Outbreak of WWI on the DolomitesWhile the WWI broke out in 1914, the fighting on the alpine chain and on the Dolomites began about a year later, on 1915, May 24th, just a century ago, after the Italian war's declaration against the Austro-Ungarian Empire.
Between 1914, July and 1918, November, the First World War involved the greatest world powers and some of the minor ones. It was initially an European war between Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and Ottoman Empire coalition opposed to other European countries, as United Kingdom, France, Russia and Italy, but with the subsequent involvement of the United States of America and Japan it became a full-scale war, taking the name of "World War" or "Great War".
The Italian-Austrian border ran for 370 kilometers along the line drawn in 1866, an almost entirely mountainous border. The mountains were a natural bulwark in which, next to the two warring parties, a common enemy soon made its appearance: the winter at high altitude. Fighting involved different alpine and subalpine groups, as Adamello, Ortles-Cevedale, Carnian Alps and Little Dolomites, but unexpectedly the Dolomite front was the place where the war in altitude reached the limite of sacrifice. "A war within the war", where it was first of all necessary to survive the extreme environmental conditions, then to fight. Unexpectedly, why?
The Austro-Hungarian Empire had in fact concentrated its defenses especially around Trento, leaving almost unguarded the Eastern Dolomites area, convinced that it would not come under attack from that direction.
Contrary to all expectation, one hundred years ago the Dolomites become the scene of fighting now really appearing beyond the limit of human possibilities. A scenario that combined the harsh temperatures of winter at high altitude with the difficulty inherent the verticality of the ground, the classic one of the Dolomites' great mountains: ridges suspended over vertiginous walls, rough ice couloirs, high rock walls, overhangs. The armies involved were the IV Italian Army or Cadore Army, the Kombined Division Pustertal and the Deutsche Bayerischen Alpenkorp.
When Italy entered the war, as already mentioned, the Southern Austro-Hungarian battle array called “V Rayon Tyrol Defense“ was not very furnished, but favourite by the excellent knowledge of the territories and the mountainous terrain. The goal of Italy was to advance in the direction of Vienna along the valleys, as Val Pusteria or Villach, and quickly cross the mountain cols, as Passo di Monte Croce Comelico. But things went differently. Ever opportunity to advance quickly vanished, together with the dream of marching rapidly towards Vienna. On May 27, the Austro- Hungarians withdrew from Cortina d’Ampezzo due to strategic reasons, but continued to keep several positions on high ground fortified, to prevent the enemy to spread to the north through the main valleys, such as Val Badia, Val Travenanzes and Val di Landro. All along the front line, there was a large number of castles and forts, which could be used to block any attacks from Italians.
The hesitation of the Italian army compromised the opportunity to overwhelm the antagonist counting on the surprise factor, being the Austrian troops not yet well organized; it allowed the Tyrolean Standschützen to regroup quickly, building shelters and blasting the roads. It became a war of loneliness instead of a war of movement, indeed an exhausting war of position, made of violent assaults against impregnable positions and interminable waits.
Fighting and climbing on the highest summitsIn addition to the tragic and bloody clashes in altitude, these mountains were the scene of daring ascents by special mountains parties, as the Italian “Alpini” and the Austrian “Kaiserjäger”. Soldiers became intrepid climbers before than fighters.
Many positions on the top of bold mountains were conquered and lost by both sides, such as the dominant summits of Lagazuoi, Cima Falzarego, Col di Lana, Croda Rossa, Forcella Serauta, Paterno, Tofane triad, these latter overcoming 3200 meters of altitude, summits that were guarded by outposts of mountain troops during the winter.
Few meters below the summit of Monte Paterno it happened one of the most tragic events: the death of the great and famous Alpine guide Sepp Innerkofler (Sesto Pusteria 1865, October 28th – Monte Paterno 1915, July 4th) from Sesto Pusteria, manager of the Dreizinnen hut, nowaday Locatelli-Innerkofler Hut, already at that time one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Dolomites.
Sepp Innerkofler enlisted as a volunteer in Standschützen and fell in combat in circumstances still unclear.
Another great Alpine guide involved in the conflict was Antonio Dimai (Cortina d'Ampezzo 1866–1948) from Cortina, one of the major mountaineers of late nineteenth century, first climber of the majestic Tofana di Rozes South face. He was imprisoned and later freed by the intercession of King Albert I of Belgium.
The fighting amongst the mountains is remembered in reason of the many bold enterprises, but also in reason of several mine explosions inside tunnels mined into the rock.
