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Mussolini Gravely Wounded

Mussolini, pictured in recovery in hospital several months later.

February 22 1917, Ronchi [dei Legionari]–Benito Mussolini, one of the most ardent left-wing advocates of Italian entry into the war, had been serving on the front lines as a sergeant since being called up in late 1915 (his attempts to volunteer earlier having been rejected due to his troubled political record). By 1917, Mussolini, like many other soldiers, complained of the “cold and infinite boredom” of his lot; he received a reprieve from this by being transferred to command a trench mortar detachment just behind the lines. 

Mortars were very useful on the Karst, their high arcing shells able to fall into enemy trenches. On the rocky ground, they caused even more damage, adding thrown up limestone fragments into the already deadly shrapnel. The mortars, however, were hastily produced to meet the high demand, and accidents were common. On February 22, despite Mussolini’s warning, one too many rounds were added to a mortar. It exploded, killing four men and wounding many others, including Mussolini. His right collarbone was smashed, his left arm temporarily paralyzed, his right thigh shredded, along with dozens of other shrapnel wounds. Many nearby soldiers refused to come to Mussolini’s aid, blaming him for Italian involvement in the war.

He was eventually evacuated to a hospital in Ronchi; surgery to remove 44 pieces of shrapnel from his body would wait several weeks until he stabilized. The King would later visit him in hospital, and he was not discharged (though still on crutches) until August. No longer fit to serve in the Army, he returned to politics. 

Today in 1916: House-Grey Memorandum
Today in 1915: Germany Begins U-Boat Campaign Against Trade to Britain

Sources include: John R. Schindler, Isonzo.

“All quiet on the Eastern front”
… really, mum. They’re just horribly misunderstood creatures, Ironbellies. Pyotr Kravchenko, the Chief Warlock of the Beast Division here in Tarnopol, is a staunch supporter of the Tsar and has named all the dragons after members of the Muggle royal family. Nikolai is positively sweet. Anastasia can be a handful at times, but nothing we can’t handle. I think she may be allergic to something they’re feeding her.

Thanks for the woollen socks you sent, and especially for the Hot Air Charm you’ve put on them.

Please give my love to Theseus when you write to him. And make sure Nipper eats properly. He always moults so badly while I’m away. They say we’ll be home by Christmas, so I’ll be seeing you soon.

Your loving son,

Newt

Snipers

“We have been trekking hard all these last days. Heat and dust terrible… We got in a wood and were surrounded by Germans. The Germans are very fond of wood fighting and detail snipers to get up trees. We lost considerably including nine officers.” Letter from Lt. Neville Woodroffe during the Mons Retreat, 1914.

Snipers can trace their lineage to hunters who began using rifled firearms that could fire accurately at longer rangers. In the North American colonies, settlers adapted the rifle to warfare, and riflemen were used as snipers by both sides during the American Revolutionary War, and by the British in the Napoleonic Wars. During the Second Boer War, Boer marksman with accurate Mauser rifles took a heavy toll on regular British forces. In response, the British formed the first professional unit of trained snipers, the Lovat Scouts, using telescopic rifles and wearing camouflage suits. Their commander said of them that they were “half wolf and half jackrabbit.“

A British officer shoots from a camouflaged position.

The trench warfare of the First World War suited the sniper perfectly. At the beginning of the war, sniping was an amateur affair, practiced mostly by officers used to hunting from before the war. Armed with personal hunting rifles, sharpshooters spent their spare time trying to pick off enemy soldiers. Only the Imperial German Army issued out telescopic sites, and soon the trained German snipers developed a fearsome reputation in the Entente armies.

In response, the British and French set about professionalizing their own marksmen. Big-game hunters like Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard worked hard to develop sniper tactics to counter the Germans. All armies set up training schools, and following in the Germans’ wake the British and French began issuing standard-issue scoped rifles. Optics underwent significant development; a major example was the “periscope” rifle that used sloped mirrors to allow soldiers to fire without revealing themselves above the trench parapet.

A British soldier at Gallipoli tries to lure Turkish snipers into firing; his friends don’t seem amused.

