THE HOCH UND DEUTSCHMEISTER ON THE ISONZO FRONT
Zagora, November 1st, 1915, climax of the third battle of the Isonzo. The Italian Army tries a breach from the North, from the Plava Gorge, to conquer the much desired Gorizia. The Isonzo flows in the narrow space between Mounts Kuk, Vodice, Monte Santo, and San Gabriele, on the east, and the stronghold of Mountain Sabotino, the impassable “stronghold” that protects Gorizia, on the west: this river marks wide portions of the front defended by the Austro-Hungarians.
The town of Zagora stands on the left bank of the Isonzo, it is perched on the Kuk slopes, and it is the last bulwark of Austrian defense in the northern sector to Gorizia. Its loss would be a disaster, because it would allow the aggressors to get ride of the defenses on Mounts Kuk, Vodice, Monte Santo, and on Monte San Gabriele, to get around the defense of Gorizia, and to the ultimate fall of the city.
From October 20th, 1915, Zagora is sieged by Italian Brigades Ravenna and Forli of the 3rd Infantry Division. At this point, nothing is left of the town but ruins. Firmly defended first by the Dalmatian troops of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, later by the Czechs of the 102nd Regiment, by the Rumanians of the 64th Regiment and by the 4th Regiment Hoch und Deutschmeister, after harsh clashes, Zagora ultimately falls to the Italians on October 31st.
But the Austrians react immediately: Zagora must be taken back at all costs, the enemy must not be able to re-organize its troops after the partial victory. The counterattack is once again lead by the Deutschmeister. They are the élite of the Austro-Hungarian army, the indomitable Viennese infantry has already covered itself with glory fighting on the Doberdò plateau. The Italians call them “crociferi” because of the emblem of the Teutonic Order’s cross on a blue background. And Italians do also fear and respect them. So much so that Italian officers offer their men a 5 Lire reward for each hat with the Teutonic cross they collect.
Leading the siege to take Zagora back is the already weakened 4th Battalion, to be reformed after being withdrawn from the first line at the end of three uninterrupted days of infernal battle in the the town. General Novak Von Arienti, commander of the 1st Mountain Brigade believes that, had the Deutschmeister been in Zagora, Italians would have never occupied that important post. He is also sure that only the Deutschmeister can bring the defense of Gorizia back in place.
The 4th Battalion, which has lost 50% of its forces in combat between October 21st and 25th, is re-enforced with two travelling companies; yet, it is still weakened. On the grey morning of November 1st, about 800 men leave the rearguard of Britof, off to the battlefield once again. They march in the fog of the fall, they make it to altitude 524 safely, and then the Battalion reaches the top of Mt. Kuk: it is 12.30 PM.
The fog vanishes slowly, as it reveals the battlefield. By then, Italian troops are already beyond Zagora, many are already climbing the slopes of Mt. Kuk. The headquarter orders to counterattack: Major Natiesta is in charge, the 1st Battalion of the 102nd K.u.K. Regiment is to attack from Prilesje, while the Deutschmeister are to reach Zagora descending Mt. Kuk.
The Deutschmeister leave altitude 611, off to Zagora, but by doing so they become clearly visible to the Italian artillery, and are soon invested by a barrage of fire. Hundreds of bullets hit the southern slopes of Mt. Kuk. Heavy artillery is the most dangerous in such a situations. 210 and 280 mm howitzer shots lift pieces of Karst rock, and plough the woods. The airflow of the exploding big calibers is itself highly fatal. The infantrymen are thrown dozens of meters away. Then, anticipated by their typical whistle, come Shrapnel shells, and their deadly chips. The casualties of the four companies of the Deutschmeister keep increasing, yet, the battalion does not fall apart and gets closer and closer to Zagora. In the hell of blazing barrage of fire, the Viennese infantrymen come back together whenever their comrades fall to the enemy.
This is how the Deutschmeister arrive only 100 meters away from Zagora. Their faces are covered in the yellowish-green deadly color of ecrasite. This is where they join forces with the Czechs of the 102nd Regiment. The counterattack to take the village back starts in the middle of a dense fog, Italian troops are barricaded between the ruins, they take a scattergun approach, killing many Austro-Hungarians. Yet, the Austrians advance, crawling, and keep getting closers to the opponents, then they start launching hand-grenade. Follows a bayonet assault. The fight is as short as it is cruel and, in the end, the Italians draw back to the center of the town.
And this is where Italian reserves, hidden among the debris, shoot Austrians and Czechs with gunfire and machine guns. The Deutschmeister scatter in many groups and crawl among the ruins. The battle breaks into dozens of fights, often by cold weapons. Each pile of waste, each little wall, becomes a stronghold. Such disputed “strongholds” are conquered and lost over and over again in an infernal afternoon. Here, defenders and attackers remain together in the death, united in this ancestral, relentless fight.
The night falls and, after hours of cruel fights, it seems that the Italians are withstanding the Austrian assaults. The most exhausted companies of the 4th Battalion Deutschmeister are the 13th, 15th and 16th. Major Nattiest entrusts the 14th Company, lead by Lieutenant Emil Fey, with continuing the battle with a surprise attack in the night. Fey can only rely on the support of the remaining forces of the 63rd Battalion, formed by Rumanian forces. It is exhausted soldiers, reduced to the size of a company. The machine-gun division of the 4th Battalion takes position on the limit of the town and gets ready to hit the targets. Attacking at night, the Deutschmeister move, guided by illuminating rockets. One of their main targets is in the cemetery of Zagora, where many battles have already been fought during the day.
