I am studying the development of Prisoner-of-War camps in the Great War and have acquired a card sent by an Italian POW back to Italy dated 1918 from Oswiecim, which as you know was renamed Auschwitz in WW2. I cannot find any references to the existence of a POW camp at Oswiecim not can I ascribe any reason as to why an Italian soldier would be imprisoned there. Any comments or assistance would be most welcome.
I do not know if you have seen and read this personal account, published on the internet, by a WW1 Italian soldier, Cavaliere, Antonio Sorrenti (1897-1981), captured and taken to a POW Camp at Heinsgrin in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He himself describes is as an incredible account of a young soldier's journey from a small town in Calabria, to the treacherous slopes of Monte Grappa in the Italian Alps, to prison camps deep within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
" What follows are the memories and recollections of my imprisonment during the First World War, told with fairness and truth. I have included no exaggerations or fabrications and I have attempted to relay, to the best of my ability, my experiences as they unfolded. Please forgive me, kind reader, if I have not described or presented these facts in the best way possible.
This report was made from the original typed document which was created in July, 1918 in the city of Inglau, Moravia. [Inglau was the German name for Jihlava. Moriavia is the eastern region of what is now the Czech Republic.] This was following my release from a concentration camp in Heinsgrin [in Bohemia, the western region of the Czech Republic] where I wore the prisoner registration number HJ36012. I was then 21-years-old.
It was the year 1916 and since May 24, 1915, Italy had been at war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The war was spreading like wildfire. During September, 1916 (I was 19-years-old at the time) I was called up to the army and sent to the 29th Regimental Infantry and posted at Potenza in Basilicata. [Southern Italy, just north of Calabria] I arrived at this depot where I was outfitted and equipped. Our battalion was then sent to Barletta [northeast of Potenza, near Bari] for training.
After 40 days of instruction and training, the battalion was moved again, this time to the war zone where we proceeded directly to the front. However, for some fortunate reason I did not leave for battle but instead was called back to the depot of the 29th Infantry. It was in this depot that I would stay through the end of 1916 and the beginning of the following year. A few days after returning I had the luck to be requested to act as orderly to a Lieutenant, a certain Senior Francesco Balsimelli. I was assigned to this duty until the end of April, 1917, when one morning the Lieutenant called me to come speak with him. By ministerial order, he told me, he could no longer keep me as his orderly. Not only that, but I must leave immediately for the war zone. Truly this news was less than pleasing, none-the-less, I was resigned to this fate. I immediately stopped serving as an orderly and was called to the company which in a few days would be leaving for the front.
One morning, by the will of God, Lieutenant Balsimelli called on me and asked if I wanted to be a squad-leader of the new recruits of 1899 [that is, they were born in that year] who had just finished their training. Certainly to accept this responsibility seemed to me to be an honour. Although I was concerned that this position would be too difficult, I felt that it was my duty and it gave me courage that the Lieutenant entrusted me with this responsibility. So there I was, Squad-leader of these new recruits the so-called Boy Soldiers of 99 outfitted, equipped and destined to leave to make camp in Avigliano not far from Potenza. We stayed in Avigliano until the end of September, 1917. In the first days of October the battalion was to return to Potenza to find accommodations in a local school to pass the winter of 1917-1918.
These troops were meant to be held in reserve until the spring of 1918 when they could be used to launch a great offensive. Tragically, we had misjudged our enemy. They were a step ahead of us. In fact, it was in the last days of October, 1917 that the enemy unleashed a tremendous, a colossal offensive against our front [along the Isonzo River in North-eastern Italy] and within 15-20 days, enemy troops had advanced as far as the Piave river and Monte Grappa [an advance of some 113 km (70 miles)]. That terrible retreat from Caporetto was for Italy a true catastrophe, a cataclysmic event with huge loses on our part. Many soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. Territory that was well fortified was overrun and provisions, ammunition, equipment and other discards of the army were in enemy hands.
Soon we learned of the consequence of this terrible retreat: the Boys of 99, including my battalion, were called to the front to replace those that had fallen and to face the advancing enemy. Leaving Potenza, we were assigned to the 42nd Infantry to march with the 41st Infantry, forming the Modena Brigade.
It was towards the end of November that we found ourselves at the town of Bassano del Grappa. The road leading up the Grappa was bristling full of dangers: there was no shortage of fallen snow; snow storms and blizzards were commonplace. After two nights of marching (during the day we waited) [presumable to avoid being observed by enemy scouts] we arrived at the front, at the third line of defense. It was the first days of December.
One night our battalion was ordered to move forward to the first line of defense to reinforce the troops that were already in position there. However, when we arrived in the area of the second line we were told to stop and ready ourselves for the enemys attack. But by the will of God, all that day we didnt see combat as our troops on the first line resisted the advancing enemy.
That evening we returned to our starting point on the third line and I was assigned, along with four other soldiers, to an observation post. Our task was to spend the night watching for any sign of enemy activity and to signal if the enemy was in our midst. We were supplied with flares and a radio so that we could communicate directly to our commander. We were also to report any observed artillery, machine gun fire or rifle shots.
I took my post as ordered and it was there that we stayed, night and day, hunkered down, alone, in a kind of foxhole3. We were isolated from everyone and everything, we were forgotten. Feeling worn down and abandoned, one night we decided that two of us would have to venture out to collect something to eat. These two returned in the night of the second day with a few provisions. As it turned out, the food was frozen. It had been left out in the cold and snow that had been falling every day, covering all traces of foot prints and the mountain paths. These few provisions were very poor, we couldnt possibly eat them, both because they were frozen like ice cream and also because in our foxhole it was so cold that we had lost our appetites.
We held up tight in that dingy hole when, on the morning of December 18, we heard in the distance the first cracks of machine gun fire. It was indeed an ominous sign: the enemy was advancing. It was around 8:00 a.m. when, little by little, our soldiers from forward positions came back to our trenches [in the third line] as the enemy pushed forward in pursuit. We left our foxhole and joined our fellow soldiers, armed to the teeth, in the trenches to await what would happen next. It soon became apparent that the enemy was amassing atop a hill above our trench. With their predominant strength it was clear that they were preparing to massacre all who occupied our position. The attack from above was almost upon us when a shout of Every man for himself!4 echoed along the trench. To protect myself I jumped out of the trench5, when a strike of lightening [either an artillery burst or grenade explosion] hit.
Some time later I awoke with a start from a kind of daze. I couldnt realize what was going on, why I was all alone. Then it came to me in a flood of consciousness that I was covered in blood and that blood was gushing from somewhere on my head. I was frightened and shocked at the sight of all this blood and I thought that my end was coming. However, slowly, as the minutes passed, I began to feel better and better with just a minimal amount of pain, but I still couldnt understand what had happened. As my head cleared, I took a better look around and realized that both far and wide, everywhere I turned I couldnt see a sole alive.
In that state of total abandonment and isolation, I noticed that I was still bleeding and that my strength wasnt coming back to me. I was utterly dejected and didnt know what to do. It seemed to me that all was lost, and I burst out crying. Then, through my tears, I saw, like a vision, what seemed to be my mother. Was it truly her? Just then it occurred to me that this very day was the 14th anniversary of her death, December 18, 1903. Encouraged and spirited by her presence (that is, the vision of her) I felt more animated and my moral slightly increased. Then, off in the distance, not too far away from me, I saw a soldier.
It was an enemy soldier. How it was that he found me Ill never know. But that soldier, at that moment, was not my enemy but my friend and brother in my misfortune.
He approached, and to my relief, sat down beside me. Taking out my medical kit (that contained field dressing) he lovingly cleaned away the blood that was still falling from my head, although only lightly now, and then examined me briefly to see if I had any more serious wounds. (Only after some time did I come to realize how I must have been wounded. A piece of shrapnel from the explosion had pierced the back lip of my steel helmet, coming to rest, cold, at the nape of my neck. Later, after an operation in the prison hospital, I was to find out that the shrapnel had slowed to a stop behind my left ear.) We couldnt understand one another, and so, in a moment that was very somber for the both of us, we shook each others hand in a sign of peace and friendship. He then departed, leaving me to my fate while he continued on his.
