Animals in the Great War. A book by Eugenio Bucciol

It is sometimes hard to trace a clear difference between men and animals, not to talk about the – by somebody supported – thesis of the superiority of the first on the latter in the everyday life. This is true especially if we take in consideration the history of the First World War. Especially during wars, all optimistic anthropocentric attitudes are questioned insofar we often witness such a brutalizing of human beings that they seem to turn into beasts, more ferocious and stupid than animals usually are (and we do not need to list some examples to explain what we mean, just turn on the television or read a newspaper). Yet, in extreme situations such as the Great War the distinction between them seems to dwindle in another way: men and animals cooperated providing each other both a physical and an emotional support. Sharing the common effort to survive the destructive force of the conflict, they became co-protagonists of the history, as if the natural dynamics, to which each of them reacts, could overlap in the tiny space of a trench or in the epic scenario of the battlefield.

Let's think for example at the deep relationship soldiers developed towards their horses, or the unexpected comfort that pets or mascots - among others cats - provided to the men in the trenches or in the military camps behind the front line (have a look to this photo, the tender caress of a soldier on a fox). And yet, their cooperation in wartime can not even be reduced to a peaceful and idyllic coexistence; it preserved on the contrary a potential tension. Animals were often just utilized for immediate military requirements (we've already recalled the example of pigeons and dogs) and sacrificed to the final victory (a fate they shared with the simple soldiers, just think about some pictures took on battlefield after a defeat of a cavalry troop). They provided the nourishment to the troops which occupied new territories. And again, men and animals engaged also a "war in the war": rats and mice plagued soldiers' lives, not to talk about the smaller insects hovering or buzzing in and around the trenches. In short, the connection between animals and men during the Great War was much nuanced, and it deserves probably more attention than it had up to now.

We guess that Eugenio Bucciol had this in mind as he wrote his wonderful book Animali al fronte (Animals on the frontline), edited by Nuova Dimensione in 2003. The reader can for sure find today many works dealing with the topic, but we have to admit that the volume by Bucciol has a "plus". Focusing on the "animal perspective", he tries to write a "parallel history" of the Great War, telling us the story of all the creatures, great or small, that took part in the conflict. The first chapter of the volume provides the reader a short survey of the "unknown" protagonists of the Great War. We meet so horses, mules and donkeys, who provided the quickest form of transport and remained the primary source of power needed to transport guns to and from the front line; and then dogs and pigeons, which we have already mentioned; then animals - such as pigs and cattle - used to nourish the army (the Author discusses some episode related to the Austro-Hungarians in the Venetian region after the rout of Caporetto), and finally the parasites. It is however the second chapter that offers very interesting and touching sources and represents the "plus" of this volume, since it is made up of a large collection of pictures, most of them the Author collected in the Austrian War Archives in Vienna, where Bucciol lived for a long time. The photographic materials are arranged according to a "geographic distribution": the Italian Front, the French Front, the Russian and the Galicia Front, that of the Ottoman Empire and of the German and Austro-Hungarian territories. Leafing through this section the reader is kept in a whirlwind not only of images but also of emotions, which cannot easily put in order; yet because of that he can get a vivid impression of the history of the Great War, as if it was told us by the animals. The reach photographic material makes this work usable by everybody, no matter which is the mother-language. 

(Thanks to the courtesy of the publisher and of the author, we will soon offer to our readers some of the most interesting gems collected in this volume. So stay tuned and don't miss the next posts on WWI and Animals!)

"The Myth of the Great War". An international conference at University of Pennsylvania

Paris, 1919
It's pretty well known how the "Great War" got its name, already during the conflict. What is interesting is that we find this expression in many languages ("Grande Guerra", "Grande Guerre" etc.). On the other side, it's obvious that expressions like "World War One" or "First World War" make more sense beside expressions like "World War Two" or "Second World War". A simple question that rises is this: what made the 14-18 "European" war, the Great War, a real "World War"? For sure we cannot forget that Japanese, Australian or African people fought in this war and that was really the first five continents's war, but a very big quake was the entry of the United States in 1917 and the relevance of their position during the 1919 Paris peace conference - someone spoke about this conference as a kind of "truce" with the expiration date. For the great relevance of the United States in the Twentieth century global geopolitics after the Paris conference, it's always interesting to see what's going on there in the publishing industry, in the academic world and in the general debate about the Great War, especially when they look outside the United States. Today we would like to give evidence to an international conference at University of Pennsylvania. The title seems borrowed from a very popular book by the Italian historian Mario Isnenghi (Il mito della Grande Guerra).

