The White War: Verdun in the Alps
A walk through Austrian and Italian trenches of 1915-1918 in the Dolomites
After years of Eurozone torment and crisis, a substantial part of European public opinion seems to seek a way out of the Union, accusing it of being bureaucratic, undemocratic and useless. A journey through the Dolomites, where the frontier between Italy and Austria-Hungary passed until 1918, refreshes the memory of what Europe used to be at regular intervals before European unification, when war was the final mechanism to resolve controversies between states.
At the top of those mountains lie dormant thousands of trenches, kilometres of galleries excavated to hide soldiers and to position artillery at an altitude of two or three thousand metres. On the Italian side, the inhuman efforts demanded by the military high command are testified to by the precipitous roads built by Italian engineers and soldiers under impossible conditions, beset by avalanches, snow, frost, and shelling. The 615,000 Italians killed in 1915-18 – many more than the 415,000 killed in WWII – weighed heavily on a generation of young Italians, and had a devastating effect on the alpine regions. Between the wars, emigration from the mountain valleys accelerated and the population declined, leaving the area impoverished. This is a piece of the larger mosaic of conditions after WWI which led to the rise of fascism in Italy.
The centenary of WWI has facilitated a gradual rediscovery and restoration of many war sites, but the preservation of its memory has deeper roots in the Dolomites. There, local authorities have built, over decades, a "road of peace" in the mountains, an itinerary leading to Alpine war sites, meant to remember the dead and bridge nationalistic divides.
In the summer of 2012 I chose to explore some of the key frontlines of the war. I tracked along some of the most contested mountain tops between Veneto and Trentino, the latter an Italian-speaking province which was under Austrian rule in 1914. For the Austrians, these mountains represented a natural barrier for the defence of the Empire, and were therefore transformed into one massive stronghold through a continuous line of trenches and fortifications. Despite incessant offensives during 1915-1917, the Italians tried in vain to overcome the advantage of the higher altitude held by the Austrians. The Austrians made two major successful counterattacks during the whole war: the first was the Strafexpedition (punitive expedition) of 1916, stopped by the Italians on Mount Pasubio; the second was an offensive which routed the Italians at Caporetto in October 1917, but which was ultimately halted by the Italians at Mount Grappa and the river Piave. My exploration therefore concentrated on the mountains Pasubio, Ortigara, Zebio and Grappa, separated by less than 100 kilometers of distance.
Any visit to these mountains should begin in the city of Rovereto, a few kilometres north of Lake Garda. After a century of Venetian domination, Rovereto had, at the time of WWI, become an Italian city under Austrian rule. The Italian army strove to conquer it at the beginning of the war, never reaching it but bombing it heavily, so much so that Rovereto became a martyr city. As such it was later extolled by Italian authorities, whose monuments are still in place: in one of Rovereto's small squares, a giant projectile of several hundred kilos has been transformed into a monument of hypocrisy. A plaque notes that almost all the buildings of the city had been destroyed or damaged (passing over the fact that this was mainly the work of Italian artillery) and concludes lyrically, "documenti gli orrori della Guerra, canti la felicità della vittoria" – "witness the horrors of war, sing the happiness of victory".
The city hosts one of Italy's most extensive and significant museums of World War I inside a Venetian fortress of the Renaissance. There the visitor gets a vivid impression of where the struggle had taken place and why. The specific horrors of the "White War", fought in trenches of snow and galleries of ice, become palpable: avalanches and the cold took more lives than shrapnel and machine guns. The museum traces the development of artillery, by far the most effective and lethal weapon of the war, but one that was particularly prone to "friendly fire". Italian rank-and-file soldiers lamented how much they were being hit by "shots gone short" during crucial attacks (as did Emilio Lussu, of whom more later, on Mount Zebio). Artillery was hauled to the mountain tops in several pieces, sometimes by teleferiche (ropeway conveyors), but especially by mules and in the most extreme conditions by men alone (an Alpine mountain soldier was expected to be able to carry a 50-kilo cannon barrel on his way up). Grenades and maces of the most horrific and archaic shapes remind us of the horror of close combat in the trenches, made even worse by the use of flamethrowers.
Austro-Hungarian maces in the Museum of the Alpini of the Bridge of Bassano.
