"I dannati dell’Asinara" by Luca Gorgolini

A forgotten history from a forgotten front of WWI is the core of a fascinating book by the Italian historian Luca Gorgolini, who has reconstructed the human odyssey of a group of Austro-Hungarian soldiers, imprisoned in the Balkans and then deported to the Asinara, a little island close to the north-eastern coast of Sardinia. But let’s start from the beginning.

Fall 1915, the German and Austrian-Hungarian Armies from north and the Bulgarian Army (which has just gone to war) from east attacked and finally occupied Serbia during their third offensive action. The first two aggressions, at the beginning of WWI, did not succeed in having the upper hand over the Serbian resistance and many soldiers of the Empire were captivated. Already at the end of 1914 they were more than 60.000 – an impressive number for the small Serbia also in normal condition. Can you imagine what it was like after 6 months war, when the uninterrupted military effort and the progressive isolation of Belgrado had exhausted the whole country? No adequate prison camps had been arranged and scarce resources were assigned to an alternative arrangement of the war prisoners. German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers were usually mistreated and robbed (even of their clothes), employed in civilian or military works; moreover they often starved. Lastly their tragic conditions deteriorated because of epidemics: as soon typhus, smallpox and dysentery spread, these prisoners were decimated.

Then the invasion and the retreat. When Belgrado was occupied in October 1915, the Serbian government, army and population were put to flight. Not only the literature, already the contemporary witnesses speak about a “huge retreat”: the tragedy of a flood of people leaving their homes, blocking the muddy roads with their poor furnishings and goods; a lost and scared humanity, who had no idea of the future and was just seeking a first refuge in the neighboring countries of Montenegro and Albania. Among this crowd there were also the Austro-Hungarian and German prisoners, who were forced to march together, since the Serbian leaders didn’t want them to enlist once again or support their homeland. Even the sick ones were pushed to escape and to suffer together with the companions the lack of even the essentials. Many of them perished during the retreat due to hunger, cold and illness. The survivors beached instead along the Albanian coasts, like hopeless waves of that human storm.

But the odyssey was not at the end. When the German and the Austro-Hungarian armies entered short after the Montenegro and approached Albania, the evacuation of the exiles became urgent. The English, French and Italian navies immediately organized the transfer of Serbian civilians, politicians and soldiers for example to the Isle of Corfu. The German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners represented instead an international problem. They had to be moved out as soon as possible, but over their custody quarreled France and Italy. Italy strove for a predominant role in the Balkans and claimed the right to manage the emergency. It finally took the prisoners into custody, appealing to its special mission, which run in Valona since December 1915. Unfortunately the political ambitions didn’t match the effective resources required for their assistance.

Mid December 1915 the first German and Austro-Hungarian group of prisoners was transferred to the Asianara, a small and arid island near Sardinia, where a medical centre and isolation ward for infectious diseases had been established since 1885. It was in fact clear that those soldiers represented first of all a sanitary emergency (most of them suffered a severe form of cholera infection); therefore they should be transferred in small groups – the medical complex of Asinara could in fact host 1.000 patients at most –, disinfected, kept in quarantine, treated and, when restored to health, transferred to other prison camps in Italy, letting so another small group to be aided. But the war situation in the Balkans quickly deteriorated and also the health conditions of the prisoners stuck on the dock of Valona degenerated in the risk of contagion. Regardless of all medical procedures, between 16th and 30th December 1915 21.388 prisoners were transferred with 10 steamships from Valona to the Asinara; and then again about 2.618 soldiers between 2nd January and 8th March 1916.

24.000 men reached the little island in only 8 weeks. It should be enough to recall this fact (24.000 in 8 weeks!) to figure out the tragedy that follows. Only during the trip, which lasted about 2 days, more than 1.500 men who had been infected already in Valona died. Many passed away on board, while the steamships waited for docking in the roadsteads in front of the Asianara Island, which was flooded by the sick prisoners and, due to the lack of facilities and military and medical staff, couldn’t receive the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers as soon as they arrived. The tiny spaces of the boats, the difficult living situation, the trip and above all the precarious sanitary condition let the epidemic spread, so that the captains were often forced to throw the corpses into the sea. Even on dry land the cholera infection did not ceased: from 7th to 14th January 1916 more than 1.300 prisoners died. There was no water, no adequate supplies, it was winter and the prisoners (no matter if ill or not) were gathered in tent camps; also the medical staff and equipments were insufficient. All these elements contributed to the massacre: 7.000 prisoners died in the first 3 months.

Such frightening numbers make us understand the tragedy of “the damned of Asinara”, as Gorgolini entitled his study (I dannati dell’Asinara, Torino 2011 – a German translation by Günther Gerlach is also available: Kriegsgefangenschaft auf Asinara, Innsbruck 2012; also a Serbian version will be released at the end of Juni: Проклети са Азинаре, Prometej, Novi Sad, 2014). And yet the great value of this work is not limited to the detailed description of the historical context, to the analysis of the odyssey of these soldiers in the broader framework of the war prisoners during the Great War (and yet this phenomenon in general has still to be satisfactorily investigated, as also Gorgolini points out), or to the examination of the official reports and the officers’ accounts (all significant merits we have to recognize in this book); it is also and above all the diaries and memories of the prisoners, which the author constantly quotes (for example the diaries of a Czech soldier, Josef Šrámek, and an Austrian one, Josef Robinau) that make this book – and above all the last chapters – a vivid reconstruction of the hell, which these men went through. The Asinara Island became a circles of Dante’s Inferno: a city of tents, of improvised shelters for the exhausted prisoners, who suffered from hunger, thirst, physical (above all cholera, but also other epidemics) and psychological (mental disorders and depressions among prisoners are also discussed) diseases, the rivalry among the different national groups, the brute struggle for existence. At the same time the author does not neglect to highlight that a shared culture and everyday routine have developed in the island, newspapers – no less than with satirical content – were published, for example, and the correspondence with home became a life line.

