Austrian and Italian Troops Fighting WWIClockwise from left: Austrian troops haul a 24cm Mörser M 98 howitzer through a trench dug in the snow; Austrian soldiers fire on the enemy from a mountaintop; a unit of Italy’s Alpini march up Mount Adamello.

WWI in the Alps: An American Journalist on the Italian front lines

By E. Alexander Powell
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Edward Alexander Powell was born in 1879 in Syracuse, New York. After studying at Syracuse University and Oberlin College, he began his journalism career at the Syracuse Journal. In 1903 he moved to London to work as an advertising manager for the Smith Premier Typewriter Company, which was based in Syracuse, but within a couple of years he returned to journalism as a correspondent for publications in Britain and the United States. In 1914, after a brief stint as a consular official in Lebanon and Egypt, he became a roving war correspondent, covering World War I from both sides of the battle lines for various newspapers and magazines. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Powell joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned as a captain in military intelligence. An injury took him out of action the following September, and after returning to the United States he left the army with the rank of major.

Powell then switched from journalism to a highly successful career as an adventurer, lecturer, and author. Traveling widely around the world, he published more than two dozen books from 1920 to 1954, pausing briefly during World War II to work as a senior political analyst for the Office of Naval Intelligence. When Powell died in Connecticut in 1957 at age 78, the Boston Globe summed up his career in one sentence: “Held up by bandits, challenged to a duel, poking into insurrection in Crete, witnessing the eruption of Vesuvius and hobnobbing with national leaders, Mr. Powell progressed steadily around the world, surviving all disasters and busily producing copy.”

The following narrative, which has been lightly edited, is excerpted from Italy at War, one of Alexander’s half-dozen books about World War I, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1917.

The sun had scarcely shown itself above the snowy rampart of the Julian Alps when the hoarse throbbing of the big gray staff car awoke the echoes of the narrow street on which fronts the Hotel Croce di Malta in Udine. Despite a leather coat, a fur-lined cap, and a great fleecy muffler which swathed me to the eyes, I shivered in the damp chill of the winter dawn. We adjusted our goggles and settled down into the heavy rugs, the soldier-driver threw in his clutch, the sergeant sitting beside him let out a vicious snarl from the horn, the little group of curious onlookers scattered hastily, and the powerful car leaped forward like a racehorse that feels the spur. With the horn sounding its hoarse warning, we thundered through the narrow, tortuous, cobble-paved streets, between rows of old, old houses with faded frescoes on their plastered walls and with dim, echoing arcades.

And so into the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele—there is no more charming little square in Italy—with its fountain and its two stone giants and the pompous statue of an incredibly ugly king astride a prancing horse and a monument to Peace set up by Napoleon to commemorate a treaty which was the cause of many wars. At the back of the piazza, like the backdrop on a stage, rises a towering sugarloaf mound, thrown up, so they say, by Attila, that from it he might conveniently watch the siege and burning of Aquileia. Perched atop this mound, and looking for all the world like one of Maxfield Parrish’s painted castles, is the Castello, once the residence of the Venetian and Austrian governors, and, rising above it, a white and slender tower. If you will take the trouble to climb to the summit of this tower you will find that the earth you left behind is now laid out at your feet like one of those putty maps you used to make in school. Below you, like a vast tessellated floor, is the Friulian plain, dotted with red-roofed villages, checkerboarded with fields of green and brown, stretching away, away to where, beyond the blue Isonzo, the Julian and Carnic Alps leap skyward in a mighty, curving, mile-high wall.

You have the war before you, for amid those distant mountains snakes the Austro-Italian battle line. Just as Attila and his Hunnish warriors looked down from the summit of this very mound, fourteen hundred years ago, upon the destruction of the Italian plain-towns, so today, from the same vantage point, the Italians can see their artillery methodically pounding to pieces the defenses of the modern Huns. A strange reversal of history, is it not?

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