Talking about war after more than 100 days of the current conflict in Ukraine is something that seems natural and unavoidable. The devastating event of the war has penetrated the life of the world population through the media and various sources of information, including the millions of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their country, becoming witnesses and protagonists of one of the most violent humanitarian crises in human history.
The local warfare soon engulfed the global scene through unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and substantial military aid to Ukraine. In these tragic days, it can be useful to rethink what the First World War was like. Are there still lessons we can reflect on and continue to learn from the first terrible carnage that befell Europe and the world?
Our attempt to answer this question is divided into two parts. First of all, a reflection on the origins of the WW1; secondly, a closer look at one of the least studied and known aspects of the conflict: the so-called “white war” that was fought on the Dolomites and the Italian-Austrian front.
In the concluding paragraphs, I argue that the time of war belongs not only to human history but also to natural history. Forgetting this reflection is at the origin of the hubris that characterizes human civilization and is increasingly evident in the time we call the Anthropocene.
Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914
Our point of reference in trying to reconstruct the origin of the first world conflict is a book entitled Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012) by Christopher Clark a professor of modern European history at Cambridge. In this book, he maps carefully the complex mechanism of events and misjudgments that led to the war. Its methodological approach is highly innovative and substantive. For Clark, first, we need to consider that the war originated from a very intricate and multilateral political crisis and that we have an oversupply of sources, hundred of thousand pages written on World War 1, most of which are committed to attributing to the enemies the faults of war.
Then, he continues, we need to ask ourselves what is the crucial question to ask: why did the war begin or how it did begin? He invites us to realize that while the “why” question looks for absolute and categorical causes of the war, the “how” question instead looks for the multilateral interaction that produced the war scenario. Moreover, whereas the “why” question is after guilt and responsibility, the “how” question is more oriented toward a broad and open understanding. Even though the two questions can be considered interdependent, for Clark it is crucial that we let the “why” answers grow out of the “how” answers rather than the other way around.
What strikes me in Clark’s approach is the fact that he draws our attention to the “how” question and holds that far from being inevitable this war was in fact improbable at least until it actually happened. In other words, he supports the idea of contingency in the unfolding of the war as opposed to over-determination implicit in the question of “why” the war started. Clark’s approach is highly original as he avoids what most historians do, inserting the question of culpability at the center of the discourse on the war. In this attitude, these historians repeat what was established by the 1919 peace treaty of Versailles in which the victors asserted that German and their allies were morally responsible for the outbreak of the war.
Also, Clark’s approach contrasts the idea held by most historians as they suggest that the pre-war European system had somehow locked itself into a system of alliances from which war was the only way out. This point of view for him is a form of over-determination. On the one hand, the pre-war European system of alliances included the Triple Alliance that was formed in 1882 between German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. It was a defensive alliance. On the other hand, there was the Triple Entente (1907) which included Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. The latter was not an alliance of defense as was formed to counterbalance the power of the Triple Alliance. For Clark the pre-war European situation, notwithstanding this system of alliances, was still very much dynamic and open to different possibilities.
The war started after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist. This event triggered the July crisis after, on July 23rd, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia. This series of events led to the outbreak of World War One. These events include the complex web of alliances that we mentioned but above all Clark insists on the miscalculation that brought many leaders to believe that war was in their best interest; or that a world war would not occur. This combination of factors resulted in a general outbreak of hostilities among almost every major European nation.
The war started in August 1914 by May 1915 every major European nation was involved in it. Christopher Clark concludes that there is no smoking gun in this story; rather there is one gun in the hands of every major character. The war viewed in this light was not a crime but a tragedy. In the last pages of his book, Clark explains why for him the European leaders in 1914 were sleepwalkers: they were watchful, he says, but unseeing “they were haunted by dreams and yet blind to the reality of the horror that they were about to bring into the world” (562).
It could be said that unlike the First World War at the origin of the current war in Ukraine, the smoking gun exists: Russia invaded Ukraine unilaterally. But similar to what happened at the genesis of the First World War, before us we have the unfolding of a tragedy of which the protagonists do not seem aware. From this point of view, all the governments involved and the powerful of the world today closely resemble the sleepwalkers of 1914. However, there is a further difference between the two situations that should be noted. Compared to 1914, the destructive potential of technology has grown exponentially, to the point of contemplating the destruction of the planet with the atomic threat. This makes the actual sleepwalkers’ sleep even more dramatic.
