That primal fear of dissolution survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded ‘a moral Caporetto’. Politicians accuse each other of facing ‘an electoral Caporetto’. When small businesses are snarled up in Italy’s notorious red tape, they complain about ‘an administrative Caporetto’. When England lost to Northern Ireland at football, it was ‘the English Caporetto’. This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure; rottenness laid bare.
Mark Thompson, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front.
In October 1917 the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto, began near the town of Kobarid, in what is now Slovenia. By the time it was over the Italians had 10,000 killed, 30,000 wounded, and over a quarter million taken prisoner, most of whom surrendered willingly. This is the battle at which Irwin Rommel, then an Oberleutnant, made his famous capture of 1,500 men and 43 officers; Rommel had only 3 riflemen and 2 officers to help him take control of his prisoners. Hemingway became a household name after Caporetto, with his novel A Farewell to Arms. For Italy, it was the defining moment of the war.
It is impossible to discuss an event like the Great War if you only talk about the trenches of the Western Front, and confine the discussion to the Somme and Ypres. It was a world event; it touched everything from the farthest islands in the Pacific to the emerging nations of the Middle East. Even today they still retrieve frozen corpses of Italian and Austrian soldiers from the Alps, and shelling during the White War was so intense it shortened a mountain, San Mateo, by twenty feet.
Yet the trenches exercise a peculiar horror that draw every historian’s gaze towards them, and not just because poets wrote heart-wrenching lines about gas attacks. The trenches were beyond imagination. They exist in that special corner of history reserved for great atrocities, and can still be traced, often by the shell holes left behind.
The Great War is horror, in all its masks, from the sudden shock of a jump scare to the lingering paranoia that comes with suspense; from the decayed death’s head of mortality, to the silent, steady loss of function brought on by frostbite. It is waiting, trapped, in an American port with little chance of repatriation. It is the sudden tragedy of 1,195 people, mostly civilians and many children, drowned at sea. It is sudden, searing death at Hooge. It is a knife in the back in some trackless desert, and it is the systematic extermination of over one million Armenians.
The Great Lie must have been overjoyed, to have such a feast laid out for it.
While I tried to present as much of the conflict as I could, there was never any hope I’d be able to portray all of it. There’s too much there there, as Gertrude Stein didn’t say. It is something that has fascinated me for a very long time, and the chance to represent it in fiction was too good to pass up. I trust the purists out there will forgive me reinventing Mordiggian slightly, but of all the Old Ones who might be interested in the Great War, the Charnel God seemed above all other contenders the most likely.
Yet for all that, we are but bait …