As Glaciers On This Mountainside Melted, It Exposed A Chilling Sight

Frozen in time and space, the serene highland landscapes of northern Italy’s autonomous Trentino region hide dark and somber secrets – as Maurizio Vicenzi knows only too well. One day in 2004 Vicenzi was walking the snow-blanketed slopes of San Matteo, and there he came across a disturbing sight: three dead bodies dangling from a wall of ice.

The remains – which belonged to three young men – had lain undetected for nearly 100 years. Their discovery was particularly pertinent for Vicenzi, who worked as a guide and served on a local mountain rescue team. He was also an amateur historian and the director of a military history museum. And his family had been involved in the very same events that had claimed the lives of the men.

Speaking to the BBC in August 2004, Vicenzi described the chilling moment he stumbled upon the corpses. He said, “Using binoculars, I saw what looked like a stain on the Forni glacier and went to look. When I got close, I discovered they were the bodies of soldiers frozen in the glacier. Nothing like this has ever happened in my lifetime.”

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And the discovery, explained Vincenzi, had ramifications – not only for military scholars, but for the community of Peio and its neighbors. He said, “Bodies haven’t been found in the ice around here for decades… This is an important discovery from a historical point of view and exciting for the communities on both side of the border.”

As recently as the 1970s, though, Peio was little more than a remote farming hamlet in the Dolomite Mountains. Today, however, it’s sustained by money from visiting tourists originating from places such as Italy and Russia. It might even be said that Peio’s blossomed into a modest but well-established ski resort.

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The mountains around Peio – which rise precipitously to almost 11,000 feet – are also home to ancient glaciers. But the region’s significance is far from just geological. Carved into its frozen expanse is, you see, a network of World War I trenches that offer moving glimpses into a truly dreadful battlefield.

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Italy’s role in the conflict started on May 23, 1915, after the signing of the Treaty of London. This was a secret agreement that bound the U.K., Russia and France to Italy. The country was actually driven to the join the war, though, by a nationalist movement called “Unredeemed Italy.” Those supporting the movement advocated the radical expansion of national borders.

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For instance, Trentino and its neighbor South Tyrol were at the time territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the areas were, on the other hand, also considered to be “unredeemed lands” by Italy. The fight to reclaim them became known as the White War – a historical event that saw a 250-mile-long front established through frozen mountains.

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And Peio was particularly scarred by the conflict because its inhabitants weren’t permitted to leave. Speaking to the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2013, Peio’s mayor, Angelo Dalpez, said, “The [Austro-Hungarian] Emperor decreed that this village should not be evacuated. As the highest village in the empire, it was symbolic – a message to the rest.”

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Meanwhile, the rugged, high-altitude geography of the terrain demanded the development of an entirely new kind of warfare. In some sense, though, the Italians were more prepared for the clash, as they already had brigades of specially trained mountain soldiers called Alpini. The Austrians, however, had to create their own force of mountain fighters from scratch. They were called Kaiserschützen.

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Yet the distinction between Alpini and Kaiserschützen wasn’t always clear cut. In fact, many of the troops brought into the White War were simply locals with knowledge of the mountains. These men were therefore often friends with one another – regardless of which side they fought on. Sometimes, for example, cousins or brothers represented opposing loyalties.

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Historically speaking, comparatively little is known about the conflict – partly because few reporters ventured to the frontline. Today, however, the Alpine glaciers are retreating, thus exposing the bodies of the war dead. And so historians and forensic scientists are now piecing together a picture of what took place in this high-altitude war zone.

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Excavations have, for instance, revealed that both sides utilized complex military infrastructures in what were incredibly challenging conditions. In fact, the soldiers carved tunnels and trenches, installed communications cables, built roads and assembled cableways to transport supplies. And on Marmolada, the tallest of the Dolomites, a so-called “ice city” was even built into a glacier.

