combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2005

The Fall
excerpted from The White War

          Ben lowered Enzo onto the snow. He broke the ice from the unconscious soldier's bootlaces. The ankles of guy's boots had locked onto his wool socks. Enzo's boots, socks and feet had turned into rigid glass as solid as rocks. The young Italian had paid a high price for mounting guard on the backside of this snowy dome, but this wise guy from Manhattan hadn't gotten as much as frost nip.

          There were no Italian or Austrian heroes in the Alps, only the suffering and dead, and this shanghaied New Yorker. Soldiering in the Great War was a hell of a lot tougher than busting heads for Uncle Frankie's mob.

          Ben swung Enzo back onto his shoulders and coiled the rope that joined them. Ice ax in hand, he thrust himself up the dome. His home town lay on the other side of the world from these bloody mountains, flat as a flapjack and warm compared to here, a paradise with easy pickings unless you pissed off Frankie Carlotti. And he'd sure pissed off the mob when he came chasing over to northern Italy to bring his girlfriend back to the family. Christ, he wished he'd found Carmela.

          A panorama unfolded before him as he crested the dome, distant peaks, some sharp, others rounded, all of them bedecked with dazzling white. White didn't stand for purity or innocence any longer, not since this rotten war.

          On he toiled, listening to his heartbeat, trying to pace himself. He was in this mess because he'd gotten into a fight with an Italian soldier in a bar, and the guy's buddies had grabbed him. The captain of their Alpini platoon had forced him into service. They'd used him as a donkey to lug their machinegun up Mount Marmolada. He didn't owe them a damned thing, yet here he was carrying one of their soldiers back to the trenches.

          Ben looked down the deep powder of the dome to what must be the Italian blockhouse a few hundred yards below, the platoon's hang out.

          He'd fought alongside the Alpini when they pushed the Austrians out of the trench. Christ knows why he'd done it. Their crazy captain hated his guts, had called him an Americano thug. The guys in the platoon had tried to get under his skin and make a friend out of him. Screw them, though, he ought to dump Enzo now and run.

          But he couldn't leave Enzo behind, not when the guy looked so much like Dave, his kid brother. He wouldn't let Enzo die after he watched blood bubble from his brother's mouth as he took his last gasp in Brooklyn. The O'Brien gang had bombed the car his brother was in to get back at Frankie, blast them.

          Dizzy and out of breath, Ben stared at the blockhouse. A man in white camouflage with his back to the dome crouched in front of the machinegun — that bastardo captain. The rest of the platoon must be in the blockhouse.

          Ben's legs crumpled from under him as he missed his footing. He fell, dropping Enzo, burying them both in snow.

          Enzo moaned.

          Ben righted himself and dug white mush from his eyes. He heard a faint rumbling noise. But it couldn't be thunder, the sky was clear, and it didn't sound like artillery.

          Swaying, Ben swung the young soldier back across his shoulders using strength borne of panic. He tried to block out the pain as he forged onward.

          The sound of the platoon's machinegun echoed from the blockhouse. Its harsh hammering shook the dome and its snow. The whole mountain was on the move, because of that damned fool captain.

          Snow below and around Ben shifted a few inches. The firing of the gun had loosened something large. He tried to go faster.

          Despite glare from the sun, Ben caught sight of a stream of powder shooting over a white mound above, like water from a chute. Several snowballs the size of marbles rolled down, fanning out as they approached him, leaving tracks in the powder.

          Out of breath, he stopped, sinking to a sitting position. He did his damnedest not to tip Enzo from his shoulders.

          His heart pounded as he watched a snow marble roll straight toward him. Closer it came, growing fatter, gaining momentum. It hit his left arm with a smack, exploding as if to show it meant business.

          He knew that snow was always prone to shift, yield to gravity and cascade down mountains as an avalanche. A crash a minute, or so it had appeared on Marmolada when guns were firing. Snow always pressured its way downward whatever form it was in, powder, solid crust or slippery white cement.

          Up to his waist in powder, Ben glanced down the incline and saw the captain peer upward. The madman must have seen him and Enzo up here, perched on this hair-trigger bomb of an avalanche.

          The snow around Ben shifted again, driving home the peril. He lowered Enzo and circled his arms around him. He sat hugging him, afraid to move lest he set the slope in full motion, let loose the hundreds of tons the last blizzard had dumped on the dome.

          With a snap, a crack opened in the white above them, a dark, widening break that traversed the incline. They began to slide downward through no doing of their own. They weren't slipping on the slope's surface, the whole slope shifted with them, a slow and agonizing start to a deluge.

          There could be no mistaking the swelling, deep-throated rumble of a flood of snow. The ground dissolved from under them, churning, pregnant with snarling violence. Up or down had no significance any more — the avalanche tossed them around like corks in pounding surf, arms and legs flailing. But he wouldn't ever let go of Dave, he mustn't. Damn, he didn't have hold of Dave; he was clutching Enzo.

          The rope shredded. Marmolada ripped his brother from his arms. "Enzo," he shouted into the foaming whitewash. Ben grabbed at a dark shape in front of him, but it whirled away before he could latch onto it. "Dave," he yelled.