For a while I rested alone, with my mother, not knowing what to do or where to go. In which direction should I head on that desolate mountaintop? The snow continued to fall very hard, covering every trace of footsteps and obscuring any paths. None-the-less, I couldnt stay where I was. If I was to stay there the night it would have been the end of me. Thus, I had to move on. Driven by the spirit of my mother, I set out in the direction that the enemy had come from, for by then I was already a prisoner.
After walking about 400 metres ahead, a dismal, horrific scene presented itself in front of my eyes. The dead were spread out everywhere. Here and there corpses were piled up one on top of the other, all along the trench. Some of the bodies were partially buried in the snow. The poor dead were everywhere: here one missing a head, here one missing both legs, here, missing both arms. There were many awful corpses, torn to sheds as if by a crazed wolf or dog. Agonized by such a dreadful spectacle, again I covered my eyes with my hands and burst out in tears, thinking only of these men and their cruel fate. These were all my poor squad members, the Boy-Soldiers of 1899, (just 18-years-old) that held there positions at the first and second lines of defense. They had tried to resist the enemy onslaught and instead had all been massacred.
Given the miserable end of these poor soldiers I couldnt stay long. I left that dreadful scene and continued on, away from where I was wounded. I had gone some 200 to 300 metres when what should happen but: Great God! the sky opened up6, and a tremendous bombardment from the Italian artillery broke out. It seemed as if the end of the world was coming. There were so many bombs and grenades falling at such a break-neck pace and without stopping that it seemed that the mountain itself would surely be leveled, or broken wide-open. At this point, I was certain that my end was coming and so I decided that I should fix myself in one spot, squat down and recite Ave Marie7 while I waited for my miserable, inexorable end. However, by some miracle the Italian bombardment slowly calmed down and I took this moment of calm to look for another way ahead. The way in front of me, and below, presented a very deep ravine, frightening in appearance, that seemed to reach to the bowels of the earth.
Taking advantage of the Providence of this unexpected ravine, without thinking or minding the danger that the situation presented, I closed my eyes, sat on the ground and slid, helped by the snow, and sank into that abyss, unscathed. I was saved that is, saved from the shelling that had started up all over again, this time from both the Italian and Austrian guns. However, my troubles and punishment were far from over, for I found myself all alone in that deep abyss in those high mountains, not knowing where I was, nor in which direction I should head, and unsure of what to do next.
Meanwhile, the sun was disappearing behind the nearby mountaintops and the silence and obscurity of night was deepening. In addition, the pain from my head was becoming more acute. I was dejected, despondent and agonized by my desperate situation. And now, with night approaching, things were becoming even more gloomy. I couldnt see any of the gorges or peaks now and the snow fell in a kind of sleet that lashed against my face such that I couldnt even see where to place my feet. At this point a deep desperation took hold of me, so much so this time that I was again convinced that it was the end. Not knowing what else I should do, I sat down and burst out into tears.
Sitting there for some time, I searched among my tears for inspiration. But there was very little that I could think to do under such morbid conditions. Then I realized there was only one thing that I could do: unquestioningly, I would have to venture out, to live or to die in the throat of these high mountains. Encouraged by this inspiration, I recited over and over again Ave Maria to the Madonna and ventured out into the obscurity of the night. As I said, the darkness was profound and everywhere reigned the silence of a tomb. Emboldened by the Spirit of the Madonna I set out walking, like a blind man, without any sense of direction.
All night long I wandered amongst the precipices and paths, up hills and steep slopes, through difficult passes, wrought with danger, terrified that I might fall in to some deep ravine. Finally at around 4:00 a.m. (it was still very dark out) I would arrive, at long last, at Primolano8, Val Brenta. I knew that this was were I should go for the enemy soldier that I met in the trench had gestured with his hands to make me understand that Primolano had doctors and medical facilities.
Precisely, the location were I was wounded was Colle della Berretta,9 Monte Grappa, December 18, 1917, 9:00 a.m.
I arrived at Primolano while it was still very dark, having wandered for all of the previous day and night. I was dead tired, muddy, stiff, and in pain from my wound, but I still had to search for a medical centre. Finally, in the deep darkness, I saw a faint light coming from the crack of a door. I ran towards that light: it was a field hospital. I pushed open the door, entered and without breathing or saying a word, slowly took my place in a nook and waited for my turn to be treated.
