Fighting for the Falzarego Pass

FIGHTING FOR THE FALZAREGO PASS

Remembering the Italian and Austrian soldiers who, a century ago, fought eachother to a standstill under the horrific conditions imposed by Mother Nature.

The winter sports enthusiasts, climbing above the Tofana di Rozes ski-lift to the Cinque Torri refuge at 2,137m, have around them some of the world’s most dramatic and beautiful mountain scapes. Over on the horizon they can see the massive bulk of the 3,344m high Marmolada mountain. They may scan across the Falzarego valley to the vertical cliffs beyond. They will wonder about the dark holes they spot in the cliffs.

Descending from the refuge, and passing the top station of the ski-lift, they will come across carefully built walls of rounded boulder either side of the narrow path (A). Then they will encounter cabins hidden behind massive stone outcrops and an exposed level area, carrying a notice about it being the site of a gun emplacement, will intrigue them. The path then descends between two rock faces that lean in on each other (B).

Once back in their chalets they may find a book on a table which explains what they have seen. They have followed in the steps of many thousands of Italian soldiers who hiked below the Cinque Torri in 1915 to fight the Austrians guarding the mountains across the 1.6km wide Falzarego valley.

This brief article explores the dramatic topography in which the fighting took place and the impact it had on the mountains. Let it be acknowledged that those who fought there during the three seasons had to adopt skills such as rock-climbing, abseiling and skiing not shared by those fighting on the Western front – except in the Vosges mountains of eastern France.

When the Italians declared war on Austria-Hungary on the 23rd of May 1915 they hoped to retake the Tyrol region which was in dispute between the two countries. Their Fourth Army soldiers moved into the Dolomite mountains forming the international border. Their hesitation in taking Cortina d’Ampezzo gave the opposing Austrian forces time to consolidate their positions to the north of the town. Frustrated by their defence, the Italian forces then took the road west along the narrow Falzarego valley. From there they hoped to enter the Pusteria valley and reach the Austrian heartland. In 10 kilometres they passed the five huge rock formations known as Cinque Torri. Pushing the Austrians back they came to the Falzarego Pass which was then successfully defended by the enemy. On the 15th of June, furious fighting took place for the 2,477m spike-like Sasso di Strai which had been fortified by the Austrians (C). General Nava’s troops captured it, then bizarrely abandoned it three days later. He was sacked in September. Fighting also took place on the nearby 2,452m granite Col di Lana in July and then November and December (D).

What is of interest was that, for both sides, the Dolomites were not a priority in their military strategic planning. The Italians launched more than ten offensive battles on the Isonzo river to the north of Venice, the Austrians resolutely defending. Later the Germans joined them to win the battle of Caporetto, where Rommel, of Africa Corps fame in WW2, gained his spurs. But once the Falzarego campaign began, as casualties mounted, so more and more troops were sucked in.

This area of the Dolomites became one of the most strange and horrific battlefields ever. Strange because conventional tactics could not be used, such as in the trenches of the Western Front. Horrific because it was not only the enemy that had to be faced, but Mother Nature herself. In the next two years the ‘White Death’, the avalanches, are estimated to have taken more lives that bullets and shells. Even in summer there were freak snowfalls.

Just servicing the troops in the mountains was expensive of manpower. 900 porters working in relays were needed to maintain a garrison of 100 men positioned on a 3,000m peak. Once, Italian gunners fired 950 rounds to drive 12 Austrian soldiers off a small turret of rock. Munitions carried up to the artillery were wasted on a grand scale. Building the elaborate aerial cableways, to save soldiers trudging through fields of deep snow, were feats of civil engineering. They have evolved into the ski-lifts of today.

In winter, temperatures dropped to -40 to -50 centrigrade so frostbite was an ever–present danger. In places there were 12 metres of snowfall. During the cold times, the troops were thinned out leaving sentries observing the enemy to make sure no military actions were about to begin. Where it did, rifle and machine gun fire was sufficient to eliminate the soldiers caught struggling through the snow fields or climbing rock faces. Both sides recognised other offensive tactics would be needed.

With the route to the west blocked by the Pass, the Italian troops then tried to move up Travenanzes valley. This wild and trackless valley is entered through the Forcella Travenanzes, a pass 500 metres above and to the side of the Falzarego valley (E). The entrance to the side valley is dominated by the 2,656m Punta di Bois which looms over the valley. This peak is part of the Tofana di Mezzo, that at 3,244 metres rears over Cortina d’Ampezzo. Overall the Austrian defenders benefitted from having the highest peaks and the strategically important positions in these valleys.

