The Great War in the Dolomites
”Few – actually very few grandparents who are today becoming centenarians and who lived through the drama of the First World War on the frontline along the Dolomites as children – remain. However, numerous diaries, stories, and first-hand accounts by their parents – our grandparents who were forced to fight in World War I and were faced with this fatal destiny – have been conserved, recorded and transcribed.” (Oskar Irsara)
The First World War was so very different from any previous war: the magnitude of military equipment and munitions and, particularly, of men involved made such an event simply unimaginable before it actually occurred. It marked every fighter, refugee, and prisoner’s life in such a singular and devastating way, full of consequences, that it is precisely because of its terrible, unique nature that it is a chapter in history difficult to tell.
The Great War hit the Dolomite valleys like a furious gust of wind that uprooted, swept away and changed everything: mountains, woods, hamlets and people. (L. Palla)
The war in the Ladin, Trento and Tyrol valleys which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire began in August 1914 – a month after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Men between 21 and 42 years of age were called to arms shortly thereafter and left to go to the front, convinced that they would return home safe and sound after a very quick military campaign against Serbia. Among these men grouped into the “Kaiserjäger” were soldiers from the Ladin valleys that were sent to Galicia, the Russian Front, and the Balkans. Contrary to expectations – earlier than the month of December 1914 – the Austro-Hungarian Army had lost almost half of its fighting force; many others perished after that. On the infamous front – known for the extremely high number of casualties it incurred – the Austro-Hungarian forces were practically decimated.
Meanwhile, the policy of the “interventionists” prevailed in Italy and efforts were intent on “liberating” Trento and Trieste from the foreign yoke of Austria. On 23 May 1915, after signing the Treaty of London and nullifying its alliance with the Central Powers, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. This event created a new southwestern front from the Stelvio Pass to the Carinthian border, precisely at the time when Austrian troops were engaged against the Russian offensive. Given the army’s numerical inferiority, the “Standschützen” – Tyrolean sharpshooters from traditional rifle associations – were tasked with the job of stopping the enemy, yet they had received no formal military training and were primarily young boys and the elderly because all other men had already been drafted into the regular army. Among these, the men from Ampezzo and Colle S. Lucia were the most reluctant to leave their homes and families for the most advantageous positions in the mountains, where it would have been easier to face the Italian army. They knew that defending the Ampezzo and Colle S. Lucia basin – that were open towards the south – would have been impossible and the Italian army would soon occupy their villages. On the other hand, the valley of Livinallongo, which fell on the frontline, was completely evacuated. Many women, elderly and children from Fodom (Livinallongo, in Ladin) fled to the unknown – some even reached Bohemia – taking with them only what was strictly necessary, while the men who were capable of fighting remained to defend their country.
The “Schützen” from Livinallongo and Ampezzo that were grouped into the 4th company of the Enneberg Battalion under the command of Major Franz Kostner from Corvara, together with the Standschützen from Val Badia (2nd and 3rd companies) and those from Bruneck (1st company) were dislocated to the front from Passo Pordoi to Travenanzes until a few months later when the elite German Alpenkorps arrived as reinforcement. Most of the Ladin Schützen were subsequently concentrated on the front of Col di Lana until the defeat at Caporetto.
The Austrian military boundary on the Dolomites connected the mountain peaks into an amphitheater formation: it extended from the Lagorai to the Monzoni mountains; from the Marmolada and the Padon to the Col di Lana and the Settsass; from Lagazuoi to the Tofanes. Old fortresses that had lost much of their military protection – including the “Corte” fortress and the “Ruaz” barricade in the Cordevole Valley and the “Tra i Sassi” fort on the Valparola Pass – were located at intervals along this natural line of defense. The significantly inferior numbers in the Austrian defense would certainly have allowed the Italian army to easily overcome the Dolomite passes and conquer the area as far as Brenner, but General Cadorna anticipated that the decisive battle would soon be fought on the Isonzo River. The Tyrolean front was supposed to be of secondary importance and, consequently, the Italian army postponed its attack for this reason. The delay gave the Schützen enough time to reinforce their defensive lines.
On May 29, 1915, the Italian troops occupied Cortina d’Ampezzo and Colle S. Lucia without a shot being fired but soon thereafter, on July 8, the army failed its first great attack against the Son Pouses defensive posts on the mountains of Cortina. On July 5, the 4th Italian Army was mobilized from the Col di Lana to the Tofanes for the great offensive that was to begin two days later. On July 17, the fighting for the Col di Lana peak ended roughly where it had begun: hopes of quickly advancing forward disappeared and slow, extenuating trench warfare soon set in that did not move forward even with the explosion of numerous mines by the Italian and Austrian sides. The Col di Lana peak was mined and exploded the night between the 17th and 18th of April 1916; on July 16 of the same year, the Castelletto peak exploded – both events carried-out by the Italian offensive. Likewise, the Austrians detonated several mines on the Lagazuoi to dislodge the Italians clinging to the Cengia Martini. Nothing, however, was decisive in turning the course of the war, not even the famous punitive expedition staged by the Austrian army from the Trentino (Strafexpedition) in May 1916.
The most bitterly fought battles occurred on the Col di Lana; its perfect strategic location was one of the most insurmountable obstacles for the Italian advance into Val Cordevole, Val Badia and Val Gardena. Yet, the winter between 1916 and 1917 was the most lethally inflicting period of all (video): both soldiers and the civilian population began to suffer from hunger and at least 10,000 lives were lost to the extreme temperatures caused by persistent snowfalls and in avalanches. In order to survive the natural calamities and the enemy fire of the Austrians, the Austrian engineer, Leo Handl, designed a series of tunnels inside the mountains and deep into the Marmolada Glacier at over 3,000 m of altitude; soldiers carved and drilled into what ultimately grew into a network of several kilometers: an actual “city under the ice”. However, these superhuman efforts did not significantly improve the tactical situation.
October 1917 saw the Italian army’s disastrous defeat at Caporetto and its eventual retreat into the distant Piave River. To reinforce this line the Italians withdrew all their troops from the Dolomites farther south, near Monte Grappa. The disintegration of the Hapsburg monarchy was swiftly nearing in October 1918: hunger, equipment and munitions shortages and disheartened soldiers coincided with a definitive crisis in the multinational army. The morning of October 29, Italy launched its final, victorious offensive and a cavalry column rode into the town of Vittorio Veneto. The Austrian high command was forced to accept the conditions of the armistice on November 3, 1918.
”The Dolomite mountains have become a legend and will be remembered not only for the blood that was shed there, but for the kind of warfare that was engaged: it did not set anonymous armies against each other as it did on the Russian Front – it was a war of man-against-man that valued heroic individual actions.
In addition, the idle moments that soldiers were forced to undergo because of the extreme conditions and severe winters in the high mountains provided time to study the adversary who – during the pauses between one battle and another – sometimes assumed a human face: conversations between “enemies” – the exchange of cigarettes, letters, Christmas wishes – are now the stuff of legends.” (L. Palla)
Nevertheless, these fabled memoirs associated with the Alpine war should not diminish the tragic absurdity of the trench warfare fought on these unforgiving mountains that viciously reaped victims on both sides.
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