On the 21st the Major and I motored to Palmanova and bought some winter clothing at the Ordnance. An Austrian twelve-inch howitzer, whom we had christened “Mr Pongo,” was shelling all day at intervals, chiefly in the back areas. An unpleasant beast, we agreed, who wanted smothering!
On the 22nd it was evident, from the Austrian shelling, that quite a number of fresh heavy howitzers, both twelve- and fifteen-inch, had appeared behind the Austrian lines. A few, no doubt, of those thousand guns from Russia! Listening to their shells whistling over one’s head like express trains, and to their (happily distant) deep crashes on percussion, one realised very vividly the immediate military effects of the Russian collapse. We heard that the Italian offensive was not coming off after all.
On the 23rd we heard that a big Austrian attack was expected last night and might come that night instead. We received orders to clean up and prepare, in case of necessity, the old position at Boschini on San Michele, which the Battery had occupied when they first arrived in Italy. This, I thought, seemed rather panic-stricken. Romano’s Battery had similar orders. It would be annoying to leave our present position after all the work put into it to make it habitable for the winter. But I noted that the atmosphere was tinged with apprehension.
THE ITALIAN RETREAT AND RECOVERY
THE BEGINNING OF THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE
On the morning of October 24th soon after nine o’clock the enemy launched a big attack against the Third Army Front, especially violent between Faiti and the Vippacco, and renewed it in the afternoon. But he gained no ground. All through the previous night and all that day till evening the bombardment on both sides was heavy. We had not fired during the night but began at seven in the morning and went on throughout the day. A message came in that the enemy would probably shell Batteries for four hours with gas shell, starting with irritant gas and going on to poison. He had already employed these tactics up north, as we learned later. Gas alert was on all night and we were listening strainedly for soft bursts. Heavy rain came down steadily all day, and everything was drenched and dripping. The spaces between our huts filled with water, and needed continual baling out. But when gas was expected, one welcomed heavy rain and high winds and loud explosions from bursting shells.
[Footnote 1: It was not till a later date that gases were employed, the effects of which were increased by rain.]
Between nine and ten p.m. I heard a series of soft bursts just across the river and arranged with Romano’s Battery for mutual alarms if any gas should come too near. An hour later I was relieved in the Command Post and turned in. As I was undressing, I heard the wind rising again and the telephonists next door baling out their dug-out. We were keeping up a desultory fire all night to harass any further attacks that might be attempted. The Major, who had been out on a Front Line Reconnaissance that morning in the neighbourhood of Merna, had come in for some very heavy shelling and returned very weary.