4. Dolomites 1915

Dolomites 1915

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Dolomites 1915

The opening of a front in the mountains, in the backyard of local Dolomites populations, was quite an unexpected situation. On 24 May 1915, the border with the Kingdom of Italy, peaceful for many years, turned into a potential danger. Most able men were already in the front in Galicia.
When war was declared, 30,000 Standschützen, both old and very young, were sent, poorly armed, to defend the borders of their land.
An endless drama began: Fiera di Primiero, Cortina and Livinallongo, evacuated for strategic reasons, were occupied by Italians. Hundreds of Ladins were transferred to Italian territory, forced to abandon their houses and lands.
The troops of the regular Austrian-Hungarian troops flowed into the Fassa and Fiemme Valleys a bit at a time, to support the volunteers; they were joined by the German Alpenkorps. Italian pressure did not come until later: the front line was organised and held.
Civilian life was turned completely upside down.
Food became scarce, cultivating the land without strong male arms became a problem. The army, mostly commanded by German officers, had a hard time trusting a population that spoke a language more similar to Italian than to German.
But there were exceptions. In Moena, Richard Löwy, a Viennese Hebrew officer, recruited young men into the Standschützen, saving them from being sent to the Eastern front, and organised the women of the valley in groups of paid workers, thus contributing to the economic well-being of the community. He would later be made honorary citizen of Moena.

High-altitude battles

The Kingdom of Italy’s declaration of war against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on 24 May 1915 led the first line to the Fassa and Fiemme Valleys.
For the Supreme Command of the Italian army, the strategic importance of the Dolomites front was always marginal; their offensive efforts were concentrated on the Isonzo front, to break through in that direction
and get to Ljubljana where they were to join the Serbian and Russian armies - the final goal was to split the Austrian monarchy in half. For this reason, 15 divisions were sent to the Isonzo Front, about 90 kilometres long, while to the front that spanned
from Stilfs to Carnia, 560 kilometres long, there were only 11 divisions.
In the first days of war, the Dolomites front defended by the Austrians was practically unprotected; Italian commanders should have attacked the Austrian defences immediately. They did the opposite, waiting for more than a month after crossing the border before initiating their offensive actions and therefore losing a great occasion.
The Austrian strategy was that of retreating from Fiera di Primiero and perching themselves on the Rolle Pass and the Lagorai chain. Following the same principle, the San Pellegrino Pass was abandoned as the defence line was stationed on Passo Selle and the ridges of Costabella.
The first Italian attack of some importance was launched on 18 June 1915, against the Austrian statiosn of Passo Selle, in the San Pellegrino Valley; the Bersaglieri of the 3rd Regiment were truly close to victory, but the attack was unsuccessful.

Around those days the Alpines occupied the line of Passo delle Cirelle, Cime Cadine, Cima Uomo, and Forcella Ciadin. In 1916, important battles were fought for a stable occupation of the Marmolada. In July 1916, the Ferrari Group attacked the entire line of the San Pellegrino Pass to Cauriòl, with the ambitious goal of taking the Fiemme Valley.
On 21 July, the Colbricon Pass and Cima Stradon were taken. There were severe Italian losses involved in the conquering of the Cima Bocche observatory, which was taken on 3 November 1916 and lost again three days later.
On 27 August 1916, right as the war waned on the Lagorai, the Feltre Apine Battalion took the peak of the Cauriòl, which remained in Italian hands in spite of the repeated Austrian attacks that came later.
Taking the Cauriòl was a successful enterprise, but not enough to open the doors to the Fiemme Valley. In Autumn 1916 the Italians succeeded in taking two important stations: Cardinal and Busa Alta.
The Western Summit of the Colbricon became the hottest point of the front in the spring of 1917. In the attempt to occupy it, the Italians blew three mines, but did not obtain decisive results.
In October 1917, the Austrian-Hungarians broke the Italian Isonzo Front in Caporetto, penetrating the Veneto plains. This forced the Italians to abandon the Dolomites Front so as not to be surrounded.
This is how the fighting was over on these mountains.

Letter representing the “Rayon 4” sector that included the area under the influence of the 90th Austrian-Hungarian Infantry Division and the 9th and 18th Royal Italian Army Corps, with their minor units in opposition in June 1916.
Red Line: Royal Italian Army.
Blue Line: Imperial and Royal Austrian-Hungarian Army.

