A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: An Italian sniper fails in his duty

Emilio Lussu, later an author and radical politician, recalls his moment of crucial hesitation – and mercy – in the trenches

They were so close to us that we could count them, one by one. In the trench, between two crossways, there was a little round space where somebody, every now and again, stopped for a minute. You could tell they were talking, but the sound of their voices didn't reach us. That space must have been in front of a shelter that was bigger than the others, because there was more movement around it. The movement stopped when an officer arrived. You could tell he was an officer from the way he was dressed. He had shoes and gaiters made of yellow leather and his uniform looked brand new. Probably he had just arrived a few days ago, maybe fresh out of a military academy. He was very young and his blond hair made him look even younger. He couldn't have been any more than 17. Upon his arrival, the soldiers all scattered and there was nobody left in the round space but him. The coffee distribution was about to begin. All I could see was the officer.

I had been in the war since it began. Fighting in a war for years means acquiring the habits and the mind-set of war. This big-game hunting of men by men was not much different from the other big-game hunting. I did not see a man there. All I saw was the enemy. After so much waiting, so many patrols, so much lost sleep, he was coming out into the open. The hunt had gone well. Mechanically, without a thought, without any conscious intent to do so, but just like that, just from instinct, I grabbed the corporal's rifle. He gave it up to me and I took it. If we had been on the ground, as on the other nights, flat on our bellies behind the bush, I probably would have fired immediately, without wasting a second. But I was on my knees in the newly dug ditch, and the bush was in front of me like a shield in a shooting gallery. It was as though I were on a shooting range and I had all the time I wanted to take aim. I planted my elbows firmly on the ground and started to aim.

The Austrian officer lit a cigarette. Now he was smoking. That cigarette suddenly created a relationship between us. As soon as I saw his puff of smoke I felt the need to smoke. That desire of mine reminded me that I had some cigarettes too. In an instant, my act of taking aim, which had been automatic, became deliberate. I became aware that I was aiming, and that I was aiming at someone. My index finger, pressing on the trigger, eased off. I was thinking. I had been forced to think.

Sure, I was consciously fighting in the war and I justified that morally and politically. My conscience as a man and as a citizen was not in conflict with my duty as a soldier. The war, for me, was a dire necessity, terrible surely, but one whose demands I obeyed, as one of life's many thankless but inevitable necessities. So I was fighting in the war and I had soldiers under my command. Morally, then, I was fighting twice. I had already taken part in a lot of battles. That I should shoot at an enemy officer was, therefore, in the logic of things. Even more than that, I demanded of my soldiers that they stay alert on their watch and that they shoot accurately if the enemy came into their sights. Why wouldn't I, now, shoot at that officer? It was my duty to shoot. I felt it was my duty. If I didn't feel it was my duty, it would be monstrous for me to continue fighting in the war and to make others do so as well. No, there was no doubt; it was my duty to shoot.

Emilio Lussu, who fought in the battle with the Italian Army, on the side of the allies, against the Austrians, who sided with Germany Emilio Lussu, who fought in the battle with the Italian Army, on the side of the allies, against the Austrians, who sided with Germany And yet I wasn't shooting. My thoughts worked themselves out calmly. I wasn't at all nervous. The previous night, before leaving the trench, I had slept four or five hours; I felt fine. Behind that bush, down in the ditch, I was not threatened by any danger. I couldn't have been more relaxed in a room in my own house, in my hometown.

Maybe it was that complete calm that drove off my war-fighting spirit. In front of me was an officer, young, unconscious of the looming danger. I couldn't miss. I could have taken a thousand shots at that distance without missing even one. All I had to do was pull the trigger and he would collapse to the ground. This certainty that his life depended on my will made me hesitant. I had a man in front of me. A man!

A man!

I could make out his eyes and the features of his face. The early morning light was getting brighter and the sun was peeking out from behind the mountain tops. To shoot like this, from a few steps away, at a man ... like shooting a wild boar!

I started thinking that maybe I wasn't going to shoot. I thought: leading a hundred men, or a thousand, in an assault against another hundred, or another thousand, is one thing. Taking a man, separating him from the rest of the men, and then saying, "There, stand still, I'm going to shoot you, I'm going to kill you," is another. It's a totally different thing.

Fighting a war is one thing, killing a man is something else. To kill a man, like that, is to murder a man.

I'm not sure up until what point my thoughts proceeded logically. What's certain is that I had lowered the rifle and I wasn't shooting. Within me two consciousnesses had formed, two individualities, one hostile to the other. I said to myself, "Hey! You're not going to be the one to kill a man like this!"

Even I, who lived through those moments, would not be able now to give an accurate description of that psychological process. There's a jump there that, today, I can't see clearly any more. And I still ask myself how, having reached that conclusion, I could have thought to have someone else do what I myself didn't feel I could do in good conscience. I had the rifle on the ground, sticking under the bush. The corporal was pressing up against my side. I handed him the butt of the rifle and said to him, barely whispering, "You know ... like this... one man alone... I can't shoot. You, do you want to?"

The corporal took the rifle butt in hand and responded, "Me neither." We made our way back to the trench on all fours The coffee had already been distributed and we poured some for ourselves, too.

That night, just after sundown, the relief battalion replaced us.

Taken from 'A Soldier on the Southern Front', by Emilio Lussu, first published as 'Un Anno Sull'Altipiano' in 1938; republished in 2014, in a new translation by Gregory Conti, by Rizzoli Ex Libris (£16.95)

Tomorrow: The death of Lord Kitchener

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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