lunedì 18 giugno 2012

The battle of Caporetto/Kobarid/Karfreit - The use of poison gas - Testimony of Ivo Ivančič (1937, Bovec/Plezzo/Flitsch) - © C. Pavan 1997 - Translated by Giorgia Ciondoli

A burst of boiling gasoline coming into your throat  
Testimony of Ivo Ivancic, received by Camillo Pavan 

That day, the whole front of Plezzo was bombed with normal gas grenades, that I keep in large amount in my collection. However, this “generic” bombardment gave little result. The key factor that determined the destiny of the battle was instead the dropping of a thousand bullets from the level ground protected by scarps, lying not long after the village of  Vodenca, coming from the Isonzo river. The grenades containing gas laid inside a particular kind of tubes, a sort of mortars, calledGaswerfer in german and were thrown all at the same time by an electric contact towards the Italian trenches situated about 500 meters away, in Naklo.
After the breaking of the front the Germans left the tubes there. Mirko Fuljac, an oldrecuperante* from Plezzo who is dead by now, the one who taught me how to open my first ten-fifteen bombs, told me that several years before I met him, he found hundreds of those tubes. He picked them up and sold them, but he made a little money because they were common iron tubes. But he couldn't understand the reason why all those tubes were lying there. Now we know it for sure!
Every tube contained a 180 cal. grenade filled with gas. I recovered two of these grenades. One of them was empty by that time because the contact with the soil corroded its bottom and the gas had come out, but the other one was still full.
I was with two friends of mine when we found this bomb in the surroundings of Naklo: Anton Kauc, who is dead by now, and Dvsan Klavora. We knew for sure that the bomb was still loaded because it is like a gas cylinder and if you shake it you can feel the gas moving inside. This was the question: considering the danger caused by its content, how could we open it?
It took us two years to find a solution. We talked about it when we met at the bar, we talked about it in winter nights… Until one day — it was about 1980 — we decided to move into action.
We loaded a gun with a Breda heavy machinegun 8 mm bullet, used during the Second World War (it was found in this area too, left by the Italians when they retreated after September 8th). We took the bomb to a place up on the mountain, that we know was absolutely isolated, the kind of place where, during the whole year, maybe just one person passes by. We laid it down and we brought the barrel near, at no more than two cm. Then we linked the trigger to a long string that we wound around a side of the grenade, so that we could stand on the opposite side of the gas outlet. We went more than fifty meters away and we pulled the string. The shot was fired. The powerful bullet perforated the grenade armour and the gas began coming out whistling because of the pressure. It created a white cloud (it seemed like fog, just lightly yellowish) that expanded for about twenty-five meters.
A few minutes later, when we couldn’t see no more traces of the gas, I suggested to my friends to go and inspect the grenade. Dvsan did not feel safe about coming, so I went alone with Anton Kauc. We got near slowly, carefully, a few centimetres at a time, smelling the air so that we could stop at the first suspicious smell. And when we were at about six or seven meters from the bomb, at the same time, we felt something burning in our throats that made it difficult for us to breath; we ran away in a tearing hurry.
It seems clear that a small quantity of gas was still in the air, and yet it was impossible to see it. It was like in a room where nobody smokes for hours, but the air keeps being soaked with smoke.
A little later, even if I was aware of the danger, I told my friend: «Aidi, greva se nkret…», that in our dialect means: «Come on... let's go there once again». But Anton was too scared to come. «No», he told me, «I won’t come anymore».
But that’s the way I am, I wanted to try once again! I got near the grenade another time, alone, smelling the air like I did before, step by step. «There is nothing here», I told to myself approaching to the place where I smelled the gas before, and I went on. «There is still nothing here», and I made another half a step ahead. It is possible that, in that moment, the wind changed direction, I don’t know: in a second I found myself inside the gas, I felt something like a burst of boiling gasoline coming inside my mouth, going up in flames. «Ah, I can’t breath anymore!».
I turned, I took just a few steps in a rush and fell down breathless. I could hear my friends saying: «He’s done for, it’s too late for him…».
But an hour later I recovered and began coughing, hawking and spitting, throwing mucus out of my nose. It took ten minutes before I started to breath almost normally. Two hours later I could still feel my throat burning a little bit and only the day after I was fine. Now I can tell that what is written in several Italian books is true: the soldiers attacked with gas grenades died spitting blood and pieces of lungs 1. It is true, I’m sure it is because I tried that gas.
I want to tell you another thing, so that you realize how powerful that gas was. When we exploded the bomb, it was late in the summer, the end of August maybe, or maybe the first days of September, however, the leaves in the wood were still green. But when we came back, a few days later, within a range of fifty metres from the explosion, the leaves were completely burnt, they were the same colour of this wooden sideboard; the leaves were burnt, everything was burnt actually, even the grass was withered. Fifty meters away the vegetation started appearing a little less burnt, but the signs of the gas  were still clear, even two hundreds and fifty meters away from the grenade. Only one grenade caused all this.
It was phosgene gas 2, I read it in an italian military document of the wartime 3. But I’m not a chemist nor I can say if it smelled of almonds, of coffee, or of pasta! I didn’t smell anything 4. I can only tell you that I’m the last man who smelt that gas and is still alive!
But let’s not talk about what kind of gas it was. All that I know for sure is that it gets into your throat and that if I had taken just another deep breath, just one, I would have died. Because that’s enough: just a breath and you die. When I smelt it, the white fog had already vanished, there was nothing there, and yet I was about to die. And that time the Germans threw a thousand bombs that exploded before they touched the ground, generating a big cloud, full of gas. Then the gas, heavier then the air, came down to the ground and entered the trenches, the huts, the caves, everything.
And it took just one breath, for those soldiers, to die.