The Marmolada - 3343 metres above sea level

To make access to the stations more agile and less dangerous, but also to cross the ice, several bridges and causeways were built to cross the numerous seracs and crevices that irradiated from the centre of the glacier. These were often bridges used to cross the crevices that cracked open while digging tunnels, beneath the ice layer; in other occasions, they were in open air.

The exit of the tunnel, called “U Stollen” beneath the “U” position on the Sasso delle Undici.
This tunnel dug into the ice led to the Austrian outpost located in the centre of the glacier. In July 1916 tunnels began to be excavated within the glacier, so the most advanced stations could be supplied away from enemy eyes. Under the orders of Lieutenant Engineer Leo Handl, in the spring of 1917 a “city in the ice” began to be built, with 8 kilometres of tunnels and shelters for more than 300 soldiers. The plans included barracks with kitchens, stores, infirmaries, telephone and power central stations to light the galleries and the highest stations. The “city” was reached by means of a gallery located at 1,400 metres above sea level, connected to the Gran Poz supply hub.

Wooden plate belonging to Lieutenant Leo Handl, creator and designer of the Ice City up on the Marmolade, and some sheets that were part of his projects.

Avalanche rope and jute bag collected at the glacier.

Anti-freezing Italian shoe cover used by lookout soldiers.

Made of cotton canvas and usually padded with goat skin and wooden soles with anti-slippery nails.

Service manual destined to the Austrian Alpine troops.

Austrian glacier goggles.

Vivat - silk propaganda strip promoting the defence of the Alps.

Barracks at the Fedaia Pass, out of the way, approximately where the reservoir formed by the dam is located today.
The photograph shows a spontaneous image of everyday life. This is obviously a day of rest during the fightings; the weather also seems to be particularly mild.

Aerial view obtained during an Austrian recognition mission on 25 April 1917, showing the Marmolada hanging glacier with the Italian positions marked in red, defending Vallon d’Antermoia.

Spring image of position D on Sasso delle Dodici. On the ridge silhouetted against the sky ran the first Austrian line that dominated the V Fork. Note the old arrival station of the last branch of the cableway on the left wall; it was then being dismantled. The lower levels of the barracks were usually the home of troop lodgings, while the upper levels, exposed to the sun and less likely to be snowed in, were used by the officers. When possible, barracks were well built, had glass panes in the windows and double doors to keep the cold out. Electricity and telephone wires can be seen in the image.

Siegfrid Kolisch was commander of Battery 21 stationed in Penia; his relics are displayed here (his original uniform, complete with binoculars, is displayed in the group of uniforms and can be seen in the image gallery in the “Men Against” booklet).

The model represents the Skoda-Möser 30.5-cm mortar, model 1911, and the images, taken by Kolisch himself, show the transportation and assembly phases of this piece of artillery that shot against the Italian lines on the Marmolada, about 9.6 km of range (projectiles weighed 300 kg).

Next to it, one of his original sketches of the Cauriòl summit, a pointing system for cannons and a few goniometers.

A shard of the projectile launched by the Skoda-Möser mortar positioned in Penia and taken to Cima di Costabella by Livio Defrancesco, president of the historical association “Sul fronte dei Ricodi”.

Poster promoting metal scraping for war purposes, using an image of the mortar.

Lost obscurities, firm certainties
of land and sky turned to cement,
the abysses that alternate with the heights
causing vertigo and rapture:
on these enormously rough cliffs
the prophets of the old testament
show the terrible features,
and make gestures of astonishment.
The book of eternal snows is explained,
white page only read by the winds
that raise smoke from oil lamps as they blow;
and the Sybil dictates a sentence
in the resonance of the caves
for each forehead tightly bandaged.

Carlo Delcroix,
Val Cordevole - Poems. Cappelli ed., 1968.
The author, an officer of the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment, commanded in the Marmolada region, was seriously wounded in 1917.

The Costabella - 2762 metres above sea level

In some parts of the front stations were often very far apart, and a proper mapping of the terrain required hours of measurements made with high-precision optical instruments. From Cima Campagnaccia on the Costabella this soldier observes Italian movements in the San Pellegrino Valley, a few kilometres from Moena.

It was crucial to resupply the highest stations during the summer in order to be well provisioned in the winter; with its immense blanket of snow, accessing the bottom of the valley was difficult. On the Costabella, two Standschützen of the Dornbirn battalion prepare reinforcement and lodging structures.
In the background, the Sassolungo group. On the right, the Crepa Neigra.

