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The Great War almost killed me

March 14, 2011

My grandfather Giovanni grew up in Erba near Como in a family of peasants. My wife did some research on his family and we found several “declarations of misery” by him or other close relatives, often signed with just a cross, to get a tax-exemption on a marriage license or something similar. History goes that Giovanni was a jack-of-all-trades. That’s why after he fell prisoner to the Austrian-Hungarians, during the defeat of Caporetto on the Eastern Italian front, he was sent to Budapest and spent the rest of the war there working as a baker. Caporetto was such a colossal defeat, the Italian troops pushing ahead at the bottom of a valley, the Austrians cutting them off by holding higher ground etc.., that to this day it is used in common Italian conversation as representing total failure. Looking back, the whole World War I is to be considered as a total failure at many many levels. The officers and politicians on the Italian side were especially to blame. One of my favorite books on this episode of the war was actually written by an American writer, a guy named Hemingway. Joking aside, it’s stunning how well Hemingway was able to capture Northern Italian settings in “A farewell to arms”.

After the war, Giovanni found a job as a rail-road engineer through his marriage with Elisa, from Modena. They had a couple of kids and then, five months before my father’s birth, Giovanni died. As was commonly done in such situations, my father was named Giovanni as well, after his deceased father. A few months earlier (or later) and my father wouldn’t have been born and I wouldn’t be here, nor my son Giovanni, nor my other kids. As it turns out my grandfather died of “trench foot”, or, as it is known in Italy, tuberculosis of the bones, which he had contracted during the war and had slowly worn him down. From Wikipedia:

Trench foot is a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary and cold conditions. It is one of many immersion foot syndromes. The use of the word “trench” in the name of this condition is a reference to trench warfare, mainly associated with World War I.

So WWI came pretty damn close to killing me. WWII did too actually although no direct ancestors of mine fought in that one. It is often said that we should thank our ancestors who fought for our present liberties and welfare, but more often than not one should really thank someone else’s ancestors, or the ancestors of all the descendants that were never born. My wife for instance is extremely lucky, in the sense that she had not just one but two grandfathers fighting on the ground all over Europe during WWII.

Anyways, thinking about these events makes me shiver. What were my ancestors doing throughout history? How many put their lives at risk, in wars and other risky business? What amazing concatenation of extremely unlikely events has had to happen for me to exist? It’s just mind-boggling.

From → Italy

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