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As with the dismal trench warfare of northern Europe, though, artillery bombardment played a central role in the White War. In recent times, in fact, salvagers and historians have recovered a wealth of supplies and munitions from the mountains. Examples of these include guns, helmets, gas masks, unexploded shells and grenades.

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In 2005, for instance, Vicenzi discovered a cave at Punta Linke – a site that rises nearly 6,500 feet over Peio. And within that cave, Vicenzi recovered a scattering of military equipment, including ammunition and helmets. However, he soon observed that there was a manmade structure underneath the cave. And with the help of local friends, the expert started to investigate it.

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Then, two years later, Franco Nicolis of the Trento-based Archaeological Heritage Office conducted a full excavation of the site. And because of that, he discovered a wood-built station on a cableway. The station had been accessed via a 100-foot-long tunnel that cut through the mountain. But when Nicolis first located the station, it was full of ice. So, to clear it, he used enormous fans.

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This station had, in fact, been used for delivering military supplies to the frontline. Crates had been hoisted upwards on a cableway, you see, and then forced through the shaft. They had then been dispatched 4,000 feet with the help of another unsupported cableway. The entire operation could have been observed through a window next to the tunnel’s exit.

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Inside the station, Nicolis and his team also discovered a disassembled Sendling engine that’d been manufactured in Munich. The group further found instructions for working the engine pinned to the wall, along with a newspaper clipping that showed food queues in Vienna. By 1916, it seems, basic staples in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were becoming scarce.

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On Corno di Cavento glacier, meanwhile, an Austro-Hungarian garrison was recovered following efforts by a local alpine club. This military post contained straw beds, a commander’s office and a storeroom. The site therefore offers a rare and intimate glimpse of day-to-day life during an often-overlooked chapter of the Great War.

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And as we’ve heard, personal effects have also been exposed by the retreating glaciers. Examples of such items include soldiers’ diaries, uniforms, photos, playing cards, sewing kits and – perhaps most heartbreakingly – unsent love letters. So it might be said that Trentino’s trenches had been lonely and fearful places – just as in many other places in war-torn Europe.

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Among the effects recovered from the Punta Linke cableway station was a postcard from Bohemia addressed to Georg Kristof, an engineering corps surgeon. Sent by his wife, the communication describes a sleeping lady and bears a simple message in the Czech language. This reads, “Your abandoned lover.” An affectionate letter to one “Maria” was also found in a stack of unsent correspondence.

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The unfortunate young men posted to the mountains hadn’t fared well, either. Around 150,000, in fact, died in the Italian Alps – and only a third of them had perished in battle. The rest had succumbed to the likes of frostbite and hypothermia. And some others had even fallen victim to landslides and avalanches.

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University of Milan researcher Stefano Morosini spoke to National Geographic about this. “In accounts of the period, in war diaries – whether they be Austrian or Italian – we find the same stories of the terrible hardship caused by the lack of sleep, the torments and the massive snowfalls,” he said. “The enemy took second place. Indeed, the true adversary was nature herself.”

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In battle, though, both sides did engage heroically. Yet their advances were frequently minor and hardly justified the loss of life. After more than three years of escalating skirmishes, then, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto proved decisive. And on November 3, 1918, Italian forces advanced through Austrian lines and forced them into surrender.

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As for the three bodies discovered on San Matteo in 2004, they represent just a fraction of the total dead recovered from the Alps in recent years. Yet while over 80 corpses have been found in the region’s glaciers and treacherous crevasses, it’s sadly proven almost impossible to identify many of them.

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The physical condition of the bodies is reasonably unspoiled, though. Frozen in the ice for decades, many remains are entirely mummified – meaning good quality DNA samples are easy to obtain. Since no national DNA database exists, however, it’s not possible to connect the bodies with any living relatives.

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Scientists have nevertheless been able reveal something of the soldiers’ histories by analyzing their remains. Most had damaged spines, for example, likely caused by hard physical labor. Forensic anthropologist Daniel Gaudio told National Geographic, “They fought while suffering from pain that we would consider intolerable today.”