“Detz” Austrian station on the Cima di Costabella, where some soldiers are busy working to make life more comfortable at those heights.
To the right, a wall built as defence against Italian artillery, while on the right we can see the arrival station of the cableway that came up from the San Nicolò valley, a strategic hub for the sorting of supplies for the Costabella front.

Italian barracks clinging to the Sella di Costabella, on the slopes of Cima Uomo, 3,010 metres above sea level, in the San Pellegrino Valley.
During the winter, the snowy blanket was so impressive that it was very hard to reach and resupply these small observation posts. The danger represented by avalanches, caused either by natural causes or by cannon shots, was always just around the corner.

Cima Bocche - 2,745 metres above sea level

“Laudon” Austrian station on the Bocche slope, protected by a thick jungle of mesh, facing the Pale di San Martino. The Bocche front was the backdrop of repeated assaults by the Tevere Brigade during the summer of 1916. In six months, during the operations to conquer the dominant feature and the rocky promontory where the observatory was located (taken on 3 November 1916 and lost again three days later), the Brigade lost more than 2,500, among dead, wounded and missing.

The landscape of the splendid Lagorai chain, with the Colbricon on the left, seen from an Austrian post. The mesh immediately before the first lines created a barrier that was
practically impossible for attackers to break.
Artillery grenades, gelatin tubes positioned by bold patrols, could do nothing against something that could not be broken: the wire could be cut, but it immediately twisted itself, entangled itself, turned around itself, getting partly swallowed by the terrain and thus creating a new barrier.

Along Val Travignolo, just like above Moena, in Someda, fortified buildings still resisted, the remains of a defence planning typical of the late 19th century.
Fort Dossaccio, whose building began in July 1890, was disarmed in the summer of 1915 and its batteries were placed in a position less obvious to the fire of Italian artillery. The cannons were replaced by tree trunks painted black to look like them.
Nevertheless, it had time to bomb columns of Italian infantry on 18 June 1915; they were moving towards Camp Juribrutto. The image shows the pieces of artillery now replaced, just like the metal domes were replaced by concrete ones.

During the rare resting periods, once down in the nearby valley and recovered from the strains, one’s spirit sometimes felt the need to fix on paper the images that were so present in one’s everyday life.
Here is an example that came out of the pencil of a simple Standschütze in Moena, Giovanni Volcan. On 3 June 1916 he retracted his barracks located on the feet of the Gronton, along the rough front of Cima Bocche.

The Colbricon - 2,602 metres above sea level
Buse dell’Oro - 2,326 metres above sea level

Sinter 1916. From the Austrian trench on Colbricon Piccolo one can see the Western Summit, at 2,608 metres above sea level. To the left of the summit, the three teeth. The first and second teeth (from left to right) were occupied by Italian outposts after the summit had been retaken by the Austrians on 3 November 1916. This is where the excavation of the mine tunnel began, which the Italians blew beneath the third tooth on 12 April 1917, pulverising the eighteen soldiers and one officer who were stationed there and yet not managing to occupy the position.
To the left, the side of the Eastern Summit of the Colbricon, at 2,604 metres above sea level, occupied by the Italians of the LX Battalion of the 13th Bersaglieri Regiment on 21 July 1916. This last artillery regiment and the 23rd and 49th Infantry regiments made up the Ferrari Group.

Life and death shared the presence of a few tents used by recovering soldiers; immediately nearby, the Austrian cemetery in Buse dell’Oro.
This cemetery was the burial ground for the dead of the III Kaiserschützen Regiment, which had a military barracks in Predazzo, of the 84th, 49th and 12th Infantry Regiment. The battles to take the Buse dell’Oro witnessed a remarkable offensive effort by the Italians, who, failing to obtain what they wanted, in July 1917 began to plant mines to blow the Austrian posts. On 10 October 1917 the mines were blown, but this had no effect on the troops of this Austrian post, who reacted with intense rifle and machine gun fire.

Very interesting image of the first line at 2,187 metres above sea level towards the tree-lined top.
Italian and Austrian posts in this sector were separated by no more than 15 metres.
Regardless of their proximity, life went on without apparent problems: men smoked, rested, and also observed through thin slots.
A group of officers talks on the telephone and, in the foreground, on the right, protected by a fragile short wall, someone checks his own underwear, surely infested by bothersome lice.

A comparison with a current photograph creates a strident difference.