The Myth of the Great War
An International Conference

An international interdisciplinary conference on "The Myth of the Great War" will be held April 24-25, 2014, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The conference is organized by Fabio Finotti, Chris Poggi, Jonathan Steinberg, and Luca Badini Confalonieri with the collaboration of the Italian Embassy in Washington DC, and the Consulate General of Italy in Philadelphia, and it will be hosted by the Center for Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before being a reality, war is a creation of the imagination, a legendary elaboration of the past, a utopia for the future. From the Risorgimento to Fascism, the myth of war always preceded military confrontations, painted them with its own colors, and transfigured them in different ways. State religion gave war a holy character, made it the locus of the consecration of lay martyrs and the foundational event of civic rites. The celebration of progress, of the machine, of Darwinian selection, presented war as the apotheosis of futurist modernity. The dream of a collectivity without hierarchies painted war as fusion of the intellectuals with the people and as fraternal experience. Different ideas of war gave rise to different ways to represent and remember it. The conference will not examine war only as symbolic form of socio-political language but also as poetic, artistic, musical, and cinematographic language.

250 word proposals and a brief vita (no cv please!) should be submitted to by February 20, 2014.

Further information here.

Italian Great War Museums #4: Valsugana, Lagorai and the permanent exhibition in Borgo Valsugana

The battlefield tourist travelling to Italy in search of World War I itineraries and museums cannot count on something similar to the Imperial War Museum of London or to the Canadian War Museum, and will not find anything comparable to what are today museums like In Flanders Field of Ypres or even the WWI Memorial in Kansas City. The Italian Great War museum network misses a reference point and dimension-wise only the “Museo storico italina della Guerra” (link) in Rovereto is somehow eligible for being a reference point. The Italian network is fragmented and basically we could say that a huge cultural and business opportunity is going to be missed. The situation is dispersive. This is of course a problem for foreign travellers arriving to Italy during today or during the centenary period. At the same time this special configuration might turn into an advantage for the tourist willing to design his/her own itinerary putting the variety of topics and “attractions” first. While travelling in the Trento province, for example, apart from the already mentioned “Museo storico italiano della Guerra” in Rovereto, the tourist could try an almost neglected route in the Valsugana valley.

In the small town of Borgo Valsugana people can encounter the permanent exhibition “Grande Guerra in Valsugana e sul Lagorai”. The layout was fully organized by the association of eastern Valsugana and Tesino and recently renewed and aims to recreate in different spaces the four years at the front of the two opposite armies, resorting to many narrative strategies. There is a kind of film attitude we can detect in such layout. Among the rarities of this permanent exhibition we have to enlist the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian aviation ace Josef Kiss, the uniform of a member of the so called Sturmtruppen, a “morning-star” club, the first prototypes of armoured hats and the famous “corazzata Farina” (today we can look at it as a first shy attempt to build a flak jacket). Here is the rich photo gallery.


Mostra “La Grande Guerra in Valsugana e sul Lagorai”
Vicolo Sottochiesa 11 C.P. 28
38051 Borgo Valsugana (Trento)
T. 0461 757195
Opening time: please use the contact information


Local Public Library
Via XXIV Maggio, 1
38051 Borgo Valsugana (Trento).
Tel.+39 0461752025

First World War one day itineraries through Italy. Suggestion no. 14: the Brenta river valley and the "Sentiero del Vu"

Picture taken during the itinerary
The river Brenta runs from the lakes of Levico and Caldonazzo, near Trento, to the Adriatic sea. Before reaching the Venetian plain and the city of Bassano with its renowned wooden Old Bridge (also called Ponte degli Alpini because the General Cadorna and the Italian Army crossed it to reach the Asiago plateau during WWI), this river flows in its first section through a narrow gorge surrounded by high mountain ranges. And just before Bassano it is surrounded by the Grappa on its left side and exactly by the Asiago plateau on the right one. If you drive today on the provincial road, you will probably think this is a quite inhospitable region: the small villages along the Brenta river valley climb on the one hand the mountain slopes with effort, trying to steal few meters of cultivable plots of land; on the other hand they slip to the bank of the Brenta river, which represented in the past the fastest commercial and transport connection for the local inhabitants. Now, try to imagine these villages during the years of the Great War, as they were suddenly transformed in a crucial passage to and from the front-line.

