The previous night we had slept near the ossuary, along a country road where cowbells clanged softly and lightning bugs blinked in the darkness like muzzle flashes. Joshua Brandon gazed at the surrounding peaks and took a swig of water. In the spring of , the Austrians swept down through these mountains. Had they reached the Venetian plain, they could have marched on Venice and encircled much of the Italian Army, breaking what had been a bloody yearlong stalemate. But the Italians stopped them here. For the next two hours our trail alternated between heady climbing on rock faces and mellow hiking along the mountain ridge.
By mid-morning the fog and low clouds had cleared, and before us lay the battlefield, its slopes scored with trenches and stone shelters, the summits laced with tunnels where men lived like moles. Both Joshua and I had fought in Iraq, but we had never known war like this. Our path joined the main road, and we hiked through a bucolic scene, blue skies and grassy fields, quiet save for the sheep and the birds. Two young chamois scampered onto a boulder and watched us.
What this had once been strained the imagination: We passed a hillside cemetery framed by a low stone wall and overgrown with tall grass and wildflowers. Most of its occupants had reached the battlefield in July of and died over the following weeks.
They at least had been recovered; hundreds more still rest where they fell, others blown to pieces and never recovered. This article is a selection from the June issue of Smithsonian magazine. On a steep slope not far from here, an archaeologist named Franco Nicolis helped excavate the remains of three Italian soldiers found in They already had their sunglasses, because they were attacking to the east.
This is the official truth. But for them, how did they think about their position? As Joshua, Chris and I walked through the saddle between the Austrian and Italian positions, Chris spotted something odd nestled in the loose rocks. For nearly two decades he has worked as a professional climbing and skiing guide, and years of studying the landscape as he hikes has honed his eye for detail. In previous days he found a machine gun bullet, a steel ball from a mortar shell and a jagged strip of shrapnel.
Now he squatted in the gravel and gently picked up a thin white wedge an inch wide and long as a finger. He cradled it in his palm, unsure what to do with this piece of skull. The Italians came late to the war. An estimated , Italians and , Austrians would die on the Italian Front, many of them in a dozen battles along the Isonzo River in the far northeast. But the front zigzagged miles—nearly as long as the Western Front, in France and Belgium—and much of that crossed rugged mountains, where the fighting was like none the world had ever seen, or has seen since.
Soldiers had long manned alpine frontiers to secure borders or marched through high passes en route to invasion. But never had the mountains themselves been the battlefield, and for fighting at this scale, with fearsome weapons and physical feats that would humble many mountaineers. Alexander Powell wrote in The destruction of World War I overwhelms.
The massive frontal assaults, the anonymous soldier, faceless death—against this backdrop, the mountain war in Italy was a battle of small units, of individuals. In subzero temperatures men dug miles of tunnels and caverns through glacial ice. They strung cableways up mountainsides and stitched rock faces with rope ladders to move soldiers onto the high peaks, then hauled up an arsenal of industrial warfare: And they used the terrain itself as a weapon, rolling boulders to crush attackers and sawing through snow cornices with ropes to trigger avalanches.
After heavy snowfalls in December of , avalanches buried 10, Italian and Austrian troops over just two days. Until recently, that included him as well. Joshua, who is 38, studied history at the Citadel and understands the theory of war, but he also served three tours in Iraq. He wears a beard now, trimmed short and speckled with gray, and his 5-foot-9 frame is wiry, better for hauling himself up steep cliffs and trekking through the wilderness.
In Iraq he had bulked to nearly pounds, thick muscle for sprinting down alleyways, carrying wounded comrades and, on one afternoon, fighting hand-to-hand. But he struggled at home, feeling both alienated from American society and mentally wrung out from combat. In he left the Army as a major and sought solace in the outdoors. He found that rock climbing and mountaineering brought him peace and perspective even as it mimicked the best parts of his military career: Once he understood the skill needed to travel and survive in mountains, he looked at the alpine war in Italy with fresh eyes. How, he wondered, had the Italians and Austrians lived and fought in such unforgiving terrain?
Chris, who is 43, met Joshua four years ago at a rock gym in Washington State, where they both live, and now climb together often. I met Joshua three years ago at an ice-climbing event in Montana and Chris a year later on a climbing trip in the Cascade Mountains. Our shared military experience and love of the mountains led us to explore these remote battlefields, like touring Gettysburg if it sat atop a jagged peak at 10, feet.
