Remembering Monte Piana

"Each man's death diminishes me/For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls,/ It tolls for thee." John Donne
"Each man's death diminishes me/For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls,/ It tolls for thee." John Donne
“Up to the Monte Piana”

Imposing and glorious peaks
like gothic cathedrals,
a sacred silence
a dizzy primordial beauty.
The wind whispers with mistery
and black crows glide down
amongst rocks and precipices.
But all aver the mountain I see
tragic scattered memories of death:
trenches, barbed wires a gun.
This holy silence
was one day violated
by clash of arms
and cry out of wounded men.
Suddenly a sorrowful feeling
seizes my heart
for so much destruction of life
and of its beauty.

Livia Zucco
(17 Guigno 2006)
–

Wrenched after reading Livia’s elegy in the small Heldenkapelle Chapel at Monte Piana, I thought about the man we saw hiking early that morning. Purposefully alone, silent, dressed in fatigues and a green beret, shouldering a backpack and a long rifle. Was he on a Sunday ritual, paying tribute to a grandfather or father who fought on this mountain battlefield in WWI? “That’s your story, mom,” Lynn said.

I’ll back the story up a little. Then, a lot.

Hiking Monte Piana (Flat Mountain), came highly recommended by Ida, the co-owner of Chalet Alpenrose in nearby Misurina, where the four of us were staying. “You can take the Jeep Shuttle up the mountain to the rifugio and then walk on the mostly flat mountain top where you get amazing views, some of the best in the Dolomites. And it’s not crowded, few people go there. And there’s local history. You’ll be walking among trenches, tunnels and monuments from World War I.”

The Italians call it Monte Pianto (Mountain of Tears). For good reason.

More than 14,000 soldiers, Italians and Austrians, lost their lives on this mountain (some sources say more than 20,000). As New York World correspondent E. Alexander Powell wrote in 1917 when it was over:

On no front, not on the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian marshes, nor in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world.

The bitterly fought mountaintop war between Italy and Austria broke out immediately after Italy abandoned its alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany and joined forces with the UK, France and Russia in the spring of 1915. The Italians were enticed by Allied promises of giving them Italian-speaking lands ruled by the Hapsburgs. In reality, the Allies wanted Italy in the war to divert Austro-Hungarian troops away from France and Russia.

At that time, the unprotected border between Italy and the Habsburg monarchy ran through the middle of Monte Piana. As it had since 1753 when it separated the Republic of Venice and Tyrol.

Starting out from the rifugio on trail no. 122, its strategic position is obvious: a sizeable, mostly flat terrain with 360-degree views of several mountain passes.

Italian soldiers hauled an arsenal of heavy artillery, machine guns, poison gas and flamethrowers up a challenging mule track—now the road the Jeep Shuttle took us up that climbs 565 metres in 6 km to Rifugio Bosi. The zigzag road has been closed to traffic and bikes since 1998 but we saw keen hikers working their way upward.

The Hapsburg soldiers strung cableways and rope ladders up the rock faces onto the high peaks to bring in supplies and reinforcements. Difficult, exhausting and dangerous work. They took Monte Piana on June 7, 1915, establishing a fortified stronghold on the rounded promontory to the north despite Italian resistance.

Both sides had the same problem—they were in the range of Howitzer shells placed on the higher ground of nearby mountains that continuously bombarded the area. Both armies built tunnels into the mountainsides. But their soldiers still had to man the trenches, “crouching down all the time, trying to make themselves as small as possible, hoping that the next shell would kill someone else. They could do little more than wait until their unit, reduced to a small fraction of its initial strength, was replaced with a fresh one,” as Ugo Bardi writes.

On July 15, the Italians attacked the Austro-Hungarian garrisons. After five days of fighting and the death of 833 soldiers, they occupied the slightly higher southern plateau, but not the enemy’s fortifications on the north. Position 20 on the map above was the Austrians’ first armoured line with underground connections. Position 19 is where the machine gun lines were taken over by the Italians.

The Italian soldiers named the narrow neck of land that split the dual summits between Positions 19 and 20 the “Valley of the Castrati.”

Imagine the horror of daily combat by small formations as each side strove to gain this patch of land, the more aggressive Italians even rushing toward the enemy with bayonets. In places, the outposts, trenches and tunnels were only a few metres apart. Around 11pm every night, not a sentry but 50 or so men were positioned less than 100 metres from the enemy line, firing shots to keep the opposing troops away.

Having read that winter can come early in the Dolomites, we were prepared for the light snow dusting the barren mountaintop Sunday morning, September 24. Unlike the soldiers who fought here that first winter. Because the battle was expected to be over in weeks, they were unprepared for the dire weather of this extreme altitude that begins with the first snow in September.

