Marmolada in the Summer
From Southeast



Patrol on Marmolada

Glacier Galleria

Harrassing Fire
Christmas Day 1916

...Through many a dark and dreary vale
they passed, and many a region dolorous,
o'er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp,
rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens and
   shades of death,
a universe of death, which God by curse,
   created evil.

                                          - John Milton

The highest mountain in the Dolomite range of the Alps at 3342 meters, the Marmolada Massif or "group" comprises of a vast northern glacier and a soaring, semicircle of cliffs and peaks on the sunny southern side. Three months of summer and nine months of winter make its annual weather cycle. Astride the old pre1915 border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Kingdom of Italy, this icy giant became a major battlefield of the First World War's Gebirgskreig or Italian front. As with Tofane, Monte Piano and the Tre Cime, in other sectors, Marmolada was vital to the control of its region.

Marmolada had all characteristics and dangers unique to high mountain warfare including the thin atmosphere [70% of sea-level at 3,000 meters in altitude]; ice, snow and scree; and frequent blizzards or dense fog banks covering attacks. Avalanches, falling rock and lightening; long range shooting duels, artillery and hand to hand fighting; as well as exposure to extreme low temperatures and high winds killed men in equal numbers. Injuries such as frostbite, snow blindness, altitude sickness and malnutrition caused by the severe climate competed with the usual war wounds, disease and stress- especially for troops that must stay on position and not let down their guard. Patrols, observation posts and assault units resembled mountaineers as much as soldiers. Supply was carried out by backbreaking corvee [on the backs of men and mules] and telepherique [both manpowered and motor driven cable-cars.] Despite being surrounded by frozen water, this vital need of humans was difficult to obtain or store.

Italian strategy -- ambitious yet thought feasible -- was to control the peaks and passes to eventually flank and cut off the Austrians. With the roads to Bozen [Bolzano] and the Brenner Pass captured, the heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would lay open. With most of their army in Russia, the Austrians concentrated on defending their Empire's lofty southern flank. On Marmolada, between the Italian and Austrian forces, was a vast no-man's-land of glacier crevasse and bergschrund or soaring rock cliffs, needle-like arÍtes and knife-edge ridges with their blocking "gendarmes." All these are great challenges for mountaineers defining war on this Alpine front as somewhere between unique and incredible.

Schematic of Typical Austrian Base Under the Northern Glacier

Poster Honoring Belluno Battalion

Pass at Forcella

Glacier Gun-Site

Combat on this icy amphitheater began in 1915 with a rush for the high points unoccupied in times of peace. In June the first action took place with the Alpini Belluno Battalion capturing the strategic Padon and Ombretta Passes. The word "pass" is a stretch, for only to climbers were these notches on knife-edge ridges considered passes. They did however, look down onto the great glacier and Austrian positions. At the same time as the Belluno successes, the Battaglione Val Cordevole captured the passes and ridges of Forcella Rossa and Forcella Marmolada, along the great southern wall. In these light infantry battles, larger Italian units forced platoon sized observation posts to retreat. One might think the small groups of Austrian reservists that delayed the Italians would be a pushover, but they held the formidable high ground and were defending their villages that lay to the north of the battle zone. As the short summer ended, most military operations were exploratory or prepatory in nature. . Raids, artillery attacks and patrols looked for unprotected, exposed or weak points. These soon ceased to exist, however, as defenses were improved or made in depth. In winter the basic strategy became survival, a mighty undertaking for large groups of men in these high mountains, from the first deep snowstorms in September until the last blizzards of heavy snow in May. The few flat spots along the front at Forcella Seruta became fields of barbed wire entanglements. Reconnaissance however, over deadly crevasse fields, up overhanging bergschrund [ice cliff] and across open snowfields, was necessary for the commanders' strategy and reports.

The next "season" of war saw the Alpini and troops of the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment capture Serauta Peak 3035m., on 30th of April, 1916. Here the trenches were less than 100 meters apart. Costabella was retaken by the 1st Kaiserjager Regiment and not recaptured by the Italians until October 5th. Platoon and company sized attacks were limited only by the narrow confines of their vertical couloirs and ridges. Each battle was a microcosm of the Great War with artillery barrage, men going "over the top" into machinegun and rifle fire with the outcome was often decided with grenade, bayonet and war club. As each side vied for the best opportunity to attack, reinforcements were brought in, two regiments of Italian regular infantry, the 51st and 52nd of the Alpi Brigade. The Austrians brought up batteries of the deadly Skoda 305mm mortars, as well as the elite Third Regiment of the Bavarian Alpenkorps to supplement the Standesschutzen militiamen and Landeschutzen reservists who had been holding the line. In addition, a thousand Russian POWs who were "accustomed to cold snowy places," were used by the Austrians in transportation and rear-area duties. Marmolada did not witness huge battle or the hoped for breakout, despite the buildup of so many mountain troops and artillery. Most were shifted to offensives on the Tofane Group, Tre Cime, Col di Lana and greater more critical situations on the Altipiano's Strafexpedtion in 1916, Ortigara in 1917 or the Isonzo River Front or the endless battles in Russia.