The fighting soon devolved into trench warfare in the northeast and alpine combat in the north. Hover over the icons below for information on major battles.
The Most Treacherous Battle of World War I Took Place in the Italian Mountains
If the Italian Front is largely forgotten elsewhere, the war is ever-present across northern Italy, etched into the land. The mountains and valleys are lined with trenches and dotted with stone fortresses. Rusted strands of barbed wire sprout from the earth, crosses built from battlefield detritus rise from mountaintops, and piazza monuments celebrate the heroes and the dead. We had spent weeks before our trip reading histories of the war in Italy and had brought a stack of maps and guidebooks; we knew what had happened and where, but from Nicolis we sought more on who and why.
Nicolis, who is 59, specialized in prehistory until he found World War I artifacts while excavating a Bronze Age smelting site on an alpine plateau a decade ago. Ancient and modern, side by side. By the time he broadened his focus, many World War I sites had been picked over for scrap metal or souvenirs. The scavenging continues—treasure hunters recently used a helicopter to hoist a cannon from a mountaintop—and climate change has hastened the revelation of what remains, including bodies long buried in ice on the highest battlefields.
On the Presena Glacier, Nicolis helped recover the bodies of two Austrian soldiers discovered in They had been buried in a crevasse, but the glacier was feet higher a century ago; as it shrank, the men emerged from the ice, bones inside tattered uniforms. The two skulls, both found amid blond hair, had shrapnel holes, the metal still rattling around inside.
One of the skulls had eyes as well. Please come back soon. And they completely disappeared, as if they never existed. These are what I call the silent witnesses, the missing witnesses. The team of historians, mountaineers and archaeologists restored the site to what it might have been a century ago, a sort of living history for those who make the long journey by cable car and a steep hike. Helmets and crampons, mess kits, hand grenades and pieces of clothing hang in vertical rows of five items, each row set above a pair of empty straw overshoes. The effect was stark and haunting, a soldier deconstructed.
This is a person. Artifacts over empty shoes. The sky threatened rain, and low clouds wrapped us in a chilly haze. I stood with Joshua on a table-size patch of level rock, halfway up a 1,foot face on Tofana di Rozes, an enormous gray massif near the Austrian border. Below us a wide valley stretched to a dozen more steep peaks.
We had been on the wall six hours already, and we had another six to go. As Chris climbed feet overhead, a golf ball-size chunk of rock popped loose and zinged past us with a high-pitched whir like whizzing shrapnel. Joshua and I traded glances and chuckled. The Tofana di Rozes towers over a foot-tall blade of rock called the Castelletto, or Little Castle. In a single platoon of Germans occupied the Castelletto, and with a machine gun they had littered the valley with dead Italians.
So an Italian camp bled to death at the foot of the mountain. But the route—steep, slick with runoff and exposed to enemy fire—was beyond the skill of most. The assignment went to Ugo Vallepiana and Giuseppe Gaspard, two Alpini with a history of daring climbs together.
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Starting in a deep alcove, out of Austrian view, they worked up the Tofana di Rozes, wearing hemp-soled shoes that offered better traction than their hobnailed boots and dampened the sounds of their movements. We were climbing a route not far from theirs, with Chris and Joshua alternating the lead. One would climb up about feet, and along the way slide special cams into cracks and nooks, then clip the protective gear to the rope with a carabiner, a metal loop with a spring-loaded arm.
Soldiers on WWI's Italian Front fought enemies, frostbite and avalanches
In other places, they clipped the rope to a piton, a steel wedge with an open circle at the end pounded into the rock by previous climbers. If they slipped, they might drop 20 feet instead of hundreds, and the climbing rope would stretch to absorb a fall. Vallepiana and Gaspard had none of this specialized equipment. Even the carabiner, a climbing essential invented shortly before the war, was unknown to most soldiers. Instead, Gaspard used a technique that makes my stomach quiver: Each time he hammered in a piton, he untied the rope from around his waist, threaded it through the metal loop, and retied it.
And their hemp ropes could just as easily snap as catch a fall. As we neared the top of our climb, I hoisted myself onto a four-foot lip and passed through a narrow chute to another ledge. Joshua, farther ahead and out of sight, had anchored himself to a rock and pulled in my rope as I moved. Chris was 12 feet behind me, and still on a lower level, exposed from the chest up.
