(From Chapter XXX)
I watched it get dark outside; the darkness came very quickly. It would be a black night with the rain. When it was dark there was no use watching any more, so I went over to Piani. He was lying asleep and I did not wake him but sat down beside him for a while. He was a big man and he slept heavily. After a while I woke him and we started.
That was a very strange night. I do not know what I had expected, death perhaps and shooting in the dark and running, but nothing happened. We waited, lying flat beyond the ditch along the main road while a German battalion passed, then when they were gone we crossed the road and went on to the north. We were very close to Germans twice in the rain but they did not see us. We got past the town to the north without seeing any Italians, then after a while came on the main channels of the retreat and walked all night toward the Tagliamento. I had not realized how gigantic the retreat was. The whole country was moving, as well as the army. We walked all night, making better time than the vehicles. My leg ached and I was tired but we made good time. It seemed so silly for Bonello to have decided to be taken prisoner. There was no danger. We had walked through two armies without incident. If Aymo had not been killed there would never have seemed to be any danger. No one had bothered us when we were in plain sight along the railway. The killing came suddenly and unreasonably. I wondered where Bonello was.
"How do you feel, Tenente?" Piani asked. We were going along the side of a road crowded with vehicles and troops.
"I'm tired of this walking/'
"Well, all we have to do is walk now. We don't have to worry."
"Bonello was a fool."
"He was a fool all right."
"What will you do about him, Tenente?"
"I don't know."
"Can't you just put him down as taken prisoner?"
"I don't know."
"You see if the war went on they would make bad trouble for his family."
"The war won't go on," a soldier said. "We're going home. The war is over."
"Everybody's going home."
"We're all going home."
"Come on, Tenente," Piani said. He wanted to get past them.
"Tenente? Who's a Tenente? A basso gli ufficiali! Down with the officers!"
Piani took me by the arm. "I better call you by your name," he said. "They might try and make trouble. They've shot some officers." We worked up past them.
"I won't make a report that will make trouble for his family." I went on with our conversation.
"If the war is over it makes no difference," Piani said. "But I don't believe it's over. It's too good that it should be over."
"We'll know pretty soon," I said.
"I don't believe it's over. They all think it's over but I don't believe it."
"Viva la Pace!" a soldier shouted out. "We're going home!"
"It would be fine if we all went home," Piani said. "Wouldn't you like to go home?"
"We'll never go. I don't think it's over."
"Andiamo a casa!" a soldier shouted.
"They throw away their rifles," Piani said. "They take them off and drop them down while they're marching. Then they shout."
"They ought to keep their rifles."
"They think if they throw away their rifles they can't make them fight."
In the dark and the rain, making our way along the side of the road I could see that many of the troops still had their rifles. They stuck up above the capes.
"What brigade are you?" an officer called out.
"Brigata di Pace" some one shouted. "Peace Brigade!" The officer said nothing.
"What does he say? What does the officer say?"
"Down with the officer. Viva la Pace!"
"Come on," Piani said. We passed two British ambulances, abandoned in the block of vehicles.
"They're from Gorizia," Piani said. "I know the cars."
"They got further than we did."
"They started earlier."
"I wonder where the drivers are?"
"Up ahead probably."
"The Germans have stopped outside Udine," I said. "These people will all get across the river."
"Yes," Piani said. "That's why I think the war will go on."
"The Germans could come on," I said. "I wonder why they don't come on."
"I don't know. I don't know anything about this kind of war."
"They have to wait for their transport I suppose."
"I don't know," Piani said. Alone he was much gentler. When he was with the others he was a very rough talker.
"Are you married, Luigi?"
"You know I am married."
"Is that why you did not want to be a prisoner?"
"That is one reason. Are you married, Tenente?"
"Neither is Bonello."
"You can't tell anything by a man's being married. But I should think a married man would want to get back to his wife," I said. I would be glad to talk about wives.
"How are your feet?"
"They're sore enough."
Before daylight we reached the bank of the Tagliamento and followed down along the flooded river to the bridge where all the traffic was crossing.
"They ought to be able to hold at this river," Piani said. In the dark the flood looked high. The water swirled and it was wide. The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking. We went along the bank and then worked our way into the crowd that were crossing the bridge. Crossing slowly in the rain a few feet above the flood, pressed tight in the crowd, the box of an artillery caisson just ahead, I looked over the side and watched the river. Now that we could not go our own pace I felt very tired. There was no exhilaration in crossing the bridge. I wondered what it would be like if a plane bombed it in the daytime.
