Touring The World War One Battlefield Of Isonzo

World War One, Isonzo
Sean McLachlan from public domain image. Original photographer unknown.

Like every other nation involved in World War I, Italy suffered terribly. It joined the war in 1915, throwing its lot in with the Allies against the Central Powers. Italy’s most immediate threat was its neighbor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border was mostly in the Alps and soldiers on both sides carved out ice caves from which to snipe at one another and used artillery to fire above each other’s positions in over to create avalanches. To this day, almost 100 years later, bodies of dead soldiers are being found frozen in the ice.

The most active part of the front was along the Isonzo river valley, the border between Italy and what is now Slovenia. For most of its length it cuts between steep mountains on either side.

I toured the Isonzo front with an organized bus tour from Gorizia. Without a car it’s the only way to quickly visit this long and rugged battlefield. Unfortunately, the pouring rain that had been plaguing northeast Italy and western Slovenia for the previous few days didn’t let up. In the higher latitudes it turned into a driving snow. This meant that except for a few glimpses of the terrain, the tour was pretty much a washout. At least we got an inkling of what it was like to have been stationed up here, and we did get to visit the excellent Kobarid Museum in Slovenia.

This is one of the best military history museums I’ve seen anywhere. While there are the usual flags and uniforms and weapons, the bulk of the exhibition is a vast collection of period photographs. These bring the visitor face to face with life on that terrible battlefield where half a million men lost their lives. Both armies are treated impartially and instead of glorification of the war there’s a frank, human look at the people involved.

%Slideshow-82%We get to see them at the front lines, perched high up on alpine peaks or hunkering down in trenches carved into snow and ice. A great amount of detail goes into how the vast armies were supplied, with displays on everything from cooking to handling horses. We also see the soldiers’ more relaxed moments, writing letters home or goofing around behind the lines.

There are some surprises too. One small display is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who was a Red Cross ambulance driver at the front and who fell in love with a nurse there. He used these experiences to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

The battles were mostly bloody stalemates, with the Italians making their only significant gains in the sixth battle when they took Gorizia. That was all undone in the 12th battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, when the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies shattered the Italian army. “Caporetto” has entered the Italian lexicon as a word signifying any horrible defeat, from a politician losing a landslide election to a football team getting spanked by their rivals.

The museum doesn’t shrink from the true face of war. In one grim display, we see photos of the dead lying unburied on the battlefield, and the grim portraits of some of the mutilated survivors. Some of these images are included at the end of the slideshow here, preceded by a warning. They are not easy to look at but I included them because I think it’s important for civilians to see what war really looks like.

Anyone with an interest in military history will want to see this museum. While visiting the remaining trenches and bunkers along the Isonzo front gives a feel for the terrain, a visit to the Kobarid Museum is essential for putting it all together and understanding the terrible waste of World War I.

Preservation Group Wants To Save Civil War Battlefield

Civil War
Wikimedia Commons “Cavalry Charge Near Brandy Station, Virginia,” a drawing by Edwin Forbes, 1864

A preservation group is trying to protect the site of the largest cavalry battle in North America.

The Civil War Trust has announced it has nearly reached its $3.6 million goal to preserve 56 acres of the site of the Battle of Brandy Station. The plot includes Fleetwood Hill, which was the center of the battle and the location of the Confederate headquarters.

On June 9, 1863, Union cavalry crossed the Rappahannock River and attacked the Confederate cavalry under the legendary general J.E.B. Stuart. A swirling battle of some 20,000 horsemen ensued and while the Union troops eventually retired, they had proven themselves. Before this, both sides saw the rebel cavalry as superior. The Battle of Brandy Station began to change that perception.

The Trust’s press release quotes historian Clark “Bud” Hall as saying that Fleetwood Hill is “without question the most fought over, camped upon and marched over real estate in the entire United States. This unpretentious little ridge has seen more military activity than any other piece of ground in American history.”

