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A Trip to Fiume May, 1919

By Livingston Davis
(Harvard University Class of 1904)

[This letter was written on May 5, 1919, some two weeks after President Wilson's coup, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Italian delegation from the Peace Conference at Paris.]

TO-MORROW being Sunday you may have your choice of three things to do: go to Goritzia which now lies in ruins, and follow up the Isonzo River to the concrete trenches and emplacements which the Italians and Austrians established in their last struggle before the Armistice; go to Klagenfurt where extensive preparations are being feverishly rushed for the first battle of the next war; or go to Fiume.

Fiume! We made our decision on the mere mention of the name.

"Very good. In order to procure the requisite laissez-passer, to be signed by the Governor, you will have to give me the name of the place and State where you were born, the date of your birth, the full name of your father, and the maiden name of your mother."

Wonderfully thorough, these Italians, and what a valuable collection of genealogical data for future deserving politicians in Government jobs to study! In addition, a complete description of my physical appearance was demanded, from the color of my hair through the form of my chin to the minute enumeration of the clothing I intended to wear on the trip.

Sunday broke warm and sunny, with great fleets of billowy clouds spinnakers and balloon jibs full-bellied boiling up from behind the range of the Karst Mountains to the northwestward, drifting leisurely through the typically azure Italian sky, till they finally piled up over the rocky ranges of the Cicen of the Istrian Peninsula.

Evidently the military governor of Trieste is a late riser on feste, or let us hope he is making his orisons at Mass as a devout practitioner of his faith should; for when the passes are finally received, and we traverse the Piazza Grande the noon gun booms from the port, and the giants on the tower of the Palazzo del Municipio commence their labored beating of the hour, all the while keeping their eyes, not on the object of their endeavor, but on the horizon of the Adriatic, as if they momentarily expected their illustrious and far more vigorous and virile prototypes from the Torre dell' Orologio at Venice to appear and start a ringing contest. A Slovene woman clad in the gay, brightly colored costume of her country on her head a basket filled with [194] every conceivable object including even what looks like parts of the kitchen stove, on one arm two huge cans of milk, and on the other a baby asleep is in the way. The horn blows, the woman leaps nimbly aside, but what a flood of memories that sound calls forth, dim memories of eight thousand miles over the face of war-torn France. For we are in a Cadillac, the car of the American effort, and the voice of each is on the same note. It attacks with vigor the sharp ascent of the road which stretches like a long, oblique gash in the mountain wall of the valley until it loses itself against the sky.

During the ascent Trieste rapidly spreads itself out over rolling hills. The harbor with its ships and docks darts into prominence, but only for a fleeting moment, for the whole gradually fades away and is absorbed in the distance, like the effect of leaving an aerodrome in a lumbering Caproni. Gone are the din and turmoil of the overcrowded city, the bustle and restlessness of its heterogeneous population, and gone what a relief! are the placards flauntingly plastered on every building, of which the most conspicuous depicts Columbus violently ill from remorse, standing in a cramped position beside a waste-basket in which lies a torn map of the United States, uttering laconically, "If I only had known, I never would have discovered it."

At last we are in the country and breathe deeply; for the air is as crisp as when the first northwesters sweep over New England in September, chasing away all memories of the mugginess of August. But such country! Range upon .range of mountains stretching endlessly in all directions. As far as the eye can see, nothing but rocks and boulders the very epitome on the grand scale of what Pass-chendaele and Vimy ridges will resemble in a few years, when the benevolent hand of Nature clothes the devastation wrought by man actuated by Mars, as she here has clothed, with sparse greens and herbs, the crude handiwork of Vulcan, the god whose task it was to create this particular part of the planet. Shell-holes here are vast extinct craters ranging as large as five hundred yards wide and one hundred and fifty feet deep. There is utter desolation in all directions. Nothing in sight bears witness of man's presence except the thin white band of excellent road which bends, twists, falls out of sight, and abruptly rises in ever-changing grades and directions.

