Italy’s Melting Glaciers Reveal Preserved Bodies of WWI Soldiers
In one of the strangest consequences of global warming yet, glaciers far north in the Italian Alps are slowly melting to reveal the frozen corpses of soldiers killed during World War I.
So how did the ice-preserved bodies get to the small Alpine village of Peio? They were casualties of an obscure part of WWI known as The White War.
In Peio, you feel the war never quite ended. And in one very real sense, it lives on, thanks to the preserving properties of ice. Peio was once the highest village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had a ringside seat to a little-known but spectacular episode of that conflict called the White War.
In 1914, both Trentino, the province in which Peio lies, and the neighboring South Tyrol were Hapsburg domains. Italy, recently unified and eager to settle her frontiers permanently, looked on the two provinces, along with Trieste, as “unredeemed lands.” In May 1915, with the aim of reclaiming them, Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies. Conflict was already raging on the western and eastern fronts and now a third front opened up. It stretched from the Julian Alps, which Italy now shares with Slovenia in the east, to the Ortler Massif near the Swiss border further west, some 250 miles.
As much of the front was at altitudes of over 6,500 feet, a new kind of war had to be developed. The Italians already had specialist mountain troops – the Alpini with their famous feathered caps – but the Austrians had to create the equivalent – the Kaiserschützen. They constructed an entire infrastructure of war at the high altitude, including trenches carved out of the ice and cableways for transporting men and ammunition to the peaks.
Though the war in itself was disastrous, the effects of guns and bombings on White War soldiers were dwarfed by the effects of Mother Nature. For both sides, the worst enemy was the weather, which killed more men than the fighting. At those altitudes, the temperature could fall to -30c, and the “white death” — death by avalanche — claimed thousands of lives.
In the decades that followed the end of the Great War, the world warmed up and the glaciers began to retreat, revealing the debris of the White War. The material that, beginning in the 1990s, began to flood out of the mountains was remarkably well preserved. It included a love letter addressed to Maria and never sent, and an ode to a louse, “friend of my long days,” scribbled on a page of a soldier’s diary.
The bodies were often mummified. The two soldiers, who were disinterred last September were Austrians, ages 17 and 18 who died on the Presena Glacier and were buried by their comrades in a crevasse. More than 80 soldiers who fell in the White War have come to light in recent decades.
The cold has kept the bodies perfectly intact, like frozen mummies. Bare bones are wrapped in the tattered remains of uniforms, gruesome reminders of now-distant violence. In one terrifying photo, three soldiers, skulls exposed to the elements, are tangled in the ice. The trio is now buried in the Peio cemetery.
Archaeologists continue to explore the Alpine battlegrounds, uncovering man-made caves and artifacts like engines and guns. With each new find they discover a new piece to the puzzle and fill in the blanks of a history that is literally frozen in time.