10 August 2022
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Amalfi Battery: a story of war and hope

Amalfi Battery: a story of war and hope

It is 1915, Italy is at war.

On May 24th 1915, the Italian army entered a bloody battle which will be destined to change not only the fortunes of Europe, but the entire world, forever.

The Belle Époque is over, and with it the apparent peace that had remained like a veil, at times pierced, over European rooftops throughout the 19th century.

Northern Italy prepares to defend itself. It is not only the mountains that are being fought: the coasts are being armed and large constructions are being built that become forts ready to defend their homeland at the expense of the lives of many, many soldiers.

This is the story of “Batteria Amalfi”, a gigantic fortification named after the homonymous battlecruiser that sank in July of this nefarious year, 1915.

Façade of the Amalfi Battery

The construction was a flash in the clear sky of those beaches that had perhaps seen very few wars. It took only 17 months to complete the work, which became operative in 1917.

Inside the Amalfi there were 14 buildings and the pride, for the time, was the 360° rotating armoured tower, naval type, armed with two cannons capable of firing huge 875-kilo grenades at a distance of almost 20 kilometres at a rate of one shot per minute.

People lived, ate and hoped for the sudden end of everything inside the Battery. There were living quarters for troop and officers, ventilation rooms, stores for charges and ammunition, wash houses and latrines. It was a city within a city, a kind of parallel life to the one lived outside, on the streets, amidst the uncertainty of the future and an ever closer adversary after the defeat of Caporetto in 1917.

One of the interiors of the Amalfi Battery

A brave little train ran along the coast to this point to bring personnel, military equipment and supplies. A train for hope, or perhaps, for many, the hope was not to see it coming because this meant that the end of the war was not yet near. The railway was narrow-gauge, the railway track gauge was less than the ordinary one, which is 1435 mm.

The vital purpose of the sad and at the same time glorious Amalfi Battery was to defend the city of Venice, but in its active days it never threw its power against naval targets. Rather, it threw all its force towards the mainland. Its targets were enemy infantry and outposts in the last battles fought on the lower side of Piave River in 1918.

It was in 1918 that the First World War came to an end, ceasing to claim lives. Peace, however, was short-lived.

In 1939, a new war again inflamed the World and the Amalfi Battery was occupied by German troops who used it and kept it in operation until April 1945.

As is well known, wars bring misery and misery seeks solutions for survival: in the years that followed, the Amalfi became a refuge for displaced people, left without a home, without a life and with little hope to cling to.

Like the water that washes the coastline, which slowly passes and reminds us that time heals all things, the post-war period and its innovations slowly led to that famous boom that laid the foundations of our contemporary society in the 1950s.

From that moment, the rest is history: the Amalfi, the iron of its cannons and its railway were disarmed, decommissioned and dismantled.

Today, however, it lives a new life: it is destined to become a museum of itself and a theatre for open-air events.

The new life of the Amalfi Battery: guided tours

We had the honour of visiting it during a guided tour on a sunny afternoon in early July.

It was like going back in time, to those dark days of human history. The white walls, now marked by time, and the rough floors particularly moved us: today, we look at it as a museum, probably not realising (not seeing its armaments) what it might have been in reality more than a hundred years ago.

Anyone who has read or studied about that war of attrition can bring to mind the faces, albeit imaginary, of those soldiers. Many of them were little more than 18 years old and knew very little about military life because they were born and raised peasants in the Italian countryside.

Surely the word we would use to describe this place is emotional, but of those emotions that tug at your heartstrings and, involuntarily, scratch your cheek with a silent tear knowing what it was.

Amalfi has been a frontline protagonist of the two most significant events of the so-called short century, scenes of despair and rebirth.

Can history ever redeem human beings from the atrocities committed over the years? We cannot answer to this, but it can certainly serve as a warning so that what Amalfi experienced on its own walls never happens again.