Courtesy of Leo Cooper Books, Ltd. and Francis Mackay:
An Excerpt from ASIAGO
by Francis Mackay
One of the most memorable literary traditions of the Great War involves the post-war pilgrimage of V.A.D. Nurse and author Vera Brittain to the grave of her brother Edward on the Asiago Plateau. He had been killed in the very battle the Francis Mackay so clearly describes in the excellent new addition to the Battleground Europe series, Asiago. Mackay not only provides comprehensive information on all the related action plus details on Edward's death, but help for the tourist intent on recreating the famous pilgrimage to his grave described in Testament of Youth, his sister's classic war memoir.
This excerpt includes selections on both the assault which led to Edward's death and information on his subsequent internment. This took place around what is know alternatively as the Battle of Asiago or Operation Radeztky, part of an even larger action known as the Battle of the Piave. We pick up Francis Mackay's description the evening of the battle.
Scottish, English and Italian Troops Deployed on the Plateau
The night of 14/15 June 1918 on the Asiago plateau was damp, with a thick mist forming in hollows and valleys. At 3 am precisely Allied observers in mountain-top OPs saw hundreds of signal flares burst into life above the enemy trenches. This was immediately followed by twinkling pin-points of light on the slopes behind as masses of light and medium guns, many dragged forward from the northern valleys during the night, opened fire. Behind the northern ridges sudden flashes revealed the presence of heavier artillery pieces: Operation Radetzky had begun.
The [preliminary] Austrian barrage fell mainly on the Allied front line, but signals centres, ammunition dumps and road junctions received attention. The Granezza and Carriola bases were hit, and some shells even whistled over the escarpment to upset staff in the foothill supply dumps. The bombardment lasted for over four hours, and was followed by a massive infantry attack, launched from assembly areas just forward of the Austrian wire. The initial objectives, in the French and British sectors, were Granezza and Carriola, and the edge of the escarpment
The 23rd Division (Major-General Sir James Babington), cover[ed] a front of about 5,500 metres, had 68 and 70 Brigades in the front line and 69 Brigade in reserve. The situation facing the division was complicated. It was holding the line in preparation for the Allied offensive. . . Yet at the same time the division had to prepare for a heavy enemy bombardment, if not an attack. In view of this, and in accordance with current defense doctrine, the front line was only lightly manned. Unfortunately all battalions were seriously under-strength, so the front line was very lightly manned indeed. Apart from the ravages of 'flu', many officers, NCOs and men were absent on leave or attending courses. . .
During the battle the division [would be] attacked by elements of three k.u.k. divisions…The front line was manned by five British battalions. It was briefly breached in two places, but the k.u.k. attackers were quickly evicted and suffered horrendous losses. . . The right front battalion [Edward Brittain's unit], holding the San Sisto Ridge, was 11/Sherwood Foresters, 'The Men from the Greenwood', (Lieutenant-Colonel CE Hudson, DSO MC), with a frontage of about 1,000 metres.
Looking Towards the British Line
. . . The Battalion [had] occupied the San Sisto feature on 11 June, after a period in reserve. It was under-strength: only 19 out of 34 officers were in the line, while the two forward companies, A and D, each had less than a hundred all ranks to man around 900 metres of trench, and provide a platoon for night picquet and outpost duty. D Company was commanded by Captain EA Frith and A Company by Captain EH Brittain MC. . .
[The infantry assault began at 6:45 am on June 15th and several breeches were made in the British line.] A Company had suffered severe casualties from artillery fire and was trying to hold nearly eight hundred metres of the line with (probably) only fifty rifles; an impossible task even when they were reinforced by the picquet platoon. Brittain, by now apparently the only unwounded officer in the company, appeared on the scene, returning from consulting with the French. Rapidly organizing a counter-attack group, which included some French soldiers, he led an attack which forced the enemy back. Some jumped out of the trench and ran back towards others coming through the wire. These enemy troops went to ground and opened fire on the Foresters, as did machine-gunners and riflemen on both sides of the wire. Brittain re-organized the defense of the trench, forming a flank with what troops were available. He apparently paused to observe the enemy, and was killed, possibly sniped by an Austrian officer. . . On the Allied right the Italian line [had been] breached, and the enemy penetrated about two kilometres towards the escarpment. They were held, but it took five days of bitter fighting to restore the line. In the centre the French beat off a mass attack with only minor casualties. The British were also attacked and the front line breached in several places, but after some hard fighting it was restored. Radetzky failed, and, after some bitter fighting, so did Albrecht. Conrad and Boroevic lost their last battles and the k.u.k. lost its will to win.