          A monster wave had seized Ben between its teeth and was making an all-engulfing lunge at the blockhouse. And the hell of it was that he couldn't do anything to help himself or Enzo, and not the guys below. An enormous release of hellish white was about to sweep away the Alpini platoon.

          "Dave," he screamed. But the answer came from the mountain, which rammed his mouth full of gritty snow. He coughed, spitting out icy mush. His heart was beating twice a second.

          Booming, billowing white smashed into him from all sides, spinning him faster than a top. The frigid surf tore at his white camouflage and snapped his ax strap.

          Disoriented, he tumbled through a sea of relentless fury, fumbling for his ax, not finding it, at the same time trying to swim to the surface. Keep your damned mouth closed, a voice inside him yelled. He spat out snow that the avalanche rammed into his face and down his throat.

          Ben slammed into a rock. Pain shot up his right arm. The snow pinned him against the rock, shoved on him until he thought his chest would cave in. His breath came in strangled gasps. A mass of snow hurtled past him, a thundering express train grinding its gears. It swept him from the rock and engulfed him as he pitched downward.

          Again, his body hung up on something hard. The weight on him lessened, and he heard a pounding, earthshaking tremor that seemed to go on forever.

          The frosty fog around him cleared. As it did, the reflected glare of the sun hurt as much as if someone had flashed a searchlight in his eyes. For a fearful moment, he couldn't see a thing. But by some miracle, most of him had ended on the surface of the snow, and upright.

          White concrete jammed one of his legs against a rock, snow that a minute ago had been fresh powder. It buried him up to the hip, gripped him as tight as a vise. He couldn't feel pain in the leg. Numbing cold was setting in. The leg didn't appear broken. He had to get free and find Enzo.

          Right below him, he could make out glaring ice, but he had to pull his gaze away to let the flashing colors in his eyes subside. Trapped and confused, he kept fretting about losing Dave. He strained to focus his vision. Beyond the ice he could make out a jumble of white lumps, avalanche debris. Here and there were black shapes, sharp, jagged rocks tossed up to the surface, torn from their resting place on the dome.

          His throbbing eyes gazed at the trench, or what had been the trench. Panting, he wondered if he was having a nightmare. No, the avalanche had buried the trench and the blockhouse in tons of ice and snow.

          Without his ax, he had nothing to use to dig himself out. He pulled off his gloves, clawed at the white cement that trapped his leg, scratched like an animal.

          Precious seconds raced past. He had to reach Dave, no, what was he thinking, he meant Enzo.

          Ben could see his knee now. Pink snow around his pants, pink, his nails had split and the fingers were bleeding. He gritted his teeth and tugged his leg hard. For a moment thought he would pull off his foot. His boot popped loose from the cement. He overbalanced, sliding headfirst down glare ice. He swung sideways and hit the packed snow beneath it with a sickening crunch.

          The rope lay a few feet away. He crawled to it, snatching it up, following it to where it vanished into the white. Ben struggled to his feet. He heaved on the rope tightening it, making it twang. More of it whipped into the open. He lost his balance, falling on all fours.

          Downward he crawled over blocks of snow, loose rocks and ice chunks, following the rope. Fear raged through him. The rope disappeared back into the iron crust. He clawed with raw fingers, not denting the glassy white. Ben stood and began jumping up and down in a frenzy of fury, chopping the icy surface with the spikes on his boots. He dropped onto his knees, scratched and clawed. He stood again, stamped, sank down and scratched like a fiend. Something black was showing, not the white camouflage he sought, but it could be a boot. No, it was a rock. Ben yanked on the rope. It came free, but all he saw on its end were frayed fibers — no Enzo.

          As he stared at the debris that had swallowed the young soldier and the others, the eerie quiet of a graveyard settled on him. They'd all gone, iced in, entombed very near but impossible to reach.

          When Mount Marmolada had avalanched it not only shed tons of snow, it avalanched his feelings. He knew he cared about the Alpini soldiers now. The mountain had snatched away a bunch of guys he could have learned to like. Hell, he'd fought by their side. He did like them. They were his buddies, yet he couldn't rescue them. They would remain here buried forever by Marmolada.

          He'd had it with all this killing, and this vicious mountain. He'd go down and search for Carmela in the towns. Sealed in white cement, the captain couldn't stop him.

          When he found Carmela, he'd take her somewhere safe where they could live in peace, well away from Frankie's New York mob. But he would never forget the guys in the platoon: Arturo the bear, Gilberto the skirt chaser, Ettore with the clear tenor voice, or Enzo who reminded him so much of Dave that it gave him heartache.

Story Note:

          Italy's ally in the 1860s War of Independence, Prussia, made a peace convenient for itself and accepted a frontier between Austria and Italy along the crest of the northern mountains. Prussia ceded territory, which extended north miles beyond Bolzano, stranding many Italians under Imperial rule. The cry for Italy Unredeemed led the nation to join the allies in the Great War against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, in May 1915.