In the background: pincers used to cut barbed wire before frontal attacks.
Mount Pasubio (day 1)
I begin the first day with the ascent to one of the worst battlefields of WWI, Mount Pasubio. Over 20 km, my way leads along the Road of the 52 Galleries, carved out on the mountain crest under artillery fire by Italian military engineers in the course of 1917. Not an easy walk, the itinerary makes you climb up by 1,000 metres, but it offers fantastic views over precipices, trenches, refuges and mines. This is not just a picturesque alpine summit. The crest – the "Horn of the Pasubio" and the "Eagle's Nest" – was the Italian front line: at 2,000 metres of height, it can be spotted from the Italian second line of defence (situated at the crest of the "Cimon del soglio d'oro",or"Height of the Golden Threshold"). Why was such a dangerous path built? The Italians had conquered the Pasubio on the first day of their involvement in the war. The Austrians launched a massive counteroffensive in June 1916: a punitive expedition (Strafexpedition) was dispatched against the Italians, who had, in the Austrians' view, betrayed the Triple Alliance with Austria and Germany, to which they had subscribed since 1882; Italy declared neutrality in 1914 and joined the Triple Entente (France, UK and Russia) in the following year.
Italy's changing alliances were reflected in German and Austrian political propaganda. A badge from 1915 shows a German and two Austrian soldiers, being stabbed in the back by an Italian elite trooper of the "bersaglieri" corps, under the heading "Bundestreue?" ["Loyalty to the Pact?"]. The badge might have been produced for civilians at home, who wore such items to demonstrate their participation in the home front effort.
Anti-Italian Austrian badge, representing the union of Austrian and German soldiers, proudly marching towards the enemy. Meanwhile, the Italian Bersagliere, considered traitor to the Triple Alliance, attempts to stab the Austro-Germans in the back, and is struck by lightning as a divine punishment. (collection of the author)
In 1916, the Italians managed to hold a small but strategic part of Mount Pasubio, which was essential to prevent the Austro-Germans from descending into the plain of Venice, a move which would have trapped most of the Italian Army fighting at the Isonzo river. In the Alps, Italy's troops were cut off on one side by precipices and Austrian artillery fire on the other; they needed a safe supply route. In the course of several months, the Italian engineering corps built a track and progressively enlarged it as the frontlines became entrenched.
Sections of the Road of the 52 Galleries
The Road of the 52 Galleries is popular in the summer season, but it is only for the physically fit. Seven kilometres of steep climbing expose the visitor to extreme cold, humidity and total darkness in the roughly excavated galleries, followed by open passages under scorching sun. Every gallery has its particular number. Memorial plaques recall the ingenious efforts made, and the men lost in the process. Further up, the road has been clawed into the mountain, with massive rock looming precariously over the passer-by. Sometimes falling stones interrupt the passage. No more than one metre wide at times, bordered by a precipice of several hundred meters, it is not a walk for those suffering from vertigo.
Artillery pieces of 149 millimetres and smaller calibre, weighing up to 8 tons each, had been dragged to the top by man and mule with the help of pulleys.
Then the Road of the 52 Galleries meets the Road of the Heroes, another scary path built to send more troops to the fight which led to the rear base of the Italian army in 1917. There, a cluster of barracks, precariously clinging to steep mountain flanks, was considered to be so luxurious by frontline standards that it had been nicknamed "little Milan". The only surviving building has now been converted into a refuge.
Continuing further, I reach the "sacred area" of the Pasubio where cemeteries commemorate the extent of human life lost. It is riddled with caverns and holes, excavated wherever possible to seek shelter from Austrian shelling. Now mules can be spotted there, resting in the shade of these sites of misery.
The command outposts on the front line were extremely exposed and thus protected by further trenches and galleries the size of a rat hole, with minuscule openings for small artillery or machine guns. A connecting trench leads to the top of the mountain, still laced with pieces of phone cables and barbed wire. The view over several kilometres of ruined trenches and barracks, blown up by explosions, creates a horrible yet beautiful sight, surrounded by majestic mountains. Crosses, made of war debris transformed into relics, mark the peak of the positions of the two armies. In the winter several metres of snow covered all the front line, forcing the combatants to excavate roads and refuges under the ice, from which came the name of "white war".
