No battle defines Italy's struggle in la Grande Guerra better than Monte Grappa. Not only is it a tactical, political and morale watershed for the Italian military and people, the combat on the Grappa massif was also one of the greatest, unsung battles of World War One. The preliminary phase of what finished at Monte Grappa, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or Caporetto, usually involves a paragraph in average history texts but the incredible conclusion, Italy's vindication if not survival, does not seem to fit in with the commonly told story. It is not history alone however, that tells the greatest story of Monte Grappa. The physical reality of this great mountain, viewed from the plains below or atop the summit, intensifies the story of the Italian Army's desperate courage and last stand in late 1917 and how incredibly close the combined Austrian and German armies came to total victory. The tomb of 25,000 Italian and Austrian warriors on its very summit bear mute witness to the armed struggle atop Monte Grappa -- often called "Italy's Thermopylae."

During the War Mte Grappa in Distance

The Grappa massif is an enormous group of connecting ridges and lesser peaks culminating with Monte Grappa, at 1776 meters/5825 feet, not high by alpine standards. Geographically this range is described as only "pre-Alps." But when viewed from the Venetian Plains only a few kilometers from its summit, it is a towering centerpiece of a mountain front that heralds endless mountain ranges beyond. For three years [1915 to 1918] it was on these peaks that warfare raged between the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. Poetically speaking, it could be said that only a peak the stature of Monte Grappa is suitable to separate the rivers Brenta and Piave, or the rugged Altipiano [Trentino Plateau] from the Dolomiti Mountains. The strategic position of Monte Grappa did not go unnoticed by either side. The Italians built a later-day fort north of the summit, a formidable labyrinth of cannon and machinegun positions dug into solid rock -- enhanced by lessons learnt from their French brethren at Verdun. In 1917 and 1918 the Austrians and Germans saw the capture of Grappa as the crux to flanking the entire Italian Piave River defensive line and victory. The Italian forces would be cut in half, if not completely cut off from retreat. Nature has made this massif a natural fortress of barren and windswept slopes interspersed with steep rock faces. It has none of the rich soils of the plains below or the deep forests and wide meadows of the Altipiano. On Monte Grappa the many deep ravines are dangerous year round -- in summer with rock fall and rushing torrents of streams or choked with deep snow and avalanche in winter. A peacetime existence on this mountain is marginal. In war it is hell. What unfolded on Monte Grappa was not one but three crucial battles in the year following Caporetto. They are described as La battaglia d'arresto in November and December of 1917; La battaglia del Solstizo starting 15 June 1918; and La battaglia conclusiva or Vittorio Veneto starting 24 October 1918.

The 14th to 17th of December 1917 witnessed the supreme attack of the German Alpenkorps -- to take the central Valle de Mure and control the summit of Monte Grappa. The Italian Ravenna, Umbria and Campania regiments, as well as several Alpini battalions and their manpacked light artillery pieces did battle with three German Jager regiments and their famed mountain brigade. The Italian defenses were finally wearing the Austro-German onslaught down. On the 23rd of December Italy's greatest ally, winter, arrived one month late. Warfare in deep snow cost the attacking Germans dearly. In the Wurttemberg Mountain Brigade, many companies, including that of First Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, were reduced to twenty-five men. On the 28th of December, Monte Asolone and Col della Beretta were recaptured by the troops of Abruzzi Brigade and Alpini of the Monte Rosa, Susa and Pinerolo Battalions. The end of combat on Monte Grappa, and the conclusion of this "arresting" battle, was the recapture of Monte Tomba on the 30th of December by the French 47th division of Chasseurs Alpins. In half an hour over 500 Austrians were killed, with three times as many captured. The Allied dead numbered 47 French and 4 Italians. German and Austrian forces now retreated to the immediate ridgelines north of Asolone, Pertica and Tomba for the duration of the winter.

Atop Mte Grappa Today

More about the battles on Mte. Grappa can be read at Richard Galli's forthcoming article: Mte. Grappa: Italy's Thermopylae. article

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