The Cauriòl - 2.494 metres above sea level

The summit of Mount Cauriòl, rising majestically in this picture, was taken at 19:50 of 27 August 1916 by two platoons of the 65th and 66th companies of the Feltre battalion of the 7th Alpine Regiment. After it was taken, the Italians began the preparations to take possession of the ridge that separates it from the Cardinal. At the dawn of 15 September 1916, divisions of the Monte Rosa closely supported by a small cannon of the 5th Battery of Mountain Artillery i position on the side of the Cauriòl, managed to occupy the saddle between the Cauriòl itself and the Cardinal, defended by the Kaiserschützen of the III Regiment. From Caoria, an adjacent Italian backroad, one had a great view of the peak of the mount: Austrians could therefore keep Italian access roads under control, but after 27 August the Italians could do the same with the Austrian resupply roads in the Fiemme Valley, to the point that the railway that would arrive to Predazzo in 1918 was shifted to the left of the Avisio river. At dawn of 3 September, the Austrians, taking advantage of the recent change between the Feltre Battalion and the Val Brenta, attacked the summit and the south-west saddle of the Cauriòl. 49 soldiers died and 203 were wounded. And thus the Cauriòl reoccupation was prevented.

“...nothing can be seen, nothing that can even make us imagine the huge sacrifice of those men launched into the assault of a mirage,
more than a military objective. Impervious gullies, practically vertical walls of nude rock; completely vulnerable, and above, on the summit, in a dominant position, the Austrians perched among the rocks, in improvised shelters that were considered impregnable due to the roughness of the terrain.
A thousand metres of slope covered with urgent running, heart pounding in the chest, with a single image before the eyes: the dark sullen Tooth that rises like a bloodthirsty Moloch against which fragile human lives can do nothing. But the tireless and never tame sense of duty that has always accompanied Italian soldiers in similar straits acknowledged the inaccessible goal, thus making the value
of the Feltre men rise well beyond the peak of Mount Cauriòl...”

Lieutenant Giuseppe Caimi,
Feltre Battalion, deadly wounded on 14 December 1917 on Mount Valderoa

The assault

After the terrible attacks and counter attacks on the Galician front, the few veterans who returned had obtained remarkable experience.
The same can be said of the upper echelons, who learned to best exploit the manoeuvring and use of the lower masses.
The year spent in the Eastern front also refined old and new ideas, which were put to use as better life conditions for the soldiers.
The creation of new uniforms, in colours more similar to the terrain, white camouflage overalls for the winter, protective garments, specific tools, all developed very quickly. Soldiers died anyway, but the importance of the human factor, which could not be replaced, had finally been acknowledged - too late, perhaps.

“Men first brutalised by cannons will later die torn apart by machine guns. Thousands; tens of thousands. We will take two or three hundred metres of rocky terrain. Then the battle will begin anew.
And this stupid beast that is man, lashed, screams in pain, and dies.”

Attilio Frescura,
Diario di un imboscato, Cappelli, Bologna, 1930

“Trench life, even if hard, is a trifling matter when compared with an attack.
The drama of the war is the attack.
Death is a normal occasion and one dies without fear.
But awareness of death, certainty of inevitable death, make the hours before it tragic indeed.”

E. Lussu,
Un anno sull’Altipiano, Einaudi, 1945

The wounded

Reinforcements, destined to take the place of their companions who could no longer fight, were often left with the wounded coming from the first lines.
This was certainly not the best way to raise their spirits, as it was a picture of what would very likely be awaiting them once they got to their fighting positions.
Managing the wounded was a complex issue: river transportation, equipped trains, surgical ambulances, cableways, disassembled stretchers for use in the trenches and special stretchers on skates were all developed for use in the mountain areas.
The so-called “correspondence posts” were created as places where personnel was trained to get to know every bit of the territory assigned to them, to reduce discomfort for the wounded to a minimum.
Ambulances and stretchers were mechanically improved to at least increase the comfort of people who were already in a lot of suffering.
From the few Medical units that followed the fighting troops, in 1918 there were 100,000 beds available in the first line, and the shifting of sick and wounded away from the war zone and towards the towns grew from 81,000 in 1915 to 334,000 in 1918.

“When a soldier is stupefied by the cannon, after keeping still in his place, from which, alive, ‘he cannot move’, when he is wounded, mangled, dying, he lives through his suffering all over again.
Under the violence of time he is placed on a stretcher and is moved down, for hours, along a mule track that even mules refuse to take. Stretcher bearers slip, trip, fall. And the wounded screams with all his mangled flesh.”

