History Under Ice: Glacial Thaw Reveals WWI Remains

Published on August 15th, 2014 | by Alex Browne


Isonzo-Schlacht, Trainkolonne am Moistroka-Pass

One of the more unexpected consequences of climate change has been the appearance of the frozen bodies of soldiers who fell during WW1 while stationed in the far north of the Italian Alps.

The frozen and well-preserved bodies of these soldiers have been found near the tiny Alpine village of Peio, and it appears that they were casualties of a little-known factor of WW1 that historians refer to as The White War.

This discovery is the latest in a line of many fascinating stories that are still being revealed a century later.

Austro-Hungarian Empire

The small village of Peio was of strategic importance as it was once the highest placed village with a perfect view of the battle that was ensuing below that became known as the White War.

At the start of WW1 in 1914, the province of Trentino where Peio lies and neighbouring South Tyrol were Hapsburg domains. A recently unified Italy was seeking to achieve a permanent settlement of her frontiers and considered these two provinces along with Trieste, as unredeemed lands that they could stake a claim to.

May 1915

Having originally declared a policy of neutrality when the First World War began on 2nd August 1914, the Italian government was subsequently persuaded to enter the war and take up arms on the side of the Allies, which they did on 23rd May 1915.

This was also the point when Italy set about trying to stake their claim to the province of Trentino and South Tyrol as well as Trieste. This signalled a watershed moment in what became known as The White War as Italy staked their claim to these provinces. By this time, conflict was already in full flow on the western and eastern fronts and this latest action served to open up a third front. The fighting zone stretched from the Julian Alps which are now shared with Slovenia to the east, and to the Swiss border of Ortler Massif which was about 250 miles to the west.

At the onset of this particular offensive, Italian forces actually outnumbered their Austrian adversaries by a ratio of three-to-one, but despite this numerical advantage, the Italian forces were unable to penetrate through the strong defensive lines held by the Austrians along the Julian Alps.

The fundamental reason for their inability to achieve success is that the Italians may have had a numerical advantage but they were thwarted by severe logistical issues. The Austrian forces were based on higher ground, and this meant that Italian offensive manoeuvres had to be conducted whilst climbing.

The Italian units tasked with advancing were professionally trained but did not actually have the training and requisite skills to cope with these warfare conditions, which also led to morale reaching a low point as their efforts were thwarted and casualties mounted due to deaths from the dangerous conditions as well as combat.


The biggest enemy

The location for this conflict presented a series of major challenges, as much of the front was at altitudes of at least 6,500 feet.

The Italians already had mountain troops with specialist skills and training to cope with these conditions and the Austrians subsequently created their equivalent force, who became known as the Kaiserschützen.

The biggest enemy of all actually turned out to be Mother Nature rather than each other. There is no question that the guns and bombings took a terrible and tragic toll but the weather ultimately killed more soldiers than anything else.

The temperature could sometimes fall below -30c and death by avalanche, which was referred to as the White Death, claimed many victims during the war.

White War discoveries

As climate change has taken hold in areas like the Alps, the glaciers have slowly started revealing some hidden secrets and remarkably personal discoveries.
Some extremely well preserved artefacts have been found alongside the mummified remains of soldiers who appear to have been buried by their comrades.

An incredible 80 soldiers who fell in the White War have so far been discovered as the glaciers have continued to retreat and a love letter that was never sent was amongst some of the items found, bringing a highly emotional and personal perspective to the events that took place.

Archaeologists are continuing their work in the region and they are discovering new items and remains on a regular basis, which is helping to fill in the missing blanks of a historical conflict that has almost literally, been frozen in time for so many years until now.

By Alex Browne of MadeFromHistory.com

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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