From the Italian line, a single officer was, with a mere two machine guns and a handful of survivors from an Austrian shelling, able to deploy 22,000 shots in a few hours and thus repel even a massive attack. Under these circumstances the most courageous infantry would have been unable to achieve substantial and sustainable gains of territory. Two strongholds had been built by the opposing armies on a natural rock formation at the top of the Pasubio, looking like fortresses: the Corno italiano (Italian Horn) and the Corno austriaco (Austrian Horn), separated by some 30-40 metres.
The Austrian Horn, fortified position at the top of the crest, where the fighting remained continuous between 1916 and 1918. In the foreground: debris caused by the last Austrian mine which exploded under the Italian positions in 1918.
The futility of direct frontal attacks against the two fortified "Horns", transformed into impregnable bastions (the Austrians even used concrete), led to a war of underground galleries and mines. The last mine attack was carried out by the Austrians in June 1918. When two mines of a combined 55,000 kilos were blown up, part of the mountain collapsed. The Austrians were unable to take advantage of this because fire caused by accumulated underground gasses also reached the Austrian positions, killing privates and officers and disabling defences. Today the effect of the explosion at 2,200 meters of height is still visible and some soldiers are still buried under it. The few visitors that manage to reach the top find the sight very moving.
Mount Ortigara: the Italian Verdun (day 2)
The name Ortigara has a particular meaning for the Italian Alpini, special units drawn from the local population of the mountain valleys. They knew the area, knew how to manage mules, and were adapted to cold, fatigue and long marches. The saddest song of the Alpini is dedicated to the blood shed on this mountain:
|Vecchio alpin de l'Ortigara, ti ricordi quella notte,
questi sassi, queste fosse, questa valle senza fiori?
Vecchio alpin de l'Ortigara, fui colpito dal nemico:
cinquant'anni son passati, la ferita è ancora qua.
Ventimila siam andati, ventimila siamo morti,
mamma mia quante croci! Quante croci di dolore!
Old alpine soldier from the Ortigara, do you remember that night?
In June 1917 the Italians lost 22,000 men in just 15 days in an effort to take a smaller mountain, the Ortigara, a position they immediately lost. This was the Italian Verdun. The dead were mainly Alpine troops from the valleys of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto. During my walk the extent of the fighting was still perfectly evident over a very large front. This is possible also because the area, declared sacred after the war, has recently become an open-air museum, and restoration and maintenance are ongoing. Some of the maintenance is the work of descendants of the local population, forced to emigrate after World War I, when their way of living had been destroyed. During the summer they return to repair the trenches damaged by the winter frost. I met a group of former alpine troops coming from Latina, south of Rome. Latina was founded in 1932 by Mussolini, who had moved people from Veneto and Sicily there to drain the Pontine marshes. Even today, Pasubio, Ortigara and Monte Grappa are still among the names of streets and villages in and around Latina. These volunteers work hard to preserve a common heritage testifying to the suffering of their ancestors. In the evening they party with wine and salami, welcoming casual visitors with good cheer and curiosity, and then they sleep in military tents in front of the chapel of the dead.
I still found human bones in the trenches, washed by the rain almost a century after the end of fighting .
The main line of Italian trenches on the crest in front of the Ortigara.
Exit from an Italian gallery into a trench on the Ortigara frontline.
Visitors who recover human remains still deposit them in little chapels built around the battlefield. Pieces of shrapnel, barbed wire or food tins are left at the foot of the small monuments erected in several points. These monuments reflect the multinational character of the forces and the reconciliation which slowly followed in the last decades. At the top of the front line of the Ortigara, among rocks shattered by artillery fire and a labyrinth of trenches, grottoes and holes, Italian and Austrian memorials are placed a few hundred meters from each other (but the first was built in 1920 and the second only in the 1960s, delayed by episodes of separatist terrorism in South Tirol-Alto Adige, an Italian province annexed after 1918 with a majority of German-speaking inhabitants). A Hungarian-Romanian and a Croat cemetery are not far off. Down at Mount Zebio is the Sardinian cemetery of the Brigata Sassari, which was faced by the Bosnian troops of the Habsburg Empire. On Mount Grappa further structures have recently been erected by Czechs, Slovaks and Slovenians, some of which were built only after the fall of the Berlin wall, when those countries acquired independence and sought to rediscover their separate national histories. German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers are buried alongside Italians at the gigantic Sacrario at the top of Mount Grappa. French and British troops fought on the Italian front as well, to complete the European nature of the carnage.