Attilio Frescura,
Diario di un imboscato,
Cappelli, Bologna, 1930


One of the most significant problems of the first line, after the supply of food and ammunition, was that of lodgings for the troops. As autumn and winter approached, especially at high altitudes, the lodging problem became urgent.
Each soldier was given pieces of tent canvas that could be joined to create small tents for four people, supported by modular post elements. This was sufficient for a brief period in the plains, but not certainly for a war of positions.
The Raffa model of prefabricated tents, which looked more like dog houses, were few and poorly distributed.
Wherever possible, barracks began to be built with the most absurd materials, in first line with whatever was available and with the little that came with the Engineering logistic service. In the back roads, entire villages were used, equipped with various services, movie theatres, and, in certain cases, sumptuous constructions destined, when it was not possible to request civilian dwellings, to the higher echelons. In any case, the ability to make do that is typical of peasant turned soldiers in all fronts made these shacks as cosy as possible, with an attempt to recreate, albeit in a very small space, the warmth of their faraway homes.

“My tent, a poor shelter for a homeless man, now resists to water and wind; my soldiers have patched it: sitting snugly between the rocks surrounded by other even worse shelters, it has a certain elegant air to it.
I sleep very well in it, rolled up in woollen blankets like a northerner, filled with sleep and cold.”

Lieutenant Filippo Guerrieri,
Letters from the trench,
Manfrini, Trento, 1969


War was not only made of attacks, bombings, retreats, fear or splendid and successful advances, but also of something continuous, non-stopping and resigned: fatigue.
Everyday work was insistent, it never stopped; the poor diet certainly did not give soldiers the vigour they needed to build paths, trenches, stations in absurd places.
Soldiers, almost always peasants, were used to these strains, reason why they accepted this dangerous extension of civilian life with a sort of placid resignation.
Images from those days can help us better understand the endless work of everyday life: Alpines in short sleeves as they equip a station overhanging the valley beneath, while from the other side of the front a group of Austrian artillery soldiers and Russian soldiers drag a piece of artillery along the road that leads to the Fedaia Pass.

“1 July 1915. Dragging cannons.
This morning, at four, an infantry company was already ready to drag.
They placed the ropes, men were divided in teams, and up they went: infantry soldiers manning the ropes, artillery soldiers at the wheels and the rear.
I manoeuvre the tail of the case of my piece, the third one.
The road is terrible, we are up to our shins in mud.
Manoeuvring the tail is very hard because of the rocks that prevent it from turning.
We are sweating like dogs and our arms hurt.

“Il Giornale” war journal
by Alessandro Suckert

“When I see the corvée moving down from San Floriano loaded with boards, and these small heroic infantry soldiers who fall, get up again, swear and continue with two boards on their backs or a roll of barbed wired carried by two of them, I understand what fatigue is, the biblical sweat on the forehead...”

Gualtiero Castellini,
Diario di Gualtiero Castellini,
Milan, 1919

The cableway

During the war, transportation required the use of other means not normally used: sleds, locomotives, galliots, décauvilles and cableways more suitable to mountain areas, but frequently used also where slopes were not particularly difficult and where roads or passes could be difficult to build. Of course, it was also necessary to create a valid communication network; in the Italian side alone 3,800 kilometres of roads were built in operational war sectors in 1918.
Overall, in the entire Italian front the Austrians built more than 400 cableways, for an overall length of about 700 kilometres, while the Italians built about 2,100 kilometres among cableways and slopes, for a difference of height of 2,300 kilometres. One of the main differences was the Italians preferred developing small systems that were easy to transport and could be modified after installation to cater to new demands, while the Austrians preferred fixed, long-lasting installations.

Winter 1916 - Summer 1917 In this beautiful series of images of Costabella we can see one of the cableways used by the Austrian army in the Dolomites front. The heights of the support pillars covered spaces of many hundreds of metres, which would otherwise be impossible to cross using normal corvées. In this example, the cableway system connected the summit of the Costabella and the station uphill to San Nicolò Valley. As the distance was long, an intermediary station was built in Ciamorcia, where materials were unloaded and replaced on the cart departing upwards. These carts could be of various types: made or wood or metal, but usually of moulded metal sheet, with short and tilting sides to make the loading of materials and wounded men easier, which would help reduce their painful return towards the valley. In Costabella, a different kind of cart used to transport timber to build barracks and reinforce high-altitude posts.
These installations were sometimes used by officers to get to the summit faster, although this practice, in addition to being forbidden by regulations, was not immune to sometimes mortal dangers.

