January 15, 2014 - In Peio, you feel, the First World War never quite ended. And in one very real sense, it lives on, thanks to the preserving properties of ice. For Peio was once the highest village in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and had a ringside seat to a little-known but spectacular episode of that conflict called the White War.
Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. Photo: Laura Spinney
Dust to dust: sacred soil interred at First World War memorial
In 1914 both Trentino – the province in which Peio lies – and the neighbouring South Tyrol were Hapsburg domains. Italy, recently unified and eager to settle her frontiers permanently, looked on the two provinces, along with Trieste, as ‘unredeemed lands’. In May 1915, with the aim of reclaiming them, she entered the war on the side of the Allies. Conflict was already raging on the western and eastern fronts; now a third front opened up. It stretched from the Julian Alps, which Italy now shares with Slovenia in the east, to the Ortler massif near the Swiss border further west – some 250 miles.
As much of the front was at altitudes of over 6,500ft, a new kind of war had to be developed. The Italians already had specialist mountain troops – the Alpini with their famous feathered caps – but the Austrians had to create the equivalent: the Kaiserschützen. They were supported by artillery and engineers who constructed an entire infrastructure of war at altitude, including trenches carved out of the ice and rudimentary cableways for transporting men and munitions to the peaks.
In the decades that followed the armistice, the world warmed up and the glaciers began to retreat, revealing the debris of the White War. The material that, beginning in the 1990s, began to flood out of the mountains was remarkably well preserved. It included a love letter, addressed to Maria and never sent, and an ode to a louse, ‘friend of my long days’, scribbled on a page of an Austrian soldier’s diary.
The front line between the Allied forces and those of the Central Powers as seen from Punta Linke, 1918. Photo: Museo della Grande Guerra, Peio
The bodies, when they came, were often mummified. The two soldiers interred last September were blond, blue-eyed Austrians aged 17 and 18 years old, who died on the Presena glacier and were buried by their comrades, top-to-toe, in a crevasse. Both had bulletholes in their skulls. One still had a spoon tucked into his puttees — common practice among soldiers who travelled from trench to trench and ate out of communal pots. When Franco Nicolis of the Archaeological Heritage Office in the provincial capital, Trento, saw them, he says, his first thought was for their mothers. ‘They feel contemporary. They come out of the ice just as they went in,’ he says. In all likelihood the soldiers’ mothers never discovered their sons’ fate.
One of the oddities of the White War was that both the Alpini and the Kaiserschützen recruited local men who knew the mountains, which meant that they often knew each other too. Sometimes family loyalties were split. ‘There are many stories of people hearing the voice of a brother or a cousin in the thick of battle,’ Nicolis says.
For both sides the worst enemy was the weather, which killed more men than the fighting. At those altitudes, the temperature could fall to -30C, and the ‘white death’ — death by avalanche — claimed thousands of lives.
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. Photo: Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento
The people of Peio lived these stories because unlike the inhabitants of other frontline villages, they stayed put. ‘The Emperor decreed that this village should not be evacuated,’ Angelo Dalpez, Peio’s mayor, says. ‘As the highest village in the empire, it was symbolic — a message to the rest.’ They worked as porters and suppliers of food. They tended the injured, buried the dead, and witnessed the remodelling of their ancestral landscape (shelling lowered the summit of one mountain, San Matteo, by 20ft).
In 1919 the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye awarded Trentino to Italy. ‘There was never any clash,’ Nicolis says. ‘No revolution. It was an entirely smooth transition.’ People here had always felt autonomous, in their mountainous border region, and under the new arrangement the Italian government granted them a degree of autonomy. They carried on drinking grappa, eating knödel and speaking Italian (which had been one of the 12 official languages of the empire), but they never forgot their history.