These mountain trenches should be a mandatory visit for those who argue that the European union is a failure and a threat to freedom.
In 1916 the Italian high command became frustrated by the limited results of continued attacks. Italians had always enjoyed an advantage in troop numbers over the Austro-Hungarians, but they were at a disadvantage in terms of strategic position, artillery, machine guns, and smaller equipment (Italian gas masks were of cardboard and did not have a proper filter, unlike their German counterparts). At the beginning of the war, the Austrians had retreated to dominant positions near mountain tops which were easy to defend. The Italian offensive of June 1917 was intended to conquer those mountain tops, to threaten the valleys behind, and shorten the front line – and thereby to free more troops for the main direction of attack against Austria.
Fighting on that front line had already lasted for more than a year after the Strafexpedition had been stopped and partially rolled back by the Italians in the summer of 1916. When attacking the Ortigara, the Italians had to cross a valley saturated by gas and climb uphill against fire from hidden machine guns. Kilometres of trenches and underground artillery and machine gun placements run from the top of the Ortigara in Austrian hands and the top of the Cima della Caldiera in Italian hands, all the way down to the Altopiano.
The Italians finally conquered an important position high up the Ortigara, only to be pushed back shortly after by a counterattack of Austrian Sturmtruppen (shock troops) with hand grenades and flamethrowers.1
After the end of the war, the area of the high plateau of Asiago (where the mountains Ortigara and Zebio are located) was hit by unemployment and emigration. It was impoverished by the destruction of war and the hazardous presence of mines in farming land. A century after the war, unexploded ordnance still causes victims among workers ploughing the fields, despite clearing operations and a full government-led reconstruction of towns such Asiago.
The town hall of Asiago, occupied and destroyed by the Austrians and reconstructed immediately after WWI by the Italian government.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a part of the population managed to survive by working on their own as recuperanti, digging up and selling scrap metal from the battlefields for recycling. Every type of metal had its price; such income could finance a bride's dowry or a hard winter's subsistence, as the novelist Mario Rigoni Stern (1921-2008) recalled in his short stories (Stern was born in Asiago and was an alpine soldier in WWII).2 This was dangerous work because it involved extracting gun powder from unexploded projectiles and shells, which caused fatalities and mutilations when the material exploded by mistake. Also, various chemicals released in the process caused poisoning. The recuperanti became experts at locating artillery units, depots, and objects. They even found an Italian military bicycle on the slopes of the Ortigara.
Mount Zebio (day 3)
Before climbing Mount Zebio I spent the night re-reading Emilio Lussu's A Year on the High Plateau of Asiago published in Paris in 1938. This is one of the best European books on WWI, written by a soldier who had lived in the midst of the bloodbath.
Emilio Lussu (1890-1975) was a Sardinian student and interventionist. He enrolled as a volunteer in 1915, after having led the agitation for war at the University of Cagliari (Sardinia). He then spent three years on the first line as a captain of the Sassari Brigade. The most decorated Italian unit of WWI, the Brigata Sassari was composed of Sardinian peasants, shepherds and hunters, nicknamed the "red devils" by the Austrians. Lussu displayed courage in trench fighting and respect for the troops. He personally earned three medals, but also perceived the absurd way in which strategies were devised and military discipline was applied. He came to despise high-ranking officers who sent their men to useless carnage with utter stupidity and disregard for human life. After the war he created a regionalist party in Sardinia, entered Parliament, and was later sent as a political prisoner to an island under Fascism.3 He escaped and founded the antifascist movement "Giustizia e Libertà" in France in 1929, becoming an MP again and Cabinet Minister at the end of WWII. 4
I organised my visit to Mount Zebio's front line following Lussu's narrative. Just a month earlier I had visited Lussu's home town Armungia in Sardinia, where his house still stands and a museum is dedicated to him and his wife Joyce, an Italian poet of English origins. Mount Zebio was one of the strongholds chosen as a retreat position by the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916, because of the advantages its dominance offered to defenders. Lussu's Sassari brigade arrived after several days' pursuit of the rearguard of the rapidly redeploying Austro-Hungarian army. Italian trenchwork immediately began after the first futile frontal assault on the lines that the Austrians had prepared in advance. The front became immobile.
