Conversations with a missing soldier

  • Published
  • By Bill Harris
  • 48th Fighter Wing Historian
I have always been intrigued by the meaning of Veterans and Remembrance Days. Not just their status as a holiday, but in a deeper, conceptual sense and their connection with a specific generation's identity.

As a 28-year veteran with the Air Force History Program, I have toured dozens of battlefield sites with my family and we have experienced the pathos generated by standing in a moonscape of shell craters on the Somme, on the beaches of Normandy, or the mountain slopes of Monte Grappa. Interestingly enough, it was while I was deployed to Vicenza, Italy, during the late summer of 1994, that Monte Grappa instilled a lesson on the true essence of the Great War.

Research at a local library revealed that the Italian and allied forces halted the Austro-Hungarian advance on the torturous mountain slopes of the Dolomite Alps in 1916. For the next two years, soldiers of both sides dug trenches from limestone precipices. Their daily existence in the 6,000-foot altitude was primordial as they endured privation and incessant bombardment from long-range artillery.

Home to thousands of soldiers for months on end, they were littered with the typical debotage discarded by infantry - rusty food tins, broken combs, a discarded spoon, the odd button, a battered boot - all signifying the misery of a battlefield existence.

One particular artifact was prevalent which came to symbolize the static nature of the war: barbed wire. It was literally everywhere. The trenchlines were covered with the stuff, still coiled and stretching as far as the eye could see. Those first visits only whet the appetite. I decided that I had to explore the battlefield further to understand the nature of the Grappa campaign.

Having one day off each week, I often took to the hills above Bassano to air the mind and explore Italy's Great War remnants. Many times, I would leave just after work, drive to a remote spot on the battlefield, and unroll my sleeping bag. Since time was a premium, I would explore the trenches with the aid of a flashlight well into the early hours of the morning.

On my sixth excursion to Grappa, I was certain I had found the location of a particularly grueling episode of the battle, in which Austrian troops sought to overrun Italian forces in the early days of December 1917. The neat, near pristine communications trenches in the rear areas in no way resembled the earthworks that I saw in this remote area. What lay before me was a rocky moonscape, a promontory tortured by thousands of artillery shells. The preponderance of razor sharp shell fragments and hundreds of half inch lead "shrapnel" balls bore testament to a horrific episode frozen in time.

This was an assault area, a pivotal position in which the desperation of battle had been waged in hand-to-hand combat. Downslope, my flashlight revealed canisters of various types which suggested that mustard gas and flamethrowers had been used. Dented shovel blades also intimated a horrific reality: the fighting had been so savage, soldiers had abandoned their rifles in order to use their trench shovels as make-shift bayonets, or even worse, hand-held guillotines.

In the moonlit darkness one particular Austrian trench yielded evidence of unit involvement and weaponry of both sides. This was the result of an Italian counterattack since the Italian trenches were barely 40 meters away. The damaged trenches in this particular area resembled shallow ditches, their textbook ramparts reduced to rubble by artillery and grenades. A slow, methodical inspection also revealed small elongated indentations where perhaps one or two soldiers managed to escape the mangled trenches and scrape away a few inches of dirt and pile a few stones to stop bullets.

Further exploration of the evening's discovery revealed a trenchline in a particularly steep ravine obscured by clouds and a precipice. Literally crawling on hands and knees to the site, I found a section of trench next to a small escarpment, part of which had collapsed. A shell hole above the escarpment led one to deduct the reason for the collapse. Several barbed wire strands emanated from the collapsed trench, resembling a person with a bad hair day. It also contained, among other debris, dozens of rusty potato masher grenades, ammunition boxes, trench reinforcement stanchions--and the sole of an intact boot.

Curious, I began removing stones from around the boot which eventually revealed swatches of dark wool fabric. Removing pieces of the rotted cloth revealed something else: bones. While startling, it wasn't completely unexpected. We had found numerous human and animal bones during previous walks along the Somme battlefield. The static nature of trench warfare meant that some combatants were buried in their trenches, dugouts, or shellholes. But, unlike our Somme discoveries, this set of bones seemed infinitely more personal. I needed to continue, not to satisfy curiosity, but to help identify and possibly return a person home to their loved ones.

