An unpublished collection of 47th vintage postcards of Cortina and surroundings, from the 20's to the 50's .
At the defensive line Cinque Torri
Chapter 17 - Twenty-nine months on the Tofane
Cadorna, tardily informed that Italy would declare war to its former allies, had entrusted the fourth army with the Dolomite zone. Orders were to march steadily along the three natural directions and get hold of the Klagenfurt-Fortezza railway line. To the west, along the Cordevole river, over Campolongo saddle and down through Val Badia as far as Brunico (Bruneck); to the east, along the Pàdola to get over Montecroce Comelico and seize San Candido (Innichen); in the middle, enter Ampezzo through the Boite valley, get over the Cimabanche saddle and invade Dobbiaco (Toblach). According to Cadorna’s plans, this rapid action should have cut off the prominent Trentino region, and Austrian-German strategic experts, who had foreseen this plan, were going to withdraw their armies back to the Brennero line. Cadorna did not trust his subordinates enough and had therefore recommended to avoid any initiative that might endanger the manoeuvre. General Nava, commander of the fourth army, added his own fearful doubts to this order. What could have been a swift transfer of soldiers across the mountains, had it taken place with resolution in the very first days when only a few of the old soldiers were on the front, did find, few weeks later, well organized defensive lines. Nava, fired by Cadorna, said he had waited for the artilleries which were to destroy defensive works. It was the matter of some old outposts which had been built at the end of the century at Livinallongo and In Tra i Sass, at the mouth of Valparola, to defend Campolongo; at Son Pouses, Prato Piazza and Landro to cut off the Ampezzo valley; and lastly, above Sesto, on the other side of Montecroce, to defend San Candido. Since they were rather weak, artillery fire demolished them without problems between July and August when the way to Pustorthal was already definitely blocked. Lengthy, weary times would thus begin for the royal army on the southern slopes of the mountains, with heroic individual actions whose strategic outcome was null. In the Cordevole valley, Col di Lana, not even a real mountain, turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle. Furthermore, a small unit of defenders succeeded in blockading the whole road. Doctrines taught in military academies, on how to dominate the bottom of the valley, suddenly proved obsolete. That gentle hill, covered by green grasslands up to its top, exhausted the infantry until a spectacular mine explosion made it possible to conquer half of it. However, the Campolongo pass and all the other ways to descend to Brunico had not been affected. The same happened to the east , on mountains called Peralba, Quaternà, Popèra, Cima Undici and Croda Rossa, where Italian soldiers and Austrian defenders, tenaciously clinging to them, displayed all their courage and valour over endless months. But the old borderline did not change at all.
In the central part - that is in the valley of the Alemagna road war was different, just because topography was somewhat dissimilar . The Ampezzo bowl was (is) facing southward and closed to the north by mountain ridges which are longitudinally cut by deep gorges and ravines, from Lagazuoi to Tofane, from Valon Bianco to Croda d’Ancona, to Cristallo. The war had soon to take this fact into due account. Around July 10th, the Italian infantry drew near Son Pouses cliffs which, at the end of the valley, stop the road compelling it to bend in the direction of Cimabanche. The position turned out to be a very hard one for the attacking troops since defenders were holding higher and more sheltered posts. After a number of bloody, yet absolutely useless frontal attacks, some outflanking manoeuvres were attempted. On the one side, by occupying Col Rosà which would provide a better support to the advance through the gorges of Progoito and the Fanes torrent. The incredible roughness of the terrain allowed only scant progressions, leaving intact Son Pouses defensive posts. On the right side, instead, things went slightly better, with the occupation of Val Padeon and Val Granda down from the Tre Croci pass. Assailants succeeded in taking possession of Ospitale, and settled as far as the slopes of Forame and of opposite Croda d’Ancona. At the cost of great sacrifices they had climbed up part of Val di Gotres when, in late summer, commands interrupted the action for lack of information or, perhaps, of reinforcements, just on the very moment when the outflanking manoeuvres of Son Pouses were going to succeed, as experts report. Throughout the war, these would remain the most forward positions on the road to Dobbiaco.
On the road to Misurina, which would have enabled the troops to invade Carbonin and the longed for railway, actions reached a deadlock against Mount Piana, as blood stained as very few others. Only after many assaults , which went on for months on end that is during the second year of war the plateau was conquered, yet only in part, and therefore without noteworthy strategic advantages. By the late summer of 1915, it became clear that the only way out was by taking possession of the mountain tops. After the weeks wasted in guilty indolence when the bottom of the valley was within easy reach and after the useless attacks in search of a passage, a new way of making war would begin. Exemplary is what happened around the Tofane. When in mid-July Antonio Cantore was killed on the Fontanegra screes, he was looking for the passage to descend into the Travenanzes valley from where Son Pouses should have been outflanked. The Austrian troops had already taken positions on all the crests: Sass de Stria, Lagazuoi, Col dei Bos, Tofane. They also controlled the crucial point of Fanes, Valon Bianco and all the northern slopes.
In the rolls of the 4th army, Alpine troops were limited to few battalions, whereas the Austrian army would hold the front almost only with Mountain troops. The disparity was evened only in 1916. No wonder that the voluntary Alpine troops of the Feltre battalion were sent to conquer Punta Marietta and the Rozes top. Also the minor spurs and the towering peaks, behind which a few defenders were enough to stop any attack, had to be eliminated in order to open the way down to the Travenanzes valley. By means of daring actions, Formenton, Nèmesis and Tre Dita would fall, one after the other. To get the Castelletto a mine worthy of an engineer textbook was exploded. Huge works were carried out on mount Lagazuoi, above the Falzarego pass. In that sort of “block of mines” more than one would explode. Italian mines in the attempt to oust the Jaeger from the top floors, the Austrian ones to get rid of Ettore Martini and his Alpine troops in the caves halfway up the walls. Getting hold of Sass de Stria would have meant an important military advantage since it dominates the remains of the In Tra i Sass fort. Valiant Fusetti, who had taken it by a surprise assault, had been foolishly withdrawn, only to be sent there again to a useless death and to earn the gold medal.
Alberto Monticone writes: “since 1915 a new population had settled in the eastern part of the Alpine arc; digging tunnels and trenches, building roads, bridges, fortifications and shelters, blowing up a few peaks with the mines, altering flora and fauna, they had ventured to live up there in the glaciers”.
In November 1917, when the 4th army was called back to mount Grappa to defend Italy, the two armies which had been joined by the Germans in 1916 were facing each other on the Dolomite front along a line which was almost the same as two and a half years before. The Italian troops had succeeded in conquering, little by little, almost all the most important mountains, but Austrian defenders were still holding tightly the passes and valleys through which the Italians should have gone down to cut off “prominent Trentino”.
The war had witnessed heroic actions and a lot of suffering, yet it had been a lucky one. The fallen or missing soldiers on both frontlines including the ones swept away by avalanches do not top the number of soldiers who died in one only of the 11 horrible battles on the Carso.