Sheer Horror Clive Aslet visits the Dolomites, whose spectacular beauty makes for a poignant contrast with the misery they witnessed during the First World War
Clive Aslet visits the Dolomites, whose spectacular beauty makes for a poignant contrast with the misery they witnessed during the First World War
I AM DRIVING north from Venice, into the Dolomites. The motorway goes through a series of tunnels, and I think I can just make it to the Rosa Alpina, in Alta Badia, with its two-Michelin-star restaurant, in time for dinner. It is enjoyable to drive as the light fades. But after the longest tunnel I emerge into a thunderstorm.
The windscreen becomes a cataract; I have to stop the car. The lightning appears to be coming from directly overhead. For a camera crew making a Lords of the Rings movie, it was more than overhead; I learn the next day that seven of them were put in hospital.
I won’t describe the difficulties of getting around Cortina d’Amprezzo, which, despite having some of the most expensive real estate in Italy, saves money on road signs. Robert Louis Stevenson was wrong: to arrive is better than to travel hopefully. Even in summer — I was there in July — the Dolomites must be treated with respect.
The prelude to my stay, in luxury, at Alta Badia was, in one sense, an appropriate mental preparation. I was not only there to enjoy chef Norbert Niederkofler’s cooking, although the amuse-gueule of smoked trout, served in a miniature Kilner jar with the smoke still inside it, or the apparently newly dug potato on a stone slab, which had been ingeniously reconstituted with consommé to make a potato-shaped mousse, covered with a lookalike skin (to name only the first two offerings of the menu gastronomique) cannot be overlooked.
My mission, for my book War Memorial, was to follow the steps of a Devon soldier, Harry Lake, as he fought and died in a theatre of the First World War that the British tend to forget.
Italian soldiers enjoy a picnic near the Piave river during a break from fierce hostilities
Many of the British troops who were sent to this front thought the journey via Provence was something of a holiday. ‘It was really grand to be chugging south from the cold, the damp and the mud of the Ypres Salient,’ remembered WR Thomas, a signaller with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
‘Soon we were sitting on the sides of our trucks with both the port and starboard doors wide open taking in the sun en route and in our shirt sleeves enjoying the scenery and the chit-chat with the French mademoiselles and soon the same with the Italian senoritas [sic].’ Soldiers had little idea of the ferocity with which the Austrians and Italians had locked horns on the front they were being sent to prop up, the Austrians having got the upper hand.
With the approach of 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Britain is going into remembrance overdrive. David Cameron has pledged £50 million towards a programme of events that are intended to capitalise on the Team GB spirit generated by the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee.
Don’t expect the Italians to join in. Although they picked the winning side in this round, they play it down. No power comes out well from 1914-18, but the opportunism of the Italian land grab, which would bring it Trieste, was particularly shabby.
Nor was their war effort wholly glorious. Alas, the brilliant Generale Alberto Pollio, chief of the general staff, died of a heart attack just after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Command passed to the singularly bone-headed Luigi Cadorna, whose one military idea was the frontal assault.
He attempted to batter his way through the Austrian line on the river Isonzo, in no fewer than twelve mindless and bloody battles of Caporetto. The last of them, beginning at the end of October 1917, he lost. The French and British hurried to support the new line on the River Piave, north of Venice.
Lagazuoi mountain, centre of the White War betwee Austrian and Italian troops
IN THE MOUNTAINS, a different war was being fought, against both the Austrian army and an even more deadly enemy: Nature. This is betrayed by the Tre Sassi Fort, built by the Austrians in 1897 and used as a strong point during the First World War (although it was not always occupied: they kept the lights burning to encourage the Italians to use up precious shells).
The fort is now a museum, for a collection of artefacts assembled by a local family over 45 years. Cases are crowded with rifles, medical instruments, a portable altar, wire-cutters, wooden skis and an ‘iron harvest’ of shellcases, spent bullets and exploded grenades. A pair of huge top boots, with felt padding that kept out the cold, had soles studded with big nails to grip on the ice. Only officers could afford such footwear.
For the boys from the south, who had never seen snow, the cold must have been dreadful. In December 1916, on White Friday, 10,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches.
One summer evening the next year, the Italian king looked out from his vantage point on the five jagged stumps of almost vertical limestone that form the Cinque Torri to watch the mountain of Lagazuoi heave. Over 32,000kg of explosives had been packed into a chamber beneath the summit, blowing the top off the mountain. Other fronts of the First World War resorted to the medieval technique of undermining the opponent’s defences; a short run of tunnels through the chalk of La Boiselle, on the Somme, has recently been discovered.
No tunnels survive from Flanders because of the character of the mud through which they were dug. But the tunnels in the Dolomites, gouged out of solid rock, still exist in their entirety.
They can be visited, although I would advise going with a guide. Mine, whom friends likened to a mountain goat, whether from nimbleness or the four children he had sired from as many women, had forgotten the lights to strap on our heads. It was perfect.
He descended backwards in front of me, shining a beam from the end of a pen; I slipped and slithered after him, all too graphically conscious of the privations of the First World War miners, condemned to work and sleep in these claustrophobic, clammy conditions, always with the prospect that the enemy might blow up a counter mine first.
The First World War tunnels excavated through solid rock survive unaltered
Fragments of barbed wire from 1917 still lie on the mountainside. A waterfall splashes into the concrete basin where soldiers washed.
Nearly a century on, Nature has been allowed, joyously, to get the upper hand. This is a place of gentians, cowbells and ski lifts, of blinding white limestone by day and mountains that turn pink (hence Rosa Alpina) at sunset. For rich Italians, this is second home central, on a par with Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda. But not only did fighting in almost unendurable conditions between specialist mountain troops of both sides take place, evidence of it is also still there. The mountains bear scars that can never heal.
The profile of Monte Lagazuoi was refashioned after the blowing of a huge mine in 1917 — so spectacular that the King of Italy came to watch
IN JULY 1918, Ernest Hemingway, a volunteer ambulance man, was wounded on the River Piave; his experience became the basis for A Farewell to Arms.
That autumn, in dreadful weather, the Allies crossed the river. It was then a torrent. For once, the British general staff had got the planning right, employing gondoliers to help them manage the flat-bottomed boats, although even then several men met their deaths when they fell off the pontoon bridges, sucked down by their heavy packs.
The British divisions did conspicuously well, storming through the Austrian defences on the far bank, and before long, in the words of one officer, ‘the Ostrich’ was ‘running like hell’.
On my way back to Venice, I stopped at the crossing point, surprised to discover that, in July, I could run across the white pebbles of the river bed, barely getting my feet wet. Afterwards I ate a wholesome lunch of rabbit and local wine, regretful that the white asparagus which grows on Grave di Papadopoli, the island in the middle of the Piave, was out of season. Silently, I raised a glass to Harry Lake. He died of wounds after the crossing.
Landscape photography by Clive Alset, black and white photography (c) Imperial War Museum, Tunneling photograph by Randy Jay Braun
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