Assistant Professor Vanda Wilcox examines mountain warfare in World War One, experienced by 80% of the Italian Front, where the harsh weather and uneven terrain made warfare extremely challenging.
The conventional idea of a First World War battlefield immediately brings to mind an endless flat waterlogged landscape criss-crossed with muddy trenches. But for many soldiers, the battlefield looked quite different: they faced not only enemy troops but also the daunting challenges of mountain warfare, dealing with high altitude, rocky slopes, snow, ice and even avalanches. In Galicia (on the border of modern day Poland and Ukraine), millions of Russian and Austro-Hungarian men fought in the Carpathian Mountains, while Russian forces were also engaged in mountain warfare against the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus. But perhaps the best known mountain theatre in the First World War was in Italy, where from May 1915 until November 1918 Italy fought Austria-Hungary in the high Alps and Dolomites. Around 80% of the Italian Front ran through mountainous terrain, where the nature of combat was very different from that experienced in other landscapes.
New infrastructure at 2000m
The Alpine landscape was incredibly challenging: mountain peaks in the combat zone were up to 2000m above sea level, with some slopes of up to 80° steepness. Fast-flowing rivers ran through glacial troughs and there were minimal road and rail connections to the area. In order to make the landscape more suitable for warfare, intensive road-building programmes took place; both armies also had to build bridges across mountain ravines, and to construct forts, barracks and huts to serve as accommodation, as well as digging trenches (where possible) or using high explosive to create networks of underground caves and tunnels for protection, accommodation and storage. The Italians used cable cars and mules to transport food and munitions up to the mountain-top front lines – and to take the wounded back down to the plains, where hospitals were situated.
Fighting in sub-zero temperatures
Temperatures remained below freezing for at least four months of each year and snow was a constant presence in winter, with improvised ‘snow trenches’ being used for defence. Both armies trained specialist ski units as well as equipping soldiers with ice-picks, ropes, snow suits, cold weather clothing and goggles for use on glaciers. Cold and frostbite were real problems for all men in the high Alps, especially when it came to treating the wounded, who suffered terribly from the extreme conditions. ‘Dear Brother,’ wrote an Italian infantryman in April 1916,
let me tell you that it’s nearly two months now that I have been here in the front line and we suffer so I can hardly tell you, I’m in the high Cadore if you could see the snow there is still some 8 meters of snow but now the days are beginning to improve a little we have to advance… who knows how many poor Italians will have to die because they have this passion to slaughter us like sheep.
Unsurprisingly, combat was very difficult under these circumstances. Artillery could not accurately identify enemy targets due to the uneven terrain, and without effective artillery fire it was extremely difficult to launch a successful attack. Meanwhile infantrymen carrying heavy packs and weapons struggled to attack up steep slopes, since defending troops held the high ground wherever possible, placing the assailants in the face of enemy fire. Units quickly became separated as they scrambled over rough terrain, while the impact of shells exploding on the rocky surface often led to landslides and falling stones, which had devastating effects.
Specialist mountain troops
Both the Italian and the Austro-Hungarian armies had dedicated mountain troops, the Alpini and the Gebirgstruppe respectively; these expert units had special training and equipment to prepare them for service in the mountains. They were renowned for their courage and skill, fighting fiercely under the most challenging circumstances. But there were not enough of these specialists, and it would have been impossible to limit mountain operations to these troops alone. Instead the vast majority of men in both armies would have served in mountainous terrain at some stage in the war, including many – such as soldiers from southern Italy or Sicily – who had no experience of such extreme temperatures.
Brutal mountain conditions
On the Alpine front First World War soldiers endured all the strain and terror of combat with the added challenge of brutal mountain conditions. Unique solutions to the problems of fighting in the Alps were developed to try to tackle these conditions, but with only limited success. For the millions of men who served in the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies, it was mountain warfare above all else which would come to symbolise the horrors of the First World War.
 To brother in Pittsburgh, unsigned, 2 April 1916. Giovanna Procacci, Soldati e prigionieri italiani nella Grande Guerra, (Milan: Bollati Bollinghieri, 2000) p.424. Author’s translation.