Jack Southan goes deep in search of First World War history in the Dolomites
As the thick grey mist begins to swirl around me, clinging to the large boulders and hanging loosely over the patches of heather and scrubland dotted between the rock, I’m starting to lose track of those ahead of me. It’s not yet five in the evening, but my eyes are already struggling in the twilight, shapes appearing and disappearing as the light plays tricks on me.
I can see the orange jacket of my guide Giordan, bobbing up and down as he leaps from rock to rock a little way ahead, so I focus on that and forge ahead.
I’ve been walking through these mountains for 10 days and although my winding 150-mile route has come to an end, I’ve been promised one last adventure. We’re heading up a barely noticeable trail, high onto the precipitous face of a mountain to find the entrance to a tunnel dug over 100 years ago.
The vast system of subterranean passageways that lie hidden throughout the Italian Dolomites were constructed as fortifications during the First World War against the invading Austro-Hungarian Empire. This battlefront saw some of the bloodiest combats of the war — with over a million men killed. The stories of this particular area of war, however, have been overshadowed by other battles such as the Somme.
As I finally catch up with Giordan, I see that he’s standing in front of a small, dark opening in the rock. Not higher than four feet, it would be easy to pass by, and without my guide I certainly would never have found it. We switch on our torches and head into the inky blackness.
The walls are surprisingly dry, which is probably why so much has remained just as it was. The original wooden beams supporting the tunnels still hold firm and scrawls made by bored soldiers are still discernible on the walls. It’s eerily quiet, and the stillness of the air is claustrophobic and enveloping. We move slowly through the winding passages, until we eventually come to a fork: one direction leading deeper still, the other leading to what would have been a gun emplacement with incredible views overlooking the valley of Lagazuoi.
There are bullet holes and evidence of battle everywhere. Bullet casings, bomb shards and metal fragments lie all over the place on the mountainside, testament to just how prolific the fighting must have been. The tunnels run for miles; sometimes we have to crawl on our stomachs through tiny spaces to see what’s beyond, and sometimes there’s open space, like grand caverns.
The valley is huge, and as we look out from a trench connecting two tunnels across a ridge, Giordan tells me the opposite side is built up just the same. I can’t see any hint of it though, as the vastness of these mountains makes even this huge feat of man’s determination seem insignificant. I turn to see the sun set and decide it’s time to head back into the darkness, before the trail back to the car is totally lost.