Bodies of two Austro-Hungarian soldiers found, 95 years after death in the Italian Alps

Dead body of two Austro-Hungarian soldiers found, 95 years after death in the Italian Alps

Photo story:  (From left): (1) Austro-Hungarian mountain troop Kaiserschützen in Tyrol, hilly territory between Italy and Austria, (2) Two dead bodies of presumed Kaiserschützen soldiers found after 95 years in the Italian Alps recently

The 1914-1918 White War at the Presena Glacier, Italy was the highest battle ever fought until the Siachen War began in 1984 in the Himalayas. In 1915, The Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the Triple Alliance that consisted of Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary, was fighting against Italy in the Italian Alps as Italy changed its alliance with the Triple Entente due to an offensive nature of the Triple Alliance that was supposed to be defensive. Dead bodies of two soldiers believed to have fallen in the Battle of Presena in 1918 have been discovered on the Trento Alto Adige region of Dolomites, Italy this month. The economist reports.

Nearly after 100 years the entangled skeletons, uniform fragments and military badges of the dead bodies were revealed at the altitude of 9,850 feet. They were discovered by the workers of a company which is responsible to prevent shrinking of the glacier by covering it with enormous tarpaulins. This discovery was the second incident after the cache of over 200 rusted grenades from the WWI emerged from Dolomites glacier in August, 2013. Experts have connected the melting of the glaciers with climate change and global warming as Italy is currently experiencing the hottest summer in decades.

The block of ice containing the remains of the soldiers was airlifted to the nearby Italian city Vicenza. During the fierce battle the Austro-Hungarian regiment was fighting against Italy in the Alps to defend their territory, the temperature would drop as low as -30° Celsius. It is speculated that more soldiers died in the cold, avalanches and stormy weather than in the battle.

The mountain troops used to cut galleries and tunnel outwards from the crevasses formed naturally. This was an alternative to trenches. Cable cars were used by both sides in order to transport artillery up to the mountain peaks. The Austrians also used the Russian prisoners from the eastern front to carry the loads up. The heavy pounding the troops gave each other changed the landscape. For example- to dislodge the Italians from San Matteo, the highest peak there with 3,678 meters, the Austrian troops successfully lowered the summit by six meters.

The melting ice started to reveal the scars along with the dead bodies being discovered and also from other ages. In 1991, the 5000 year old dead or murdered ice man Otzi was also discovered nearby. The Alps have been also revealing soldiers’ straw overshoes made by the Russians, diaries, a poem- ode to a louse- that says ‘my friend of long days’ and even an unsent love letter addressed to someone named Maria.

Otzi was in good shape as he died at the edge of the glacier that froze his body bud did not crush it. But the two soldiers discovered this month had been fused together by the pressing force of the glacier. The soldiers were both around only 17 or 18 years old. One of them had a single bullet hole in his skull with a piece of bullet shrapnel inside. The other soldier had a personal belonging- a spoon tucked inside his leg wrappings.

In the wonderful pine fringed cemetery of San Rocco church, Peio, Trentino, the soldiers were buried in unmarked graves at a funeral. Peio was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But along with South Tyrol, it has become part of Italy in 1919. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ordered people of Peio not to evacuate the village, so they witnessed the change of the landscape. Tentino is Italian speaking and South Tyrol is German speaking. Though they had different histories, their act of friendship before the war continued even amidst the WWI. A surprising example of that friendship was on Christmas day amidst the war, exchanging gifts in the icy No Man’s land.

The portrait of Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916) and his wife still hangs on the wall of II Cantuccia, a restaurant in Peio. But nationalism does not gain any foothold here. Annemarie Wieser is the local Austrian member of the war memory preserving organization, Black Cross. She occasionally pays an unannounced visit to the San Rocco cemetery to check the conditions of the soldiers’ grave. And she says that they are always properly tended. The couple Maurizio Vicenzi and his wife Antonella who are responsible for tending the War Cemetery and who also runs the Peio’s Bijou war museum say that the glaciers haven’t given up all the secrets and that there are more to come.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE