As we got closer to Kobarid the mountains grew taller, creeping ever closer to the Soca River Valley. They broke into folds and fissures, tumbling towards the small town set out below them. After two and a half hours on the road we wound our way into Kobarid. The town was in a gorgeous setting. The Soca River, a vibrant strand of liquid turquoise, slithering down the valley. The mountains hovering above Kobarid were blanketed with thick forests. Behind these mountains were the barren summits of peaks intermittently airbrushed by misty clouds. Kobarid looked like a miniature town compared to the dramatic landscape surrounding it. In his novel A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway described Kobarid as “A little white town with a campanile in a valley.”
The campanile was still there and many of the houses were white, but their architecture was modern. A much more recent cataclysm than the Great War, an earthquake in 1976, left the town badly damaged. It had come back in style, strikingly clean and quaint, with curving streets and Italianate architecture. Kobarid had a relaxed and peaceful air about it. It may not have been the exotic Caporetto of my imagination, but it still felt a bit like an inland Mediterranean village. The town and setting matched each other perfectly, so much so that it was hard to imagine a World War shattering this bucolic image, but that was exactly what had happened.
Ominous Monuments – Memories Of A Prolonged Nightmare
There were only two buildings in Kobarid evocative of the war that had made it so famous, the Kobarid Museum and Italian Charnel House. The latter was completed in 1938, in time for Mussolini to make an appearance at its dedication. The Charnel House loomed over the town, an ominous monument to life and death that could be seen from miles away on the road into Kobarid. It was a chilling reminder of the deadly warfare that had brought the area more infamy than glory. Kobarid or Caporetto as the Italians called it has been rated by some as the greatest military disaster in Italian history. Conversely, the Slovenes who now make up the town’s population had a unique experience with that same conflict. As members of the Austro-Hungarian Army they had fought on the winning side in the battle and the losing side of the war. Eventually they ended up with Kobarid on their side of the border, but not before another World War did its destructive work.
The other building, known as the Kobarid Museum, was famous for its portrayal of the war. When we pulled up close to the multi-storied Baroque building housing it, I wondered if it would be as good as advertised. Museums in small provincial towns are usually just that, small and provincial. The Kobarid Museum was supposed to be one of the best. I could hardly wait to see it. The museum was just as good as its reputation. In the entrance foyer were portraits of soldiers like many of the ones I have seen at the beginning of other World War I exhibits. This exhibit area was different because there were tombstones from graves found in the surrounding area, a reminder of where the fighting had led for hundreds of thousands. There were separate rooms set aside for the history of Kobarid, the fighting high up in the Slovenian Alps, how soldiers suffered in the alpine environment, life behind the lines, the fighting along the Soca River valley and the Battle of Kobarid. It was just enough information, but not too much. Most importantly it was memorable.
The Hell They Went Through – Images Seared Into The Memory
The true test for me of a first-class museum is if you can remember one specific thing about it. Whether that is an artifact, a photo or a certain exhibit that leaves an unforgettable impression. Kobarid Museum left me with such a memory as seen through the eyes of my friend Darja. While viewing the museum I wondered what the two Darja’s thought of it all. They looked closely at the exhibits just as I did. Their patience with my need to study each exhibit was incredible. I felt embarrassed that the Italian Front, as represented in this museum, was an unending display of chauvinism. Guns and swords, battle flags, photos of trenches, maps of the opposing forces dispositions, uniforms, insignia and medals, this was an all-male affair. Or so it seemed.
It was easy to forget amid all the martial paraphernalia that every soldier who had wielded a weapon was not a son of a bitch, but a mother’s son. Those soldiers in the black and white photographs were not so distant to those who held them in their hearts back home. They were longed for by mothers, sisters and daughters who could not imagine the hell they were going through in northern Italy. What they went through was most graphically depicted in a series of photographs showing the permanent wounds suffered by the soldiers. These were found in the quite fittingly named Black Room, one of the final exhibits. The images were searing. They showed men whose faces had been permanently rearranged by the bullets and shells that were so harmlessly displayed in the other exhibits. These were the true faces of war contorted into grotesque forms that looked sub-human.
A Reactionary Gasp – Facing Off
One photo showed a man who nose was misplaced and swollen. His left eye slumped badly, while his right eye was still in its proper place. There were three other photos arranged with this one, each showing men with permanent wounds scarring their faces or what was left of them. When Darja saw this picture her reaction was visceral. A reactionary gasp flew from her mouth, she recoiled in horror, then turned around and looked at me. Her expression said it all, it was one of horrific shock. She was saying to me in unspoken terms, “Can you imagine?” I knew exactly what she meant. In her expression I saw exactly what I was feeling. We had both seen the face of battle, one that nobody ever forgets.