And it is also where cadet Beral leads a new attack. The cemetery is patrolled by Italian troops, who greet the Austrians with a deadly crossfire. The Deutschmeister hide in the holes dig by grenades, compressed to the mother earth. Continuing the fight would be humanly impossible. Cadet Beral advances alone, under the blazing bullets, crosses the wall of the cemetery, and starts encouraging his men. An Italian bullet hits him to the head. Beral dies, but his angered soldiers spring into action, they attack inspired by his example. Many of them fall, hit to death before reaching to the wall of the cemetery. This is where the survivors must stop. A new phase of the struggle begins: Austrians and Italians, divided by a wall in ruins, throw hand-grenade at each other and open fire with their rifles. The battle continues until dawn, claiming human lives in both armies, yet, nothing seems to change.
After the harsh battle of the night, as the Deutschmeister finally enter the northern sector of Zagora, Lieutenant Fey must take the command: Lieutenant colonel Filipescu of the 63rd Regiment suffers a psychical collapse. On November 2nd, at 6AM, Lieutenant Fey gathers the remaining soldiers to attempt one, last, desperate attack. He has only 300 men to face overwhelming Italian soldiers, at least a full regiment. Yet, the Deutschmeister attack and, after intense fighting, make it to the central square of the town where, incredibly, in the muffle of the ruins, stands still a monument to the Madonna. Half of the men fall during this hard, hand-to-hand fight. Cadets Mautner and Kautsky are among them. Cadet Kober leads another platoon: his men have crossed the square and risk being surrounded, but, at the price of severe losses, they are able to get back in line.
At 7.30AM, the Italian artillery opens hammering fire. Heavy artillery and bombards. A deluge of fire hits the sector held by the Austrians: it is devastation and death. The bodies of the fallen are torn into pieces and scattered in a range of several meters. It is the “termination” of all injured soldiers who survived the battles of the night, on both sides. A rain of stones mixed with human remains falls on the horrified Deutschmeister as they crouch in their improvised shelters.
Suddenly, the bombing ends: follows a surreal silence. And here comes the Italian infantry, leaving its positions to start the assault. Columns of infantrymen move fast, covering the few dozens of meters between them and the first Austrian-Hungarian line, held by one and a half company. But the machine gun section of the 4th Battalion, lead by Lieutenant Seifert and cadet Seibold, is now placed in the center of Zagora and, with its Schwarzlose, the Italian troops are massacred one wave after another as they attack clustered.
The thin, first line of the Deutschmeister resists, heroically. The infantrymen fire: rapid-fire with their repeating mannlicher M1895. Each soldier has multiple rifles next to him, as the rifles of the fallen comrades come of use as well: one bullet after another, unloading a rifle after another. Other infantrymen launch hand-grenades quickly, one after another, picking new ones from crates and bags. The men at service to machineguns fire with guns and rifles, and they launch hand-grenade as well. The first machine-gunners skillfully maneuver the heavy Schwarzlose, the men at service are quick, substituting the strings of bullets contained in crates all around the tripods. A placement of machine guns is hit by a mortar bomb, all men at service die.
Lieutenant Fey stands like a hero, side by side with his men, gun in hand, encouraging them all and, crossing the deadly fire, he personally reaches every position of the line-up that shows signs of breaking down. The battle continues: the morning passes like this. Then the Italians draw back, leaving hundreds of dead behind.
The afternoon of November 2nd is unnaturally calm. New Italian reinforcements are coming. But the Austrians are themselves gathering reserves to reenforce the exhausted 4th Battalion of the Deutschmeister. We must resist at least until the evening. Fey lines all of his men up to the frontline, including the wounded. Darkness falls on the valley of the Isonzo. At 9PM the Italian artillery opens fire, but only for a short time and than, in the dark of the night, Italian infantrymen attack the positions held by the surviving Deutschmeister. But the Viennese won’t give up. They divide into small groups and keep fighting, hand-to-hand, in the ruins, guns in hand, with knives and hand-grenades. Even stones become deadly weapons in this ferocious battle. Once again, the Italian attack is repelled at 11PM.
One of the last men to be hit is indomitable Lieutenant Emil Fey himself, who is seriously wounded to a foot. Fey can no longer move, but he refuses to be brought to the field hospital leaving his Deutschmeister behind. He has the foot bandaged and remains in first line, leading his men from a stretcher.
On November 3rd, at 5AM, the Dalmatians of the 22nd regiment of the 18th Austro-Hungarian division exchange positions with the last men of the 4th Battalion Hoch und Deutschmeister. Lieutenant Fey, at the head of his men, on the stretcher, leaves the battlefield of Zagora, undefeated.
The Italian attack ceases on November 5th, as so ends the third battle of the Isonzo. The attempt of General Cadorna to conquer Gorizia getting around the defenses of Mt. Kok-Monte Santo through the Plava broke against the heroes of Zagora: the Deutschmeister.
During the struggles on the bridgehead of Zagora, the 4th Battalion of the Hoch und Deutschmeister loses about two thirds of its forces. Lieutenant Emil Fey is awarded the Knight’s Cross of the order of Maria Theresia for his heroic defense of the stronghold of Zagora.
The March of the 4th Regiment Hoch und Deutschmeister: LINK