The Italian Front
A confirmation of Cristopher Clark’s analysis comes from the study of how Italy entered the war. In July 1914, Italy still had the possibility of not entering the war or entering it otherwise. Italy still was a partner in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary but decided to remain neutral; at the same time, it developed a detailed military plan to attack France preparing to fight on the side of Germany and Austria.
However, the majority of the Italian population did not want the war which was then imposed from above by Italy’s King and political authorities. Before anything else, it was a media war through which an aggressive and violent minority imposed itself on the majority. A prominent figure in the war propaganda was the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. His public speeches were meant to create high tension in the country and collective emotions in favor of the war.
Among the most ardent nationalists and supporters of the war in Italy are the Futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder, and leader of this artistic and literary avant-garde movement argued that war is the only hygiene in the world and used a particularly violent language during the so-called Futurist evenings to endorse the war.
As is the case today, the manipulation of news and the ability to build and disseminate false information has been fundamental in exacerbating the nationalistic climate, carrying out the military plans, and in consolidating the full support of the internal and external public opinion.
For Italy, the decision to enter the war turned out to be a gamble, fabricated on uncertain geopolitical alliances and unsteady military calculations.
During the immediate pre-war years, Italy started aligning itself closer to the Entente powers for economic support; in April 1915, it negotiated with the Entente powers the secret Pact of London by which Italy was granted the right to attain the Italian-populated lands from Austria-Hungary, as well as concessions in the Balkan Peninsula. Subsequently, in May 1915, Italy resigned from the Triple Alliance and declared war against Austria-Hungary.
The will to conquer the status of “great power” in the Adriatic and Balkan area is what drove the Italian King Victor Emmanuel the 3d and the Italian government presided by conservative Antonio Salandra to enter the war. Besides the prevalent conservative forces, there was also a minority of democratic interventionists, like Cesare Battisti, who wanted to liberate” Italian-speaking populations from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to emancipate the Danubian and Slavic peoples from what they considered their despotic government. In Italy, the majority of the population and the majority of the parliament were against the war but the opposition to the war was not effective.
The Italian military command (general Luigi Cadorna) rapidly adapts to the new situation which resulted from the fact that Italy had abandoned the triple Alliance in favor of the Triple Entente. However, the Italian army was characterized by unpreparedness, lack of coordination, slowness in carrying out the military plans, miscalculations, especially the idea that the war would last only a few months. The Italian front was called, the Alpine Front (Gebirgskrieg); for the Austro-Hungarian command, it was considered the Southwest Front. For the rest of the world, it was called the Austro-Italian Front.
The strategic plan of the Italian army was based on a defensive attitude in the western sector, where the Dolomites were located, and an offensive in the east, trying to reach the heart of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. After occupying the frontier territory, in June the Italians launched their first assault on the Austro-Hungarian fortified positions, lined up along the course of the Isonzo river. The assault was attempted eleven times all of which failed. These are called the eleven Battles of the Isonzo.
In October 1917, the Central Powers carried out their own offense, known as the Battle of Caporetto, in which the Italians were defeated with huge losses. The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. Driven south after the Battle of Caporetto, the Italian Army was able to regroup and form a defensive line along the Piave River. The Austro-Hungarian Army tried their last offensive of the Great War in June 1918 and failed. In October they were defeated by the Italians in Vittorio Veneto which was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. To conclude, the war on the Italian front was not decided in the battles on the Dolomites mountains. The decisive battles were the battle of Caporetto (1917) in the valley of the river Isonzo and the final battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918).
World War I historiography on the southern front has recently progressed over the bleak picture painted by Christopher Clark. Of course, the commonplaces and negative myths that the conflict’s protagonists have conceived towards their enemies have remained. For example, to the Italians, Austria-Hungary was represented in terms of the eternal oppressor enemy during the conflict. Conversely, to the Austrians, Italy had been designed as an unfair ally and morally condemned. These two stereotypes continue to re-emerge in narratives and reconstructions of the war. Just as the idea spread by Italian propaganda that the opposing troops were in numerical dominance and always better fortified than the Italian ones is hard to die.
