Climbing Through History – World War One in the Dolomites

As I have said in the previous posts the Dolomites one of the most beautiful places I have visited, however beneath this veil is the scared history of war. The approach and descent from Sass de Stria, and the climbing around Cinque Torri enabled us to walk through many trenches, look out points and cave systems that were all used in World War One. Each of these positions were overlooking the valley below, and you could imagine the machine gun emplacements that would have the ability to rain fire from above down on those unfortunate enough to be in the valley and attempting to climb the slopes to take the position. Although the concrete reinforcements are starting to deteriorate and wooden structures have been replaced, the whole scene is easier to imagine when you are stood in the midst of history.

It’s amazing to imagine the intense atmosphere of fighting the Great War on one of the fronts, where around one million men died as a result of the conflict. A massive price paid by all, however especially by Italy, as over 689,000 of these deaths were Italian soldiers, many killed by the rounds and shells of the enemy, although great numbers were lost by illness, hypothermia or avalanches as each side suffered with inadequate equipment in temperatures as low as -40 degrees. For example, 10,000 men on the Italian front were killed in avalanches in one day, known as ‘white friday’.

When I have thought or learnt of the First World War in years gone by, it has been the western front, Flanders field, the stories of no mans land and the mindless tactics that led millions to their deaths. The gains of each wasteful assault were so pitiful it is hard to comprehend in this modern day, however walking and climbing over this terrain puts a new perspective on this war. Visualising a horrific conflict similar to that raging through Belgium and France, with added 30-50 degree angled slopes, with great rock and ice faces and towers that would need to be scaled to attempt any coup. I have often been amazed by the lack of ground gained on the western front for such a loss of life, so it was a shock to learn that the attrition rate of men lost was greater to ground gained on this front in the alps.

I can vouch for the efforts of walking these hills, paths and trenches in peace time, with little worry or weight in my climbing pack. Yet the idea of being in full gear and in all weathers, hauling up ammunition, mines etc, all under fire if your head popped above the parapet. Not to mention the artillery pieces and shells that would have to be put in place by man, and not machine. I remember digging trenches by hand when I served in the Army, building full fortified trench systems that could hold a section, it was back breaking work, and this was only training and in ideal conditions… the idea of digging out these limestone cliffs and the surrounding land is just beyond me. Especially given the scale of the excavation in some places, tunnels that work their way through cliffs, full barracks to hold the platoons of men sent to protect or fight for this jagged landscape. As well this, there are examples of Engineers digging through the land and placing explosives or mines to try and dislodge enemies from strongholds, although this rarely resulted in any meaningful gains.

A view towards the Falzarego faces from a trench at Cinque Torri
Inside a trench at Cinque Torri. Notice the barbed wire, I read that barbed wire was not used here as much as other fronts, as it was really hard to put in place and be effective due to the rock

Although I am talking about walking in the Dolomites of Italy, the fortifications on Sass de Stria that we were walking through and the large Tre Sassi Fort were part of the Austrian front lines, not the Italian. It was these hills that the Italians were fighting to take, whereas the trenches on the Cinque Torre were manned by the Italians. There were stories on boards around the Cinque Torre that shown different pictures of the time and quotations from those fighting the war. Stories of sections of Italian soldiers climbing up hundreds of feet of wall to take positions high on the Falzagero face, or of using portable shields, as they advanced up steep hills, so as to protect themselves from gunfire from above. 

From a small amount of research I found that the most amount of ground gained throughout the conflict was 30km, in just short of three years of fighting this is a small gain. Even this gained ground was taken back at a later date in the fighting, and the conflict fluctuated back and forth over the same terrain. It’s weird to think that Italy had no defensive reasons to enter the war, one key deciding factor to enter was from the desire to expand its borders to the Alps, and if they had not entered how many lives would have been saved.

Jess walking down some ladders in the trenches at Sass di Stria

Whilst browsing the information boards at Cinque Torri, I came across a quote from the diary of Oreste Angelica Zampa, who was part of 46th Regiment of the Reggio Brigade, in giving a first hand account of the fighting…
“ 15 June 1915 … we were ordered to advance and capture the enemy trenches st Sasso di Stria. When we were within a few metres, they opened fire. I was next to Lt Lais. It seemed that we were unassailable, as though the bullets respected us. Towards 16.00 the Battalion had almost run out of cartridges. Captain Diana asked for a fearless and quick soldier, I was nominated. I was given a note to take to three platoons of reserves… and made a run through the endless whistle of bullets… we were spotted by the enemy who showered us with a hail of bullets… the Battalion was ordered four times to give bayonet assault to the shouts of ‘forward savoy!’ The enemy Fusiliers, from behind the trenches, mowed down our men.”
This shows the mindless tactics of the commanders, that resulted in little gain, and maximum loss of life. It’s weird to think that the green slopes we were walking across were once red. However, there are multiple stories of Italian soldiers being rappeled by the enemies clearly superior positions and fire power, even if the Austrians had less men. One story states that the Austrians had machine gunned down the entire first wave of an Italian assault, so much so that the second and third waves were struggling to climb out of their trenches, as the pile of dead soldiers was so great. The Austrian commander ordered that his guns ceased fire and shouted to the Italians to stop advancing and to stop this inevitable slaughter. Supposedly one Italian soldier advanced in defiance and was immediately killed, the rest of the wave turned and retreated to the safety of the trenches and the removal of the dead from the battle field. In one account, the Austrians even left their trench to share cigarettes and offer stretcher support to remove the dead and wounded.

A cross above the trenches, at the foot of Sass di Stria

I have walked through the trenches of Western Europe and have heard, read and learnt about the conflict on the western front, it’s what I remember being taught in school. All this time I was totally unaware of the fighting in the Dolomites, until recently, and plan to read and learn more about the conflict on this front. It is interesting for me to see this history with my own eyes, especially given that it was not that long ago, we are currently within the 100 year anniversary of this war; that only a century, or less in the case of World War Two, we would have been enemies by association to where we were born. I hope the open and peaceful idea that is modern day Europe continues infinitely, it is a fine example that we are better together, happier together. At the end of days, we are all human, irrelevant of nationality, religion, colour and all other differences, if we all removed these layers and ideas we are all the same.
“The biggest lesson to learn from history is that we have never learnt from history”

 

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