“It was very dark, and a storm was blowing at the summit, its howling coming down upon us. We pulled on the rope three times as usual, and I sat on the cableway cart, keeping my back to the Serauta, which is where the cart was going. (…)
At the proper height, we were supposed to meet the cart that was coming down, and given the fearsome jerky movements of our own cart because of the storm, there was a real danger of a crash, and therefore of a mortal fall... I suddenly heard a clunk that was eerily strident; I instinctively looked up the best I could, and I saw that the rope that was supporting the descending cart had been shifted by the wind and had come to get entangled in the pulley of our own cart. (…)
I could not really understand what was about to happen, because I simply could not see.
I instinctively grasped the parapet with my left hand and, raising my right, managed to grasp the rope tangled in the pulley and push it out, towards the right, as hard as I could... While I executed this movement, for which I also had to worry about not falling off the shaking cart, I heard behind me that typical noise of the descending cart, a sinister sound in that situation, which was growing bigger in my view, and for an instant I had the feeling that it was about to crash against my back, so close and immediate was its noise.”

Ciamp D’Arei-Serauta section
Tullio Minghetti, I figli dei Monti Pallidi - Vita di guerra di un irredento. Ed. della Legione Trentina.
Temi, Tip. Ed. Mutilati e Invalidi, 1940

Everyday life

Life went on, always and in any case.
A soldier’s life was not only made of attacks and desperate defences; perhaps the biggest problems were caused by exhaustion, humidity, sleep deprivation, always being too hot or too cold, searching for materials to make their nooks more comfortable, food that was never enough, but, in more general terms, by the lack of those poor little things that offered some comfort in one’s civilian life.
To make things worse, the long stays in the trenches involved very precarious hygiene conditions: mice, lice and bedbugs were some of the many scourges that accompanied soldiers’ lives. Personal hygiene often involved stagnant water recovered from explosion craters. Or they attempted to eliminate parasites by picking them from their clothes by hand.
But there were also rare moments of calm and relaxation, where faraway loves were remembered in pain, mostly by singing.


Fresh news! Usually a month old... Reading, for those few soldiers who could read and write, was a moment of detachment from everyday concerns. During the war, both sides, thanks to the initiative of publishers but also printed by the commands, promoted the creation of a multitude of trench newspapers that covered the most varied subjects, often filled with propaganda that could be more or less creeping.

Summer 1917, 2,318 metres above sea level on the Cardinel, with the barber working in the trench. Calm moments in which a haircut, flowery apron and all, brought civilian life back for just a minute.

In these moments of rest, once the change of the first line had been received, one could find oneself cheerfully drinking even more than a good glass of wine. In their eyes, however, a veil of apathetic sadness for the always lurking thought of going back to the front.

“Die Latrine” on the Colbricon…


One of the few pleasures soldiers could enjoy during breaks was smoking. The Tyrol pipes on display here belong to a great manufacturing and military tradition: soldiers had their names carved, as well as the troop they belonged to, and often also poems or ironic, political or dramatic verses.
They were a symbol of proud belonging to the Imperial and Royal Army.

There are pipes with words in Italian and in German, proof of the Empire’s multiple languages.
On display here are pipes belonging to Imperial soldiers and hunters, the rare pipes of the Standschützen battalions and a pipe of the Landschützen Battalion of Predazzo.

“... I think so too. They want us hungry, thirsty and desperate. So we will not desire life.
The more miserable we are, the better it is for them. So, for us it is pretty much the same, being dead or being alive...”

E. Lussu,
Un anno sull’Altipiano,
Einaudi, 1945.

We have found him a postcard, worn, for his family. He had written: “We are on a mount so high you can touch the sky if you raise your arm.”
And below: “Let me tell you that here we are among lice and not a few, but many, and they are white and fat and crusts crumble down my spine.”

P. Monelli,
Le Scarpe al Sole,
Treves, Milan 1928


In the civilian societies that characterised the early 20th century, social structure was still mostly peasant-patriarchal.
Industry was in full development, but it could not yet compete with the range of agricultural productions. In very rare cases, peasants had enough to feed themselves and their whole families.
Things changed during the war. There was a huge mass of fighters, removed from the countryside, who needed to be fed.
The logistics of all armies had not developed enough and was not prepared to feed such a large number of soldiers. In the trenches, hunger became an obsession for everyone, sometimes more painful than grenades themselves. After an attack, the first thing soldiers did was rummage through the dead or the just-conquered trenches in a desperate search for food.