However, today there is a historiography that wants to be transnational and overcome the nationalist propaganda extremism that reached the point of arguing that the enemies were completely alien, not even human. A noble example of this kind of transnational, more objective historiography is the volume curated by Nicola Labanca and Oswald Überegger, La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918).
The White War
From 1915, the high peaks of the Dolomites were the area of the widest and most extreme mountain warfare. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater.
Austrian soldiers entrenched themselves first in the highest mountains, leaving only the lowest positions to the enemies. For the strategic conceptions of the time, the highest position was erroneously considered an advantage; the valleys were believed dangerous as exposed to shelling and unfavorable to carry out assaults. This concept was in fact contradicted by the battle of Caporetto in the valley of the river Isonzo, won by the Austrian soldiers.
Italy had hoped to gain the territories of the Dolomites with a surprise offensive that was carried out too slowly to be effective. The Italian front soon was transformed into trench warfare, a war tactic that was commonly used everywhere in WW1. In trench warfare, the two sides fighting each other dig trenches on a battlefield to stop the enemy from advancing. Barbed wire fences became part of the landscape very everywhere.
The living conditions in the trenches were terrible. The area between opposing trench lines (known as “no man’s land”) was fully exposed to artillery fire from both sides, creating a situation in which it was possible to die even for friendly fire. Hundreds of deadly assaults on both sides produced no substantial change in enemy positions due to the extreme hardships that the mountain opposed to the advancement of the troops including the landslides that killed thousands of soldiers.
The war transformed dramatically the mountain landscape. For the first time in history, men brought modern technology up the highest mountains building roads, cableways, telephone and electric lines, and accommodations for thousands of troops. Supplying the mountain outposts would prove challenging for both armies. Much of the equipment had to be carried by hand with the help of horses and mules. Delivering heavier loads required mechanical improvisations. Sometimes even mules could not make the trek. Indeed, the destruction of the war affected not only human beings but also animals whose sacrifice is not always reported in history books.
In the winter, the trenches were built with snow and into the ice. The Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites, was the site of a year-round “ice-city” where both sides dug into a glacier. The Austrian Corps of Engineers dug an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms—out of the glacier. Soldiers had to drill holes into the ice to place explosives and begin the massive task of digging a tunnel under enemy lines.
A unique element of mountain warfare was the gallery, a man-built cave in the mountain rock serving as a place of relative protection. Variations in the design could turn the gallery into a partly shielded observation, artillery, or machine-gun post. Both belligerent sides had to adapt to the mountain, soon realizing the impossibility of conquering these inaccessible sites. A stalemate soon arose whereby the war then moved inside the mountains, turning into an exhausting war of mines with unprecedented violence that deeply affected the Dolomites landscape, leaving indelible marks. The opposing armies used mines to dig tunnels and galleries.
I briefly recall a famous example before concluding: the Lagazuoi mountain (2,835 meters; 9,301 ft), in the heart of the Dolomites. While the Austrian troops had occupied the crest of the mountain, the Italians attacked from below. From the end of February 1917, the Italians had begun to dig the first tunnels in the solid Dolomite rocks with the intention of surprising the Austrians on the summit of the mountain by blowing up a mine. They had occupied important positions on the side of the Piccolo Lagazuoi including a thin ledge renamed Cengia Martini after the name of Captain Ettore Martini.
The Austrians had already tried twice to blow up the Lagazuoi in order to drive away the Italians, without succeeding. At this point, the Italian soldiers dig a corridor over a kilometer long inside the Piccolo Lagazuoi, working day and night for the construction of a tunnel, two meters high and two meters wide, proceeding at a rate of six meters a day. At the end of June and early July, this unprecedented enterprise was completed and the mine was detonated without producing any substantial change in the war of position between the two armies.
But the mine war had devastating effects on the Dolomite peaks. The most powerful of the Austrian mines detonated May 22, 1917 blew up a part of the wall of the Piccolo Lagazuoi 199 meters high and 136 meters wide; while the mine of 32,664 kilos of explosives detonated by the Italians on June 20, 1917 caused a gigantic landslide still identifiable along the side of the wall just to the east of the cable car that climbs from the Pass to the top (Marco Avanzini and Isabella Salvador). A beautiful 1931 film by Luis Trenker, Berge in Flammen (Mountains on Fire), immortalized the memory of those destructive explosions in highly effective images.
