December 11th 1917

This is the final instalment from Capt. Treffry Thompson‘s diary, covering the retreat after the Battle of Caporetto. The train eventually was able to speed up to take them across the River Piave to safety.

His final entry tells the story of how the Lieut.- Quartermaster had tried to rescue as much of their kit from the advancing enemy:

2/11/17 “At this point the Lieut.-Quartermaster turned up…

He said that he tried in vain to save our kits and ordnance, which he could easily have done if he could only have got lorries – he was promised lorries by Italian officers but none arrived – finally he bagged an old farm cart and an older horse and made a harness of belts and slings and straps. He opened all our kits and got out all valuable stuff and packed it on the cart.

He had with him an RAMC corporal with D’s motor-bike and one or two ASC men – they set fire to all the rest of the kit and stores… and they started off for the west – when they left the whole place was in flames and being shelled and bombed.

They got about six miles when the horse died – they harnessed themselves into it and the cart broke down – finally they had to leave everything as they were being sniped and came on as they were, riding a borrowed push-bike and harnessed up to the motor-bike.”

A gallant effort!

 

December 3rd 1917

With the Italian army struggling to hold the line at the River Tagliamento, crossed the previous day by Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men, Treffry needed to get them still further back if they were not to be caught up in the fighting.

This, the fourth day of the retreat, was to prove to be the most difficult for men tired from the march and extremely hungry.

30/10/17 “A roll call proved that we had got all the men across the river.

The Italian RTO’s Corporal Major decided, as the train that did come in was packed, that we had better try to secure some wagons which were a long way out of the station, but would eventually go on to a train. So we walked out to about 2 kilometres and found part of a train with five horse trucks already pretty well filled with Italian soldiers.

The Corporal Major opened the door of each and shouted, “This train goes to Udine,” (The Germans were in Udine by that time) and those trucks were empty in a moment, so we all got in. We had 6 officers and 28 men in ours, 20 patients and 8 men in another, and so on, and then we went to sleep just as it commenced to pour with rain once more.

A drawing by Treffry Thompson

We woke about 8 or 9 to find the train had gone about three miles and that now there was a solid line of trains buffer to buffer at least 5-6 miles long, actual movements being limited to spurts of 100-400 yards, perhaps once an hour….

The railway track was this hurrying mass of soldiery, without equipment and fighting mad for food, and refugees clinging desperately to their little all – little kiddy girls struggling along barefooted, often bleeding from broken glass, carrying some treasured possession – old women staggering under bundles of clothing – and mothers clutching a babe, or leading a couple of kids or crying wildly up and down the trains for some child which had got lost in the crush, while along the embankments of the railway and roads were the gleaming skeletons of mules and horses, in places three deep.

If a mule or a horse died, within half-an-hour it would be nothing but clean picked bones, so wild was everyone for food. The rain poured over everything.

We decided it was better to stay on the train where we had shelter and warmth, as the trains were bound to move down slowly and it was easier to starve in the train without collapse, than on the march when it would mean men getting left behind.

Finally, towards evening things began to look desperate and we started to forage in various directions. D and B managed to pick up nearly a sandbag full of macaroni where it had been spilled under a truck about three trains up the line. I achieved about 3-4 pounds of meat off the remnants of a horse I found. One truck made a meal off defunct mule.”

A couple of them went foraging to a farm and came back with two chickens, two ducks, about 40 lbs of hot polenta pudding and a sack of maize.

“Meanwhile we had got fires going in each truck – on piles of stones in tin helmets or old buckets and we had all those birds plucked, cleaned and cooked in no time. It was great sport, all sitting round, plucking hens. The revival of spirit was extraordinary and Rici sang to us from Il Trovatore etc.”