An Austrian-Hungarian soldier doing a classic job that many will remember as part of their past in the military: peeling potatoes. In this case, a basket of small tubers which was probably expected to feed many mouths.

The images of food that have reached us always mention abundance and detail, almost an opulent waste: their meaning is clear, one attempts to use images to exorcise what is actually missing.

Austrian soldiers receiving their bread ration in a prison camp.
Sometimes prison was the only way to avoid starving to death, but at times, especially in Austria and Russia, where food was scarce, the opposite also happened: being in prison could mean certain death.

“I avidly eat what little is given me from time to time: if nothing is given then we search, we rummage backpacks and always come across a tin of meat, a great last resort when lunch did not come, when hunger is atrocious.”

Lieutenant Filippo Guerrieri,
Letters from the trench,
Manfrini, Trento, 1969


Nature was present everywhere, and in spite of soldiers’ apparent vigour, they were absolutely at the mercy of the forces that surrounded them: avalanches, lightning, storms, landslides, unexpected floods were just some of the weapons that were used by the incomparably powerful nature.
On the other hand, nature offered everything that is soothing for men tired from the strains of war: spectacular views, birdsong, sunsets, the immensity of water bodies... The land also protected the fragile body of a soldier by providing defence in the trenches, but also - not always - his last and definitive resting place. Many avalanches happened in the Dolomites front, killing thousands of men. One of the most incredible happened on 13 December 1916, in the Marmolada, in the “Gran Poz” village, where 200,000 tonnes of snow buried 230 Kaiserschützen and 102 Bosnian bearers. Only 51 were saved. The last ones resurfaced in the bottom of the valley in July 1917.

Nature can also be extremely harsh: in a handful of seconds entire villages can be swept away by a giant hand that takes the shape of an avalanche to destroy everything in its path, which is what happened in the Fuchiade valley above the San Pellegrino Pass, where on 9 March 1916 60 Alpine soldiers of the Val Cordevole Battalion lost their lives.

An Austrian sentinel on the Costabella overlooks, in a softly fairytale atmosphere, the Italian posts clinging to the Pale di San Martino group.

09 May 1917:
“Upon return, I found the news that a young infantry major, the one I saw with the skiers a few days ago, was bitten by a viper. Brought to our Group on a stretcher, Cosentino found him in very serious conditions, already fainting. They sent him down to the hospital in a hurry. He will die.”


23 March 1917:
“How rough that climbing up the ice, and how sweet the two white walls! We crossed woods of great spruces: I knew them very well from fairytale books and bakers’ display windows.
Snow really does look like whipped cream, in those enormous masses and vast stretches; the snow on the branches looks like sugar, looks like flour, looks like cotton wool; it is delicious to look at and voluptuous to walk on; it gives the unsatisfied desperation of infinitely pure things we would like to enjoy and possess, but cannot.”

Regione Monte Mezza (Valsugana),
Silvio d’Amico, La vigilia di Caporetto-Diario di guerra,
Giunti 1996


Life in the front forced men to live in continuous company of death. At any given moment a projectile, a shard, an accidental grenade explosion could take away their lives. It was therefore natural that men would grasp anything, as convinced faithful as well as victims of fear when faced with a real danger.
Others lost their faith entirely when faced with that everyday horror.
In 1866, military chaplains were eliminated due to the large contrast between State and Church. General Cadorna signed a circular letter on 12 April 1915 restoring religious assistance by assigning a chaplain to each regiment.
More than 2,200 chaplains were militarised with the degree of assimilated officers, joined by simple priests and clerics enrolled in normal operative sections. The overall number of religious men in the war reached about 20,000.

Mass in the Italian field was a moment of reflection and calm while waiting for a future that was not very clear, but would certainly be full of tragedy.

Austrian Canazei: the uniforms are different, but the meaning of the spiritual reflection is unchanged. The flags of the Ladin and of the Fassani Veterans honour the ceremony.

But the Church, here used in the widest possible meaning of the word, was always ready to help men marked by war.
In this beautiful image, a group of scruffy soldiers of the Empire rests on straw spread on the floor of the central nave of a church along the front of the world war.

“Priest and altar placed at the top of a small knoll looked sharp against the horizon.
Officers and troops were silent and looked emotional.
I observed them and meditated, and as the holy mass proceeded, I felt my soul be penetrated by an emotion that, infiltrating me little by little so that I could not feel its gradual increase, filled me to the point that I could no longer hold back the tears.”