But the fighting continued. Weaponizing the terrain, they triggered avalanches by sawing through snow cornices in enemy territory. In fact, the terrain itself was the killer. Especially the “White Death” that killed thousands of men during the winter of 1916 that had three times the average snowfall, some of the heaviest of the century. Heinz Lichem von Löwenbourg stated:

On the basis of unanimous reports from fighters of all nations, the rough rule applies that in 1915–1918, on the mountain front, two thirds of the dead were victims of the elements (avalanches, frostbite, landslides, cold, exhaustion) and only one third victims of direct military action.

Servicing the troops required enormous manpower: to maintain a garrison of 100 men at this altitude they needed 900 porters working in relays.

An Austrian army captain wrote of the futility of the useless slaughter, a feeling that many of the soldiers must have shared:

It has already cost our side and Italians so much blood and will cost even more, they I do not know if its possession can justify such a great sacrifice…So many have been buried here! So many corpses alongside the trenches! I’m not one to say if this was really necessary; I only know that this is what was wanted by those in the rear, with their peremptory orders, In any case that’s not my concern; my task is to obey.

When reinforcements were needed to resist the Austro-Hungarian forces on the Isonzo eastern front, the Italian contingent obeyed orders and abandoned Monte Piana. On November 3, 1917, the horror at one of the fiercest and bloodiest precipices of the Great War came to an end.

The Austrians stayed on for a year or so without fighting, starving and demoralized, before marching back north. The Italians returned to occupy Monte Piana.

Ida had told us about the small war museum at the back of the rifugio. “If you eat something there, they will allow you to enter it,” she advised.

The “Open Air Museum of World War I” was initiated by Austrian Colonel Walter Schaumann in 1977. Walkways, tunnels, underground depots, trenches and stairs were reconstructed by the “Friends of the Dolomites” group. Today, restoration and maintenance are conducted by the Friends of Monte Piana organization and the Monte Piana Foundation. Every August, volunteers maintain the trails, reconstruct collapsed walls, restore wooden structures and remove garbage, assisted by the Italian army that also provides equipment.

Who was the swarthy man we saw on this open air museum? Was he, as Magellan says, just a local actor adding colour to the historical site? An army officer out for a walk? I still prefer my story. But for now, let us remember him as a symbol of the men we never knew, the men whose ghostly presence haunts the ledges of Monte Piana.

Navigation

Price, Gillian. Shorter Walks in the Dolomites. Cumbria: Cicerone, 2015.

Bardi, Ugo. “Ukraine: The Battle for Flat Mountain.” The Seneca Effect. November 4, 2022.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1929. Ida reminded us of how well this book describes the futility of WWI in Italy. (His word for the soldier’s beret—airplane hat.)

White War. Wikipedia.

11 Responses

  1. This is such an amazing, poignant piece about the terrible tragedy and uselessness of WWI and others. I am sure you could not help but feel the presence of so many who died while wondering about the purpose of it all.

    As one of the soldiers said “my task is to obey”. What a terrible waste.

    1. The landscape reveals the tragedy, hauntingly. Reading more about it while preparing this blog magnified the horrors of such close combat in such a small space in extreme mountain weather. No one wants to imagine the PTSD the survivors must have suffered.

  2. What a dreadful chapter in the encyclopedia of wars. Well done and well researched. Thank you.
    So many lives lost and lives altered or ruined by war. The repercussions of war are dreadful ! In retrospect, my father suffered from PTSD after fighting on the front lined in WWII. Same for Greg’s son many years later in another war.

    We have Indigenous Month, BLM Month. But we have Remembrance DAY
    and Veterans DAY. Mmmmm Veterans gave us the FREEDOM we ALL enjoy!

  3. Battles like this showcase the futility of the war strategies in WWI. The soldiers endured needless suffering only to see positions simply abandoned.
    Touring the “Winterline War Museum” near Cassino Italy, I learned that the winters in the Italian mountains were much colder during both WWI and WWII.
    The name “Valley of the Castrati” given to the dividing line bespeaks a gruesome history of The Castrati singers from Northern Italy during the Baroque period.

    1. You are so right Greg. The winter of 1916 was one of the harshest on record. We read that “It closed down the fighting on the middle and upper Isonzo, where six to eight metres of snow smothered the mountainsides, three times the annual average today…Five metres of snow fell during the second half of December alone. In this terrain, warfare was a hostage to climate.”

    1. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

  4. Such a historic, interesting read. How sad so many young men lost their lives while the well fed leaders sat in their warm homes with their families. I am sure you felt the presence of those who sacrificed their lives. And all we can do for them is remember.

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