"And the Alpino on the Adamello / Between the snow and glaciers
And as he goes with tranquil heart / An avalanche can fall"
(And the Alpin on Castellaccio - song of the First World War)
Italy experienced the first winter of the war between 1915 and 1916. The Italian front presented distinctive features both compared to the trenches of the western front, and to the vast plains of the eastern front. With the exception of the Isonzo front, where the bloodiest battles took place, the Italian frontline was almost entirely made up of mountains. Along the Alps the death toll was slow but steady, equally tragic, and caused more by the environment than by man.
This “White War” took place in the high mountains, in extreme weather and environmental conditions, where this insidious enemy, white death from exposure, interfered in the dispute between the two armies.
On the eve of the conflict, military strategists agreed that, in case of war, the mountains would remain a “no man's land”. Few could even have imagined that important battles of strategic importance could take place in the midst of inaccessible peaks, high-altitude mountain passes and rocky ridges. The few attempts by daring climbers, before the war, to prove that even a frontier of rock could be conquered, turned out to be little more than mountaineering feats, of no strategic importance.
Nevertheless, the outbreak of war created a frontline in the mountains. The front stretched from the Stelvio Pass and, crossing the western Alps, descended along the Adige Valley touching the Pre-Alps before climbing back along the Dolomites, the Comelico area and the Carnic Alps. It was a front as broad as it was stationary, with the most important operations taking place around the Ortles, Adamello and Marmolada mountains.
For many reasons, the White War was a special and unique case in the context of the different fronts of the Great War. The climate and geographical conditions did not allow for the massive battles of the Western Front or the shorter Isonzo front. Mostly, mountain warfare came down to a battle based on equipment, above all artilleries and mines, which aimed to exhaust enemy defences and to allow unlikely breaches in limited areas of the front. Assiduous fighting was needed to conquer a peak, or a strategic position. These clashes left an indelible mark on the territory, as demonstrated by the wounds still visible on the Col di Lana or Lagazuoi, where the war using mines permanently disfigured the mountains.
One of the most interesting aspects, however, regarded the men who fought on these inaccessible fronts. The Italians deployed the Alpini, the new troops specialized in mountain warfare. Across the front, the Austrians relied on the Kaiserjäger and Landsturm. These were recruited by conscription in limited territorial areas. Their distinguishing feature, however, was that almost all came from the same regions in which they fought. The idea, on both sides, was to deploy people with local knowledge of the area and the mountains in the hope of a tactical advantage. From a symbolic point of view, the citizens enlisted in mountain warfare were mostly people who were fighting not only to defend their country but also to protect their homes and families, because many of them came from the same areas of the front.
The White War pushed soldiers to the limit. Mountain troops were forced to dig trenches and shelters in the rock, climb mountains carrying munitions and artillery pieces, fight between rocks and glaciers, often with inadequate equipment. At altitudes of over 2-3000 meters, with temperatures freezing even in summer and which could reach 30 degrees below zero in winter, the most insidious enemies were exposure and avalanches, which led to incessant extra work freeing trenches and claimed victims among the patrols keeping watch in the mountains.
Animals played a key role in the mountain environment. The Alpini sometimes used horses, but mainly mules, to transport equipment to high altitudes. On the most difficult terrain and at higher altitudes, dogs were preferred due to their greater strength.
The diaries and writing of the soldiers, along with the memories handed down in their songs, reflect the deep contradictions of the mountain frontline. A cruel and dangerous front, where the environment claimed more victims than the war, and where the beautiful views of the panoramas and landscapes were only a small consolation.