This Day In History: An Avalanche Kills Hundreds of Austrian Soldiers (1916)

On this day in 1916, a  powerful avalanche killed hundreds of Austrian troops. In WWI the Austrians and the Italians fought each other in the mountains that formed the Austro-Italian border.  The terrain made the war on the southern front very dangerous. On this date, an avalanche kills hundreds of soldiers as they were in their barracks. The barracks were located near Italy’s Mount Marmolada. It is ironic that it is generally considered that the camp was well-protected from an Italian assault. However, it was build directly below thousands of tons of snow. On December the 13th the snow along with rocks suddenly plunged down the slopes of the mountain. The avalanche was very quick and the Austrian soldiers probably did not realize what was happening until it was too late. Some 300 men were killed.  Many soldiers in the barracks suffocated under the tons of snow that buried their barracks. Approximately 200 men survived but not many bodies of the dead were recovered.

The avalanche was only one of a series of avalanches that killed countless Austrian and Italian soldiers on the front line or in rear areas. It is believed that in a period of a week some ten thousand or even more Italian and Austrian troops died as a result of these avalanches. The exact cause of these avalanches has been a source of controversy ever since. There were claims that the avalanches were used as a weapon by either side. That is the Italians and the Austrians deliberately started avalanches with explosives in order to kill as many of the enemy as possible. There is little evidence of this and there are no records that either side deliberately caused these massive avalanches.  Now avalanches have been used in other wars and they have been very effective.  It seems that high and strong winds caused the disasters in 1916.

Italian Alpine troops

This disaster was only one of many. In the days following this avalanche, there were similar disasters. Again, probably due to the high winds.  In the next week or so several regiments were lost and buried beneath an avalanche. Many of the dead were only recovered in the Spring when the snow thawed. Some historians estimate that 10,000 or even more soldiers from both armies were killed by these avalanches.

The Italians had entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1915. Previously, they had been  allied to the Germans and Austrians.  In 1914, the Italian government decided to stay neutral and this was very popular in the country. However, the allies made promises to the Italians to induce them to enter the war on their side.  The Italians and the Austrians had a common mountainous border and this was to be the scene of bloody fight for over three years. The mountains were as dangerous as the fighting and many men on both sides died from falls and over-exertion from fighting at altitude. In fact, it was a common saying among the Austrians that the mountains were more to be feared than the Italian army.  The Italians under General Cardorno had launched several offensives on the Isonzo River. These had achieved very little apart from the death and maiming of countless soldiers from both sides.  The Italians eventually only managed to achieve victory over Austrians in 1918.