A turn of the road and a group of Italian soldiers bursts into view, one of them violently waving a red flag. We pull up sharply. It is the first control post and passes are asked for. Those of the driver and myself are scanned with grunts. The literacy of the inspector is [195] doubted, however, for he carefully scrutinizes them upside down. Such doubt is removed when my civilian companion, who, having hastily joined us just before leaving Trieste, presents a pass over a well-known American railroad bearing a large seal, which is received by a very snappy salute, and we are told to proceed.

Farther along where water has washed what soil could be eroded from the volcanic crust into sporadic irregular arable patches, small hamlets appear whose inhabitants Croats had, in many cases, assembled at some neighbor's house to celebrate Sunday. While indoors the elders drank wine and listened to music, the middle-aged men drank and played bowls outside to the plaudits of their wives. The propinquity of young girls was always indicated by the presence of Italian soldiers. In every case these Croats greeted us warmly, the men taking off their felt hats and the women and children shouting something unintelligible, but including the word "Americani," and in several instances tossing fruit-blossoms into the car.

The small patches of soil where these hamlets cluster are found in every conceivable, inaccessible spot, sometimes perched on a precipitous ledge, more often hidden in the bottom of an extinct fumarole; they were carefully tilled, as they were the sole means of subsistence for the beleaguered people. All sheep, goats, and cattle which were the former means of support were driven off by the Austrians in their retreat, so that the only other resource left to the inhabitants besides these patches was charcoal-burning on the slopes of such mountains as may support vegetation. During our whole trip we saw only three head of cattle, all cows, the first yoked on the off-side of a horse to a wagon loaded with charcoal, and the other two forming a team yoked to a cart of grain for the Italian troops. In fact, this comprised all the civilian transportation passed during the trip, as of course all horses had been driven off together with the cattle.

However, the road was lively enough, at times too much so, for in every hamlet Italian troops were stationed, and also at every bridge, tunnel, and embankment of the railroad which we encountered several times. To subsist these troops necessitated a continued flow of huge, lumbering Fiat trucks whose drivers were only happy when roaring along with the throttle wide open and the spark advanced. Meeting these abruptly in circling a wall of rock compelled quick action, and caused many heart leaps. We passed two trucks which had come to grief that very morning one had gone over an embankment and been utterly wrecked; the other had tried to buck through a rocky [196] ledge, but had only succeeded in ramming the engine through the after-part of its own body. But all the traffic of the road was not of a cibarious character; we passed two "trains" of a more sinister meaning one containing eighteen lorries of ammunition and the other twenty-four camions of barbed wire.

Finally we crossed the last crest. There, fifteen hundred feet below us, in all its majesty, lay the gorgeous Bay of Quarnero. To the lights and coloring of water, land, and sky of the Bay of Naples, add the grandeur of the scale of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with its island of Gonaive, and the boldness and abruptness of the shore-line of the island of Fayal; multiply this by ten and your imagination may be able to picture something of its splendor. There on our right stretched to the westward the long range of mountains dominated by Monte Maggiore, rising bluffly forty-eight hundred feet from the sapphire water, with the sparkling little town of Abazzia lying at its base, and various story-book white houses dotted all over its flanks. Straight ahead lay the Bay itself, shut in by the magnificent islands of Cherso and Veglia, huge sentinels standing guard on the narrow approaches to this jeweled sea. To our left and ahead, hardly visible over the steep decline, slumbered the white town of Fiume little brilliant in this titanic diadem of the gods. From an aesthetic point of view, any nation whose people had once seen the beauty of this setting of which Fiume is a component part, would wage war to exhaustion to obtain such a priceless gem. Yet there it lay in all serenity, exhibiting no outward evidence of the fact that it was the cynosure of over two hundred million minds, and the small spark that may yet rekindle the world to flame and the sword.

Coasting down, we were suddenly halted for the fifth time at a control station, and our passes visaed as carefully as before. Looking over the shoulders of the guard, we descried a masked battery of Howitzer 155s whose business ends were directed straight toward the town, and on whose near-by Umbers groups of Italian gunners were gambling. Continuing our coast we were surprised by the acclaim with which the populace greeted us with cries of "Evviva gli Americanil" and other expressions of good-will quite different from what we had become accustomed to during the past fortnight.