Moving up from the boot area, I gently removed gravel from where I thought the torso might be located. Gradually, the eye socket of a skull slowly appeared as did fragments of another Berndorfer helmet. This battlefield had not only yielded artifacts, it was now surrendering one of the thousands of missing Austrian soldaten. The removal of soil from the skull revealed that this soldier had indeed experienced battlefield trauma as evidenced by a round half-inch hole above the left eye. The dozens of lead shrapnel balls lying around this soldier bore witness to his fate. Used by both sides, shrapnel shells resembled foot-long shotgun shells, with each shell expending 200 lead balls, effectively spraying lead death for dozens of yards to eliminate opposition in enemy trenches.

In a remote section of trench, this soldier had been instantly dispatched by 20th century technology and mercifully covered by debris from a subsequent "funerary" artillery shell. The collapsed trench was about 20 meters in length, so one could only guess as to the fate of this person's comrades. Perhaps they were also laid to rest by the same series of artillery salvoes.

The soldier's excellent state of preservation revealed a somewhat small bone structure, suggesting the remains belonged to a young man in his late teens. His teeth were intact. A rusty barrel beneath his right cheek and upper vertebrae indicated he had collapsed on his rifle.

After staring at this person for a few minutes, I unknowingly initiated an internal dialogue, an activity I later learned that frequently occurs among field archaeologists. Who was this person? What did he look like? Did his family know of his demise and the dire circumstances in which he perished? Was he married? Engaged? What was his sweetheart's or mother's name? Did he have a pet dog or cat? Sundry questions gave way to diverse mental ruminations.

After several minutes of observations, an unexpected yet remarkable thing happened: our humanity connected. This was not just a soldier; it was the mortal remains of a human being, a person, a life form once capable of self-awareness. Before me was not an "it." In a rapid series of epiphanies, he became me and I him in the vastness of our humanity. I must have sat in the same spot for more than an hour, staring at this remarkable person and participating in a silent dialectic exchange of history and culture, his remains a schoolmaster of what once was. I gently reinterred him and erected a small stone cairn so that I could identify the site again. I uttered a silent prayer, being thankful for having been granted the opportunity to converse with this remarkable sentinel of history. I purposely did not photograph him because to do so would have robbed him of his dignity. In so doing, I preserved my own.

A week later I returned with an Italian park ranger and we once again uncovered the soldier. A radio call resulted in the arrival of two additional rangers who excavated the body and its immediate environs. My initial assumption was correct. He was with two of his fellow comrades, both of which lay curled up in fetal positions only a few feet away, probably victims of the same shrapnel shell. Before departing, the rangers genuflected and eloquently recitated some Latin words of spiritual significance over the site, an act that was as beautiful as it was meaningful. They, too, were bidding farewell to people, not just former enemies. Like me, they had connected with these fragile vestiges of humanity.

Treating me to lunch, the rangers explained that they frequently exhumed human remains from the battlefield, all of which they interred at the Pasubio Ossuary, a crypt specifically built for the unknown soldiers found on the Grappa and Pasubio battlefields. One ranger commented: "There are thousands of unknown soldiers in the ossuary and thousands yet to be found on the battlefields. Only their maker knows their name. But we know their commitment to each other." The last part of that statement was truth in absolute. They were buried together during one last desperate moment of shared effort.

For me, the experiences of that August and September reinforced two simple concepts. First, one of the great tragedies of World War I are the hundreds of thousands of combatants who are still unaccounted for, their personhood prematurely taken from them by an artillery shell and aerated mud in some remote location. Secondly, those combatants didn't deserve the simple connotation "them." Like the impersonal word "it," "them" signifies a sense of otherness, a detached form of "not me." On the contrary, they are us, and "them" becomes a collective "we." As such, we are conversing with each other through our eventualities. That concept begs a question. Have we been listening? If not, I submit that perhaps we have yet to understand our true selves.

Veterans and Remembrance Days, enacted by public laws in America and Britain shortly after the Great War, should not be days recognized simply to remember "them." These are days to celebrate our connections with our humanity, and initiate historical dialogue with our tutors, many of whom are interred in fields not of their choosing.

On these days, we need to learn to be still. Let's remove our headphones, turn off our music players, and increase our consciousness of what was once known. Let the battlefields speak of cataclysms, of fear, of courage, of comradeship. Allow the memorials to speak of the need for communal mourning and healing. Permit the cemeteries to imbue a sense of peaceful togetherness. From personal experience, I submit that that without these elements, our lives are incomplete. Why? We are denying the critical element of collective memory. What will be the benefit? Much. We can learn from these combatants - both alive and deceased - by allowing memories to gently guide, mentor, and speak through letters, poetry, diaries, philosophy, and other things held dear.