© 2019 Stefano Favaretto photographer 

 Chivalrouse episode on "Totenkopf"

Heinrich Hess 

In early September, including new positions occupied by the Italians in Upper Fischleintal there was a rocky tower oddly shaped skull, which the Austrians had called "Totenkopf" (Death Head). It was a cornerstone advanced from which it was possible to dominate some Austrian trenches. It was therefore necessary, acting by surprise, seize this position, or at least render it harmless.

The Bavarian official, while realizing that an attack in those conditions was not small feat, carefully studied a plan of action.

The Italian position was one-hundred meters from the Austrian lines, and was separated from these by a large fork , while the other side had a very steep slope but accessible. Following the directions of the land he decided he had to get around the tower from below, go up it to the side so that you could get over the surprise and, of course, at night. Finally came the authorization to carry out the coup.

That day a cold wind swept ridges of the Dolomites. Black clouds and loaded with storm enveloped the peaks, while a thick and dense fog made opaque each image.

The officer, bundled up in a long overcoat,  sat quietly in front of a small hut, half tucked into the slope of dirt and gravel. Suddenly he got up lazily and went into the hut, stooping to pass under the low doorway. Inside were eight soldiers Leibregiment: solid young, accustomed to high mountains, faces burnt by the sun and wind, good climbers. The 8 men did not move: just turned his head toward the officer, in silence, with a look full of anxiety. "Tonight we go, boys, at 11, are you ready?" "Jawohl, Herr Oberleutnant," one for all. The soldiers breathed a sigh of relief; finally they would move after so many days of painful uncertainty. There were no comments.

The officer came back and went to the lookout, crouched behind a double row of sandbags, in an opening of which was tucked along the Steyer, ready for any eventuality. "Bad evening, Herr Oberleutnant," said the old Standsch├╝tzen feels turning; "We do not see 10 steps, it's freezing cold and Italians are nervous and they continue to shot in the dark as if they feared an attack." Lieutenant did not answer.

Then came the mess: a good hearty hot soup made from turnips, potatoes and bacon, and sausage with sauerkraut and thick slices of whole wheat bread. There was also a double ration of schnapp (brandy) as on special occasions.  Someone lit a cigar, pipe the other: there was still enough time and could afford a smoke in peace. But soon after, almost suddenly,around 9, it began to snow: a thick snow and wet. "Damn," he thought the officer "and now how do we climb? If the snow continues to fall at this rate we must postpone action. It would be crazy groped output in this weather." But, fortunately, a few minutes after snow  stopped and the sky began to clear. In the glimpses of the mass of clouds appeared a few stars, and a light wind began to blow from the north. At 11 the nine men were ready.

Armed only with hand grenades, they kept them strung with long wooden handles in the belt. Thus, having to climb, they were free to move. Besides the grenades could be decisive in a sudden and unexpected assault, not only for the effects of the outbreak but also for the noise they would do.

One after another, an officer in the head, came down on the wrong side of the ridge with a long double rope that was lost in the darkness of the abyss, interrupted only by a wide ledge that ran under the ridge, until you reach the Italian position. Snow fall, as poor, did not facilitate the certain path but at least it did not squeak hobnail boots against the rock.

The group proceeded fairly quickly, silently, following the ledge far, to snuff, believed to be more or less on the side of the Totenkopf. Here they found a passage into a deep gorge, quite affordable. They  ascended slowly with extreme caution and without making noise. A stone would be enough for alerting the Alpines. At the mouth of the gorge the slope became more reasonable. The officer looked closely at the surrounding terrain, and then murmured: "Ah, there we are, here is the barbed wire." With great care and patience he began to cut them, trying to make less noise as possible; even the simple click of the pincers could betray them. In short they managed to open a little gap, through which passed some members of the patrol. The others stood guard on the ledge with the task of supervising the back of the attackers and protect their eventual withdrawal. The leading group stepped up to be a few meters from the Italian position. They could see at the top thin blades of light filtering through the boards of the barracks and they could hear indistinct voices. Now he needed to find an easy passage to leap into the trench. Not far away they came upon a ladder: a fortune really unexpected!

