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With the signing of the Treaty of London on April 26, 1915, Italy entered World War I on the Allied side. The Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) publicly welcomed Italy but privately besmirched it for the grasping territorial terms it demanded upon victory; Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill disparaged it as “the harlot of Europe.” To Austria-Hungary—which with Germany and Italy had till then formed the Triple Alliance—there was only one suitable epithet for its former ally: “the traitor.”

A sticking point in Italian/Austro-Hungarian negotiations—held concurrently while Italy sketched out the Treaty of London with the Allies—concerned Trentino. Amid a swath of mountainous terrain shared by northern Italy and western Austria-Hungary, the region is a blend of nationalities and cultures, where pasta shares a plate with sausage and sauerkraut. When Austria-Hungary demurred on Italy’s insistence for the immediate return of Trentino, rather than postwar as offered, the regional spat gave Italians the added impetus to turn on their northern rivals.

The Eastern Front meandered across the soaring peaks and lush Alpine valleys of the disputed territory. While both sides employed the standard trench warfare and frontal attack strategies, the high altitude and harsh weather conditions imposed limitations to which both armies had to adapt. On the Italian Front—popularly known as the White War—specialist soldiers trained in mountain warfare (the Italian Alpini vs. the Austro-Hungarian Kaiserschützen) clashed at altitudes approaching 13,000 feet. The winter of 1916 was one of the harshest on record, the temperature dipping to 22 below zero. That November alone Austro-Hungarian regiments stationed in the mountains reported nearly 500 cases of frostbite. Avalanches and landslides were also a constant threat; in mid-December a series of avalanches claimed the lives of some 10,000 Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops.

When the weather cleared and trigger fingers thawed, the fighting was as intense there as anywhere else along the front. Mount Pasubio in particular was witness to the kind of attritional slaughter typical of the conflict. In May 1915 the Italians occupied the Pasubio massif—the last defensible position before the Veneto plain. A year later, during a sweeping enemy offensive, they lost the northern peak, which came to be known as the Dente Austriaco (“Austrian Tooth”). The Italians held the line at Dente Italiano, only a stone’s throw south of Dente Austriaco and separated by an all-too-short saddle. Launching operations to regain the Dente Austriaco in September and October, the Italians ground to a halt in the face of severe snowstorms that heralded the onset of winter.

Faced with the daunting task of overcoming reinforced positions on mountain peaks, each army instead tried to tunnel beneath its enemy and detonate explosives. This tactic characterized the fighting on Pasubio, and the peak hosted one of the longest running conflicts of its kind during World War I. Over a two-year stretch the combatants dug mines and counter-mines through the rock, and 10 massive explosions reshaped the massif—the deadliest being a 55-ton Austro-Hungarian device that exploded on March 13, 1918, killing or wounding more than 60 Italian soldiers. The Austro-Hungarians held the Dente Austriaco until Nov. 1, 1918, when ordered to retreat from the mountain that had ultimately claimed tens of thousands of lives. Nearly a century later the sloughing ice at altitude continues to surrender battered, uniformed bodies.

In remembrance, officials in Trentino have designated their mountains a vast memorial park [www.museostorico]. The Path of Peace allows hikers to trace more than 300 miles of the former front line, from the Passo del Tonale to Marmolada peak. Along the trail they’ll find abandoned artillery, restored forts and the world’s largest tolling bell, cast from melted down World War I artillery pieces—a memorial that overlooks the province’s second city of Rovereto.

Pasubio, designated a sacred area, is reachable via the Road of 52 Tunnels, a supply route carved out by Italian civil engineers over 10 months in 1917. The road stretches some 5 miles, and for nearly half that length it runs beneath the craggy, dripping ceilings of the impressively excavated tunnels.

After the war the terms of victory changed, and Italy ended up with less territory than promised in the Treaty of London. A toxic blend of nationalism and victim-hood bubbled up, helping to propel Europe’s first fascist dictatorship into power—a tragedy that, post-1945, would force yet another territorial retreat upon the Italians. But they kept the Trentino.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.