies, clerks and all other non combatants also took up arms and joined in the fight, for which it is also called ͚The Battle of the Cooks͛and also known as ‘The Battle in the Clouds’. Sadly Captain Stirling was killed in late October when the Allies launched their final offensive against the Austrian-Hungarians.
A medal was struck to be issued to British officers. The accompanying letter read: ‘Herewith silver medal presented by Gen. Montuori, commanding 6th Army, to British Officers in commemoration of the defeat of the Austrian attack on the Asiago Plateau June 1918″ The inscription on the medal read ‘In faith brothers and in Victory’ I can picture my uncle, whose silence spoke volumes, heartily approving that gesture towards the British band of brothers, many of whom lie there, in silence.