The beauty of the Soča Valley in eastern Slovenia belies a dark past. Its namesake river, nicknamed “The Emerald Beauty,” snakes around the lowlands of the dramatic Julian Alps, revealing Kobarid and Tolmin, among other small villages, and its 18,000 residents. It was here 101 years ago this past October that over 1 million soldiers from the armies of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy clashed in the Battle of Caporetto. The World War I battle saw the widespread use of poisonous gas, the destruction of half of the Kingdom of Italy’s military, and inspired Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”
In the first weekend of December, thirty-three students from SAIS Europe organized a staff ride to Slovenia to trace the footsteps of these armies and examine the evolution, strategy, and aftermath of the battle. The trip was entirely student planned and led, anchored by the organizing committee of Rachael Langdon, Sean Gibbons, Annie Mendes, Beatrice Chen, James Tawney, and Elliott Silverman. The committee oversaw trip logistics, conducted research and developed a pre-trip reading list, and designed the narrative arc and curriculum for the weekend.
Each student was assigned the role of a major protagonist in the battle, either from the Austro Hungarian, German, or Italian side. They then presented to the group as if they were the historical figure themselves, explaining their decisions at the sites where they happened that affected outcomes of the battle a century prior.
Each day, the group toured a battlefield, fortification, or museum that illustrated the treacherous conditions and bleak existence soldiers experienced on the Isonzo Front. Their Slovenian hosts spared no effort to teach them what happened at the Battle of Caporetto and its lasting impact on Slovenia.
In addition to being a wonderful learning experience, the weekend was a great bonding experience for the students. The countless hours they spent in the minibus touring the Slovenian countryside left everyone with new friends and the meals they shared after intellectually enriching days brought them much closer together. The SAIS Europe Staff Ride was a unique and unforgettable experience — one that is only possible if you are a Bolognese.
Written by Ian Byrne, MA ’20