Today the site is an open-air eco-museum; notwithstanding its dramatic history, it offers a relaxing walk in a fragrant and peaceful landscape, inspiring awe for the beauty of mountain forests (pictures 14 and 15).
The Austrian positions, protected by a reconstructed section of barbed wire, seen from the point of view of advancing Italian troops in an uphill attack.
A misleading bucolic view of the Austrian lines on Mount Zebio, seen from the Italian lines in one of the closest positions, wrongly identified as Selletta Lussu.
Straying from the main path which followed the Austrian positions, I suddenly found myself in front of a sign indicating Lussu's observation point ("Lunetta Lussu"), where some of the most memorable and horrible episodes recalled in his accounts took place. One Italian observation point offered a particularly good view of the enemy's defences and lines of communication, but it was identified by the Austrians, who posted a sniper with a rifle fixed on a tripod, to shoot every time the minuscule peephole would be opened. Despite official prohibition to use that observation hole during the day, several Italian privates and officers were injured or killed there, because they had, against orders, put themselves in the line of fire out of ignorance, arrogance or in a pointless display of courage and pride.
So I decided to sit there and read a book that I had bought the previous day in the refuge of the Alpini on the Ortigara.5 After a couple of minutes a small group of hikers arrived. One of them saw me; amused, he turned to one of his friends: "Look! He is reading your book!". I met Ruggero Dal Molin, one of the greatest experts on the wartime history of these mountains. We had a good chat about Lussu, the Brigata Sassari and Mount Zebio, at the end of which he concluded, "so you are not here by chance!" I clearly wasn't. He pointed me to what he considered to be Lussu's real position a few dozen metres downwards, and then we parted company.
I reached the little valley between Lussu's Sassari Brigade and the Austro-Hungarian lines on Mount Zebio. The remnants of the Italian trenches are in poor state and not very visible, but the no man's land offers interesting discoveries and the Austrian positions are more significant to connect with Lussu's narrative. Nature has entirely reclaimed its space, new trees have grown, intense perfume, animals and insects have returned, but pieces of large shells can still be found occasionally. Some dead trees are still standing almost a century after the end of fighting, with bullets still planted in them.
As Lussu recalled, his unit was bombed by a small-calibre cannon (37 millimetres) but it was not possible to trace the latter's position. Up at the top of the crest I found it: a small Austrian concrete bunker covered by a stone wall, hosting a small cannon, probably manned by Bosnian troops.
Austro-Hungarian artillery emplacement in front of Lussu's Sassari brigade positions on Mount Zebio.
Lussu also recalled one of the many absurd exercises of hierarchical authority and stupidity, when one of his fellow officers was ordered to crawl out at dawn to cut with pincers the Austrian barbed wires in order to open a way for an infantry attack. The Italian pincers were, according to Lussu, either in total disrepair or of base quality (because of corrupt suppliers), and did not work properly; despite clear evidence, the commanding officer sent a junior officer and soldiers to a pointless death. Out of the trenches, alone in open daylight view, they had no chance of survival.6 Those men faced their own certain death with great dignity and courage – and with much Cognac. On the Austrian slopes in front of the Sardinian lines I was able to find some remnants of the concrete installations supporting the barbed wire which had made the Austrian defences unassailable by classic Italian artillery fire. The barbed wire that cost the life of Lussu's companions was still there in some areas, thick and repulsive as a century earlier.
Detail of barbed wire still defending the access to Austro-Hungarian high positions dominating the little valley in front of Lussu's Sassari brigade positions on Mount Zebio.