          The Italians performed miracles, arming and training a million-man army in a few months. They took on the Austrians at the Isonzo River on Italy's northeast plains, and fought for control of the high ground over 450 miles of rugged alpine front.

          In the summer of 1915, the building of fortifications limited the fighting in the mountains. The guides of the opposing Alpini and Tiroler Standschutzen patrols knew each other well. Camaraderie prevailed between the two sides. There were instances of Italians and Austrians sitting together on mountaintops, sharing their lunches.

          Real' war got underway in the spring and summer of 1916. Austria launched a major offensive on the Trent Front, penetrating the northern plains of Italy. The bitter battle of Asiago took place. Fighting in the mountains and on the Isonzo Front became intense. In the year of 1916 alone, the Italians lost a quarter of a million soldiers while they pushed back the enemy.

          Ten-thousand men, from both sides, died from avalanches in the Dolomite Mountains during the harsh winter of 1916-17. Inadequate clothing and poor food took its toll among alpine troops. Reports exist of three men each night dying of cold in Italy's high trenches, of ice forming on the faces of the Alpini as they attacked the enemy, of soldiers succumbing to exhaustion.

          Austrian engineer Gunther Langes, in the chapter of his book on Marmolada, spoke of: A million cubic meters of snow leaping over the glacier's tongue like a diver to crush the entire colony in a matter of seconds. The avalanche buried 300 Austrians alive in their tunnels under the ice. In an incident larger than fiction, a half-naked soldier, a young Imperial private, emerged sideways from the snow. With his fingernails, he had clawed his way out through six yards of ice-hard whiteness. Heroism occurred on both sides. The Alpini fought until the last one of them died on Mount Nero.

          H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Alexander Powell, correspondent of the New York World, all made separate visits to the Italian front in 1917 and wrote about the war on their return. America declared war against the Central Powers that year, and the Expeditionary Force joined the battle in France.

          At the end of October in 1917, German and Austrian forces broke through on the Isonzo in the battle of Caporetto the, the scene of Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms. Both the Imperials and Italy withdrew their main forces from the mountains in 1917.

          Erwin Rommel, a young captain of the Deutschen Alpenkorps in 1917, told of the surrender of Italians by the hundreds, and it was a time of low morale. Carabiniere firing squads shot many Italian deserters. Silvio Villa, an Italian-American, tells a touching tale of the execution of a friend, a captain of the elite Arditi commandos, who refused to obey suicidal orders.

          Italy rallied, stopping the advance of the Central Powers at the Piave River. But it wasn't until July of 1918 that American forces fought in the Piave trenches, four months before the end of the war to end all wars, in which the Italians redeemed the territory they lost in the 1860s.

Book Synopsis:

          It is 1917; Italy and Austria are waging savage war in the Alps. Ben Carlotti, a wise guy from New York, searches for his fiancée, Carmela, behind the front in the Italian north. He gets into an argument with an Alpini soldier, Baldovino, stabbing him in the leg. The soldier's platoon captures Ben and their capitano forces him into service with the Alpini. Anxious to help in the war effort, Carmela has joined the Posta Militare.

          Burdened with the heavy legs of a machinegun, Ben can't escape the Alpini as they climb to defend 12,000-foot Mount Marmolada. In an arctic wilderness he doesn't understand, he finds himself hanging over dizzy drops, lost in blizzards, crossing gaping crevasses, and in the path of a roaring avalanche. The Italians plunge him into a brutal conflict in which the enemy hides in tunnels under glacial ice, spiteful bullets ricochet in stone trenches, and feet freeze in boots overnight.

          Concerned for Ben's safety, Carmela starts hunting for him. She meets Baldovino in a hospital and heads for Marmolada guided by him.

          At first Ben is reluctant to fight, but begins to respect the platoon's handful of men and stands firm alongside them. The Alpini shield Ben from their captain, who won't forgive him for wounding one of his men. Baldovino becomes violent, terrorizing Carmela. She is now his prisoner, an instrument for him to hurt Ben.

          An avalanche buries the Alpini platoon, but Ben survives the deluge. He no longer has a reason to stay on Marmolada's summit and starts down the mountain. Carmela leaps from the swaying basket of a cable car, plunging into deep powder, freeing herself from Baldovino's clutches, reuniting with Ben. They descend hideous slopes in howling wind, roped together, pursued by Baldovino. The soldier unleashes a massive ice block while Ben and Carmela inch around the end of a crevasse. Ben falls into the crevasse. He clings to its glassy edge, Carmela tied to him dangling below from a slender rope's threads. The ice block misses them. Ben stabs Baldovino for the second time, sending him hurtling into the depths. Exhausted, Ben drags Carmela to a medical station and safety.

          Marmolada has sealed Baldovino in a tomb in her crust, Ben thinks, but she is also the sacred resting place of soldiers he respects: Arturo the bear, wiry Gilberto, little Enzo, and Ettore whose clear tenor voice he will never forget.


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by Roger Pepper
... who is a former director of a defense research laboratory, and the author of several unpublished novels. He is a climber who has trekked in the Italian and Austrian Alps, the Himalayas, Russia, and Central Asia.