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Posted on Feb 8, 2010 in Carlo D'Este, War College

An Unlikely Soldier’s Story

By Carlo D'Este

Charles D'Este in uniform. (Courtesy, Carlo D'Este)February 2010 marks the one hundred fourteenth anniversary of my father’s birth. This is the first time I’ve written about my namesake, the man who played such an important and loving role in my life.

He was born and raised in the prosperous seaport city of Trieste, that had since 1382 been a part of the Hapsburg Monarchy and was then the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the days prior to World War I the city was noted for both its literature and its music. The latter proved exceptionally important to my father who was schooled as a musician and later in life became a world-class oboe and English horn player. He grew to adulthood in peaceful circumstances. He was Italian, as were most residents of Trieste who considered themselves Italian, not Austrian.


Like so many young men, he was swept into World War I against his will. As one of the newest members of the Imperial Austrian army he was commissioned an officer in the infantry. In 1914, the Austrian army consisted of a mere 40,000 men but with the outbreak of war the number jumped to 2.25 million. Most, like my father, were conscripted.

During the years prior to World War I, Italy had aligned itself with Austro-Hungary and Germany in the Triple Alliance. However, instead of joining the Triple Alliance when war came in 1914 Italy remained on the sidelines, playing a waiting game before deciding in April 1915 to enter the war as an ally of the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.

My father was horrified by this turn of events. As an Italian, he could not conceive of making war against Italy, which was now supposed to be his enemy. It left him and others like him with a great dilemma. Fortunately he was never called upon to fight against Italy.

The first months of the war passed with relative ease, particularly while Italy remained on the sidelines. He was assigned garrison duties and spent leisure time dating young women and generally having a good time. The war seemed remote. His relatively carefree existence ended the day he was given command of a rifle company that was to become part of the Austro-Hungarian force that fought with the Germans against Russia.

Details of his travels and where his unit ended up are murky, for he was reluctant to relive his war experiences and later told my mother only the bare outlines.

What is known is that his unit was somewhere in Russia late in 1917, when the Bolshevik revolution led to the formation of a new government headed by Vladimir Lenin. Russia soon capitulated and in March 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended the fighting on the Eastern Front. Casualties to the Austro-Hungarian army in Russia have never been calculated but are estimated at somewhere around 120,000. Russian casualties were huge: an estimated 1.3 million battlefield deaths. One account reveals that: “The statistics for the Eastern war are grim. More than three million men died in the fighting, more than nine million men were wounded, and every major country which participated lost its form of government. One of them, Russia, collapsed so completely and catastrophically that the ensuing consequences still resonate in today’s world.”

My father and his unit were suddenly adrift in a chaotic and lawless land where the Austrians were left to fend for themselves, hundreds of miles from home and safety. That responsibility was now his. During the weeks that followed he was able to do so by judiciously using gold in his custody as bribes for transportation and safe conduct. Whether it was in his possession to pay his troops or merely entrusted to him for safekeeping we do not know. Nor was it clear if the gold was Austrian or if it had been captured from the Russians. What he did reveal to my mother was that it was under his control, the trip was hell, and it was the gold that saved the day – and his men.

None of this surprises me. He was the most honest man I’ve ever known and exaggeration and braggadocio was simply not in his DNA. The episode left him unable to articulate much more than the bare outlines of what occurred. For someone who wanted no part of war, it was a life-altering experience and looking back on it I now believe that it left him with a form of post-traumatic stress, then unknown.

Other accounts of the events after Russia capitulated reveal sheer anarchy, with pillaging, looting and indiscriminate killing routine. I’ve often tried without success to draw pictures in my mind of what it must have been like. What makes me proud of him is that he put his duty to his men and their safety first. That is what good soldiers do. He saw his duty and did the right thing. The gold might have made him rich but keeping it never crossed his mind.

Trieste is located in northeastern Italy near the Italian border with Slovenia. (U.S. State Department)Trieste was annexed to Italy in 1919 and although there was no more war, the rise of Mussolini and Fascism in Italy became increasingly troubling. World War I left him with a deep antipathy for war and all it stood for. Perhaps he was prescient, but he began to sense that the direction Italy was taking under Mussolini would surely lead to yet more war.

As a young man he had trained as a classical musician on the oboe and English horn, both very difficult instruments to master. By returning to his first love he could begin to forget the war. Music not only became his profession but also his raison d’etre.

Trieste is located in northeastern Italy near the Italian border with Slovenia. (U.S. State Department)By 1926, he made up his mind that he wanted no further part of life under Fascism and he successfully applied for a musician’s visa to the United States. In those days visas were next to impossible to obtain and immigration into this country was very tightly controlled. Nevertheless, he somehow managed to be granted a special visa and in 1927 left Italy, never to return. As an Italian citizen he knew that returning to his homeland would subject him to another conscription. He had seen enough of war. There is no record that he ever passed through Ellis Island. His visa apparently permitted him to avoid the usual immigration requirement and after his ship docked in New York he went by train directly to Chicago where he resided for a time with friends.

When he came to the United States he changed his given name to Charles, which he thought was more “American.” However, to those who knew him he was always “Carlo.”

During the years prior to World War II his musical skills gained him admission to several prominent symphony orchestras and in the early 1930s he became an American citizen. Among the orchestras he played for were the Minneapolis Symphony and the NBC Symphony in New York, led by Arturo Toscanini. These days NBC has become an object of ridicule but at that time NBC was perhaps the nation’s premier network and its famed symphony was highly regarded as one of America’s best orchestras.

Too old to serve in the military during World War II, he was resolute to do war service. Being a musician in those days, as now, lacked permanence. Fortunately, during the depression he had acquired a second skill in accounting and for the duration of the war served as a cost accountant for the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California, where Liberty ships were built.

In 1946, he suffered a catastrophic heart attack that very nearly killed him. In those days heart attack victims went to the hospital and either lived or died. Open-heart surgery, stents, and other common treatments that are routine today were unheard of in that era. Survival was pretty much in God’s hands, not those of a surgeon.

My dad never recovered from his 1946 heart attack and he died in 1958 shortly after my graduation from college. In my own years of soldiering and writing military history it never occurred to me – as it should have – that it was time to pay tribute to his deeds as a soldier more than ninety years ago in a long forgotten war. And so, Dad, on what would have been your 114th birthday, I salute you. I’m proud of you.

Oh, yes, one other point: throughout World War I he carried a pistol with a broken firing pin that he never bothered to have replaced. He was too gentle a soul to ever have harmed another.


  1. Touching story, thank you.

  2. A fine little piece of work this. Know nothing of the Austrians on the East Front WWI….might be book worthy of you…

    This closing lines of this effort are a perfect close…