We could recall other details of Gorgolini’s book, but in conclusion we content ourselves to stress that this is a precious work, which shows us the great importance of the good historical research, as this one is; a book, which has be read in order to discover another piece of the WWI mosaic. 

"The faces of World War I. The Great War in Words & Pictures" in the book by Max Arthur

The archives sometimes are full of treasures and overwhelming. The main issue becomes therefore how to give life to these treasures, how to build new knowledge from what already exists without having a voice, how to mark a path to follow. A unique case how to tackle this issue is offered by the Imperial War Museum, probably today one of the richest war museums, and by the great book edited by Max Arthur, The Faces of World War I. The Great War in Words & Pictures (published by Cassel). The project is somehow connected with the one led by IWM and called “Faces of the Great War”. Why all this interest for the human face during the First World War? We think we can detect at least two main reasons that motivate and sustain this interest. First of all we should never forget the Great War overlaps with the first extensive use of cameras. Secondly, and not in order of importance, we can see an attempt to give back the human side of a war that by far was the first experience of mass death. The thread of the human face is what allows the author to build up a book where nothing is let aside. Through the faces we get closer to all the shades of psychological and physical trauma. This book is a real journey lasting five years. And there is always a kind of faint that occurs when we are staring at an old picture for a long time, concentrating, entering the image, trying to give a sound to its silence, even when this picture is just a mute portrait.

The author of this book, obituary writer for "The Indipendent" and one of the most renowned British oral historians, develops his five-year analysis through a visual journey that starts in 1914 with the Christmas truce and touches every year of the Great War: 1915 with Neuve Chapelle and Gallipoli, 1916 of course with Verdun and The Somme, the long 1917 with Arras and Cambrai and then 1918 with Picardy and the armistice. A deep overlook is also dedicated to the aftermath. A clever use of caption is essential in a photo book and we cannot really ask more to the lines that stand below the images. More words are pointless, this is really one of the greatest photography books on the First World War today available, for all the above mentioned reasons.

Italian Great War Museums #5: a new layout for the "Museo della Battaglia" in Vittorio Veneto

Vittorio Veneto gave the name to the last battle of the First World War in Italy. And in this town located in the Treviso province a visitor can find one of the most relevant Great War Museums, at least nominally. New works of renovation of the layout started in 2012 and now the facility is almost ready. One of the peculiarities of its collection is for sure the big amount of documents, dispatches, posters in several languages along with the hall dedicated to the Italian spying activities in this city during the twelve months of the Austro-Hungarian occupation. Another flagship is the collection of photos and stereographies realized by Luigi Mazzocchi, one of the operators of the Italian Supreme Command.

Last May 10, during the preview of the new setting-up of the Museum of the Vittorio Veneto Battle, Col. Lorenzo Cadeddu of the Centro Studi Storico Militari sulla Grande Guerra “Piero Pieri” with its con l’Archivio della Memoria sulla Grande Guerra presented the casualties' census referred to the province of Treviso as well the research, analysis and digitization the Centro carried out in collaboration with the Association WW1 - dentro la Grande Guerra.

WW1 soldiers are men who leave their houses to go and fight at risk of their own lives. Those who survive the war often come back home suffering from pain or illness.

Walking a mile in those people’s shoes means not only getting aware of soldiers’ living in wartime, but also of their being simple men, sons, husbands, fathers far away from their birthplace. It is not an epic story, on the contrary, the human story of each family who had a grandfather, a great-grandfather or a loved one involved in that war.

To produce the scientific census on WW1 Italian casualties it was needed going through sources such as the "Albo d'Oro", the Official Military Report on the war and the municipalities' general registers to rediscover the story of each of them.

Today the technological tools also help us to organize hundreds thousands data from that period, to compare them with information from other sources and to apply data mining strategies to get combined and new results from research.
Both the Associations aim to spread all over Italy a historical and cultural heritage which is a public value and to provide everyone  - from citizens to fans, from students to researchers, with useful cultural tools.


A photo reportage about Col Fenilon and Col Moschin


    1 Starting point of the path

    2 The stony steps

    3 View at north on Valsugana

    4 The ascending path

    5 Inside of the tunneled trenches

    6 View on the Asiago Plateau


    7 From the Grappa eastern side, looking at south

    8 The cross of Col Fenilon

    9 Looking at Cima Grappa from Col Fenilon

    10 Looking at the near Col Moschin from Col Fenilon

    11 The roman column on Col Moschin

    12 Fortifications and trenches on the east side of the Grappa range

We recently posted an itinerary related to Col Fenilon and Col Moschin and the one above is the photo reportage collected during that excursion. We're happy to share it today with our visitors.