Mount Grappa (day 4)
Mount Grappa was the key resistance point of Italian defences in 1917-18 after the collapse of Caporetto and the loss of half of the Veneto Region to an Austro-German offensive, stopped only at the Piave river. The front was so close to Venice that the Austrians bombed it copiously, as they had already done in 1849 to crush the resistance of the last Republic of Venice. The Grappa, in front of the city of Bassano del Grappa, was the connecting point between the old Dolomite front and the last-ditch defences planned to run along the Piave all the way to the Adriatic sea.
Palladio's bridge over the Brenta river in Bassano del Grappa, near Vicenza. In the background Mount Grappa is visible. The bridge was heavily damaged by Austrian artillery and the Alpini repaired it. The bridge has inspired another song of the Alpini (Il ponte di Bassano).
In those days of October-November 1917, the losses of the Italian army and the advancing central powers questioned the capacity of Italy to remain in the war – indeed, after merely fifty years of national unification, the survival of Italy itself. With their back to the wall, the Italians stood firm on the Grappa and halted the Austro-Hungarians there for a year, despite repeated attacks, until the counteroffensive of October 1918, which concluded the war with an Italian victory and the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Today the Grappa still shows the scars of the war, riddled with holes from explosions, trenches, and military roads (picture 19). Very little vegetation has grown to cover then, despite a favourable altitude below 1,800 metres. At the summit of the mountain, the Italians burrowed tunnels up to 5 km long (Vittorio Emanuele Gallery) and hosting about 70 cannons, which made the mountain impregnable by 1918.7
Even more striking, though, is the external transformation. In the 1920s and 1930s, Fascism embarked on a vast programme of monumental cemeteries dedicated to the cult of the heroic dead. The largest of those structures now defaces the top of Mount Grappa.
The remains of 12,000 Italians and 10,000 Austro-Hungarians have been transported here from smaller dispersed burial grounds on the mountain. Huge white structures (chapels, sacrarii, sacelli) are connected by a major parade ground in white stone, several hundred metres long, which has completely transformed a wild mountain top into what looks like an airport runway, lined with monuments carrying the names of the major battles and the deceased. This complex is devoid of any intimacy. It promotes the wrong message: war is grandeur and self-sacrifice – it is an achievement to inspire more wars and conquests. Indeed it was built between 1932 and 1935, when Mussolini measured the strength of a nation by the number of its bayonets. The inauguration took place on 22 September 1935. Ten days later Mussolini declared war to Ethiopia and started the invasion, which led to Italy's exclusion of the League of Nations and its fatal embrace with Nazi Germany, preparing a repetition of the war of the worlds. A lesson not learned, until Europe decided to go for union rather than division after WWII.
1 Paolo Volpato, L'Ortigara il 25 giugno 1917 nel racconto degli ufficiali di prima linea, preface by Paolo Pozzato (Udine: Gasparri, 2007).
2 Mario Rigoni Stern, Trilogia dell'Altipiano (Turin: Einaudi, 2010). A TV film directed by Ermanno Olmi was also produced on the 'recuperanti'.
3 Emilio Lussu, Marcia su Roma e dintorni (Turin: Einaudi, 2002); first edition outside Italy published in 1931, in the USA as A Road to Exile: The Story of a Sardinian Patriot, translated by Mrs. Graham Rawson, preface by Wickham Steed (New York: Covici and Friedi, c.1936). The London edition (Methuen) carried the title Enter Mussolini.A recent edition is The March on Rome and Thereabouts, translated by Roy W. Davis (Lewiston: Mellen, 1992).
4 Giuseppe Fiori, Il cavaliere dei Rossomori. Vita di Emilio Lussu (Turin: Einaudi,1985).
5 Paolo Pozzato and Ruggero Dal Molin, Dall'interrotto all'Ortigara. La Maginot austriaca sull'altopiano dei sette comuni (Bassano del Grappa: Itinera, 2012).
6 Emilio Lussu, Un anno sull'altopiano, introduction by Mario Rigoni Stern (1945; Turin: Einaudi, 2000), ch. 12. First American edition published as Sardinian Brigade, translated by Marian Rawson (New York: Knopf, 1939; reprint London: Prion, 2000). Inspired by Lussu's book, the Italian director Francesco Rosi produced the film Uomini contro (1970).
7 Alessandro Massignani and Gianni Bellà, Guida al Monte Grappa: Itinerario e storia (Valdagno, Vicenza: Rossato, 2001).