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It’s also thought that the trio of bodies recovered from San Matteo might actually have belonged to stretcher-bearers. That’s because their equipment included belts and a gas mask, and their pockets were filled with bandages. But the remains were otherwise unarmed. So it’s believed the men had perished from a grenade strike during the Battle of San Matteo on September 3, 1918.

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Taking place from the end of summer 1918, the Battle of San Matteo was the final battle for control of the mountain. For more than 80 years, it was considered the highest battle in human history – a decisive struggle at a dizzy altitude of 12,067 feet. In 1999, however, the Kargil Conflict at 18,373 feet exceeded it.

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The Battle of San Matteo had actually been preceded by the reinforcement of Austro-Hungarian forces at San Matteo Peak in early 1918. So the soldiers’ position had been strengthened with small artillery guns, with which they shelled the route to Gavia Pass. This then had the effect of disrupting Italian convoys carrying vital supplies.

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But on August 13, 1918, a small Alpini battalion launched a successful surprise attack on the Austro-Hungarian station. Around 50 percent of the Kaiserschützen subsequently retreated down the slopes. The remaining half were captured. However, the Empire wouldn’t let such a humiliating defeat go unpunished. And so, before the Italians could secure their defenses, it launched a counter-attack.

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With the objective of reclaiming the mountain, the Austro-Hungarian military launched operation “Gemse” on September 3, 1918. Their subsequent attack on San Matteo began with a heavy artillery bombardment. The force then dispatched ground troops – around 150 Kaiserschützen – from a regiment based in Dimaro. And before long, the Empire retook the station and emerged victorious.

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But the Battle of San Matteo wasn’t quite over. Believing that their position was lost, you see, the Italians began bombarding the peak. And their actions caused casualties on both sides. So when the smoke finally cleared, ten Italians and 17 Austro-Hungarian troops had perished – yet the mountain still belonged to the Empire. It was, in fact, the last triumph of Austro-Hungary.

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The discovery of the three bodies at San Matteo has prompted some thought-provoking reactions too. Nicolis, for example, told The Telegraph that they “feel contemporary.” He said, “They come out of the ice just as they went in.” So the bodies’ relatively pristine conditions suggest, somewhat chillingly, a death which might have occurred in recent times.

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Today, though, the trio of bodies have finally been put to rest. They now in fact lie buried in a local cemetery, with the town’s growing war museum commemorating the sacrifices made by both sides. Angelo Dalpez – the mayor of Peio – told The Telegraph that the community considers the institution “collective property.”

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And in 2012 two more remains were added to the cemetery. They are believed to have belonged to 17- and 18-year-old Austrian soldiers who had perished in the Battle of Presena in May 1918. The bodies were found upright in a crevasse near Presena glacier, their skulls shattered by bullets.

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At the subsequent funeral in Peio, three anthems were performed – Austrian, Italian and the Ode to Joy – reflecting the spirit of internationalism that is the foundation of modern Europe. Speaking to The Telegraph in 2014, Dalpez said, “The people who fought here were Europeans before their time.”

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Sadly, however, there are likely to be many more war victims pulled from the ice in the future. And while remembrance offers a kernel of hope to future generations – after all, forgetting the war dead may condemn Europe to repeat its mistakes – the mountains around Peio are unmistakably deathly. As the Italian war poet Giuseppe Ungaretti once wrote, “Snow is truly a sign of mourning.”

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And what was the outcome of the conflict? Well, in 1919 Trentino was incorporated into Italy under the terms of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. But for the communities living there, there was little change. In the far-flung mountains, you see, there had always been a sense of autonomy, of disconnection from the wider world. So despite the losses and the horrors of the White War, life continued as always.

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That said, Peio is a place that’s never forgotten its history. For the bodies that emerged from the ice are not nameless historical artifacts, but long-lost relatives who perished in arguably the most brutal conflict of them all. Maurizio Vicenzi’s own family – who fought on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – may well have been comrades of the three men he discovered in 2004.

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