We are halfway through a story that is about to turn winter in one of the most beautiful places in the world profoundly ugly.
Just like in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, we have a cast of millions, we have epic scenery, and we have made acquaintance with someone who will go on to perform a heroic act.
Unlike your typical Hollywood production, however, this movie is not going to have a happy ending—in fact, you could make the argument that it’s not over yet.
So wrap yourself up in something comfortable, grab something to drink…and when you’re ready, we’re packing up and heading to the Alps.
So for those of you just coming to the story, here’s where we’re at:
There has been, for as long as anyone can remember, some degree of “friendliness balanced with hostility” in the relationship between the Austrians, Italians, and Ladins who have been living in the Tyrol, a region of the Alps just to the east of Switzerland.
In the 1800s, a variety of national unification movements emerged, leaving Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany in possession of various parts of the Tyrol.
For those unfamiliar with the geography, the Alps would represent a bit of trim extending all the way across the top of Italy’s “boot”; if the boot had a buckle, it would be where the Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and German borders come together in the center of the Alps.
As WWI approached, there was some question as to whether Italy would join the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) or the Triple Entente (Russia, France, Britain, and eventually, the United States).
Italy broke its neutrality by signing the Treaty of London and attacking Austrian and other Central Powers forces along a 450-long offensive line stretching from Lake Garda to not quite Trieste.
In May of 1915 the Italians had 875,000 troops trying to mount an attack uphill, the goal being to emerge near Zagreb, Croatia (and cover their backsides at the same time, thus the attack on the Lake Garda region), so they could wheel north and attack into Austrian territory while simultaneously moving south along the Adriatic coast; the Austrians were defending from the peaks with roughly 300,000 troops.
Among those troops were units specially trained in mountain combat; those units recruiting from the mountain guides and hunters who lived in the mountain regions. The Austrians had in their command a legendary mountain guide-turned-hotelier named Sepp Innerkofler, who had more than 50 “first ascents” on some of the world’s toughest peaks under his belt.
For those with a memory of history, Hannibal did the same thing on a much narrower offensive front, 2200 years ago, starting from roughly Nice, France and ending up between Turin and Milan, in what is today Northern Italy–a feat he performed at great cost to his own forces.
And now, you’re caught up.
“Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins … The cannon roars. The earth smokes … Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory … The slaughter begins, the destruction begins … All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow … We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.”
— Gabriele D’Annunzio, April 25th, 1915
The first four of the twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought, along that long front, between May and December of 1915. The main tactic, on both sides, was to use artillery as a way of “softening up” the opposition, after which somebody would have to run up a hill, under fire, in an attempt to dislodge someone else from their well dug-in position (which explains why controlling the high ground is so vitally important).
“The men rest for a few hours, trying to dry out. At noon, they form a line, dropping to one knee while the officers stand with sabres drawn. The regimental colours flutter freely. Silence. Then a trumpet sounds, the men bellow ‘Savoy!’[the name of the royal house] as from one throat, the band strikes up the Royal March. Carrying knapsacks that weigh 35 kilograms, the men attack up the steep slope, in the teeth of accurate fire from positions that the Italians cannot see. An officer brandishing his sabre in his right hand has to use his left hand to stop the scabbard from tripping him up. The men are too heavily laden to move quickly. Renato remembered the scene as a vision of the end of an era: ‘In a whirl of death and glory, within a few moments, the epic Garibaldian style of warfare is crushed and consigned to the shadows of history!’ The regimental music turns discordant, then fades. The officers are bowled down by machine-gun fire while the men crawl for cover on hands and knees. The battle is lost before it begins. The Italians present such a magnificent target, they are bound to fail. A second attack, a few hours later, is aborted when the bombardment falls short, hitting their own line. The afternoon peters out in another rainstorm.”
— Renato di Stolfo, describing his view of the First Battle of the Isonzo
As the Italians attacked the Austrians were basically engaged in a slow retreat into the highest mountain redoubts, destroying the rail and road infrastructure as they went.
Among the unbelievable tales of combat from those first engagements is this account of how bulls were used as a tool of assault:
“…Realizing that Korada must be captured, if at all, by dash and surprise, the Italian brigadier in charge of the attack gathered a herd of fierce bulls, which are numerous in that part of Venetia, and penned them in a hollow out of sight of the enemy, while his artillery began to bombard the hostile trenches. When the animals were wrought to a frenzy of rage and fear by the noise of the guns, they were let loose and driven up the mountain against the Austrian positions. Their charge broke through many strands of the wire entanglements, and before the last of them fell dead under the Austrian rifle fire, Italian troops with fixed bayonets had crowded through the gaps in the wires and captured the position…”
By the time the fourth battle was over the Austrian commanders’ extremely effective defense not only had the Italians stopped cold—literally—but even worse, the few miles gained in those seven months had already cost the Italians 250,000 dead or wounded soldiers.
The Austrians were losing soldiers as well—including Sepp Innerkofler.
“…We start the descent at 12 and 13.50 are the Alpe di Andert. Lieutenant Gruber goes back to his position as we head towards the Kulewaldplatz, where our 6 men, they start hunting with deer starting from the so-called Bastrich. I look forward to the post until the end of the broad valley. 5 are found deer and fox-1, I will see two but failed to hit them. He fired a total of 8 shots, but unfortunately it is the prey of a single chapter. And so, as two hours and a half ago we were engaged in a manhunt, now we are dedicated to our unique pleasure to that of the deer!…”
–From Sepp Innerkofler’s diary entry, July 3rd, 1915
July 4th, however, was a bit of a different story.