Niccolò Bresciani, born in Lucera (Tn), died on Mount Zomo on 17 November 1917.
In: Adolfo Omodeo, Momenti della vita di guerra,
Einaudi, 1968

The Ladins in the Great War

When the war began in 1914, the behaviour of most of the Ladin population regarding the participation of Austria-Hungary in the war can be described as one of resigned acceptance;
for a good inhabitant of South Tyrol, obeying the orders of his sovereign was a civil duty and a need. Faraway Russia was certainly not seen as an enemy.
Those who were recruited departed en masse; many won medals in the field, others were made prisoners, very few came home alive.
With the Italian declaration of war against Austria on 24 May 1915, Ladins found themselves with Italian troops at their doors, with the front only a few kilometres away from their homes. Some villages were evacuated as they were threatened by artillery.
Many civilians returned after only a month.
A very particular situation was created: the men of the Dolomites valleys actually fought to defend their homes, their families, and this happened with absolute self-denial, especially in the first two years of the war.

The imperialistic policy of the civil and military power caused the patriotism of Ladins and Trentino inhabitants to slowly wane, turning it into a submissive apathy.
Civilians suspected of irredentism were arrested and sent to internment camps, often without any real motive.
Italian- and Ladin-speaking soldiers were looked at with suspicion and were often mistreated by officers. The war and the intolerance regime established by Franz Ferdinand undermined the morale of the population and of the troops whose loyalty had always been reliable.
The hunger and strains of the last two years of war added to the suffering.
Tyrol borders were always defended and preserved until the day of capitulation, in November 1918. The arrival of peace, albeit beneath the new Italian flag, was welcomed as a fundamental, necessary step towards life.

Civilians and the war

Moena. The new emperor Charles I of Austria is entertained by the locals and talks to civilians.
The prestige and glamour of the imperial house, deeply entrenched in the Tyrol populations, can be seen in the simplicity of this image. Despite the war, the mistreatment and the nationalistic harassment towards the Ladin community by German-speaking officers that had undermined the historical patriotism of Tyrol inhabitants, their welcome to the successor of Franz Josef was warm and sincere.
The photo also shows Postmeister Michele Croce with two medals of valour as Kaiserjäger in the battlefield of Custoza, in 1866.

The military laundry service of Moena, which ran on the paid work of the village women.
This was where the clothes changed for the fighters were taken. In addition to this new activity, women were entrusted with sewing and handicraft works of all kinds. This allowed the local female population to earn a salary. In the absence of their men, recruited from 16 years old to middle age, the work system, very well organised by Lieutenant Richard Löwy, made it possible to maintain a quality of life better than the incredibly low one of the civilian populations of the Empire.

Gries – Canazei. Near the front, in the towns, Austrian soldiers went down to meet their own families or to rest.
During these breaks, soldiers often slept in houses and barns, and helped locals with agricultural work. Ladin women wearing traditional clothes. One is churning butter while the other is spinning.
But one thing stands out in our eyes: the Austrian soldier standing in the background is resting his hand in a fraternal manner on the shoulder of the Russian prisoner sitting on a barrel, almost as if he were a member of his family.

Moena, bridge over the Avisio river. A thick group of Russian prisoners working under the supervision of Austrian soldiers.
The presence of a German Alpenkorps officer, standing on the left, is remarkable. The Germans who came to help the Tyrol soldiers in the first months of 1915 were an important presence thanks to their support to the Standschützen until the arrival of the men hurriedly brought over from the Galicia front after the sudden declaration of war between the Kingdom of Italy and Austria on 24 May 1915.

03 September 1915:
“My God, my God, what have we done
to deserve such a penalty? …
My mother, my mother, who is a saint...
Let your will be done, oh Lord,
now and always; we bless your
all-powerful hand that hits us…
Poor Battistino, who would have thought
you should die away from your family,
from your beloved Moena, in this
cruel and disastrous war
fighting for your country…
This war that spills so much blood,
so many tears, that turns people into
beasts... Yes, beasts, as they watch
days, months and years passing by without
even the hope of an end to the war;
there are even those who have lost
their faith in the Lord…”

From the diary of Caterina Pezzé Batesta of Moena.
These words were written at 15 years of age, when she received the news that her brother had died in the war.

09 November 1918:
“We have become Italian!!!”

Caterina Pezzé Batesta,
Piccolo diario di Caterina 1912-1918 dalla Pace alla Grande Guerra
Ghedina & Tassotti ed., 1995