The Lagazuoi Gallery is today the longest gallery of WW1 among those preserved in the Dolomites. The Italian tunnel, 1100 meters long, has been totally restored and equipped with ladders and steel rope.
The excursion going down the tunnel not only represents an exceptional experience due to its particular characteristics but also offers an immediate synthesis of the extreme difficulties in which the soldiers of both armies operated.
Never before had a war been photographed and represented so systematically through the photographic image. The Italian Army Photography Service included 600 photographers that produced a total of 150,000 negatives. The images were filtrated by the censorship that allow only positive representations of the Italian soldiers that were then published in newspapers and magazines such as l’Illustrazione Italiana.
The images of dead soldiers were prohibited by censorship and self-censorship but death was a daily reality in the trenches and among civilians on the Italian Front; ultimately counting hundred of thousands of deaths on both sides out of the total number of 10 million dead soldiers of WW1.
The traces and remains of some of these dead are inscribed in the Dolomites landscape and even today, when the ice melts, some corpses of dead soldiers re-emerge like the ones you see in this picture.
The White War was a period of history frozen in time until the 1990s when global warming started to reveal corpses and relics of WW1. Thousands of soldiers have been killed by avalanches, falling down mountains, or hypothermia. Dozens of corpses, some still in their uniforms, have emerged from the melting ice over the past decades (Leander).
From this point of view, the signs that can be read in the Dolomites landscape are exemplary in communicating the essential fact that the violence done to the environment is destructive and deadly for human beings as well. Their life in wartime does not belong only to human history but to the natural history, to the history of the earth. This is what the images of soldier corpses emerging from the mountains suggest: over time humans remain literally inscribed and buried in the landscape like any other natural element. This is a lesson that must be learned today, in the presence of a war that risks turning into atomic war and global warming that seem to jeopardize the survival of human life on earth.
War, what Leonardo da Vinci called “beastly madness,” highlights precisely the natural and animal elements of humans, their being subjected to the landscape which they claim to conquer. The emergence of anthropogenic residues from the mountains on the one hand makes them available for the historical archive and museum, on the other hand, it helps to recall the existence of an immemorial, geological, and biological past, which precedes the very formation of the human landscape, museums, and archives as we perceive them today. The bodies of the dead soldiers and their opposing uniforms before entering the historical archive belong to the mountain, the landscape, and its geological time that remains looming in the background.
The nuclear risk and the destruction of the planet had already emerged in the consciousness of human beings at the end of the first great world conflict. In those years the Trieste writer Italo Svevo wrote at the end of his novel Zeno’s Conscience, that human madness and disease would disappear from the earth only with the destruction of the planet made possible by a more powerful bomb than all those seen in the first world war:
Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health. When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys. And another man, also ordinary, but sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness. (437)
Beltrame, Achille. Domenica del corriere 23-30 maggio 1915 Anno XVII n. 21, Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44184004
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Internet resource.
Labanca, Nicola, and Oswald Überegger. La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918. Bologna: Il mulino, 2014. Print.
Leander, Roet. “Global Warming Is Thawing Out the Frozen Corpses of a Forgotten WWI Battle.” Web. Motherboard. January 15, 2014.
Leoni, Diego. La Guerra Verticale: Uomini, Animali E Macchine Sul Fronte Di Montagna : 1915 – 1918. Torino: Einaudi, 2019. Print.
Map Europe alliances 1914-en.svg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 1 Jun 2022, 20:34 UTC. 6 Jun 2022, 04:47 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg&oldid=660669963>.
Photos from the Historical Museum of War in Rovereto
Rusconi, Gian E. L’azzardo Del 1915: Come L’italia Decide La Sua Guerra. Bologna: Il mulino, 2005. Print.
Svevo, Italo, and Weaver, William. Zeno’s Conscience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.
Thompson, Mark. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919. London: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
Vedere la Grande Guerra. Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano. https://www.movio.beniculturali.it/mcrr/immaginidellagrandeguerra/it/