A century ago, the first cold war was fought during World War I. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet with temperatures as low as -22°F in the Guerra Bianca or White War, named for its wintry theater. Never before had battles been waged on such towering peaks or in such frigid conditions.
Now, a century later, retreating glaciers and ice are revealing the buried past, as relics and corpses are melting, finally free from their icy tombs. Italy, emboldened by a rising nationalist fervor, wanted to annex several regions, particularly those inhabited by Italians held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Troops fought and died all along the frontier, from Trentino to the Adriatic, for the next three years. Perhaps most remarkable, though, was the White War, a series of impossible and ultimately futile blitzes, incursions and engineering coups.
Working in brutal conditions, the Italian forces and the troops they opposed, leveled peaks, opened roads, dug tunnels, built cableways, laid telephone lines and transported tons of material to lofty heights, all for the purpose of engaging in combat. Along with fighting and building in such astounding altitudes came the requirements to feed and encamp thousands of soldiers. Entire villages of shacks were built, though officers generally lived in old mountain refuges. On Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites, an entire “ice city,” a complex of tunnels, dormitories and storerooms was dug out of the bowels of the glacier. Even so, they could do only so much against the unforgiving elements.
In war diary accounts of the period, the same stories are told – that of terrible hardship caused by the lack of sleep, the torments of cold and the massive snowfalls. In these remarkably hard conditions, the enemy took second place to the true adversary, which was Mother Nature herself. About one-third of the 150,000 men who died on the Alpine front were victims of battle. The rest were killed by avalanches, landslides, frostbite and illnesses caused by the extreme cold.
Some of the most critical fighting took place on the 11,051-foot-high Corno di Cavento, in the province of Trento. Its eastern slopes rise gently along the Vedretta di Lares glacier. To the west, the mountain face plummets straight down to the valley. After the first offensive of the Alpini, in April of 1916, the Italian mountain-warfare military corps, Corno di Cavento, became the front line of the Austrian defense.
One hundred years ago, in late January, 1917, the troops began to construct what would later be called “The Ice City.” Hundreds of men, including Russian prisoners of war, blasted, dug and tunneled their way to the summit. On June 15, 1917, about 1,500 Alpinis, called ‘Tigers’ by the Austrians, attacked Corno di Cavento from three sides, routing much of defending garrison.
In June 1918, the Austro-Hungarians, emerging from a tunnel they had dug through the glacier, took back Corno di Cavento. But later that month the Italians returned in force and recaptured 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 on November 4, 1918, after which thousands of soldiers returned home.
After the troops departed, the glaciers were deserted once again. The only people who ventured there were salvagers, men who hiked up to collect leftover war materials, mostly metal, to resell by the pound. The artifacts found by salvagers are now found in several small museums and the memory of the war continues to be a powerful draw for hikers and history enthusiasts. Luckily, Corno di Cavento holds almost perfectly preserved vestiges of emplacements, communication trenches, barbed-wire fences, embrasures and shacks. Thanks to climate change, relics from the war are continuing to re-emerge. The glacier is on the move, retreating as it melts. Fifteen years ago, climbers who ventured up Corno di Cavento discovered that it was becoming possible to access the battle front once again.
A number of years ago, work began on opening the tunnel that had been dug during the war. Workers excavated a tunnel in the ice 203 feet long, 16 feet wide and 10 feet tall, big enough to house 40 soldiers. It was in precisely the same state it had been in 1918. Straw bunk beds, a storeroom, a small office with a desk, a large metal stove, even a stack of wood to heat the space, were still there. Today the space can be visited by hikers capable of making the climb up the mountain. Corno di Cavento is only one of the hundreds of sites being readied for the World War I anniversary. As the world continues to warm, more relics of ‘the war to end all wars’ may soon come to light.