The doctor that saw me had me lay down on a stretcher and from there I was taken to a larger hanger. They left me in that cold, dark hanger; there was nothing that I could do, only wait, for they had the upper hand. The next morning two soldiers carried me on a stretcher to a large, well-heated hall. There I was given a thorough cleaning. I was shaved from head to toe (I was very hairy) with barbers shears. Then they put me under a shower of hot water where I cleaned myself with a brush and soap. Next, they locked me inside a small room that was sealed air-tight and they let go a burst of stream so hot that it choked me. I stayed in that room for more than ten minutes until they let me out, almost half dead with fear. But I was much the better for it; all of that thorough cleaning and disinfecting, both of myself and my clothes, left me in a much better condition than when I was at the front. On the mountain I was infested with lice which in effect had been cohabiting with me en masse. The result of all these veracious insects constantly bitting was that I was covered in scabs, so much so that some of these bites had taken on a purplish colour. By the end I was full of scabies, like a dog that was ready to be put down. Only after that extensive cleaning did I gain some relief and begin to feel a little more lively.
Next they took me to larger office that was also well-heated. After I gave them my general information [presumably name and rank etc.] I underwent a stringent interrogation. I only offered limited information: facts that were more-or-less permissible to reveal without damaging our military situation. I was then taken to another area where they left me interned.
It should be pointed out that from my days in the trenches, to reaching Primolano on December 18 and 19, I had had nothing to eat and no food was offered to me by my Austrian captors.
I remained imprisoned there until the morning of December 21 when I was taken to Grigno [approximately 10 km (6 miles) northwest of Primolano] to board a train because the local train station had been badly damaged during the recent bombardments. The train reached the station immediately upon our arrival. I boarded and took a seat in a third class car.
Seated in front of me was an Austrian soldier who at once fell in love with the sight of my boots. They were a brand new pair of alpine boots: American style, strong and in excellent condition. This soldier waisted no time in offering to trade for my boots. He communicated that he would give me his old pair of boots plus 25 corone (equal to 25 lire, a large sum at that time). I refused his offer I would not barter away my beautiful boots. Unfortunately, he soon made another offer that weakened my resolve. From his supplies, he pulled out approximately two kilos of panettone (a bread made from a mix of cereals) and indicated to me that, along with his boots and the 25 corone, he would give me a nice slice of this precious bread. Looking at that bread made my heart ache. Then I thought back to how well my boots had kept my feet warm not to mention the terrible condition of the soldiers boots that I was being offered and I managed to refuse his barter for the second time. But my tempter kept at me, always keeping in view that wonderful bread. Then came the final blow: he signaled to me that in addition to his old boots, the money and the bread, he would include 20 centimetres of salami.
Well, it had been some 15 days that I had supported myself at the front with only a small amount of coffee and a few pieces of bread each day not because we were short of food, but because under those terrible conditions of bitter cold and constant fear, we lost our appetites. In addition, I had gone three days without anything at all to eat. Finally, before the sight of this wonderful food (the bread and the salami) I closed my eyes and consented to the soldiers terrible deal.
I took the food and in the blink of an eye, devoured it all. But oh my Lord! what had I done? After I had eaten I was even more tortured by hunger than before! I regretted my decision, but it was too late. I closed my eyes and wept, inconsolably, for my beautiful boots that were lost forever.
Before long the train arrived in Trento [some 35 km (22 miles) west of Gringo] and I was admitted into the local hospital. I say hospital but in fact it was just an old building, ramshackled and dirty. There was no equipment to speak of, no attendants and the beds where old and made of straw quite a sorry sight to behold. It was only a few days before Christmas, the 23rd of December. One longed for a taste of the holidays, but instead all one noticed was the odor the stench really of great misery, desolation and grief.
After only a few days stay in Trento, I was sent, via Insbruk, Vienna, etc., to a concentration hospital in Eger, Bohemia [now called Cheb, in the Czech Republic]. This journey took about seven days. We travelled in livestock box cars which had been transformed into what was called a hospital train. Again, in reality, it was not at all outfitted as such we had no medical assistance to speak off. The poor wounded were constricted, immobilized in their stretchers. We were given no special provisions and what little food we had was only enough to prevent our deaths. As I said, we were travelling in box cars there was no heating consequently it was unbearably cold.
