Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Italian Fighting in the Alps

None of the armies engaged in this war had greater difficulties to meet than the Italians. On practically the entire battle front, they were holding lines in the mountains which produced a type of modern warfare utterly different from that in France. The difficulty there was to see anything; the trouble in Italy was that the enemy saw too much. The trenches of both sides were clearly outlined in the mountain air and the artillery on bright days could pick out the positions with extraordinary accuracy, but the greatest difficulties were those created by travel in the mountains. Everything to be used for attack or defense had to be carried up a mountain side many thousands of feet. Water in particular for the troops in the trenches was a great problem and eventually all the important positions were supplied by water piped up the mountain side and pumped up at regular intervals.

In many instances the trench line ran through districts covered both winter and summer with ice and snow; snowshoes, skiis, sleds were essential for the troops. Imagine a regiment marching on snowshoes or a dispatch bearer with important papers sliding down the mountain on a sled! In some cases a precipice was being held and the troops on top were supplied by means of elevators. A crane was rigged out over the precipice and a car was hauled up and down on a wire by an engine, and in other cases a wire was strung across a chasm or over a river or from one mountain peak to another, and a trolley car running on the wire was used to send men, ammunition, and food across the gap. Funny little railroads were built up the sides of the mountains, running on the cog system.

The amount of preparation often necessary to hold a line in the mountains was extraordinary to contemplate. When the troops got up there, the ground was frozen solid, perhaps several feet. Moreover it had been frozen for years, perhaps for centuries; it had never been anything but frozen; it would never thaw out. They had to blast out a trench as if they were blasting rock. Snow blindness also caused much suffering. Dark glasses or snow glasses were essential for all the men.

On no section of the front was camouflage so necessary, because nowhere could a man walking along a mountain some miles off be seen so clearly. It was necessary for the troops to dress winter and summer so as to be indistinguishable. The trenches had to be covered with white screens in winter and green in summer. The cold was particularly difficult to endure. The men in France suffered from it but the cold in the mountains was intense and the soldiers must stay day and night in open trenches in positions where a fire would advertise their location to the Austrians. The question of warm food in the front line trenches, very essential in so cold a temperature, was a hard problem to solve. The defense was easier perhaps than in France because the enemy was easier to watch and because he had great difficulties to overcome in scrambling up the mountains. But it was not easy to maintain contact with all parts of the line and to keep up the constant watch to prevent surprise.

One picturesque incident in the Julian Alps during the summer of 1917 illustrates this difficult and picturesque warfare. The general staff decided to take some Austrian batteries on top of a precipice forty feet high. It could be reached only by crossing a swift, deep river and must be scaled in full sight of the Austrians and within the range of their guns. The Italians decided to make the attempt at night because, while darkness to them was a great obstacle, it was to their enemy a greater. With extraordinary ingenuity they first put out the eyes  of the Austrian batteries. They concentrated on the mountains opposite the position to be attacked a row of brilliant searchlights, and, when the moment for the attack came, turned the full glare upon the Austrian position. It literally blinded the gunners. The light was so intense that they could see absolutely nothing of what was going on below them.

It was necessary for the Italian engineers to throw pontoon bridges across the river and that meant noise, which of course would inform the Austrians what was going on. They must therefore deafen  the Austrian gunners. This was done by a tremendous cannonade creating so loud a roar that the noise of the hammering and pounding could not be heard. Once the eyes of the Austrians had been put out and their ears had been deafened, the Italians threw across the pontoons, the troops rushed over the river, scaled the precipice, and were upon the astonished Austrians before the latter knew what was being attempted. The positions were carried with a rush and at once the guns were turned upon the Austrians. That single feat compelled an Austrian retreat of nearly seven miles, because those guns commanded an entire mountain valley.