Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Monte Pasubio and the Road of Heroes

Massive Monte Pasubio, Italy's Southern Anchor of the Trentino Sector

Monte Pasubio, a stupendous series of peaks and high plateaus southeast of Rovereto and north of Vicenza was a strategic position from 1916 through the end of the war on the Italian Front. Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) saw service there. It played a role on the Italian Front similar to Mte. Grappa farther North. Capturing it would have given the Austrian high command access to the Venetian Plain and the ability to capture much of the Italian Army from the rear. At the start of the war Pasubio had been in Austrian territory but was quickly occupied by the Italians, who built a new trench line further north just south of Rovereto and the Asiago high plains.

In May 1916, Austro-Hungarian forces launched their Strafexpedtion [a.k.a The Battle of Asiago] and quickly captured the Vallarsa and Val Posina valleys, Mt. Col Santo, Val d'Astico, and part of the Asiago Plateau. At Mte. Pasubio, the Liguria Brigade, under the command of General Achille Papa, was able to stop the Austrian army after being quickly transferred from the Isonzo Front. They were able to secure one of two peaks in the Cima Palon section of the massif. Papa's troops occupied the more southerly peak, Dente Italian [the Italian tooth], the Austrians the other [Dente Austrico] — the two positions separated by a saddle. This allowed the Italian defenders to stabilize the front on the line from Mte. Pasubio to Mt. Ortigara on the Asiago Plateau by 3 June.

Italian Officers Outside One of the Galleries

The front held along the saddle between the two peaks for another two years. The plateau became a land of bloody and hard battles involving the best alpine troops of the two sides, an epic battle for the Kaiserjager as well as the Italian Alpini. Italy would award 30 Gold Medals for valor for the fighting on Mte. Pasubio.

Today Monte Pasubio seems to have been torn by giant plows. Trails dynamited into the rocks along deep vertical walls and dozens of tunnels with small cross sections make hiking this trail an exceptional experience. The mountain massif is crisscrossed by strategic trails and roads built around 1917 by Italy during the sad war with Austria. The Road of Heroes leads from Passo Fuggaze at 1162 meters altitude past Refugio Papa (named in honor of the Liguria Brigade's commander) to the eastern edge of the trail backing the Italian position at 1925 meters. Thousands of miners assigned to the 5th Engineering Regiment built the next core section of the trail, called "Strada delle Gallerie" (road of tunnels) under enormous time pressure in only 11 months. This section includes 52 tunnels providing cover or leading to the north face of the Italian position. The Strada drops downward in this zone of galleries to about 1200 meters. The 52 galleries in the aggregate total 2280 meters in length.

The Road of Heroes, Two of the 52 Galleries Shown

Austria-Hungary desperately needed to break through at Monte Pasubio. The British official history of the Italian campaign notes that " 3 a.m. 13 March 1918, using 110,000 lbs of ecrasite, the Austrians blew a salient of the Italian front position into the air." Pasubio never fell, however. Its 52 galleries made it an unbreakable citadel.

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