We endured this frightful trip of pain and cold to arrive, in the first days of January, 1918, at a hospital in Eger, Bohemia, on the border of Bohemian Germany. In this place I no longer had a first name, or a last name. I was no longer a soldier or a free citizen. I was only a number: Registration Number HJ36012.
At that hospital, everywhere one looked one was bitterly disappointed. We had to sleep on old, dirty, straw mattresses, two men per bed to save on bedding. The compound was divided into various huts, every one of which must have contained up to 100 prisoners with their horrible wounds, mutilations and diseases. Not only this, but these huts had been in use since the beginning of the war, three years earlier. One could imagine the poor condition that they were in.
It was bitterly cold. Some days the thermometer marked just 10 or 15 degrees below zero celsius. Daily rations consisted of 200 grams of bread a dark bread that was made from a mix of cereal and maize and a small cup of soup formed from carrots and other vegetables, but without any seasoning, which was served at 11:00 a.m. in the mess hall. We were given the same, meager bowl of soup again at 5:00 p.m.
However, the spectacle that made the greatest impression was the pitiful condition of many of the other prisoners in the hospital. Here there was one with a mutilated leg, here both legs were gone. Here a poor soldier missing an arm, here both arms were gone. There was one with both feet amputated due to frostbite and another who had been blinded in both eyes, and other men who were gravely wounded and diseased. In short, there were prisoners everywhere suffering and in bitter pain, woeful and starving.
All together, the one prisoner that made the most striking impression on me was a fellow that had suffered wounds from an incendiary bomb. The explosion had struck this poor boy all along his back, leaving him with a bright wound from his buttocks to his neck. It was an unforgettable sight: a horrible burn that seemed to contain all the colours of the rainbow. This unfortunate man, with such a frightful wound, should not have had to be laying on that miserable, hard, straw mattress, but rather on a bed of feathers or cotton, and with the loving care like that which a mother would give. Instead that poor boy, racked with terrible spasms, was confined to that deplorable bed to count down the hours until his death.
It was truly the crucifixion1 of the first years of the 20th Century. That wretched prisoner was alone with his dreadful wound; he called out, giving vent to his pains. Without rest he cried out, over and over again, begging: Mother! Mother!, but his mother was far away and could not hear. At times he would stop his lamenting and ask for a bed pan, or for some water. He was in constant need of attention but in those squalid barracks there were no medical attendants to help us. His constant complaints made it very difficult for myself and the other prisoners to rest. Thanks be to God, I was in better health less injured than most but also more willing to help the other wounded.
One night, around the 15th or 16th of January, the barracks stove broke and the temperature dropped to -15° celsius. That poor boy was being tormented without end by the awful wound on his back. All night long we listened, as we did every night, to his exhausting complaints. I was tired from having worked all that day2 and was dozing lightly when I heard a faint cry. Being so fatigued, I didnt get up, as I would normally have done, to console my comrade. Then I heard a thud followed by a bump which echoed throughout the barrack. It suddenly occurred to me that something had happened to the boy; I got up with a bolt and ran to find out what had happened. Arriving in the blink of an eye I found that his horrible wound had touched part of the iron bed frame.3 He was gasping his last breaths so I bent down next to him, determined to at least give him some water some small bit of comfort that ungrateful humanity had denied him. Unfortunately, it was too late, there was nothing to do for him. He clenched his teeth and dropped his head.
At the sight of this devastating spectacle a thought came to me in a rush of remorse: that I was the cause of his miserable end, that I should have be able to do more for him. I broke into uncontrollable tears. I cried and cried and was so hysterical that it was only with the intervention of an Austrian guard that I was able to stop. Two soldiers soon arrived with a stretcher and took away the boys tormented body.
The curtain had dropped on this sorrowful drama. Inconsolable and despondent from so much pain and remorse, I withdrew to my bed. At first I couldnt sleep, for my thoughts were still on that poor soldier. It was only much later that night did I finally fall asleep from exhaustion. "
It should contain a lot of research material, and I hope this may be of help to your project.