We are in the Dolomites this week, courtesy of three postcards that feature Alpine views, the first of which allows me to relate a little known tale of engineering genius.
Luckily for us, Willy Peters, a soldier of the Deutsches Alpenkorps, bothered to annotate the reverse of these cards, and here he has noted that this card shows the Marmolata (or Marmolada), until 1915 the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Marmolada Massif from the south looking north, and note the glacier beyond the main mountain ridge, flowing slowly down to the lake in the centre background. Although some skirmishing occurred in the mountain passes here during the summer of 1915 following Italy’s entry into the war, September in the Dolomites sees the onset of nine months of winter, and it was the spring of 1916 before Italian troops, scaling the south face of the ridge, pushed the Austrians off the south western and south eastern peaks, and managed to consolidate positions, as far as I can work out, approximately where I have marked the red lines on this photograph.
An Austro-Hungarian soldier in an ice tunnel near the top of the nearly 11,000 feet Marmolada gazes up at the inset photo which shows the head of the glacier, with his position somewhere up at the top of the ridge; note the cross on the highest peak of Punta Penia. And although the Austrians retained control of Punta Penia, and thus the southern cliffs beneath, their positions marked in orange on the aerial photo, it was the Italian tenancy of the heights on either side, allowing them to control any movement on the glacier, the only way the Austrians could reach their own positions, that would bring about the creation of Austrian engineer Lieutenant Leo Handl’s masterpiece.
This view looks from north to south, the glacier now directly in front of us, the Austrian & Italian front line positions again marked in orange and red respectively, and it is easy to see here how the Italian positions overlooked the glacier and could thus control any movement on it both by day and, using searchlights, by night. So Handl designed a long tunnel beneath the glacier (lower inset) to enable soldiers to reach the Austrian front line positions in safety, the tunnel emerging behind a ridge hidden from the Italian positions, from where a cable car took soldiers to the positions on the mountain peaks. This single tunnel soon became a vast underground complex (upper inset) which became known as the Ice City and consisted of over seven miles of tunnels and five groups of underground buildings, each with its own barracks, kitchen, hospital, chapel, ammunition & supply stores,…
…latrines – although this one, to be fair, appears somewhat rudimentary – indeed everything the soldiers’ required, with more tunnels (insets below) leading out to the Austrian front line positions (see main picture below), and all safe from snowstorms, all but the heaviest avalanches, and, equally importantly, from below-freezing temperatures, the ambient temperature beneath the glacier staying at around 0° Centigrade.
It really was a staggering achievement, if for no other reason than that there were no templates to consult, no previous ice cities to copy. Nothing like this had ever been considered before, let alone attempted, and despite occasional disasters, the worst of which saw an avalanche containing an estimated quarter of a million tons of ice and snow travelling at 200 m.p.h. break through the surface of the glacier and entomb some 500 Austrians in one of the underground complexes (of the 300 who died, only forty bodies were ever recovered), the Ice City was an astonishing engineering accomplishment, and responsible, one would think, for saving, or extending, the lives of thousands of Austrian soldiers who would otherwise have had to run the gauntlet of Italian guns to reach the mountain positions, and would have had to suffer the elements as well in so doing.
The fighting would continue, both sides enduring the terrible winter of 1916-1917 when thirty feet of snow fell in these mountains, battering away at each other through 1917 until the first winter snows, followed by defeat at Caporetto in November and the subsequent Italian retreat, would bring an end to the war in the Dolomites.
Two years of fighting on and around the Marmolada saw an estimated 9,000 dead of which only a third were killed in action, the rest dying in avalanches or of cold or cold-related injuries or in accidents. Most remain where they fell (inset).
All of which covers Willy’s first card passably well, I think. His other cards are sent later in the war, in the winter of 1916-1917 (note the arrow),…
…and from a different location, it would seem,…
…but I leave it to you to research these two, should you so wish.
One final thing that might interest one or two of you. You will know that there is a Weaponry & Relics category elsewhere on this website, a section of which is devoted to Austro-Hungarian hand grenades. If you’ve ever wondered how you find Austro-Hungarian hand grenades (and Italian ones, too, come to that), well, you need a glacier which is slowly moving, year after year, towards a lake at its bottom, and then you need a diver. Easy, when you know how.