The organization of military logistics on river waterways in the Great War

(To Mario Veronesi)
06/12/19

A little known aspect of the First World War was the organization of that particular sector of logistics that was implemented through lagoon and river transports. A sector that is by no means secondary, considering that in this way a million and a half tons of various material have been moved, using more than 1.500 vessels. They were barges, boats and shovel tugs, to be able to move even in shallow waters, than the companies of the Genio Lagunari, a specialty of the Corps of Engineers, who came to count more than five thousand men, giving birth in August of 1918 to a specific regiment, the 8 ° Lagunari, moved on 1.700 kilometers of navigable networks from Milan to Grado. These are the numbers of the impressive logistic organization, fielded by the Royal Army to support and decongest road and rail transport to and from the front.

Even the Regia Marina moved, the logistic office of Ravenna-Porto Corsini, initially created as an autonomous body, was later placed under the command of the Marina del Brenta Command based in Ferrara. In addition to the preparation of structures to review all that was transferred from Venice, the office had to guarantee the administration and housing of the civil and military personnel of the new structure.

In a very short time a barracks were built, warehouses for food, clothing and medical equipment, deposits for armaments and shipbuilding, warehouses for aeronautical and traffic light equipment. Submarinist personnel facilities, submarine workshops, a car park and accommodation for personnel evacuated from Venice were built. These realizations were possible proceeding to the requisitions of warehouses and buildings in Ravenna and surroundings.

The Royal Navy invested more than 90 million lire for the improvement of numerous ports and landings, including the whole area of ​​the Veneto estuary and the port of Porto Corsini. Venice was an excellent logistics terminal, close to the operating troops, so the materials and the reinforcements, especially for the 3a Armed, they could get there and transfer to the boats, which would take them to the front. The same could be done in Mestre and Chioggia, but the navigability of the entire area had to be improved. Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel (1859-1948), personally gave orders to put Venice in direct communication and internally with the Po and the Isonzo, which made it possible to improve refueling for the Army and, at the moment of Caporetto, to carry away, through the navigable canals, most of the war material from Grado to Monfalcone.

At the same time a navigable line had been started from Venice to Milan, while a second, between Brondolo and the Po, would have been completed after the armistice. Other works were carried out after the retreat of the 1917, for a possible defense of the Po delta, with excavations at the mouth of the Po di Levante to make it accessible from the sea to the armed pontoons and cargo boats. Porto Corsini, Cesenatico and Ravenna had significant improvements, especially related to the activities of the MAS1.

The network was structured as a railway system on the river, with tractions, stops, systematic schedules of passage of the various convoys pulled by the tugs. Where towing was not possible, in the more internal nets, such as on the Bacchiglione or on the Sile, traditional towage was used2 along the banks, with the horses of the genius lagunari, who had a large stable in Jesolo, or through the contract with peasants who made their animals available. Numerous tugboats, steamboats, motorboats and boats of various nature and dimensions were placed at the disposal of the Marina Group for various logistic services. A flotilla of about 350 floats was available. Tugs and boats were especially engaged for the supply of ammunition, for the rapid displacement of floating batteries in order to remove them from enemy fire when it was centered; the motorboats for the service of the guardafili and rapid communications with the various Commands, the minor means for transport of personnel and material. At the half of the 1918 were recorded: 639 burchi3, 149 peate4, 65 bragozzi, 19 jacks, 5 preame, 12 burchielli5, 66 battelle (small boats of the Adriatic), 5 mice6, 58 motorboats, 31 autoscafi, 71 tugs, 59 rascone7, 119 sandoli (transport boat, with flat bottom, typical of the Venetian lagoon), and 45 caorline8. To these must be added the rafts assembled on Lake Como and brought down along the Adda to the Po.

Jesolo, then Cavazuccherina (following photos), with its River Command it was a crucial junction of this system, being positioned in the exact place where the lagoon navigation entered the Piave Vecchia and, through the Cavetta Canal, directed towards the "Litoranea Veneta" which guaranteed a further artery to bring supplies to the front line.

A true maze of waterways, communicating with each other and the Adriatic Sea, which has the Venice lagoon as its natural beginning, continues towards the port of Lido and crossing the channels of the Tre Porti, Pordelio and Casson, touches the river Sile. It then enters the canals: Cavalla, Revedoli, Largoa, Comunessera, dell'Orologio, Saetta and crossing Bocca Volta, it continues along the canals: Nicessolo, del Morto, Baseleghe, Cavanella, dei Lovi, Lugugnana, Cava Nuovo, Cava Bevazzana, Tagliamento Lovato, Pantani and Lustri up to the Bocca Tre Canali. He enters the Zellina and Muro canals again and crosses Porto Buso, reaches the Anfora Vecchia canal and the Taglio Nuovo. In Friulian territory, it is then identified with the canals: of the Mee, of S. Pietro Doria, of Grado, of the Dead Man, of Barbana, Zemolo, Taglio Cucchini, Ponte dei Fensi, to end his journey in the Isonzato Channel, which in turn flows into the Isonzo. Where thousands of wounded people from the Karst were evacuated on barges towed by boats that left Grado and reached Mestre after a night's journey.

Thanks to the construction of two basins on the Tagliamento, in December of the 1915 the internal water network allowed Grado to reach directly connecting Milan to the Isonzo Front. Subsequently the service was extended to the lines of Padua and Vicenza fed by the Brenta and Bacchiglione rivers and on the canals that lead from the lakes of Como and Maggiore to Milan and the Po. A transport service was also implemented in the lakes of Garda, Maggiore and Idro . In Cavazuccherina there were also armed pontoons and two MAS Squadrons in the Lieutenant Command of Vascello Luigi Rizzo (1887-1951) and Pagano di Melito (1879-1944).

1 The MAS, derived from the technology of civil motorboats with 2 petrol engines, with internal combustion from 500 horses, had a wide diffusion in the Regia Marina during the 1915-1918 war. D'Annunzio coined the Latin motto: "Memento audere semper". A great success, achieved by the MAS was the sinking at dawn of the 10 June 1918, of the Austrian battleship Szent Istvàn at Premuda, on the Dalmatian coast by MAS 15 and 21 under the command of Luigi Rizzo and Giuseppe Aonzo.

2 The hauling is the towing of a boat from a station on land, in order to impress the motion or control the direction of the vessel. Made with strong ropes called "towpaths". Until the first half of the 20th century, the haulage service for river transport was particularly widespread. In the stretches characterized by a strong current, the barges were guided and towed by towpaths connected to draft animals, horses or oxen, placed on the banks of the river and led by the wingers.

3 Bùrchio, a large flat-bottomed boat, for easy navigation in the shallow waters of the lagoon and rivers. Traditionally made of wood, it has a variable length between 20 and 35 meters with a maximum draft of two meters. Equipped with two masts, one in the bow and the other in the stern, with a third wing, maneuvered by a tiller at the center of the stern. Characterized by a bridge with a large central hatch for access to the two holds. For centuries it was the most used freight boat for river and lagoon traffic.

4 Peàta, a large transport vessel used in the Venice lagoon. Of considerable size, it is similar in shape to the caorlina, but is more square and with lower edges. It is characterized by an almost parallel hull, a flat bottom and two small bow and stern blankets each equipped with two bollards for mooring and towing. The load capacity is considerable and varies from 100 to more than 800 quintals of capacity.

5 Burchiello, river boat used for transporting goods. Formerly used by Venetian nobles, to go to their mainland possessions.

6 Boat typical of the lagoon tradition. Primarily used as a freight boat in its commercial version it also has sailing ancestors. Used in the less calm areas of the Venice lagoon, where the proximity of the sea made it more difficult to sail for flat-bottomed boats. Smaller than the burchio, it made it more agile than the latter and therefore more suitable to respond to maneuverability requirements.

7 Rascona was a typical transport boat of the Venetian lagoon (where it was also called: Nave di Pavia) and spread along the Po axis. Large (the average length was 28 meters for a width of 6,5 meters), it was characterized by a half-moon shape and a flat bottom, with a draft varying from 35 centimeters to no more than a meter and a half at full load . The bow and stern, both with a vertical point and a rounded profile, were very high compared to the surface of the water. The propulsion was sailing, with two collapsible masts and veiling on the third, or towing with horses in the equipped river sections. The maneuver was controlled by two very special fan-shaped lateral rudders of between six and ten meters in length. It had a circular-shaped cabin at the stern, used as a crew quarters.

8 Caorlina, the characteristics are first of all the flat bottom and the bow and stern and equal and raised; this easily allows rowing by four or six rowers. The typical dimensions of the boat are 9,65 meters long by 1,75 meters wide; used initially for fishing in the lagoon, and also for transporting large loads (thanks to its capacity and agility of movement). It was the second Venetian transport boat after the peata and was mainly used for food transport (fish, fruit and vegetables). Its name is linked to the place of its origin: Caorle, once the third island of the dogato by extension, after Venice and Chioggia.