 

November 30th 1917

Having walked 20-22 miles the previous day, Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men still had some way to go to reach safety, and they were not the only ones on the road:

29/10/17 “Masses of 2nd Army pouring past us and road filled for miles with guns, limbers and army wagons; lorries, cars, ambulances and wagons, hand-carts with a family’s entire possessions pushed by the women-folk, farm carts drawn by magnificent pairs of oxen laden with everything from copper water pails to canary cages, with the younger members of the family perched on top, and possibly a brace of geese or ducks with them; motor bikes with or without side-cars, and finally the humble push bike or the wheel-barrow, also laden with some treasured possession. The whole jumbled into a slowly, very slowly moving mass…”   

On reaching Codroipo, they were told to make for a bridge over the River Tagliamento – another 4 miles away.

“The river seemed miles away, but eventually we reached it about sunset, and then became wedged into a solid mass of soldiery frantic to get across the bridge and all jammed at the entrance.”

When Treffry finally arrived at the bridge, he had something of a fright:

“Between the rails it was open to the flooded Tagliamento forty feet below, since the bridge was an open one with the rails only being carried across on the sleepers, which merely rested on the open framework of the bridge. We moved on, foot by foot, to the entrance of the bridge, the crush becoming terrific…

I found myself suddenly shot forward and looking right down between the open rails. I grabbed the fellow behind me and, as he did not want to come too, he grabbed the fellow behind him, so we all swayed on to the gangway once more.”

After that they managed to drag themselves a further 3-4 km to the railway station at Carsarsa (just north of San Vito on the map) where the night was spent huddled together beside a siding. There was no food and the trains were all full. They can have got little sleep that night.

“Very cold, men huddled together with haversacks as pillows, but only for a few moments as it was too cold.”

November 28th 1917

This is the second entry from the diary of Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) describing his experiences on the retreat, the start of which I shared with you on November 26th.

28/10/17  “The patients, who were lying in the ordnance sheds, well supplied with blankets, were now ordered to be evacuated through St. Georgia. Only eight ambulances available, but all worst cases sent under G. They eventually failed to get a train at St. Georgia and had to proceed to Postoguaro and were 13 hours in the ambulances.” 

With these patients off his hands, Treffry turned his thoughts to his group:

“Being allowed free run of ordnance stores, as it was going to be fired shortly, we picked what we wanted… While we were in this store a huge fire started on opposite side of town covering whole place with dense black smoke, and we were all ordered out at a minute’s notice from the store and town….

We found a seething conglomerate mass pouring through the Udine gate and up the westerly road to Codroipe.

Orders were then received to march from Palmanova to Codroipe in order to cross the River Tagliamento and find what they hoped would be safety.

“We reformed officers, personnel, Italian interpreter, Rici (an Italian opera singer attached to the hospital), 25 walking patients and a few others…” 

At this point an AOC officer, claiming to know the quickest way to the bridge over the Tagliamento, promptly marched them round Palmanova and a further six miles south before heading in the right direction.

“B and I brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers, which was a pretty heartrending job. The men began to shed their kits into the ditches and frequent halts were necessary. Rici the singer was very lame, but stuck to us and an enormous pack of kit…

We finally reached Gonas about 1 p.m., with the men very done, as they had then marched 16-17 miles and had had no rest since the day before and no food since the evening before…

We got the men some apples and pears and temporary shelter in an evacuated hospital. We shared a small bit of bully given by an Italian officer between the six of us. It was decided to push on to the next village at least, as there was no food in Gonas and the civilians were evacuating.”

At the next village there they found a larger evacuated hospital for the night.

“Got the men some food, first of the day – one tin of sardines between three, and half a loaf of bread per man…

Slept like logs, having done some 20-22 miles.”

 

 

November 26th 1917

There has been much in the papers in recent weeks regarding the Italian Campaign. The advance of the Austro-Hungarian and German forces which has threatened Venice has, we hope, now been checked. Currently, Italian forces are struggling manfully to hold the line on the River Piave.

This follows the defeat of the Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto, after which there was a general withdrawal in which Capt. Treffry Thompson, who has been with the Croce Rossa Britannica (British Red Cross) in Italy since the summer, was caught up.  He has written from the safety of Torino about the retreat he has endured with the Italian forces.

