I’m living in the past, in the WW1 days, probably I have inherited this from my maternal grandfather, a WW1 Austro-Hungarian infantry officer. In our family nobody really was interested in his past and only in the later years of his life did he open himself with details. I was listening to his accounts for days and I was lucky to be able to visit one of his former front lines on the Tyrolean front, the mountains known as Coni Zugna near Rovereto. Very rocky area, so the trenches are still there, and I listened to many of his memories. Only later I realized that he spared me the most gruesome details of trench warfare.
Josef Bonell was born 1898, Brixen Suedtirol (today the province of Alto Adige Italy). After 24 May 1915 he enrolled in the Volunteer Railroad patrol, private citizen guarding the rail lines. In 1916 after being called on duty he volunteered for the Tiroler Kaiserschuetzen (Tyrolean Riflemen) as on officer candidate, first because it was a local unit, it was Alpine troops, he loved the “edelweiss” as a symbol and the buttons of the uniform were of silver.
Basic training was already tough, with its main focus on trench warfare, infantry charges and close quarter combat (he disliked all the training for hand to hand combat, but accepted it). When ready for combat duty he was transferred to his unit on the southern Trentino front near Rovereto, II Tiroler Kaiserschuetzen Regiment (2nd regiment Tyrolean riflemen). His battalion, supplying the regiment with men to replace the losses, was the No 24 (Marsch Battalion Nr 24), so since August 1914, this regiment was in a need of 24 battalions by fall 1916 to replace the losses.
Here it was plain trench warfare, many nights in no mans land, trench raids, small scale attacks and counterattacks, snipers and rats, many rats. By June 1917 the Regiment was send to the Asiago Plateau, to counterattack the Italian offensive on the Ortigara Mountain. Very rocky open terrain, no cover, extended use of gas shells, endless attacks by the Italians and no water, every single drop of water had to be delivered. Many times trench raids were made to look for food or water. A comment that impressed me here was “at night I was convinced I was marching in a muddy area, I soon realised it was human remains”.
October / November 1917 on the Isonzo front for the big Austro-German offensive. He witnessed the big bombardment with gas shells and a German unit was fighting near his regiment, he is not sure but almost positive that he met a Captain named Rommel (after reading his memoirs, Infantry attacks). During this offensive it’s self explanatory to understand his comment, “I was so tired and hungry, I prayed God many times to send me a bullet to put an end to all this and let me be in peace”. Also very dramatic are the encounters with Italian soldiers being gassed and begging to be shot. I still can see my grandfather’s watery eyes, telling about an Italian Captain, on his knee, with foam coming out of his mouth and nose, asking/begging in the old Latin language to be shot. To respect to my grandfather’s past I never asked him more details about this.
After December 1917, again trench warfare on the Monte Grappa front, after a trench raid he was promoted Lt and got the Silver Star. At this point trench warfare was getting more horrible, knives, shovels, picks, and hand made weapons were quite usual.
My grandfather was from a very peaceful, well educated family, with formal manners. I can only imagine how difficult all this was for him. In spring 1918 he contracted one of the many trench diseases, trench foot, pneumonia and a heavy infection on his chest, and was sent to a military hospital. Late September 1918 he was selected for a Captain’s course. On 4 Nov 1918 the war ended. His military transport was 50 kilometres away from his home town, so he just walked home, witnessing what soldiers without officers or discipline can do. All the nationalities of the Austrian Empire were trying to reach their homeland before being captured by the Italians.
So this is a brief story of an Austro-Hungarian Infantry soldier, he became a school teacher and superintendent, and would not harm any living entity. We grandchildren, knew that around grandpa, don’t kill any spider of fly or aunts, or we would get a long preaching.