While Austro-Hungarian forces controlled the massif's central ridge, the Punta Penia [3342 m.] summit and the cliffs below it, as well as the great the northern glacier, the Italians controlled, or one might say "clung" to the southeast and southwestern cliffs. The Italian lines were characterized by the standards of mountain warfare emplacements, trenches built upward of sandbag and wire baskets, rock tunnels to fighting positions and barracks on the "leeward" [to shells, not wind] side of cliff and ridge. The cliffs were also steep enough not to accumulate snow and the resulting avalanche danger

Cross Section of the Ice City

Sloped Sector of N. Glacier

Snow Tunnel

Alpini Route of Sept. 1917

View of Marmolada Behind Crosses on Col di Lana, 1917

It was beneath the surface of the great glacier that a "city of ice", unseen and untouchable by Italian artillery or gunfire, was constructed. Designed by Lieutenant Leo Handl of the Kaiserjager, a labyrinth of tunnels connected five clusters of buildings or "cities." [see map] Each outpost was composed of barracks, electric generators, supply depots, first aid stations and kitchens. Some of these buildings were beneath 60 meters of glacial ice. Cable cars brought soldiers and supplies to the last safe [from fire] ridge, whom then went beneath the glacier. Ice tunnels led to those bored through rock. From rock ridge and cliff poked the snouts of machinegun and cannon, with their hidden ports and interlocking fields of fire.

These sub-glacial barracks and fortification with their men however, were not immune to the deadliest natural danger- the avalanche. Engineers and troops familiar with the high mountains went out of their way to build away from couloirs and snowfields prone to icefall and avalanches, but the winter of 1916/17 had the greatest snowfall ever recorded in the Dolomites. Over ten meters of snow fell that terrible winter, including four meters in one 48-hour period in December of 1916. Almost daily, men on both sides were lost to "the white death," but it was the Austrian barrack complex at Gran Poz that suffered the worst loss of life due to avalanches, despite being beneath the glacier ice. Whether it was simply the great accumulation of snow or the snow's extra weight causing the new snow and glacier ice [very rare] to break loose. In what is called a "base avalanche," a quarter million tons of ice and snow buried about 500 men. These slides were not of soft snow smothering their victims. Ice boulders mixed with snow [set up as hard as concrete] moving in excess of 200 kilometers per hour, shattered fragile human bodies. Traumatic blows, not suffocation or cold causes most casualties. Only 40 corpses of the 300 who perished were ever recovered. In the ensuing days after the great storm, an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 soldiers perished in avalanches across this mountainous front, especially in the densely occupied Dolomites. "In season" avalanches took away work parties and transport columns, armed patrols and remote observation posts. They simply disappeared, never to return, often swept into icy black crevasses or off cliffs. Their remains are still being found.

The last full scale battle on Marmolada was during the last week of September, 1917 when Alpini units, a battalion of the 3rd Bersaglieri and a regiment of regular infantry [Alpi Brigade] captured Point 3259 also known as Marmolada d'Ombretta. The most spectacular move in this attack was by Alpini the 206th company, with their climb up the point's vertical southern face. It is the stuff legends are made of. Most of the Austrian front lines had been flanked and were exposed to the enormous 240mm mortars the Italians had hauled up. The victory was short lived, as in early November of 1917, the Italians abandoned their hard won gains and positions on Marmolada without a shot, during the great retreat after Caporetto. Total losses by both sides in two years of fighting on and around the Marmolada amounted to over 9,000 dead- one third killed in action, another third dying in avalanches and the remainder of cold and cold related injuries. Most of them remain entombed in the mountain's rock and ice.

Today Marmolada is known for its year round glacier skiing, rock climbing, and natural beauty that extends outward to the deep green valleys. In summer hang gliders soar off the massifs abrupt cliffs. Enormous cable cars carry visitors to Marmolada di Rocca and Serauta. Global warming has made the glaciers of Marmolada and the Alps recede, revealing the debris and artifacts of battle. In 1990 the remains of 16 Italian soldiers were discovered in an ice cave where they had been interred beside a first aid station, after dying of wounds. Near the summit is one of Europe's finest, if not unique, military museums. The visitor can study the region's role in la Grande Guerra: the weapons, as well as the uniforms and equipment of both sides. Looking out the windows or standing on one of the observation decks stunningly reveals the alpine aspect of the battlefield. Hiking to the various summits and outposts only adds to the experience and understanding of this centerpiece of the Italian or Alpine Front- Marmolada.

Sources and Thanks: Regular contributor Richard Galli of Bozeman, Montana wrote this article. The images were contributed by the author.

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