About forty-two centuries before the Great War, a man known to us only as ‘Ötzi’ was shot in the back with an arrow and then dispatched by a blow to the head. Injuries to his hands indicate that Ötzi had been engaged in combat some time during the previous day, which suggests that his death was just one of an unknown number in an ancient conflict whose origins and issues are lost to history. Mummified by the alpine ice almost two miles above sea level, during 1991 his corpse will be rediscovered in a region now called Trentino at a spot just a short distance inside the current Italian border with Austria. But in 1915, as war rages in the mountains around the contested city of Tyrol, the unseen Ötzi still awaits finding in a Hapsburg territory, silently mocking those who die to possess these lands.
The war here began in May, becoming earnest in August. First, the fortresses on the Italian side intensified the artillery fire on their Austrian counterparts in the Plateau of Vezzena; then mass infantry attacks, in which men armed with obsolete breech-loading rifles obeyed the call of brass trumpets, were launched directly into the teeth of defenses prepared months or years in advance. The Trentino itself is a natural fortress, and the Austrians have built a series of fortifications here in recent years, expanding the program rapidly in the early weeks of Italy’s war. Using concrete reinforced with steel bars, installing armored gun turrets, and connecting bunkers with tunnels and telephone lines, the Austrians were quite well-prepared to receive the hapless Italians.
Nevertheless, mass has its own momentum. Today, the Trentino is relatively quiet after another series of assaults, but in another example of the peculiar reporting from the Italian Front, the successes of the last few weeks are recorded happening today. Sustaining heavy losses, the Italians have taken Pragusina on the western side of Lake Garda, putting them in a position to threaten Riva; in the northeastern Trentino, they have seized the Adige Valley as far as Brontonico, bringing them within sight of Rovereto. But these are mere nibbles around the edge of the Tyrolean massifs. Rather than a great victory, the Italian Army has forced its way into a frozen embrace with death.
Describing the desperate struggles on Monte Pasubio, a mountain group east of Rovereto, German military historian Heinz von Lichem calls the scene “hell on earth: mines, raging avalanches, constant hand-to-hand fighting, soldiers vegetating wretchedly under arctic conditions in the depths of winter.” Known as the ‘White War,’ the combat here takes place in ice and snow when it isn’t happening on wind-blasted rock. Fritz Weber, Austrian writer and journalist, writes of his experience manning Cima di Vezzena, the northernmost of the four forts in Plateau of Vezzena, while serving in the undermanned Tyrolean home guards, or Standesschützen, in his memoir Das Ende einer Armee.
An infernal din jerks us from sleep… Thunder: for a few seconds, we perceive the characteristic whining of the bullets, then the explosion. The walls shake. Then, silence again…
There is an impact every three minutes. The reinforced concrete vibrates like bronze. It seems though the bullets fly over our heads. In one section, one explosion is stronger than the others: a second battery has opened fire on us…
[…] The same scene is repeated for six consecutive hours. Every three minutes we throw ourselves to the ground, as an explosion bursts our eardrums. Our heads are spinning like tops. After six hours of fire, twelve of rest; another six of inferno, unless we are cut to ribbons sooner.
[…] In the meantime, a tragedy took place in Luserna caused by a mental breakdown that only by miracle did not cause the loss of the entire line of Lavarone. The commander, Lieutenant Nebesar, in fear of a surprise attack, kept all of his men up for three days and three nights, without allowing them to sleep. One alarm followed the other, the towers were occupied permanently and in the posts for the machine guns men were in vigil, nearly dropping with fatigue. All that happened because the brain that should have been in charge was incapable of evaluating the exact situation of the fort.
[…] The garrison was composed of the same trusting, brave soldiers to be found in the garrison of the other forts. It was all the fault of the commander, more insane than evil.
It is a description of shell shock, the emerging universal condition of the Great War. Infamous for harsh discipline, the Italian Army reacts to such episodes with firing squads, decimations, and show trials, further killing morale. Italian Field Marshall Luigi Cadorna calls a halt to offensives in the Trentino, but not to spare lives or minds; he simply needs his cannon fodder elsewhere. With the winter season, avalanches, lightning strikes, and frostbite become greater threats than the enemy.
The main focus of Cadorna’s offensives continues to be the Isonzo river valley, where he began a third great cataclysmic battle one week ago, attacking at places whose names are already sadly familiar to anyone following these events: Tolmino, the Carso Plateau and the Doberdò, Monte San Michele, Plave. Again, the Italian Army wins some little ground, but at a tremendous cost in lives, for Cadorna has brought an ever larger number of heavy guns to bear but has otherwise not improved on his original plan, while shortages of machine guns and other armaments remain unresolved. The Third Battle of the Isonzo is incurring at least 67,000 Italian casualties, with more than eleven thousand killed, while simultaneously killing, wounding, or capturing 40,000 men of the Dual Monarchy.
Ironically, however, an eventual breakthrough in the Trentino after three more years of deadlock and horror will finally open the door to Vienna, breaking the Imperial and Royal Army (k.u.k.) at last and forcing the Germans to sue for peace. A century later, the trenches and fighting positions of the Trentino are some of the best-preserved of the Great War due to their solid construction, so that one can easily spend an entire two-week vacation visiting locations open to the public. They are a gift to the future — a warning to us and our descendants that men have murdered one another here before.