In May 1915, Italy joined the Entente and attacked Austra-Hungary, its neighbor and great rival, along their Alpine border. Four years of mountain warfare commenced, which some of the most brutal fighting of World War I in its least hospitable conditions.
Geography and strategy did not align well for Italian planners. Most Italians had not been particularly enthusiastic for war, and Rome wanted a quick victory that would take Austria’s last Italian possessions, like Trentino and Trieste. Therefore Italy’s army needed to attack. But virtually the entire Austro-Italian border consisted of the Alps, running from the virtually impassible Dolomites at Trentino, to the somewhat gentler east, where stood the Isonzo River and the rocky, barren, Karst Plateau. This is where Italy’s Commander-in-Chief Luigi Cadorna made eleven vigorous attacks during the war, heading eastward over the Isozo into Slovenia, coming to a head at the town of Gorizia.
The Austrians had suffered severely on the Eastern Front by 1915, but Cadorna’s opposite number, General Conrad von Hötzendorf, knew precisely where to deploy his limited men. The Austrians heavily fortified the Isonzo, blasting trenches, dugouts, and artillery positions into Alpine rock. The highest peaks became crucial observation points. Even if they ran out of machine gun bullets and gun shells, the Austrians could probably roll rocks down the mountains and still have an advantage over the Italians attacking uphill.
Austrians keep watch over the Isonzo.
The following four years covered the Alps in blood. Italy fought four battles alone for the Isonzo in 1915. Each proved indecisive and costly. The Austrians gave better than they got, but had too few men to counter-attack themselves. In the higher ranges of the Alps, a “white war” started in the snow and ice. Ski-troops and mountain climbers were the norm, avalanches caused by artillery killed thousands in seconds. Even supplying the men here required Herculean logistical efforts: guns, soldiers, horses, etc. were brought up mountain peaks with complex pulley-systems, elevators, and even ziplines.
An Italian Alpini mountain specialist ziplines from one peak to another.
The pattern of failed Italian offensives changed suddenly in October 1917, when Austrian and German troops launched a surprise attack at Caparetto that routed the defending Italians. Some 20,000 prisoners fell into Central Powers hands within a few days. Thousands of demoralized Italian soldiers were abandoned by Cadorna as he pulled forces back; yet the general had no sympathy for his men - some claim he literally reintroduced the ancient Roman practice of decimation, killing one man in ten in some units. More likely he had individual stragglers executed for cowardice.
A tough place for a war.
Despite this poor showing of Italian arms, they turned defeat into victory in 1918, halting a final Austrian attack on the Piave and launching their own counteroffensive which soon turned into a full-scale pursuit of terrified and starving Austrian troops. The cherished revanchist territory of Trentino and Trieste finally fell into Italian hands. But the unpopular war had come at terrible cost: at least 600,000 dead, almost twice that wounded. These are only estimates. To this day, the frozen corpses of Italian and Austrian soldiers show up every summer in the Alps. Perhaps it is no surprise that so many Italian soldiers, like Benito Mussolini, returned home bitter, anxious for rapid political change, and full of hate.
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