As snipers improved in quality, the danger they posed increased. Working in pairs, snipers were expected to memorize the layout of the land in front of them, noticing any subtle change. They wore camouflage and shot from disguised or armored positions to remain safe themselves while they watched for any sudden enemy movement. Even a man who exposed himself for a fraction of a second might become a casualty. The most valuable targets were officers, signalers trying to lay communication lines, and soldiers bringing up rations from field kitchens.

A camouflaged British marksman next to a fake tree he used as a platform.

The sniper war became a daily feature of life on the front line.  Soldiers developed methods to cope. Robert Graves remembered being troubled by one particular German sniper, but he found a response: “Later we secured an elephant-gun that could send a bullet through enemy loopholes and if we failed to locate the loop-hole of a persistent sniper, we tried to dislodge him with a volley of rifle-grenades, or even by ringing up the artillery.”

The randomness of death scared troops. It even created one superstition - never light a cigarette three times from the same match. “The sniper sees the first light, he hones in on the second, and when he sees the third he takes the shot.”

Anzac troops use a periscope rifle on Gallipoli.

Soldiers hated snipers and a captured one could expect no mercy. Nevertheless, sniping had a mental toll of its own. Some treated it like hunting, but others were disturbed by its oddly personal nature. R. A. Chell remembered feeling so during his first try at it:

“After about fifteen minutes quiet watching - with my rifle in a ready position - I saw a capless bald head come up behind the plate. The day was bright and clear and I hadn’t the slightest difficulty in taking a most deliberate aim at the very centre of that bright and shiny plate - but somehow I couldn’t press the trigger: to shoot such a ‘sitter’ so deliberately in cold blood required more real courage than I possessed. After a good look round he went down and I argued with myself about my duty. My bald-headed opponent had been given a very sporting chance and if he were fool enough to come up again I must shoot him unflinchingly. I considered it my duty to be absolutely ready for that contingency. After about two minutes he came up again with added boldness and I did my duty. I had been a marksman before the war and so had no doubt about the instantaneousness of that man’s death. I felt funny for days and the shooting of another German at 'stand-to’ the next morning did nothing to remove those horrid feelings I had.”

The Creeping Barrage

The mighty roar of the Prussian guns!

Infantry is considered the “queen of battle”, but artillery is the king, and at no time was this more true than during the First World War. Artillery blasted enemies out of their heavily defended trenches and bunkers, leaving the infantry to occupy destroyed and unmanned enemy positions. At least, this was the theory. In practice, even heavy artillery bombardments failed to kill enemy soldiers sheltering in deep dugouts. In 1915, the artillery would shell enemy positions for hours before an infantry assault, but cease right as the troops went over the top. The lift in artillery warned enemies that an attack was coming, giving them time to man their positions. And too often, the attacking infantrymen left without artillery support were gunned down in the hundreds.

The creeping barrage was an evolution in artillery tactics to provide better support to the infantry. First practiced by the British on the Somme and the French at Verdun, it integrated the preliminary bombardment and the infantry assault in a new way. Normally in 1914 and 1915, the artillery would shift to targets far behind the enemy lines when its own infantry hopped the bags, leaving it without direct battlefield support. The creeping barrage, contrarily, moved just ahead of the infantry attack.

The idea what to give a curtain of fire directly in front of the artillery, slowly moving forward as they advanced behind it. Just meters ahead of the infantry, the artillery shells provided a literal shield against bullets, while destroying barbed wire and minefields as the infantry crept forward just meters behind it.

In practice, this required exceptional skill on the part of the gunners and coordination with the officers leading the infantry assault. If the artillery moved forward too quickly, it left the infantry helpless - C.S. Lewis remembered one such experience in 1918: “barrage moved too quick, leaving the enemy free to open up a devastating machine-gun fire on the target they had been waiting for.“

On the other hand, if the artillery moved too slowly, it could fall on top of its own side. In fact, this was viewed as the preferable option. The French army lost at least casualties in the six figures to its own artillery during the war. Just another grim reality for the World War One front-line soldier. As a general rule of thumb, the artillery moved forward at 50 meters per minute to give the best support. If done properly, it shielded the advancing troops while destroying enemy positions just enemy troops manned them.