To introduce you to the history of the World War I in this Italian region we would like today to suggest an itinerary near Valstagna, a small village on the right bank of the Brenta river, about 15 Km northern from Bassano. As Italy entered the conflict, all houses of the village were occupied by troops coming from or going to the front line on the Asiago plateau. Civil population was forced to work at the construction of roads, water cisterns and other infrastructures for war necessities, before being completely evacuated in 1917. Since it represented for the Austro-Hungarian Army one of the entrance point to the Venetian plain, the whole valley and especially Valstagna became a strategic point, it is therefore not surprising to find even today a lots of signs of the events of those years. At the back of the village a web of mule tracks and paths climbs the steep side of the mountain, on whose top is the Asiago plateau. Part of these trails used during the WWI date back to the early modern age, when the tobacco plantation was the main economic resource for the valley inhabitants who connected with small paths the tiny terraced fields they had dug on the rocky slope of the mountain. This paths are today at the center of a touristic project called “Alta via del Tabacco” (further information, unfortunately only in Italian, here) and were recently equipped with new information panels. Among them one can find also some Great War itineraries, and we’d like today to suggest you the “Sentiero del Vu”. The path takes the name from Albino Celi, also called el Vu (the “You”), since he addressed everybody with the formal form of VuVoi (i.e. You). He was born in Valstagna at the end of the XIX century and he gained his life selling war wrecks (metals or gun powder) that he collected on the Asiago plateau or on the Ortigara. He died in 1963, becoming an example of the deep connection between the inhabitants of the Brenta river valley, the mountains and the War. Albino Celi was in fact recalled also in the work of the Italian author Rigoni Stern (Le stagioni di Giacomo - Giacomo's seasons, 1995) and in a docu-film by Ermanno Olmi on the Recuperanti, (literally "the rescuers" or "the collectors"), i.e. the poor inhabitants of the region that after the WWII collected and sold as Albino el Vu the war wastes scattered in the near mountains during both the world conflicts . 
The Sentiero del Vu overlaps the path n.775, an old military track of the WWI which leads to Col d’Astiago (m.1240). It takes in total 5.30/6.00 hours and can therefore be undertaken only during the spring or the summer. Anyway a shorter version of the itinerary which does not reach the summit and follows an alternative way back is perfect also for the autumn and the winter time, that's to say for this period. We’d like today to suggest you this one because it presents no difficulties, it's short (in total about 3.30-4.00 hours) and fits each year season. It enables therefore almost everyone to discover the traces of the Great War in this valley.

Starting point is the hamlet of Londa, in the village of Valstagna. Park near the cemetery, then walk along the main road with direction Valstagna only few minutes. In the center of the hamlet you will first see a slim white house on your right with a niche of the Virgin; few steps further on your left, you then see a red house of the XVIII century on the background and before, always on your left, the signpost of the path n.775, also called “Sentiero del Vu”. Follow it turning on the left, walk along the houses and, turning again on the left, cross the terraced fields, once used for the tobacco plantation (and admire the dry-stone walls, a masterpiece of engineering!). In about 15 minutes you will see the first trenches and mule tracks. There is also a 50 meters long gallery, which was used for the artillery fire. Looking from the 4 gun openings you will have a perfect view on the valley on north, toward the Grappa, on Valstagna and the Brenta river valley and finally on the south, toward the plain and Bassano. Follows the path and walk again about 5 minutes and you will cross the “Alta Via del Tabacco” (AVT). A white label gives you information about the “Tobacco Road” and your position. Turn then right and walk again on path n.775 till you reach a small hut, today almost ruined, and short after, on the right and signaled with a wooden sign, small trenches with observation points toward north, that we recommend to visit. Continuing then on the original path you will reach in short a fork: on the right the path n.775 continues with an equipped itinerary and reaches Col d’Astiago, on the top of the mountain, in about 3 hours. This could be fine if you are well trained and in an appropriate season, but since we’re talking today about a “winter itinerary”, we suggest you this time to turn right. Actually you will see also on this right side the indication of path n. 775 with direction Col d’Astiago in 3 hours, but follow instead the Tobacco Road – Alta  via del Tabacco among the wood, till you find on your right an indication to the Contrada Postarnia (m. 448). You can walk down immediately, but we suggest you a small deviation: if you walk few steps ahead, you will find on your left a path climbing the slope: it’s an old mule track of the Great War, which leads you in 15 minutes to the Contrada Mandre (m. 786) (open only during the summer time), where you can seat and enjoy the landscape also on the Asiago plateau. Then turn back, walk down toContrada Postarnia and reach through a stony road - once again from the war time - the center of Valstagna, where you can finally find a place to eat something. If you have some more time, it is maybe worth to drive to Bassano and visit the Ponte degli Alpini and the local WWI Museum.

(Here below is the video of the mentioned film I recuperanti directed by Ermanno Olmi.)

1913, what a strange year. The book by Florian Illies about the year before the storm

How was the European continent the year before the war started? Looking at 1913 as a single yet crucial year in the history, the simple action of asking this initial question might become dangerous. Indeed, if we take as starting point the level of knowledge we have reached today, we believe of being allowed to move even too confidently between extreme and maybe pointless positions: on one hand we could say that some warning signs were blatant already in the first decade of the century, while on the other hand we could come up to end that it was a surprise to see a continent (and later the entire world) falling rapidly into conflict in such way everybody knows. Perhaps the problem is once again the present point of view, enriched by an overflow of knowledge, which is not helpful while studying the war outbreak. If you want to escape the pitfalls that the present point of view always features, a solution could be an essay resembling a photograph of one single year. And the year is 1913. More or less the way we build a calendar, divided into 12 months and many days with lots of events.