The most sensational event of the whole war occurred on a stunning rocky tower considered particularly strategic, leaning against the majestic SW wall of the Tofana di Rozes, at the cross between Val Travenanzes and Val Costeana. This peak was called Castelletto (Little Castle) by the Italians, “Schreckenstein” (literally "Rock of Terror") by the Austrians.
The Austrian sentinels placed on the mountain prevented the Italian army entering Val Travenenzes; Italians tried in various ways to storm Castelletto through several attempts, whether by daring climbing from below or descending from the summit of Tofana di Rozes. Failing in order the Italians thought to blow it up, building a 507 meters long tunnel. On July 11, 1916 a terrific explosion tore off the top of Castelletto. The rocks were thrown away at thousands of meters, continuing to fall for several hours. The summit was occupied by the Italians two days later.
Also the summit of Col di Lana, on April 17, 1916, was blown up by the explosion of two mines, located below the summit in a tunnel dug. This mountain has entered history as the scene of bloody fighting.
On winter 1915-1916 the avalanches did thousands of victims among the soldiers. In some areas fell by up to 12 m of snow; a huge avalanche, which struck on an Austrian camp at foot of Marmolada caused three hundred dead; almost the same number of soldiers died in an avalanche in Val di Landro.
Marmolada became famous, too. After fierce fighting, the Austrian Leo Handl planned to create a system of tunnels into the ice. Citadels were created in the bowels of the glaciers, allowing to bring supplies in altitude without obstacles, with the advantage of being more protected not only from enemy fire, but also from the weather.
End of the war on the Dolomites (1917, November)The exhausting position-war, made of continuous sudden attacks by both armies, never allowed Italians to break through the enemy front, so soldiers spent two hard winters fighting amongst the summits. The war on the Dolomites continued until 1917, November, when the italian IV Army was withdrawn from the Dolomites and retreated to Monte Grappa after the Italian defeat of Caporetto (river Piave).
The war in the Dolomites ended without winners or losers and on November 5, 1917 Cortina d'Ampezzo was occupied again by the Austro-Hungarians. The defeat of Caporetto spared the fighters of the entire Dolomite region the third winter of fighting at high altitude.
Summits of WWI in the Dolomites
The Dolomites mountain groups involved in the fighting were Tofane, Fanis, Nuvolau-Cinque Torri, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Cadini, Sesto Dolomites, Marmolada. A wide and wonderful region, today shared amongst Belluno, Bolzano and Trento provinces.
Major WWI sites of interest in the DolomitesThe war left on the ground impressive works and remains, like trenches, trails, military roads, stations and tunnels, such as the tunnels of Castelletto in the Tofane Group, whose historical value today arouses a growing tourist interest thanks to the skillful restoration initiatives undertaken by local authorities.
You can visit these evocative remains located inside the vaste areas belonging to the Ampezzo Dolomites (Fanis-Lagazuoi, Tofane, Averau-Nuvolau and Cinque Torri, Col di Lana), Sesto Dolomites (Monte Piana, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Cadini di Misurina, Croda dei Toni, Popera and Croda Rossa di Sesto) and Marmolada through an extensive network of hiking trails and several "vie ferrate". Some interesting itineraries are Sass de Stria Normal route, starting from Forte Intra i Sass (Passo Valparola), an ancient Austrian fortress, and the Kaiserjager Path, following the Austrian Vonbank front-line, also starting from Forte Intra i Sass.
Sentiero storico Museo all'aperto della Grande Guerra sul monte Piana
Sacrario Militare di Pocol a Cortina d'Ampezzo
Forte Intra i Sass - Passo Valparola
Galleria Lagazuoi, alta val Travenanzes, Col dei Bos, ex Ospedale militare
Sass de Stria
"La Grande Guerra - Dolomiti" by Michael Wachtler and Günther Obwegs - Athesia Ed.
"Con gli Alpini sui sentieri della Storia" - ANA, Mursia Ed.
"Das sind die Kaiserjäger!" - Von Kurt Tanz
"Guerra di mine nelle Dolomiti: Lagazuoi - Castelletto 1915-1917" by Roberto Striffler - Panorama Ed.
"Sei mesi in guerra sulle Dolomiti" by G. De Donà, B. Marcuzzo, W. Musizza - Ed. DBS
"Le Aquile delle Tofane" by Luciano Viazzi, Mursia Ed.
"Il fuoco e il gelo" by Enrico Camanni - Ed. Laterza