*At the end of World War 1st, the recuperante was a real job, consisting in recovering all war materials left on the battleground, in order to sell them. (TN)



1 The witness wasn’t able to tell me the name of the author he was referring to, nor I could identify him. Ivancic’s words remind those of the Italian translation of Fritz Weber, Dal Monte Nero a Caporetto, 1st Italian edition, Mursia, 1967, p.382. «Qua, là, dappertutto, questa nebbia orrenda, bastava aspirarla una volta perché i polmoni ne venissero corrosi, una sola boccata e la vita se ne andava a brani sanguinolenti»*. Or those of Walther Schaumann - Peter Schubert, 1990, Isonzo, là dove morirono …, Ghedina e Tassotti, Bassano del Grappa, Vicenza, p. 220: «Fra le masse dei cadaveri sedevano alcuni intossicati dai gas che sputavano sangue da sotto il becco delle loro maschere…»**.
2 According to Attilio Izzo, Guerra chimica e difesa antigas, Second edition revised and updated, Hoepli, Milan, 1935, p. 21, in Plezzo «gli aggressivi adoperati furono il difosgene e la difenilcloroarsina. I colpiti (circa 500-600 uomini) morirono istantaneamente»***. He refers to the 5th  battalion, 87th regiment, Brigade Friuli. (Relazione Ufficiale Italiana, Ministero della Difesa, Stato Maggiore dell'Esercito, Ufficio storico, 1967, L'esercito italiano nella Grande Guerra, vol. IV/3, schizzo 3).
Both phosgene and diphosgene are classed as «choking agents», because of their effects on the respiratory tract, and their toxicity level is very high. The “advantage” of diphosgene is its stability with iron, so that it is possible to put it directly into bullets, as the grenades found by Ivancic testified. The hydrocyanic acid, instead, “is not usable in a liquid state” in iron bombs. (Izzoop. cit., p. 52) Moreover, diphosgene is “not easily dissociated by water" (Id., p. 50), that was a factor of the greatest importance for the attacking forces, because of the natural environment and the weather conditions in which they should use the gas.
Diphenylchloroarsine, whose bullets were marked by the Germans with a blue cross, is classified as a «choking agent», even if its real toxicity is clear. “It strongly attacks the nasal, throat, eye and lung mucosa”. (Ib., pag.71)
3 He refers to a photocopy he has, unfortunately without any bibliographic reference.
4 This is his answer to my questions about Giovanni Comisso Giorni di guerra, 3rd revised edition, (Longanesi, Milan, 1960), p.127, and Mario Silvestri, 1984 Caporetto, Una battaglia e un enigma, (Oscar Bestsellers, Mondadori, 1995), p.180, who, according to Comisso’s remarks on the typical smell of hydrocyanic acid (bitter almonds), and to Weber’s conviction (op. cit., p. 380, 383) that the gas used in Plezzo was not phosgene but hydrocyanic acid. Hydrocyanic acid (or prussic acid), however, even though it is one of the more toxic agents that we know, if used alone “yielded scarce results in warfare because of its great volatility”. (Izzoop. cit., p. 51)


Here and there, everywhere, that horrible fog, one breath was enough for your lungs to be corroded, just one breath and your life was gone in bleeding pieces.

** Among the piles of dead bodies there were some persons poisoned by the gas, they were spitting blood through their gas masks.

*** The chemical weapons that had been used were diphosgene and diphenylchloroarsine. The persons who breathed the gas(about 500-600 men) died immediately.

Ivo Ivančič (1937, Bovec/Plezzo/Flitsch) owns a collection-museum of war material he collected on the battlefield in the area of Rombon-Plezzo.

Translated by Giorgia Ciondoli
(Traduzione di Giorgia Ciondoli)


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