Monthly Archives: October 2019

A black day for Italy – October 1917

Teresa Hulton (1890-1972)

October 1917 began with Teresa telling her mother, Costanza, that Cervignano, where she was living as a war nurse:

‘is really a jolly place and I am enjoying it. We have a little pavilion with kitchen, storeroom and a little resting room. Whoever is on duty must run up and down from this pavilion and feed all the men as they wait to be taken away again and also look after the really bad cases and make them comfortable. In the early morning if there are not many arrivals we go to the medicating room and help the doctors with the dressings.’

Mrs Watkins album 122

This photographs shows Teresa (in the white blouse), leader of the nursing team Mrs Watkins, soldiers and Red Cross personnel. They are posing in front of one of the buildings the nurses used at Cervignano. (c) Hamish Scott

Mrs Watkins’s team had come a long way since they began their war nursing venture in 1915. By October 1917 some felt that the team was overreaching itself as their workload had grown vastly.

Teresa hints at the fighting becoming more serious. She mentions that a ‘big attack began last night so very soon we shall be having a lot of wounded; at present there is a constant stream of chiefly ill.’ 

She adds that ‘we need any amount of very large slippers for men with huge bandaged feet, who walk about here and get their bandages dirty.’

British Red Cross nurses and wounded soldiers outside an Italian hospital. (c) Imperial War Museum, IWM (Q 83703)

On October the 24th the Battle of Caporetto, also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, began in the mountains between Italy and Austria-Hungary. The battle was the most disastrous defeat for the Italians during World War One. The Italians faced heavy artillery bombardment and poisoned gas attacks. Since many soldiers wore old and poorly working gas masks casualties were high.

An Austro-Hungarian howitzer gun. (c) Imperial War Museum,  IWM Q 60402

Taking advantage of foggy weather, nine Austro-Hungarian and six German divisions began a surprise attack at a weak point in the Italian lines on the Isonzo. Instead of forming a defensive line as Cadorna had suggested the Italian commander at Caporetto, Capello, adopted a costly policy of aggression against the attackers. By the end of the day the German forces had advanced 25 kilometres from Caporetto. Following his rapid defeat, Capello wanted to withdraw but Cadorna overruled him until. Nearly a week later the Italian forces were ordered to retreat across the River Piave.

Cervignano was heavily bombed and the chalet where Teresa was based was damaged. The chalet was burnt to the ground by the time that the Austro-Hungarian army took the town.

Cervignano chalet

The chalet at Cervignano pictured in one of Tersa’s wartime albums

Costanza wrote sorrowfully of ‘All the work and bloodshed of two and a half years lost in 3 days! Costanza worried that Teresa might be at Cervignano. Fortunately she had retreated to Conegliano along with her fellow nurses, narrowly avoiding capture by the advancing attackers. Teresa’s sister, Gioconda, added her condolences:

‘I am SO sorry – what unutterable pitch!

Well! One must make what one can of it and hope for the best – perhaps Cervignano may be spared to your activities still – who knows – . If you ever come across a British R.T.O. at any of the big stations, whose name is Russell (Conrad I believe) be nice to him for his brother Harold is a friend of mine.

Much much love and do not let us be downhearted. Yours. G.’

bombed houses

A page from one of Teresa’s wartime albums showing bomb damaged houses

Teresa described in a letter to her future husband Lord Berwick how ‘early in the morning of Oct. 26 we were ordered to evacuate. It took us completely by surprise, we had been working up to three or four hours before and not had time to talk to anyone or hear news of the battle. We got away fairly well and were much luckier than most people, but it was a sad and horrid experience and above all one felt in despair at what Italy was giving up.’


An explosion and pile of shells pictured in one of Teresa’s wartime albums

The retreat from Caporetto severely affected Teresa’s colleagues at the First British Red Cross Unit. On the 28th of October they were forced to permanently close and evacuate the Villa Trento hospital. The Unit lost half of its ambulances with the hospital equipment they were carrying. All the nurses with the exception of four were sent back to Britain.

A British Red Cross vehicle crashed at the side of a road in Italy.  (c) Imperial War Museum Collection, IWM Q 83821

Even at Conegliano the nurses were not safe. By the end of October the field hospital there was evacuated. Teresa’s letter to her mother captures the chaos and distress of the move:

On Sunday Conegliano was full of officers and the 8 of us were taking up too much room. It was decided we should move further in – to Milan and await orders. We left Conegliano at 2AM on Sunday in an empty Treno Ospedale bound for Castelfranco. We 8, a lot of hand luggage and a wounded English ambulance driver – bit of shell through the neck, paralysed arms and looking like a sort of walking corpse.

‘It was very distressing to find all these empty trains hanging about unable to go when there are masses of wounded all about Udine and Conegliano. We are hoping to be called back in a few days to begin work again. What a terrible business it all is. We are all so broken. We cannot yet believe it. We do not know what to do with ourselves. Thinking over all the horrors + all we could have done better and all our mistakes – wishing we were with the wounded now instead of here.’


A badly damaged Italian church

During the retreat refugees streamed through San Giovanni di Mazano where some of Mrs Watkins’s team were working. Mrs Gordon Watson, who was in charge of the canteen, only left when the water and food supplies were exhausted and the enemy was close at hand.

Mrs Watkins album 253

Mrs Gordon Watson (in the hat) and others at San Giovanni di Mazano (c) Hamish Scott

At the convalescent home that Mrs Watkins established at Craoretta staff first helped the soldiers to safety before burning the contents of the building so that they could not be used by the enemy.

The retreat took 11 days. The Italians destroyed bridges as they went. By October the 30th, the Italian Army had lost nearly all their artillery guns and had been pushed back to the River Tagliamento. It took them four days to cross it. The fighting continued until November the 10th 1917.

During a lull in the fighting caused by German and Austro-Hungarian supply lines being stretched too far, the Italian Army retreated until they were under 20 miles north of Venice. By then about 300,000 Italian prisoners were taken. This photograph in the Imperial War Museum collection shows a stream of Italian prisoners of war being marched along by the River Tagliamento.

Italian prisoners of war travel alongside the River Tagliamento. (c) Imperial War Museum IWM Q 60421

Teresa’s father wrote that ‘one must trust to Cadorna to put it right again.’ However, the defeat at Caporetto led to Cadorna being dismissed as chief of staff as his methods were blamed for causing heavy losses.

After Caporetto, Allied troops were sent to strengthen the Italian front line. Caporetto was a catalyst for the fall of the Italian government under Paolo Boselli.  Vittorio Emanuele Orlando was appointed Prime Minister on the 29th of October 1917.