The war at high altitude
During the First World War the western tip of the Italian-Austrian front went through the two imposing mountain ranges, Ortles-Cevedale and Adamello-Presanella, so the two warring parties were forced, for over three and a half years, to fight an alpine war on rock and ice at over 3000 metres asl, in extremely difficult environmental and climatic conditions.
Just to live at that altitude was a huge problem for the soldiers: the winter lasted eight months, with heavy snowfall from October to May and average depths of snow from 10 to 12 meters. The cold, a merciless daily enemy, ranged on average from -10°C to -l5°C dropping to -20°C -25°C at night and sometimes even lower. In this “white hell” not only did the Italian Alpine and Austrian soldiers have to fight each other, they also had to survive the extreme environmental conditions, including relentless and deadly avalanches which, in proportion, caused more casualties than the actual fighting.
On the Adamello massif the objective was basically to break up, directly or indirectly, the Austrian stronghold of Monticelli, so as to have free access to the Tonale Pass. The Austrians had built trenches and dug numerous caves along the front line that connected Monticelli to the eastern Tonale mountains. Moreover, they had also occupied the Paradiso, Castellaccio and Lagoscuro Passes that dominated the valley around Ponte di Legno.
The main stages of the war
The Italian local Command, to try to remedy tactical inferiority in the Tonale area, planned an attack against the Austrian positions in the Presena basin, in order to drive the Austrians out of the area and regain control of Monticelli and the Tonale plain below. The attack, which took place on 9th June 1915, showed the lack of preparation of the Italian strategists. The attack plan was improvised without making arrangements with the artillery, whose support was erroneously deemed unnecessary. When the Alpine troops appeared at the Maroccaro Pass in order to take the Austrian posts of Conca Presena and Paradiso Pass from behind they were met with fierce resistance from their adversaries who not only succeeded in resisting the attackers but also, with the support of the artillery of the Saccarana fort of Vermiglio, forced them to retreat.
Italian losses were severe: 52 killed including 4 officers and 87 wounded including 3 officers.
Until then the fighting had been rather insignificant and limited to the Tonale, but on 15th July 1915 there was a sudden Austrian attack across Vedretta Mandrone towards the Garibaldi Refuge, which opened a new and unpredictable phase in the struggle on the glacier.
On 12th April 1916 the rocky ridge of Monte Fumo-Dosson di Genova-Cresta Croce-Lobbia Alta was conquered. On 29th April 1916 the second phase of the Italian offensive began leading the Alpine troops to attack the well-equipped Austrian line on the eastern edge of the glacier. In some places, the objectives were achieved and consolidated, but in the best defended points in the centre, the Austrians fought valiantly and warded off the Italian attack. The battle soon became a tragic and pointless carnage for the Italian ski troops in camouflage and for the two companies of the battalion” Val d’Intelvi” that were sent out, in khaki uniforms, onto the immaculate whiteness of the glacier.
1917 was a year of relative calm on the Adamello front, except for a period in which the military operations that led the Alpine troops to the conquest of Corno di Cavento (m. 3402), an important advanced Austrian stronghold that was a serious threat to the right wing of the Italian array, took place. From these positions, exactly one year later, the Austrian assault troops started off to reconquer Corno di Cavento by digging a tunnel through the glacier and then launching a violent assault against the Alpine troops, which defended the mountain outpost on the summit and the “big trench” on the glacier side.
1918 was a year of hardship and bloody fighting for the troops on the Adamello massif: a combined attack in the direction of the Conca di Presena and Monticelli to strengthen Italian lines on the Tonale Pass was finally completed in May. This, the most challenging and complex attack of the whole “white war” saw several battalions as well as companies of machine gunners and bombardiers, artillery batteries of all sizes, engineers corps and other support in battle. After fierce fighting, the Italian troops were successful, although they were not able to drive the Austrians away from the lower slopes of Monticelli.
On 1st November 1918, when Italian victory on Monte Grappa and the Piave started to look likely, the Adamello Alpine troops launched their final attack against the still formidable fortifications of the Tonale, opening the way towards the Mendola Pass so as to cut off the retreat of the defeated army. Peace and quiet returned to the tormented stretches of rock and ice, after three and a half years of harsh war.
The memory of these events remains an important milestone in military history due to the fact that the Alpine troops and their opponents, organized for the first time into large units of skiers and climbers, faced the uncertainties of the glacier, fighting at unheard-of heights and in appalling weather conditions.
(In collaboration with the Adamello White War Museum in Temù).