The White War : WW1 “Greetings from Cercen Pass. It is storming and snow covers the highest peaks. We wait for peace, but the bad weather, the high altitudes … Peace can only come with our death.” – May 28th, 1916 diary of an Italian soldier stationed in the mountainous Italian Trentino region.
The White War : WW1
During WWI, men brought modern technology up the highest mountains for the first time in history. They built roads, cableways, telephone and electric lines, and accommodations for thousands of troops – much of which was carried by hand.
In war diaries and other accounts of soldiers from both sides, “We find the same stories of the terrible hardship caused by the lack of sleep, the torments, and the massive snowfalls,” says Stefano Morosini, an acclaimed writer on the history of Italian mountaineering.
Marco Balbi, founder and president of the White War Historical Society, says that only about one-third of the 150,000 men who died on the Alpine front were victims of battle. Avalanches killed the remainder of the soldiers. In addition to landslides and frostbite. Furthermore, a variety of illnesses finished off what soldiers survived all of the other hardships.
“Cavento! Tower of loyalty frozen in deep ice. Around you burn the wildfires of the proud enemy. High up you rise, Corno di Cavento, a warning cry to the cowardly!”
An entry in a diary written on April 3rd, 1917, by an Austro-Hungarian Lieutenant named Felix Hecht von Eleda.
Moreover, some of the most critical fightings took place on the over 11,000-foot-high mountain, Corno di Cavento.
In addition, the mountain’s eastern slopes buttress the Vedretta di Lares glacier. To the west, the mountain face has a fairly steep drop into the valley.
After the first offensive of the Alpini—the Italian mountain-warfare military corps—in April 1916, Corno di Cavento became the front line of the Austrian defense.
In February of 1917, Viennese Kaiserjäger Lieutenant Felix Hecht von Eleda took command of the garrison. Hecht sought to reinforce the defenses and bring in heavy artillery. Moreover, he wanted “diggers” from the Austro-Hungarian Corps of Engineers assisted by Russian prisoners to blow through the mountain’s thickest rocks with various explosives and dig a tunnel into the summit of the mountain.
In addition, in typical WW1 fashion, snowfall would destroy weeks of work, with Russian prisoners escaping, Austro-Hungarian soldiers succumbing to the cold, or workers being injured by mines. Furthermore, with temperatures hovering well below zero, nocturnal reconnaissance missions were both an adventure and torture.
Adding to the tension was the anticipation of combat with the “Tigers,” as the Austro-Hungarians called the Alpini. Hecht writes that as blasts of enemy artillery startled him, he could sometimes make out their white uniforms against the snow.
Furthermore, on June 15, 1917, about 1,500 Alpinis attacked Corno di Cavento from three sides, routing much of Hecht’s garrison. The lieutenant was killed as he emerged from the relative safety of the gallery. Moreover, he was trying to prevent soldiers from fleeing.
One of the attackers—Italian Captain Fabrizio Battanta, known as the “Cavento Bandit”—found Hecht’s diary and took it with him. (Hecht’s special shorthand was deciphered, translated, and published years later. Today, the original is kept in a museum in Spiazzo.) Hecht’s body, most likely thrown into a crevasse, has never been found.
Soldiers drilled holes into the ice to place explosives to begin the massive task of digging a tunnel under enemy lines. In the Dolomites, the Austrian Corps of Engineers dug an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms—out of the glacier.
In June of 1918, the Austro-Hungarians, emerging from a tunnel they’d dug through the glacier, were able to take back Corno di Cavento.
But later that month, the Italians returned in force and managed to recapture the summit. This time they held it until the end of the war. The last garrison of Alpini left Corno di Cavento a few weeks after the Armistice of Villa Gusti took effect November 4, after which thousands of soldiers returned home.
In conclusion, the only people who ventured there were “salvagers”—men who would hike up the mountain to collect leftover war souvenirs, or valuable metals to resell in local markets. Lastly, the valuable items left include copper, brass, and lead inside large, sometimes unexploded bombs.
Written by Jonathan Wang
Edited by Alexandra Donovan, Jimei Shen, Luca Vernhes, Jay Devon, Jack Argiro & Andrew Fu