"Piani," I said.
"Here I am, Tenente." He was a little ahead in the jam. No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the sky-line. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm. He took him away from the road. We came almost opposite them. The officers were scrutinizing every one in the column, sometimes speaking to each other, going forward to flash a light in some one's face. They took some one else out just before we came opposite. I saw the man. He was a lieutenant-colonel. I saw the stars in the box on his sleeve as they flashed a light on him. His hair was gray and he was short and fat. The carabiniere pulled him in behind the line of officers. As we came opposite I saw one or two of them look at me. Then one pointed at me and spoke to a carabiniere. I saw the carabiniere start for me, come through the edge of the column toward me, then felt him take me by the collar.
"What's the matter with you?" I said and hit him in the face. I saw his face under the hat, upturned mustaches and blood coming down his cheek. Another one dove in toward us.
"What's the matter with you?" I said. He did not answer. He was watching a chance to grab me. I put my arm behind me to loosen my pistol.
"Don't you know you can't touch an officer?"
The other one grabbed me from behind and pulled my arm up so that it twisted in the socket. I turned with him and the other one grabbed me around the neck. I kicked his shins and got my left knee into his groin.
"Shoot him if he resists," I heard some one say.
"What's the meaning of this?" I tried to shout but my voice was not very loud. They had me at the side of the road now.
"Shoot him if he resists," an officer said. "Take him over back."
"Who are you?"
"You'll find out."
"Who are you?"
"Battle police," another officer said.
"Why don't you ask me to step over instead of having one of these airplanes grab me?"
They did not answer. They did not have to answer. They were battle police.
"Take him back there with the others," the first officer said. "You see. He speaks Italian with an accent."
"So do you, you ," I said.
"Take him back with the others," the first officer said. They took me down behind the line of officers below the road toward a group of people in a field by the river bank. As we walked toward them shots were fired. I saw flashes of the rifles and heard the reports. We came up to the group. There were four officers standing together, with a man in front of them with a carabiniere on each side of him. A group of men were standing guarded by carabinieri. Four other carabinieri stood near the questioning officers, leaning on their carbines. They were wide-hatted carabinieri. The two who had me shoved me in with the group waiting to be questioned. I looked at the man the officers were questioning. He was the fat gray-haired little lieutenant-colonel they had taken out of the column. The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on.
"Your brigade ?"
He told them.
He told them.
"Why are you not with your regiment?"
He told them.
"Do you not know that an officer should be with his troops?"
That was all. Another officer spoke.
"It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland."
"I beg your pardon," said the lieutenant-colonel.
"It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory."
"Have you ever been in a retreat?" the lieutenant-colonel asked.
"Italy should never retreat."
We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoner stood in front and a little to one side of us.
"If you are going to shoot me," the lieutenant-colonel said, "please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid." He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper.
"Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot," he said.
Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another when they shot him. They made a point of being intent on questioning the next man while the man who had been questioned before was being shot. In this way there was obviously nothing they could do about it. I did not know whether I should wait to be questioned or make a break now. I was obviously a German in Italian uniform. I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country. The second army was being re-formed beyond the Tagliamento. They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops. They were also dealing summarily with German agitators in Italian uniform. They wore steel helmets. Only two of us had steel helmets. Some of the carabinieri had them. The other carabinieri wore the wide hat. Airplanes we called them. We stood in the rain and were taken out one at a time to be questioned and shot. So far they had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it. They were questioning a full colonel of a line regiment. Three more officers had just been put in with us.
"Where was his regiment?"
I looked at the carabinieri. They were looking at the newcomers. The others were looking at the colonel. I ducked down, pushed between two men, and ran for the river, my head down. I tripped at the edge and went in with a splash. The water was very cold and I stayed under as long as I could. I could feel the current swirl me and I stayed under until I thought I could never come up. The minute I came up I took a breath and went down again. It was easy to stay under with so much clothing and my boots. When I came up the second time I saw a piece of timber ahead of me and reached it and held on with one hand. I kept my head behind it and did not even look over it. I did not want to see the bank. There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time. I heard them when I was almost above water. There were no shots now. The piece of timber swung in the current and I held it with one hand. I looked at the bank. It seemed to be going by very fast. There was much wood in the stream. The water was very cold. We passed the brush of an island above the water. I held onto the timber with both hands and let it take me along. The shore was out of sight now.