As with the Western Front, tunnelling started. To do this the Italians, with their greater engineering expertise, moved up rock boring machines. The Austrians still depended on hammers and spikes for loosening the hard rock. The tunnels became protected accesses to observation ‘portholes’ and accommodation for the soldiers. But, in some, the end chambers became ‘mines’. Underneath the Col di Lana, the 2,778m high Lagazuoi and the Punta di Bois, tunnels were dug, explosives moved into the chambers and then fired. The first mine under the Col, some 5,000 kilogrammes of solidified nitro-glycerine explosive, were blown on 17th April 1916 and displaced 10,000 tonnes of rock. Giant slabs of mountainsides were torn away, crashing into the valleys below. When the 37,000 kilogrammes of solidified nitro-glycerine under the Punta di Bois, known to the Italians as the Casteletto and the Austrians as the Schreckenstein (Rock of Horrors), were blown at 03:30 on 11th of July 1916, King Vittorio Emanuele III and General Cadorna, the military commander, were watching from an observation post near the Cinque Torri (thought to be the one from which tourists can still view the valley) (F).

Overall a total of five mines were laid by both sides under Lagazuoi which overlooks the Falzarego Pass (G). When the first mine, of 30,000 kilogrammes of explosive, laid by the Austrians, was ignited on the 22nd of May 1917, some 100,000 cubic metres were blown away. A rock face measuring 200 x 136 metres was displaced.

The tunnels are still accessible in the summer months and a British historian, Dr. John Scanlon, takes climbers into them (H). Small holes were made or ‘windows’ installed so that the enemy could be watched (I).

The glacier of the Marmolada, the mountain held by the Austrians, allowed the excavation of a network of tunnels which became known as the ‘City of Ice’, eventually even having an ‘Ice Church’. A century later the glacier, as it retreats, continues to release the bodies of those who died there. The tunnels can still be explored.

When the Dolomites front was abandoned following the Italian retreat from Caporetto in the autumn of 1917, the human cost of a long campaign began to be counted. For the 6,000 Italians dead on the Col di Lana and Mont Sief, precisely nothing was achieved. Overall, for both armies, 18,000 were casualties there. The Col di Lana became known as ‘Bloody Mountain’. A single avalanche claimed over 300 lives on the Gran Poz near the Marmolada. 6,000 Austrians perished in the mountains in two days, the 13th and 14th February 1916, as the consequence of a thaw, following heavy snowfall, causing avalanches. 60,000 overall died as the result of the avalanches in the Dolomites in the three years. Only one-third died in action trying to capture and defend the peaks and passes, two-thirds were killed by lighting, storms, avalanches, landslides and rockfalls.

A century later the scars remain. Photographs show how the mountains shapes were changed by the explosions. Tourists are able to visit the fortifications. They will marvel at the efforts of the soldiers and Russian prisoners of war needed to haul cannons and wooden tree trunks up to the heights. They can visualise what it must have been like to pass winter months in the rock trenches and tunnels (J).

Within the futility of the Dolomites campaign the tragedy is the view of many Italian soldiers expressed in letters and memoirs. They wrote of being able to commune with Nature in the high mountains, with its silence intensified rather than broken by the moaning wind. Some came to regard war as sport. A century later we can understand their feelings about this dramatic mountain range, whether the snow-covered peaks in the still and sunlight winter days or the glorious tapestry of plants and flowers in the spring and summer. Even in the midst of warfare, young men were impressed by the magnificence of their mountain battlefield.

A) A narrow trench on the Cinque Torri built of small round boulders. © BL

B) Modern tourists descending a former military track beneath the Cinque Torrri. © JR

C) Sasso di Strai, the site of a mountain battle, sinister in the evening light. © GB

D) The Col di Lana, its modern shape a casualty of the War – see right flank. © GB

E) Forcella Travenanzes, the access to the Travenanzes valley, with the Casteletto seen above the ice road. © GB

F) The probable observation post from which the Casteletto explosion was seen by the King and General Cadorna. © BL

G) The Lagazuoi showing the scree from the explosions. © GB

H) An Austrian tunnel hewn through the Lagazuoi, showing its rough cut. © TP

I) The fascia at the end of an Austrian tunnel letting the Italian side of the Falzarego valley be seen. © TP

J) Austrian accommodation within the Lagazuoi, with rifles stacked. © TP

References:

Irving Root, G. (2008) Battles in the Alps. Publ. Baltimore.
Thompson, Mark (2008) The White War. Publ. Faber & Faber.
Wachtler, Michael (2006) The First World War in the Alps. Publ. Athesia Spectrum.

Googling ‘https:mapcarta.com/Cortina_d527Ampezzo’ gives a simple way to identify the named places of interest.

For more specialist examination, because the individual mountains ‘flow’ into each other, the best approach to locating the individual peaks is the 1:25,000 Carta topografica per escursionisti ‘Cortina d’Ampezzo e Dolomiti Ampezzane’. This map produced by Tabacco shows the topography from Cortina d’Ampezzo to the Col di Lana.

Acknowledgements:

Andrew Orgill, John Pearce and the team of the Central Library, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and John Lee, member of the BCMH, for their help and support.

Bethany Lloyd (BL) and Tracey Papiez (TP) of Colletts Holidays and Dr. Jo Roberts (JR), Clinical Lead, NHS South Devon & Torbay CCG, for their photographs taken within the Falzarego valley.

© 20 January 2017.