Published on: 11 April 2018 | Last updated: 16 April 2018
Italy entered the First World War (La Grande Guerra) in May 1915. At the time, the Trentino, the Südtirol and Trieste were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the front line ran through the Dolomites — although for much of the war the major battles took place in the Soča valley in what is now Slovenija.
Instead of the trenches running across the fields of Flanders, they ran along mountainsides. Soldiers on both sides fought at altitudes of over 2000 metres, and sometimes as much as 3000, and all too often with pitifully inadequate equipment. While the soldiers on the Western Front had to fight in seas of mud, their counterparts on the Italian front faced snow and ice, avalanches and frostbite.
Some of the bitterest struggles took place around the Passo Falzarego and the nearby Col di Lana. The two passes guard the main road to Bozen, and from there, the road to Innsbruck and the Inn valley. The Austrian forces (often local Tyrolean militias) desperately clung to the vantage points the routes to the main towns of the Südtirol, and the Italians did all they could to dislodge them.
War fought in the high mountains involved feats of engineering and ingenuity and astonishing endurance. Many of the high mountain roads, vie ferrate, and cable lifts were built to support and supply the front lines. A number of these sites have been restored and are visitable - although usually, they involve a cable car ride or hike. The writer HG Wells visited this part of the front and wrote an evocative account.
Storming the skies
As I ascended the upper track two bandaged men were coming down on led mules. It was mid-August, and they were suffering from frostbite. Across the great gap between the summits, a minute traveller with some provisions was going up by wire to some post upon the crest. For everywhere upon the icy pinnacles are observation posts directing the fire of the big guns on the slopes below, or machine-gun stations, or little garrisons that sit and wait through the bleak days. Often they have no link with the world below but a precipitous climb or a ‘teleferic’ wire. Snow and frost may cut them off absolutely for weeks from the rest of mankind. The sick and wounded must begin their journey down to help and comfort in a giddy basket that swings down to the head of the mule track below.
Originally all these crests were in Austrian hands; they were stormed by the Alpini under almost incredible conditions. For fifteen days, for example, they fought their way up these screes on the flanks of Tofana No. 2 to the ultimate crags, making perhaps a hundred metres of ascent each day, hiding under rocks and in holes in the daylight and receiving fresh provisions and ammunition and advancing by night. They were subjected to rifle fire, machine-gun fire and bombs of a peculiar sort, big iron balls of the size of a football filled with explosive that were just flung down the steep. They dodged flares and star shells. At one place they went up a chimney that would be far beyond the climbing powers of any but a very active man. It must have been like storming the skies.
The rock of terror
One of the most iconic episodes was the construction of a tunnel under the Austrian position on Il Castelletto (the little castle), a vantage point on a spike of rock controlling the way to a valley leading from the Falzarego pass.
To the Austrians, Il Castelletto it was the Schreckenstein — the rock of terror. It was garrisoned by 30 Tyrolean Kaiserjäger led by 19-year-old Hans Schneeberger. Schneeberger was told by his commanding officer that he had been given the job because he was the youngest officer available, and unmarried. ‘If you do not freeze or starve to death first, you will be blown up’ he was told. (Fortunately, he lived to tell his story).
In late 1915, the Italians decided to build a 500-hundred metre-long tunnel under the Castelletto, and by June 1916 they were within 33 metres of their target. Schneeberger and his men could hear the noise of the Italian drill, but according to Schneeberger, it became almost reassuring: it meant the Italians were not yet ready, and ‘as long as they are not ready, we survive’.
The explosion came at 3.30 in the morning, killing 20 of the 30 soldiers on the Castelletto.
According to the historian Mark Thompson:
Then soldiers and black smoke pour out of the tunnel mouth newly gaping in Tofana. Ignoring the smoke, the Italians make their way down to the huge crater in the saddle. Then they keel over, one after another. It is what miners call afterdamp or white damp: refluxing clouds of carbon monoxide, formed by the explosion and sucked out of the tunnel. The men waiting below the saddle fare no better. As they race up the slope, they are skittled over by huge boulders dislodged by the blast, careering down from the crater.
The Col di Lana
The heaviest losses in the Dolomites occurred in the struggle for control of two points on a ridge overlooking the road to Bozen from the Passo Falzarego: the Col di Lana (2,450 metres) and the Sief further along the ridge. The Italians tunnelled under the Col di Lana and detonated a huge explosive charge. They stormed the col but were unable to overcome the resistance of the Austrians on the Sief.
Imagine a campaign to capture a cathedral spire by creeping along its roof-ridge, with 45-degree slopes on either side.
Again, the narrow ridge leading to Sief was desperately defended by Austrian reserves. Over the next year and a half, the Italians edged closer and closer to Sief without conquering it. No amount of courage could overcome the Austrians’ natural advantages and, from the strategic point of view, without Sief, the Italians might as well not have Col di Lana. The Austrians still blocked access to the west and north, and threatened traffic on the Dolomites Road as it crawled around the hairpin bends down from Falzarego.
The war in the Dolomites came to an end in October 1917 with the Italian defeat at Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenija). Austrian and German forces, employing newly-developed tactics, broke through the Italian lines and struck deep into Italian-held territory, forcing the Italians to retreat to the Piave river. (Ernest Hemingway, who served as a Red Cross volunteer on the Italian Front, gives a vivid account of the retreat in his book A Farewell to Arms).
The war in Italy went on for another year, as both Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, exhausted by the war, threw their few remaining resources into the struggle. The Italians called up the Ragazzi del ’99 (the boys born in 1899 who turned 18 in 1917) in a last-ditch effort to hold the line at the Piave. The line on the Piave held, and the Austrians incurred huge losses as they tried to cross the river. The successful defence paved the way for the dramatic victory in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. Decisively defeated, the Austro-Hungarian resistance collapsed, as did the Empire itself.