The Civil War Trust only needs to raise another $193,000 and they have matching funds from the American Battlefield Protection Program and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Donations can be made here. Considering the site’s historic importance, it’s certainly a better way to donate money than supporting someone’s Kickstarter vacation.

Antietam National Battlefield Park Gears Up To Commemorate Civil War’s Bloodiest Day

Antietam, Civil War
It was the bloodiest day of the Civil War. After 12 hours of ferocious fighting on September 17, 1862, an estimated 23,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or declared missing. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North was at an end.

The Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, proved to be a turning point in the war. Lincoln had been keeping his Emancipation Proclamation secret, waiting for a Union victory in order to make the controversial freeing of the slaves in rebellious states politically easier. This battle gave him that victory.

It also boosted confidence in the North. Union forces had suffered a series of embarrassing blunders and defeats. While the Union army’s success at Antietam wasn’t all it could have been (their forces outnumbered the rebels but were poorly handled by General McClellan) it showed that the war could be won.

On the weekend of September 15-17 Antietam National Battlefield Park is hosting a commemorative weekend of events for the 150th anniversary. Programs include battlefield hikes, lectures, special exhibits, kids activities, Civil War music and living history artillery and infantry firing demonstrations. For more information on General Lee’s ill-fated Maryland Campaign and commemoration events related to it, check out the National Park Service’s Maryland Campaign Commemoration page.

There’s also a large Battle of Antietam Reenactment on farmland a few miles away from the national park on September 14-16. This is a privately run event and preregistration is a must. Deadline is August 31.

[Photo of Confederate dead at Bloody Lane courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Archaeologists Search For Lost Grave Of King Richard III

Richard IIIArchaeologists in Leicester, England, are looking for the grave of a king – in a parking lot.

The grave of Richard III is believed to be beneath the parking lot of a local government building, according to analysis by the University of Leicester.

Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the decisive battle of the War of the Roses. The victor was Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.

Richard was buried at the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars. Later development erased all trace of this church and the site was lost. Richard III is one of the few English kings for whom there is no recognized burial place. Now archaeologists have analyzed old maps and believe they have pinpointed roughly where the church was.

Heavy machinery moved in this weekend to break up the pavement, the Leicester Mercury reports. Once they’re done, the archaeologists will dig two trenches using more meticulous methods in the hope of hitting part of the church. The trenches will run from north to south, maximizing the chances of hitting the church. Medieval churches were traditionally built from east to west.

If they do find any bones, they’ll be able to tell if they belong to the slain king. Genealogists have discovered a direct descendant of Richard’s sister and will be able to use DNA analysis to check for a match.

The work should be finished in two weeks. On September 8-9 the excavation will have an open house for the public.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Revolutionary War battlefield of Saratoga to be excavated

Revolutionary War, Saratoga
One of the most important battlefields of the Revolutionary War is going to be excavated by archaeologists ahead of an EPA cleanup.

Back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, General Electric dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River near Saratoga, New York. The dumping was banned in 1977 due to risks to public health, and the EPA has ordered GE to dredge up the affected silt from the river. Dredging destroys archaeological sites, though, and has already damaged Fort Edward, a British fort in the area dating to the mid 18th century. Archaeologists are working to excavate the stretch of river near Saratoga before the dredgers arrive.

Saratoga was on the frontier for much of the 18th century and played a large part in the French and Indian Wars (1755-1763) and the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the two battles of Saratoga in September and October of 1777, the American army stopped the British advance down the Hudson River Valley, then surrounded them and forced them to surrender. It was a major victory that led to the French coming into the war on the American side. French help was one of the deciding factors in an ultimate American victory, and the creation of the United States.

The Saratoga National Historical Park 9 miles south of Saratoga, New York, includes the battlefield, a visitor center, the restored country house of American General Philip Schuyler, a monument, and Victory Woods where the British surrendered on October 17, 1777.

Archaeologists hope to find artifacts from both wars and are currently looking for a British army camp.

[Image courtesy U.S. government]