Martha Gellhorn: The Carpathian Lancers (Italy, July 1944)

Martha Gellhorn (8 November, 1908 - 15 February, 1998)
This field grew huge dead cattle. They lay with their legs pointing up, and their open eyes were milky and enormous, and the air stank of their swollen bodies. We could not tell what had killed them because we were driving too fast through a long tunnel of dust which was the road. Aside from the hideous dead animals everything looked lovely, with the Adriatic a flat turquoise blue and the sky a flat china blue and the neat green hilly country of the Marche ahead. The Major drove as usual like mad. There was plenty of dust in Italy all the time, but when he drove a roaring surf of dust beat out behind us.

We were going up to have a look at the front before lunch.

We came to a village where the armored cars of the Third Squadron were stationed. They stood in the narrow side streets and were covered with leafy branches, had a pair of German steel helmets over each set of headlights, and flew the small red and blue pennant of the Carpathian Lancers from their radio antennae. Poppi, who commanded this squadron, leaned out the window of a house by the road and invited us in. The infantry was moving forward very slowly in trucks. All the infantry had dusty white faces, as if they had decided on some new sort of masquerade, using flour for make-up. They looked hot and unenthusiastic.

Poppi is more than six feet tall, exaggeratedly blond, about twenty-five years old, with bright-blue eyes and a funny husky voice. I wouldn't have thought that he was a Pole but I have now given up thinking that people look like Poles or don't look like Poles. The Poles cannot be classified, which is one of their chief charms. ...

... The Germans were beyond a ruined medieval tower which was our farthest advance position. They held somewhere in the hills and in whatever farmhouses they thought useful. The tower was being shelled. The Germans had anti-tank guns placed in farm-houses where they dominated the roads. The Lancers' armored cars were intended for was in the Western Desert; they could not operate across country, so they had to stick to the roads. The Germans waited and shot at them point blank. It was like roulette; you either won or you got burned inside your car or maybe you crawled out in time. This went on during the daytime, and the infantry pushed ahead a little, and our artillery shelled the German positions, and at night usually the germans retreated a few kilometers further north. It was a tiny war at the moments, though people got killed in tiny wars also. ...

... the Carpathian Lancers had been the spearhead of the Polish Cores in a spectacular advance of two hundred miles up the Adriaticcoast; and nobody was feeling violently energetic now, a few days after the capture of the port of Ancona. It was too soon for another big Polish drive, and the Lancers and the Germans were only prodding each other, while the Polish Corps reorganized for the next push.

We roared away in our private dust storm. The major was disappointed in the tour. "Nossing," he said, "Tres ennuyeux pour vous. Sie haben nichts gesehen."  The use of three scrambled languages was our regular communication system. Everyone understood everyone else perfectly.

Since the war had so delightfully stopped and since it was beautiful weather and since Second Squadron was in reserve near us and doing nothing in particular, we decided to go swimming. There was a slight snag because no one had had time to investigate the beach and the approaches to the beach for mines; but as the Poles said, if you spent your life always considering mines it would be quite impossible. So we climbed over a German-destroyed railway bridge, climbing as delicately as if we were Balinese dancers, stepped softly on the torn-up wooden ties and jumped prudently down the embankment and then walked very very lightly along a dusty road to the shore. Andrew, who is a second lieutenant and commands a platoon of armored cars, and I did this noble work of reconnaissance. We decided to walk side by side or closely following each other, on the grounds that it would not be fair for just one of us to explode. There were no mines, at least we did not step on any and there was the warm pale sea and a beach of smooth white pebbles.