This “calendar” is something similar to what the German journalist and art historian Florian Illies has built up in his book entitled 1913. Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (1913: The Year Before the Storm). While reading his brilliant account of year 1913, we are not forced into any of the two extreme positions pointed out in the introduction, we are rather free to fluctuate in the vivid cultural atmosphere young generations lived while they were getting closer to war. At the end of the year (and of the book) we will be probably able to draw our uncertain roadmap to the disaster that followed and we could even think of choosing one of the stories Illies told as a warning sign or as a starting point for new analyses. What are Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann doing, thinking or writing in 1913? What about Jung and Freud? Is Mr. Rilke fine? And what can he tell us about that special boy called Marcel Duchamp? Sorry, we are forgetting music: what are Stravinskij and Schönberg preparing? Well, last but not least, how is Hitler's youth? This is not a book about the Great War. This is a book written as if the war was about to begin and nobody still knew or behaved like this was about to happen. So, why is probably this book remarkable among World War I audience? To our eyes, this literary expedient works fine as a preparatory book to introduce the mood of an age collapsing into war - like we wrote here - at a ragtime rhythm.

Transformations: an exhibition on World War I in Calgary

You still have few weeks to visit an interesting exhibition in Calgary, to which we’d like today to draw your attention. A trenchant title – Transformations – and a fascinating theme – the representation of the First World War in the visual art – characterizes this exhibition produced by the Canadian War Museum in cooperation with the National Gallery of Canada, running from September 2013 till January 12th 2014 at the Glenbow Museum. It collects war-influenced paintings, including works by the renowned Canadian painter A. Y. Jackson (1882-1974, see his Vimy Ridge from Souchez Valley, 1917,  in the picture above) and the great German Expressionist Otto Dix (1891-1969).

Especially the landscape paintings of both authors reveal the strong impact of the Great War on their artistic output - maybe a way to elaborate the tremendous experience of the conflict. A. Y. Jackson enlisted in the Canadian Army’s 60th battalion, arrived in Le Havre, France, on February 1916, and was sent with his unit during the spring of the same year to the region of Sanctuary of Wood, just outside Ypres. In June he was wounded during a heavy barrage by German artillery in the Battle of Mount Sorrel. After his recovery he was transferred at Shoreham, England, where in the summer 1917 he met Lord Beaverbrook, a member of the Canadian War Memorials Fund, who engaged him as official painter: he spent therefore the following months, till 1918, between the Flandres and the battlefields and his London studio. On the other side of the front line, also Otto Dix took actively part to the Great War. He enrolled as a volunteer in the German Army and was sent to the Western front where he fought during the Battle of the Somme. In November 1917 he then moved with his unit to the frontline with Russia and at the beginning of 1918 once again in the Flandres.

Two men, fighting on the opposite sides of  the battlefield, expressed in their following artistic effort the traumatic experiences of the Great War and translated in images – especially of landscape, on which the exhibition focuses – how the ideas about the birth, death and rebirth of nations ruled in a sometimes unconscious way human history during those years and dramatically few decades later during the WWII.

An introduction to the exhibition and further information here.

Again on sports and World War One: the Italian cyclist Carlo Oriani

Carlo Oriani (1888-1917)
Few weeks ago the organizers of the "Tour de France" officially announced that the cycling race next year will pay tribute to the outbreak of the World War One and to its victims, passing through the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting at the Western Front. Stage are planned among other in Ypres, Arras, Verdun and Douaumont. We wonder if a similar initiative will be adopted also by the organizers of the "Giro d'Italia", as some rumors seem to indicate. However we won’t talk about the Centenary and the cycling races today, we rather turn back to the Great War and its protagonists to tell you a story of a man which discloses another way to connect sport and WWI. 

Many of the cyclers who took part to the Tour de France or to the Giro d'Italia before WWI were later involved actively in the conflict. Among them, also Carlo Oriani. Born in a small village near Milan in 1888, he took part to the most important Italian cycling race from its first edition – where he had the fifth place, with the Stucchi team – then won the Giro d’Italia in 1913. When Italy entered the war in May 1915, bicycle sections were immediately formed within many of the army units in order to transport men and supplies to and across the front. Moreover, bikes allowed for quick and silent movement behind the lines and supported communications, becoming so crucial. Also Carlo Oriani was enlisted as bersagliere ciclista and served the army till the rout of Caporetto in 1917. The historical sources are lacking, so we can report only legends or oral accounts. It seems, however, that Oriani reached the river Piave during the chaotic retreat and – according to some reports, trying to help a comrade, according to others simply swimming across the river – he contracted pneumonia. The young man never recovered and died in an hospital of south Italy in December of the same year. You can see in the photo Carlo Oriani in uniform during the WWI.