Monthly Archives: November 2018

Killing us with hunger – November 1916

Teresa Hulton (1890-1972)

In November 1916 the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I died. His successor, Archduke Charles I, wished to take the country out of the war. Austro-Hungary was the main force opposing the Italians. Unfortunately for the Italians the Austro-Hungarians did not withdraw. During peace talks the Allies insisted that Austro-Hungary recognise Italian claims to territory which Charles I refused. Teresa’s fellow nurse, Bridget Talbot, claimed that the Austrians ‘made a sharp attack on Monfalcone… to celebrate Franz Josef’s death.’

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A handkerchief in the Attingham collection commemorating Franz Joseph.

It seems that Mrs Watkins’s team were planning to offer aid to Italian soldiers in the trenches but the Austro-Hungarian attacks prevented this. Bridget writes: ‘Count Faltoni was going to have taken us up into the trenches near Doberdo & all the arrangements were made. We had passes to walk 6 miles over the Isonzo & then he was going to have picked us up in a motor but the Austrians started an attack & became too hot so they wouldn’t take us.’

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This photograph taken in November 1915 shows soldiers on a riverbank. The Isonzo river was the scene of much fighting between Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops during the First World War.

The war and the isolated location of the team that Teresa worked in made travel and communication difficult. Bridget continues in a letter to her sister Kathleen, who was a V.A.D. nurse:

So far I have not had a single letter or wire since I arrived here. We are so cut off from Udine one doesn’t get them. I am hoping a motor cyclist may be going in today possibly. Teresa went in to Udine last Tues. an awful business starting back by the 4 o’c train & not arriving till midnight.’

During November Teresa was told that ‘everything was going very badly, and that Treviso was being evacuated and that Venice would probably fall in a few days. This upset us very much, and I sat there feeling most miserable. I had been writing and writing to Florence to urge father or mother to go to Venice.’  Teresa and her companion Cyprienne Hanbury-Tracy travelled to the Hulton’s family home in Venice to gather things of personal value to the family as Teresa was ‘practically convinced that another fortnight would see the Austrians in Venice ransacking the house.’

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A page of signatures from acquaintances collected in Mrs Watkins’s wartime album. Bridget Talbot’s signature can be seen on the left. (c) Hamish Scott

Another problem that Bridget had was with dealing with bales of supplies for the soldiers. She claims that Teresa and Mrs Watkins ‘seem to have made a good old hash of the bale business while I was away & let Lord Monson take a good deal of it on which is a great bore as the Italians very strongly resent things being given them officially by Brit. Red X & it was entirely started by us. However I shall soon get old Ashby whose job it is into hand again & make him work through us.’

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Dr Thomas Ashby’s signature is included in Mrs Watkins’s wartime album, beneath that of Teresa’s sister Gioconda. (c) Hamish Scott

Bridget hated the poor living conditions that the nurses endured. Bridget claims that their Austrian landlady ‘tried to suffocate an Italian nurse in the house by smoking her room at 3 in the morning. She just managed to stagger to the window but nearly died of it since! The Austrian needless to say is still there so we shall probably be knifed or something.’

Later she wrote to her brother, Humphrey, who was in the Army Service Corps: ‘The latest crime of the old Austrian landlady here is to pull down our dugout. She is an awful old woman & has been interned for a year so I can’t think why she is let loose now.’

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Austrian prisoners at Cervignano, 1916

Bridget wrote that ‘There is a gt. plague of rats in the trenches & lots here. They drink all the ink & eat the metal of the bottles in the Casa del Soldato. This place is not nearly so nice as San G. It is a beastly hole & more of a town & very Austrian.’

Bridget mentioned that conditions were even worse for the wounded soldiers. ‘The last wounded train was in an awful muddle stretchers dumped down anywhere & all the walking men crammed into one place & then when we had half fed them moved into another & back again. Most of them had only had a little soup at 8 & the train went between 3 & 4 o’clock. They certainly are the most extraordinary race for making things thoroughly uncomfortable for the soldiers.’

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An outpost of the Italian troops showing the snowy, alpine conditions in which much of the fighting was carried out.

Things soon became worse and Bridget later wrote to her aunt, Margaret Talbot:

‘We are having quite a rush of trains all the hospitals emptying before the big attack on Duino. Yesterday there was an awful train – 510 wounded & only stretchers for 300 – & all ravenously hungry & crowded in anyhow & to-day again 80 more than the train wd. hold & they had no food at 6 p.m. since the evening before & they simply shouted for food. They said “they haven’t killed us in the trenches but they are killing us with hunger.” We have been asked to go & help in a hospital 3 miles off where they are desperately overworked 400 wounded & ill & only supposed to hold 100. We have not been able to go yet as there have been so many trains.’

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This photograph of a busy station is included in Mrs Watkins’s wartime album (c) Hamish Scott

Despite their struggles there were interesting moments. Bridget recounted with relish how the X-ray operator Countess Gleichen ‘had Ethel Guy the opera writer out here & she scandalised the Italians by strutting up & down Gorizia with an eyeglass & a cigarette.’

At Aquileia the nurses saw ‘a new bit of Roman mosaic pavement the priest Don Constantino had been finding yesterday. It was very nice to be the first people to see it for 1500 years. It was a most perfect bit a design with a big lobster, & different sorts of birds & a donkey – brilliant colouring.’

 

Attingham

People in Shropshire would have heard the news that the British and French had called off the offensive at the Somme on the 18th of November due to snow. The Germans had been pushed back just a few miles and casualties were massive. One German injured was Corporal Adolf Hitler who had been hit by shrapnel.

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This 1916 catalogue in the Attingham collection is for an exhibition of art work about the battlefields in France.