Innerkofler and five members of his “flying squad”, all top climbers, were ordered to dislodge a group of Italian mountainsoldiers (Alpini) from a mountain peak. To make this happen Innerkofler’s team was required to perform a vertical ascent upon the Monte Paterno—an ascent that was actually among his resume of Alpine “first climbs”; a feat he had achieved 19 years earlier and many, many, times since.
The climb was completed by sunrise, and with the sun at their backs the Austrians began to attack with grenades and small arms and the thud of their own artillery sending shells just overhead into the Italian position. Austrian and Italian machine gun emplacements were trading fire across the ridges at each other.
With four of the Battles of the Isonzo down, there were still eight to go.
The next May, after an exceptionally bitter winter and spring and with more equipment, the Italians were preparing to attack, again, from north of Milan to up above Lake Garda—but the Austrians had two Armies in the mountains, who were able to drive the Italians back into their own northern plain, stopping the Fifth Battle before it ever got started.
It’s reported that the Austrians had to fall back from that newly acquired land partly because of problems running a logistics operation through the mountains…and also partly because the Russians mounted an offensive to the Austrians’ east. The cost to the Italians was substantial, however, as they were forced to commit 500,000 troops to the defense of the Lake Garda region.
In this environment, the Italians and Austrians were not limited to the use of traditional means of killing each other—in fact, rockslides and avalanches were becoming weapons of mass destruction, as this description of an action at the Col di Lana in April of 1916 indicates:
“…so the entire western margin of Col di Lana was carefully and patiently mined, an undertaking which probably took months of hard work, and several tons of high explosives were distributed in such a way as to destroy the whole side of the mountain above which the enemy was in- trenched.
The explosion that followed was terrific. The earth shook as if rocked by an earthquake, and the havoc wrought was so great that out of the 1,000 Austrians who held the position, only 164 survived.”
Just a few months later, on just one day (December 13th, a day which became known as “White Friday”) 10,000 soldiers are said to have died in avalanches; the problem being so serious that both sides had detachments of soldiers assigned specifically to the avalanche rescue mission.
This went on for months and months and months, with neither side really accomplishing anything in terms of territory gained. The Italians, however, were growing their Army, both in size and in the amount of materiel they could put in the field, until October of 1917, when either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Battle of Caporetto took place (pick your favorite name; various sources use both).
The Austrians, coming down from the buckle of our boot, mounted an attack that was so successful that the Italian 2nd Army collapsed in disorganized confusion to the south, suffering severe levels of casualties; the better organized 3rd and 4th Armies seem to have lost about 20% of their forces “coming to the rescue”.
While the Italian Army under General Cadorna had begun the battle with 1,250,000 troops, in two weeks he lost roughly 320,000 of them to death or capture, along with most of his Army’s artillery—and his own job. An additional 350,000 soldiers were reportedly wandering the countryside, for the moment unattached to any military organization.
400,000 people became refugees in those two weeks.
Eventually the Austrians had to retreat back into their own territory; some of the reason for that being related to the same problems the Italians were having maintaining supply lines through mountains, some of the reason for that being that the Austrians were losing on other fronts.
This was not the end of the fighting along the Italian-Austrian frontier, nor the end of the ethnic conflict that has peppered the region’s history, but you get the idea: no one ever really won any victories that mattered, but thousands upon thousands of people died in the effort, and hundreds of thousands more were wounded—again, all for nothing, really.
“…das Schlagwort vom lebenslangen Lernen für alle – auch für Politiker – gilt…”
(English translation: “…the slogan of lifelong learning for all – even for politicians – applies…”)
—Luis Durnwalder, Governor of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano
Now at some point in this story we have to answer the question of…what is the point of all this?
Folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the moral of this story is that there is no point.
More or less 400,000 soldiers died on both sides, countless more were wounded, and hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, became refugees.
Sepp Innerkofler’s hotel was bombed as he and so many other of his friends, both Austrian and Italian, were killed up in those mountains.
And all of it for nothing.
Italy was not able to advance its national interests at all (in fact, things got much worse), and despite everything that happened back and forth over those years, Austria certainly saw no gains: in fact, thanks to this war, the Hapsburg Dynasty also went the way of “Cats” and the Ottoman Empire…closing, after a long run.
If it was my job to apply all of this to some war that my bosses were fighting…I think I’d be looking at Afghanistan, and I think I’d be looking at the place as a collection of tribal communities, rather than one big country; and I think I’d be telling my bosses that all those talking heads—and just plain folks—who think we should “defeat the Taliban” through some military campaign so that we can come home, having achieved some kind of ultimate victory, need to understand that you will never defeat anything up in the mountains simply be throwing a bunch of people and equipment at the problems.
Instead, you’re going to have to consider whether it’s possible to help the Afghans create something like what is happening in the Tyrol today, where protections for the various tribal and ethnic groups could be laid out in a framework that reassures Pashtuns, Persians, and Turcoman alike that they have a place in a community of interdependent communities.
This has been a long and, at times, rather depressing, look at who we are as people, and I wanted to end on a postscript that is a bit happier…and it all comes back to Sepp Innerkofler.
Despite the fact that his hotel was bombed, and he was killed, the family carried on, as did the strength of his reputation…which is why you can, even to this very day, hike the Sepp Innerkofler Höhenweg (Ridgeway, in English), and why, should you find yourself a bit tired from the hike, you can stay at Sepp’s original Hotel Dolomitenhof, rebuilt since the war, where the legacy also continues, as Innerkofler Katharina recently noted in an email exchange we had:
“…of course we are proud of our grand-grand pa. We´ve a little museum in our hotel, where we show his climbing successes and explain his destiny.”