These manifestations surprised us until we realized that these "Italian" residents, of whom so much is heard, are in reality people who before the war left their native land and emigrated to a foreign [197] country, where they became merchants, shopkeepers, etc., and carried on the greater part of the commercial life of the city. Now that the country of their birth is victorious a great hue and cry is raised in their name, although they give every indication of being successful, happy, and contented.

Passing the huge works of the Whitehead Company, where torpedoes of the exact type used in the British and American navies were produced for the benefit during the war of the German and Austrian fleets, our first stop was at the harbor, protected from the sudden storms which swoop down from the mountains by the long Molo Maria Teresa. Here we found two British light cruisers, two Italian cruisers, a French destroyer, and three Italian destroyers the latter moored directly alongside the quai where we could carefully inspect them. If they were models placed in a glass case they could not have been more spick and span. From stem to rudder-post, they shone like freshly groomed thoroughbreds. Brand-new awnings which had not been seen on a ship since war was declared were stretched their entire length, boxes of multi-hued flowers lined their rails, while all instruments of war such as torpedo tubes, guns, etc., were carefully screened by potted palms; the whole effect being that of a houseboat on the Thames during Henley Week, instead of an engine of war which in a twinkling of an eye could reduce the town to ruins. Even the crew and officers were resplendent in trig fresh dress uniforms.

Reembarking in the car we ran slowly through the town, and immediately remarked cloth signs bearing the words "O Italia, 0 Morte" and "Evviva Italia" ostentatiously displayed on every building. Such a universal expression of loyalty puzzled us for a time, until it was explained that these placards were so placed by order of the Italian military governor and any recalcitrant citizen was held in duress until he complied. Likewise the patriotic display of Italian flags flung from every street corner and from the larger buildings was also the effect of governmental decree. The population was as cosmopolite as at Trieste except that the troops were of more diverse nationalities. Italian bersaglieri difficult to realize so many hens had ever existed to supply so many feathers! everywhere, but also sprinkled about one could see British regulars, British and French sailors, picturesque Jugo-Slavs, gigantic Serbs, and many troops who had Chinese faces, but wore French uniforms. All the latter nationalities saluted us smartly, but we were never once recognized by the Italians.

[198] It seems to be the custom of the small boys of Fiume to wear blue sailor hats, and for a time we were at loss to explain their droll appearance; for the usual ribbon was either missing from these hats or it bore an undecipherable legend. This was finally explained by the fact that during the winter it had become the fashion for these boys to wear a band bearing the words, " Stati Uniti," but since the third week in April it was necessary either to discard this band entirely or to wear it inside out. We finally drew up at the "Hotel Orlando" whose large painted cloth sign had already become so weather-beaten that it disclosed beneath in large bronze letters permanently affixed to the wall, "Hotel President Wilson."

Here we found by appointment a man of many tongues and no nationality whose single aim in life is to be on the winning side [Ed. an Istrian?]. Through him we talked to many citizens of diverse nationality and quickly saw how misinformed are peoples who are dependent on information fed to them by censors who are careful to feed only such diet as the doctors in charge may prescribe.

Our bottle of Chianti becoming empty, we embarked once more and crossed the iron bridge spanning the Recina, a tiny stream which assumes gigantic proportions in diplomatic circles, for it divides the Italian and commercial quarter of Fiume from the Jugo-Slav and residential quarter of Susak. To make this stream an international boundary and to create a port at Susak for the Jugo-Slavs would be as feasible as to make a port of Sorrento on the Bay of Naples, for Nature here has fashioned the coast-line in similar abrupt terraces.

After a short giro through wonderfully picturesque surroundings and amid continued friendly glances for no Italians are here to be seen we retraced our way, recrossed the tiny Recina, and passed again through the streets of Fiume, which, but for the motley array of troops, seemed to cry out in protest at its international importance and only wished to be let alone so that its fate could be decided by natural economic laws, instead of by grave gentlemen sitting around a table almost a thousand miles away.

Source:

  • Google Books - The Harvard Graduates' Magazine, By William Roscoe Thayer, William Richards Castle, Mark Antony De Wolfe Howe, Arthur Stanwood Pier, Bernard Augustine De Voto, Theodore Morrison. Published by Harvard Graduates' Magazine Association, 1921, Item notes: v. 29, p. 193-198.