"Behind me, slowly," he said in a whisper the officer. At that moment, behind a corner of the rock, appeared like a shadow the figure of a man: the Alpine sentinel. He was going to raise his rifle and roll it toward the intruders, but did not have time because the officer jumped on him and wrestled with him, hand to hand. Brink unfolded so a short and furious scuffle, without a cry and no noise. No one could hear the panting breath of the two men who were trying desperately to outdo one another. The rifle of the Alpine fell on deaf ears flapping noisily on the rocks below. Even the alpin, caught off guard, was pushed into the abyss. In the fall, he screamed heartbreaking and sounded the alarm. After a few moments of silence haunting, exploded a reddish glow, spooky. The light of a rocket stood up trembling from the small Italian place, wrapped them. Some shadows loomed very quick on the doors of the barracks, now open and enlightened. And immediately a Maxim began to shell, angrily and blindly, an entire tape of bullets. The Alpine rushed to arms and began a furious shootout. The surprise is failure! "Nichts zu machen, zur├╝ck!" Lieutenant ordered his men, "back just before we discover, so there's nothing left to do."

The patrol managed to escape the fire and vanish in the dark, rejoining his companions who were on the ledge. Then, all together, they remade the opposite way, without the worry of getting caught. Even a 65 mm cannon opened fire on the Austrian trenches, tearing the darkness of the night with flashing in flames.

Toward dawn the patrol was able to return unharmed to its base. The officer, made his men back into the hut, exhausted by fatigue and strain, sat next to the sentry to be ready for any eventuality. Italians could perform an action of recourse to parry any other surprises. The officer fell asleep.

After a while the soldier on guard woke him abruptly to warn him that on the rocks of the Totenkopf was someone who complained: the Alpine certainly fallen in the night. The officer saw, as in a nightmare the sparkling eyes and terrified of the alpin who had thrown into the abyss. With this tremendous thought in mind, he jumped up and looked through the slot. Of course, he was   over there, lying lifeless on a rocky plateau, the enemy soldier that caused the failure of the action so well thought out. Evidently he was injured, and he lay with his eyes closed and occasionally tried to get up from the ground, without success. At that time he was no longer an enemy but a poor human being, a brave soldier, who was suffering and perhaps dying. The Bavarian official did not think twice and went out into the open, preparing to bring relief to the poor. "What are you doing, Herr Oberleutnant? They shoot,"  shouted the sentry. The lieutenant did not answer. Imagine if something could happen to him ... even Italians would understand its peaceful intentions. And in fact nothing happened at that time no one thought more war. The alpins had also heard the complaints and were preparing to bring relief to their wounded comrade, who now believed dead and gone somewhere. So they were not alarmed at seeing the enemy officer  unarmed and with extraordinary security, on a mission of peace. Italians and Austrians were leaning all of their holes to watch anxiously the movements of the officer who was approaching cautiously to the wounded. Without any hesitation, with a leap, he overcame a deep crack, which certainly would not allow him to repeat that passage shouldering one wounded. But the officer did not seem to mind: he certainly had in mind his own plan to resolve the situation. He finally reached the wounded man and leaned on him to become aware of his status. The young alpine opened the big brown eyes on the pale face, with an expression almost serene even if contracted by grief. At the sight of the rescuer murmured in a faint voice: Mom! The officer understood that he was calling his mum thinking on his own mother that probably was praying for hin at home. Then he lifted it gently with both hands and he took him up on his back. The Alpine complained very little, as if he were ashamed, but you could understand that  he had shattered bones. The German, a stout fellow began to get back on top, with a firm step and calm, carrying the painful burden. Every feeling of danger was gone, overwhelmed by the concern of the rescue. He finally reached the Italian trench that had Frisian horses and open bags of sand removed to let him pass. The German officer passed among alpines watching him as a miraculous apparition, and laid him gently on the ground wounded, entrusting him to the care of his companions. Waking up he found himself in front of the commanding officer's position, Lieutenant De Luca, who extended his hand said: - Thank German comrade! The other alpin immediately understood that "thank you" meant "danke" and "comrade" "Kamarad" and shook his hand that he was tense. Then both looked without hatred and smiled. The alpine who were around, no one had ordered, had stiffened to attention and saluted with an open hand and standing in the wide-brimmed hat. In those faces woody and hard surfaced a deep emotion: many had tears in his eyes and a few hands trembled with emotion. Maybe someone would have wanted to embrace, if he could, the chivalrous enemy. No one spoke! The German held his hand in that of the Italian for a few seconds, then slowly retreated. The two officers went down together in the no man's land until the rocky ridge where the attack had taken place the night before, then they left without saying anything.  The German officer climbed, agile and quick, in the direction of his trench. Just reached the trench he glanced back and saw again the lieutenant De Luca, stiffened in salute. The German made a gesture with his hand off the Italian who, in turn, went back to his position.