Tales of Two Wars. Part 1


We already got used to run into rather gloomy chapters of history in the middle of the mountains. And into the military career of Harry Weil from Hohenems, who did not only fight on the banks of the Isonzo, but also in the Dolomites. Hundred years ago. The glorious mountains became a “theatre of war” – language can be so misleading – when Italy entered World War 1. The Austrian Empire was prepared. The conduct with their ally, and that’s what Italy was before the war, at least on paper, had become a matter of frictions and mutual slights. Italy wanted to achieve control of those parts of Austria with Italian speaking majorities, and even had some appetite for more. And Austria was treating the new nation state and neighbor in the South, dependent on the Austrians for so long in the past, with a mixture of resentment and hybris. Even the German initiatives to encourage the Austrians to seek compromise with Italy were in vain.

In 1915 the Dolomites and South Tyrol as a whole were prepared for war. And now on a sunny day in the fall we were hiking through the beauty of it, with our friends and their twins, to spend a night on the “front line”. Okay, that’s not exactly what we said to the kids. We were up for the Monte Castello and a Biwak, called “Biwak della Pace”, on 2750 meter altitude, facing the Italian lines on the other side of the valley, along the slopes of the “Tofanas”, two towering pyramides – now, in late October, already powdered white. In 1916, Harry Weil was fighting not far from here, next to the famous rocks of the “Tre Croci”. He had left his family in Hohenems to battle for emperor Franz-Joseph, who – until he died in the end of 1916, after 68 years on the throne – had somewhat convincingly played his role of a paternal protector of all of “his” peoples and minorities. Even the Jews.

We are schlepping heavy bagpacks through the national park of Fanes, the last meters are icy and slippery, but for the little girls its fun. And “adventure”. The biwak we are up to has no water, no light, no heating, no kitchen. But a view, an awesome sunset, and fragments of the old Austrian bunkers, shelters, caverns for canons and machine-guns and rifles and everything you need to prepare the hell for your enemies. The Italians on the other side had similar equipment. And both sides got stuck in their rocky, icy trenches, as in so many other places in the Alps between 1915 and 1918. Nothing really important happened here. Nothing, but the end of many lives, brought by bullets and falling rocks, shrapnels and avalanches, and the worst enemy, both sides fought against, the cold.

The only “event” though was an Italian triumph – that did not change anything with respect to the front. An Austrian outpost on a small peak between the fronts, the Italians did not want to tolerate. Instead of doing anything relevant, the Italian were digging a tunnel under the rock, half a kilometer long. The Austrians finally realized some strange noises – and that it was time to leave their outpost “for bad”, short before the Italian blew the whole peak away, with explosives deposited under the rock.

The bunker of an Austrian cannon, once confronting the Tofana mountain – and the Italians

We comfortably succeeded to warm up the biwak from 2 to 6 grades Celsius. The night was long. The other day we examined the architecture of war. And still did not understand anything more about what kind of insanity men has invented in this “theatre”.

1 thought on “Tales of Two Wars. Part 1”

  1. I also have visited that battlefield. It holds special meaning to me and I was saddened by the reminder of the destruction that took place there in the later years of World War I . At least one other Hohenems descendant also fought in those battles . My uncle , Robert Rosenthal, the great grandson of Philipp and Regina Rosenthal and of Joseph and Clara Rosenthal, fought in the mountain corp of the Austrian Army near there. He was called home from the battlefield to be at the bedside of his mother as she lay dying. His group was wiped out while he was in Vienna. My uncle Robert thought he was safe because he fought for Austria during that war; he was murdered at Auschwitz.

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