South African Military History Society

NEWSLETTER No.250 Cape Town Branch OCTOBER 1998

Since the end of the Great War (1914-1918), the twelve Isonzo Battles between Austria and Italy have been diligently researched and much debated by many historians, but there was also another, if less publicised, arena of conflict. In 1915 the Allies, playing on Italian sentiments, offered Italy a "secret bribe" of 3 million pounds and the promised restoration of South Tyrol, which it had lost to Austria in 1866, through the Treaty of Prague. In consequence, Italy declared war on Austria and, by extension, on Germany in May 1915. Between 1915 and 1918 some of the most bitter clashes in hand-to-hand combat were fought in the almost inaccessible mountain regions of northern ltaly with gruelling winter conditions of ice, snow and avalanches adding further hardships to the combatants' daily trials and tribulations.

One section of the front line was formed by the Dolomite Range that stretches from Trieste to the Kreuzbergsattel, where elite mountain troops from both sides fought a ceaseless battle, and it is this part of the Alpine war that little has been written about. It was therefore most appreciated by the audience at our September meeting that fellow-member ROBIN RICHARDS introduced us to the dramatic stories unfolding on and around these mountains and their passes, at altitudes of 2000 to 3000 m above sea level. Under the leadership of Field Marshal Count von Hoetzendorf on the Austrian side, and General Cordona on the Italian side, Jaeger and Standschuetzen, Alpini and Bersaglieri fiercely opposed each other. Mountain outcrops and their defenders were dynamited, and tunnels, driven through glaciers for miles, became areas where soldiers fought and died. They climbed over iron and rope ladders, entrusted their lives to flimsy wooden bridges spanning gaping crevasses, and honeycombed the rocks to find shelter from the icy weather and protection from the enemy bombardments. Siting their guns in the apertures of dark caverns, each decimated their enemy, and lost and regained positions by using barrels of dynamite and gelignite to dislodge the other.

Avalanches ripped through friend and foe alike. In December 1916 alone some 6 000 Austrian soldiers were killed by the white death in one single night, and very often the gunners used their howitzers to start avalanches which, in the winter of 1916/17, led to 60 000 casualties on both sides.

Austrian and German soldiers from many provinces fought valiantly side by side, forming an alpine fellowship never before experienced.

This was the Dolomite War, and Robin brought it to life not only with excellent slides from the era, but with colour photographs taken in situ during his mountaineering ventures with his family, showing the awesome majesty of the Dolomite mountain range, where much of the trenches, tunnels, fortresses, block-houses and gun positions still remain today as a unique and lasting memorial to those who sacrificed their lives for their countries.

Maj Anthony Gordon thanked Robin for his expert handling of the subject and a presentation well done.

Meetings of the Cape Town Branch are normally held on the second Thursday of each month (barring December) at 20h00 (8.00 pm sharp), in the Recreation Hall of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road, Rosebank, (off Alma Road), opposite the Rosebank railway station, below the line. Visitors are welcome. Donation R 3.00. Scholars and Students free. Tea and biscuits will be served.

John Mahncke, (Vice-Chairman/Scribe), (021) 797 5167

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