[Among the British dead was] Captain Edward Harold Brittain [who] was the adored elder brother of Vera Brittain. When war broke out the Brittain family had been living in Buxton and Edward sought a commission in the county regiment. He joined the 1 1/Sherwood Foresters in France, was wounded on the first day of the Somme, and awarded the MC. In 1914 Vera had been an undergraduate at Oxford but became a VAD Nurse after her fiancé, Roland Leighton, was mortally wounded with the 1/7 Worcesters at Hébuterne in December 1915. After the war she wrote Testament of Youth, married and was the mother of former Labour Cabinet Minister Baroness Shirley Williams.
Brother and Sister
After the Armistice . . .[many of the remains of A Company's casualties were re-interred] at Granezza Cemetery, near the southern end of the valley, and in the lea of M. Corno. This is a very quiet and peaceful place, and no less beautiful than the silent woods of the Barental Valley.
[Edward Brittain's] death was not more poignant than that of any other young officer or soldier but the eloquence of his sister's writing ensured that the anguish felt by his family and friends was recorded for future generations. She articulated for others not so gifted with words the agony of yet another death among those nearest and dearest to a family. After many years, Testament of Youth still has the capacity to move, as many of today's generation will testify.
How strange, how strange it is," I reflected, as I looked, with an indefinable pain stabbing my chest, for Edward's name among those neat rows of oblong stones, "that all my past years-the childhood of which I have no one, now, to share the remembrance, the bright fields at Uppingham, the restless months in Buxton, the hopes and ambitions of Oxford, the losses and long-drawn agonies of the War- should be buried in this grave on the top of a mountain, in the lofty silence, the singing unearthly stillness, of these remote forests ! At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there. Who could have dreamed that the little boy born in such uneventful security to an ordinary provincial family would end his brief days in a battle among the high pine-woods of an unknown Italian plateau?"
Close to the wall, in the midst of a group of privates from the Sherwood Foresters who had all died on June 15th, I found his name "Captain E. H. Brittain, M.C., 11th Notts. and Derby Regt. Killed in action June 15th, 1918. Aged 22" In Venice I had bought some rosebuds and a small asparagus fern in a pot; the shopkeeper had told me that it would last a long time, and I planted it in the rough grass beside the grave.
"How trivial my life has been since the War ! "I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. "How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past? Oh, Edward, you're so lonely up here; why can't I stay for ever and keep your grave company, far from the world and its vain endeavors to rebuild civilization, on this Plateau where alone there is dignity and peace?"
But when at last I came from the cemetery, the child, who had been playing with his father near the car, ran up to me holding out a bunch of scabious and white clover that he had picked by the roadside.
"For the little signorina," he said.
Vera Brittain was haunted by her brother's death for the rest of her days. Her ashes were taken to Italy by her daughter, later Baroness Shirley Williams, and sprinkled on Edward's grave. The 11/Sherwood Foresters' War Diary makes no mention of the death of Brittain, nor indeed does it give casualty figures for the battle. The Men from the Greenwood mentions his death only as part of the casualty list of fifty-five dead, wounded and missing.
Sources and thanks: Francis Mackay was very supportive when I suggested how I wanted to chop up his text and combine widely scattered sections. The Vera Brittain selection is, of course, from Testament of Youth. ASIAGO, which focuses on the battles of June 1918 on the Plateau, can be ordered at the Pen & Sword, Ltd. Website as can the other selections in the publisher's Battleground Europe series.