The Weekly Postcard No. 52

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.

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16 Responses to The Weekly Postcard No. 52

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    Amazing! What a fantastic post! And what an incredible piece of engineering! Absolutely love it! Some stunning photographs too! Truly amazing!

    • Magicfingers says:

      Staggering, is it not. Thanks mate. I have loads of amazing photos of the fighting in the Alps, both above & below ground – I intend giving some talks on aspects of it if anyone will have me – but some I choose not to use on this site for copyright reasons (oops, I mentioned copyright), and a few are maybe too appalling to publish unless I was in a very sombre mood indeed.

  2. Jon T says:

    An astonishing place to have to fight a war ! The ice city is indeed a staggering piece of engineering. I would imagine most people (myself included) know next to nothing about the events of the war in the mountains.

    I suppose its ironic (and fair to say ?) that the war started out with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its Balkan entanglements but the war it fought against its various foes isn’t really that well known in this country where the memories of the war are understandably dominated by events on the western front.

    • Magicfingers says:

      You are right Jon. Even the British presence on the Italian front is hardly talked about over here, wouldn’t you say? But the Alpine War fascinates me and some of the positions they succeeded in constructing up in the high mountains – sheer cliffs with sentry positions seemingly hanging on to nothing, but secretly served by tunnels in the cliff behind, trenches in the rock looking across at enemy trenches on the next outcrop – and I mean trenches, blown in the rock, and of course therefore all still there, and so much more. I will try, maybe, to find a way of telling more Alpine tales in due course.

      • Jon T says:

        Indeed, all that construction work on and within the mountains look like something out of a novel or movie, to think it was achieved for real is genuinely astonishing.

        Am sure one of my Grandfather’s brothers served in Italy for a while but I have no knowledge of where and when. Something I must investigate ! I agree that outside of the Western Front and Gallipoli, Britain’s presence elsewhere during the war – Italy, Salonika, the Middle East (other than Lawrence of course) is barely known or mentioned even amongst those who have a specific interest in the period let alone the public at large.

        • Magicfingers says:

          Yeah, you need to do some research on your Italian connection. And my Grandpa was in Salonika, having been on the Somme earlier in the war.

  3. Margaret Draycott says:

    Wow that is amazing all that information from the postcards. I like the rest had no knowledge of the fighting in the mountains, knowing little or nothing of the Italian involvement again it’s added another aspect of the First World War for me. The ice tunnel is astonishing. I thought the tunnels on the western front were incredible but this is on a whole new level. Enjoyed this if that’s the right word fascinating.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Seemed a good opportunity to tell a tale of one of my interests – the Alpine War. Don’t expect this sort of stuff every Weekly Postcard, although next Sunday’s contains another story – one we can all now relate to……

  4. Pete Jones says:

    By coincidence I am running a photo thread on the Great War Forum for those who are pining for the battlefields in these difficult times. Serious cyclist and Alpinist Tom Issit posted this view of the battlefield as it now is…….

    I hope a) the link works and b) everyone is well.


    • Magicfingers says:

      Cracking photo that! Cracking thread, actually. Thanks Pete.

      • Pete Jones says:

        MF, would I be ok to link to this topic from the Great War Forum thread that I started? With Tom Issit having introduced the area as it is now and mentioned the Eisstadt I thought it would be a good way of illustrating just how remarkable the area is (and how good this site is too). I introduced Verdun to the photo thread and not entirely unsurprisingly it has all gone quiet. No, find your own postcards of the Dolomites in WW1 is a perfectly acceptable answer.


        P.S. I’m conducting a not so wild goose chase for a Monsieur J. Thorpe of Erquinghem-Lys at the moment, our mutual friend will be happy to know that you are posting up a storm even in these trying times.

        • Magicfingers says:

          Be my guest Pete. I have never joined the esteemed brethren of the GWF (you might not have me!) for a single simple reason of practicality. Luckily ‘Bootneck’, or Duncan the Younger as he is known on this site, has been a member for a long time and, er, is my ‘way in’ (should I ever require one). But I’m afraid I too would have been stuck with Verdun. Never visited. So please add the link by all means.
          Last time I saw Jack was last October – do give him my best if you remember. I took some photos at the time in Erquinghem of some potential sites, and, if you are on the same track (I am simply guessing here) as me, you will know what I am on about. If not, well, we shall see in time (he says mysteriously). Thanks as ever!

  5. Pete Jones says:

    Was it the landscaping of the surrounds or my haircut that induced your shock? Or both? Your post on the Caterpillar in the snow was probably the first I came across (that or Erquinghem-Lys Churchyard Extension), I was researching a man called Donald Sloan who spent some time in the trenches below the feature and your photos were and still are a joy. There is something slightly surreal about looking at them as the heat of the day starts to dissipate as the thunderstorms clear into the bay. It’s the opposite of one Christmas week I remember when my central heating broke and I watched Lawrence of Arabia wrapped in a duvet……..

  6. Magicfingers says:

    Ha ha! My hair is currently longer than at any times since my hippie days of the mid-70s!! Pity there’s less of it at the same time! One last long hair hurrah. And I cannot even jibe you on your ‘choice’ (as if you had a choice) of football club. I’m a Palace fan (regular attendee between 1970 & 1974), so we have a bit of history with your noisy neighbours.
    The Caterpillar looks……well, I shall reserve judgement until I see what has been done in person. No one will be taking any photos like mine ever again, by the looks of it. And talking of Lawrence, I went to Aqaba once upon a time – nothing to see, but interesting to be there in Lawrence’s footsteps.

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