One piece smashed into the wall and stopped, but the other half, maybe pounds and big as a carry-on suitcase, plowed toward Chris. He threw out his hands and stopped the rock with a grunt and a wince. I scrambled down the chute, braced my feet on either side of the rock and held it in place as Chris climbed past me. I let go, and the chunk tumbled down the mountainside. A strong whiff of ozone from the fractured rocks hung in the air. He made a fist and released his fingers. My poorly placed step could have injured or killed him.
But I imagine the two Alpini would have thought our near-miss trivial. On a later climbing mission with Vallepiana, Gaspard was struck by lightning and nearly died. This climb almost killed him, too. As he strained for a handhold at a tricky section, his foot slipped and he plummeted 60 feet—into a small snowbank, remarkable luck in vertical terrain. A sniper shot him in the arm, and Austrian artillery across the valley fired shells into the mountain overhead, showering him and Vallepiana with jagged metal shards and shattered rock.
Then, in what certainly seems an anticlimax today, the guns the Italians hauled up there proved less effective than they had hoped. In a region of magnificent peaks, the Castelletto is not much to behold. The squat trapezoid juts up feet to a line of sharp spires, but is dwarfed by the Tofana di Rozes, which rises an additional 1, feet just behind it. From these tunnels and rooms, which offered excellent protection from artillery fire, their machine gunners cut down anyone who showed himself in this valley.
In the struggle for the Castelletto we found in microcosm the savagery and intimacy, the ingenuity and futility of this alpine fighting. The Italians first tried to climb it. The French garrisons these forces faced were 4,strong, backed by two divisions with sixty tanks behind them. The central column began its descent through the Col des Lacs Giaset shortly after noon on 21 June. As it approached the river Ambin it met strong resistance. The 2nd Battalion coming down the Little Mont Cenis had overcome weak resistance and met the central column.
Some small groups were left behind for mopping up operations while the bulk of the column continued its advance towards Bramans. All the Cagliari battalions coalesced around a chapel outside Bramans, and, after eliminating the French field fortifications with artillery fire, they took the city by the end of the first day. The Italians attempted to flank them from the south, and their artillery engaged the forts' guns. The forts were not reduced by the time the armistice came into effect, although the advance units of the Cagliari were with three kilometres five miles of Modane.
While the Susa had occupied Lanslebourg and moved on to Termignon, the 3rd Battalion of the 64th Infantry had been held up. Its route was heavily mined and strewn with anti-infantry and anti-tank obstacles. A battalion of the st Avellino Infantry Regiment and a tank battalion from the Division Brennero were sent up to assist it. The First Army had been spared responsibility for the main attack—which fell to the Fourth Army in the north—because of the appeals of its commander, General Pietro Pintor , on 20 June. On 21 June, the units advancing through the Val Roia successfully occupied Fontan.
The amphibious assault had to be called off for logistical reasons—engine failures, overloaded boats, rough seas. Lacking sufficient landing craft, the Regia Marina had commandeered fishing boats and pleasure boats. The Italian navy attempted some landings, but after several craft grounded the whole operation was called off.
Mussolini then gave the order that the Cosseria were to advance at all costs. The bypassed French troops continued to fight, firing the fort's armament at Italian coastal shipping, until the armistice. Italian aircraft then bombed the French barracks there.
Map of the Italian Froont
That day the fort of Pont Saint-Louis engaged in its last artillery duel with the Italians. No vehicles managed to cross the bridge before the armistice. It also had 3, mules on which its artillery was carried and horses, 68 motor vehicles, 71 motorcycles and bicycles. The Acqui Division did not reach the French fortification until late on the 24th, by which time the armistice had been signed. They lost 32 dead and counted 90 wounded, frostbitten and 15 missing. Because of a lack of artillery in the Ubaye Valley, they had not fired upon the French forts.
On 17 June, the day after he transmitted a formal request for an armistice to the German government, French Foreign Minister Paul Baudoin handed to the Papal nuncio Valerio Valeri a note that said: It also requests that he convey to the Italian government its desire to find together the basis of a lasting peace between the two countries. According to Ciano, "under these [mild] conditions, Mussolini is not prepared to make territorial demands At hours on 23 June, the French delegation, headed by General Charles Huntziger , who had signed the German armistice the previous day, landed in Rome aboard three German aircraft.
The French negotiators were the same who had met with the Germans.