“I have had a fairly exciting time during the last fortnight. We got away all right but were reduced to eating anything we could get, even to the extent of bits off the bones of defunct mules.

At present I am ‘in contumacia’ for five days, which being interpreted means quarantine, as all those coming from that part of the front are put in quarantine by the Italian authorities…

My entire kit has gone in flames, including my sketch book and photos and some rather nice local curiosities…”

Treffry has also kindly sent us entries from the diary he kept throughout this period. His adventure starts in Versa, which is just west of Gorizia.

27/10/17 “On the road in the middle of a mass of retreating troops I saw the latest thing in Paris costumes, furs, high heels and silk stockings, walking along the road.

We received orders that conveyances would be supplied to evacuate hospital on Monday morning. Changed into slacks. Roast ducks for dinner. Versa street a solid mass of moving troops and vehicles of all kinds.

After dinner ordered to move at once and evacuate via Palmanova where our Ordnance Stores were situated and there was a railway station. Changed and packed. 21 mule carts available. Hospital equipment in the shape of bedding etc sent off. Began to pour with rain; ambulances arrived bit by bit, and finally five lorries.

All patients and greater part of hospital stores and valuable equipment was got away to Palmanova. B and I marched personnel to Palmanova and reached Ordnance Depot, where the patients had arrived, about 4 a.m.”

Treffry’s account is a long and detailed one, so I am stopping at this point. It will be continued over the coming days.

July 24th 1915

 July 23rd 1915 – End of the Summer Term.

The members of the school have sent in the course of the term £13 7s 3d (last year £13 2s 0d) to the Fresh Air Fund, after being asked to decide among themselves whether they would support the Fund again or devote their contribution to some War Fund. They have also sent £5 1s 0d to the Base Hospital Tobacco Fund, and £1 to the Red Cross Fund.

£2 of this represented what would have been spent on ices on the Fathers’ Match Day, but the boys asked to give up their ices.

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So comes to an end the most traumatic school year I have ever experienced in my 30 years as Headmaster of the OPS. At the final service of term, last Sunday, I spoke to the school as follows:

“We seem to have been living in a dark shadow all this year. Just a year ago we were all looking forward to bright and cheerful holidays. I was off on the ‘Blue Dragon’ to Norway over the foam and you were off to the sea side or the country and none of us had any thought of the dread horror that has befallen the world…

The question we who have to stay at home all have to ask ourselves is what have we done, what are we doing, what shall we do to help – and it is very difficult for you and me to say that we are really helping as much as we possibly can, to those who are enduring so much for us and for our country and for the cause of right. It is a question that each of us must answer for him or herself – personally, I find it very hard to get out of the ordinary way of living and thinking and I really don’t know whether it is right or wrong to enjoy oneself in ordinary ways – ought one, for instance, to refuse to eat meat, salmon, new potatoes? Ought one to give up driving a car because it is a pleasure to do so, ought one to give up the pleasure of giving tips or presents and buy war vouchers instead? Ought you boys not to spend any money on grub, on presents, on holiday excursions? It is very difficult to answer. I believe the young can answer these questions better than the old…

Try then, my dear boys and girls, to help and be good to others, to work hard and do your very best to help your parents, to be brave in refusing when other people try to make you do wrong by “daring” you or jeering at you, or by threatening to lick you if you don’t. You little boys and girls try to be specially good to your parents and brothers and sisters and to make the holidays happy ones…”

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PARENTS – please note:

As is well known, the expense of ‘keeping school’ has gone up very considerably – at least 33%. The Preparatory Schools Association suggested two courses, (1) to give a week extra holiday three times a year, (2) to increase the fees.

I do not think either of these proposals is to be commended, but I would ask parents to remember the circumstance, and not to ask for reductions for epidemic absence or lost time! Of course we do our share in taking sons of fallen officers and of Belgian refugees free or at nominal terms – but this is only possible if parents will remember that the schoolmaster suffers quite as much financially by the War as anyone else.

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Next term begins on September 22nd 1915.