The first meeting of the two delegations took place at hours at the Villa Incisa all'Olgiata on the Via Cassia. It lasted only twenty-five minutes, during which Roatta read out loud the Italy's proposed terms, Huntziger requested a recess to confer with his government and Ciano adjourned the meeting until the next day. During the adjournment, Hitler informed Mussolini that he thought the Italian demands too light, and he proposed linking up the German and Italian occupation zones. Roatta ultimately convinced Mussolini that it was too late to change the demands. At hours on 24 June, at the Villa Incisa, after receiving his government's permission, General Huntziger signed the armistice on behalf of the French and Marshal Badoglio for the Italians signed the armistice.
Both armistices came into effect at thirty-five minutes past midnight hours [x] on 25 June. Badoglio consulted Mussolini, who agreed. The actual Italian occupation zone was no more than what had been occupied up to the armistice. Italy was granted the right to use the port of Djibouti in Somaliland with all its equipment, along with the French section of the Addis Ababa—Djibouti railway.
More importantly, the naval bases of Toulon, Bizerte, Ajaccio and Oran were also to be demilitarized within fifteen days. Reported French army casualties vary: A further 2, men suffered from frostbite during the campaign. It is probable that most of the Italian missing were dead.
Units operating in more difficult terrain had higher ratios of missing to killed, but probably most of the missing had died. Although treated in accordance with the laws of war by the Italians, they probably fell into German hands after Italy's surrender in September The limited demands of the Italian Government, at the armistice, provoked several theories from contemporary Italian sources.
General Roatta believed that Mussolini curbed his intentions because the military had failed to break the French front line and Mussolini was thus "demonstrating his sportsmanship". Dino Alfieri advanced the popular but controversial argument that Mussolini weakened his armistice demands to "maintain some semblance of a continental balance of power". Furthermore, Knox comments that Ciano's diary and Mussolini's comments to Hitler "quite adequately explain" the Italian position given the "strategic situation": The overwhelming historical consensus is that the Italian military fared poorly during the invasion.
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On 21 June , Ciano recorded in his diary that Mussolini felt humiliated by the invasion of France as "our troops have not made a step forward. Even today, they were unable to pass, and stopped in front of the first French strong point that resisted. Knox calls the Italian attacks into the Alps a "fiasco", which had morale implications upon the Italian generals, and notes how the campaign was a humiliation for Mussolini. The Italian military requested aid from the Germans, to outflank the French positions. The initial German attack was checked, and the "French soldiers of the Alps The snow also hampered the movement of artillery, food and ammunition to the summits.
In some cases, the Italians wore their gas masks because of the difficulty of breathing in the driving snow. For example, on 23 June, the front-line commander of the 4th Alpine Division Cuneense complained to his superior of the Second Army that he was unable to keep in touch with the troops at the front because he could not move his headquarters up the mountain due to the weather. At the front, near the border, the mission of the French forts was to delay the Italian army from reaching the line of defense, made up of steel and concrete fortifications. Our infantry had to advance in the open against well-protected troops through a field under French artillery fire.
And all this was to happen in three to four days. In these conditions, greater Italian manpower has no advantage. It would be a mistake to say that a battle was fought in the western Alps; what took place were only preliminary actions, technically called 'making contact'. It is not possible to speak in terms of victory or defeat. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Italian imperialism under Fascism. Revel was arguing for naval funding to receive priority over army funding. Historian Denis Mack Smith partially supports this view, but argues that although Mussolini wanted to enter the war, he did not wish to participate actively.
Alfieri and the Italian journalist Virginio Gayda argue that the decision to go to war was based in part on the fear of German aggression against Italy. Paoletti notes that Mussolini feared an Italo-German war following the conclusion of the fighting with the Western Powers. Thus, in order to seize his imperial ambitions Mussolini envisioned a limited war with few casualties in order preserve his military strength for the post-war era.
These SIM estimates have been taken at face value by some Italian historians. Gros ouvrages were artillery forts and petits ouvrages were infantry forts. Each squadra aerea was composed of stormi singular stormo , "flock" , composed of gruppi singular gruppo , "group" of two squadriglie singular squadriglia. Each stormo typically operated one type of aircraft. It was first drawn up in January , updated in April and again in March This was abandoned after Ciano succeeded in convincing the Yugoslav ambassador of Italy's peaceful intentions towards his country on 29 May. This meant that any detected submerged submarine was presumed to be hostile.
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