Mines and Tunnels

Mines and Tunnels

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  • May, 18 , 23

The mountain warfare on the Italian front during the First World War occurred at remarkable altitudes on a horrific scale. Troops and artillery regularly fortified positions above 5,000 feet, in some cases even above 10,000 feet. It is difficult to imagine living, not to mention fighting, for a sustained period at these altitudes, but it dragged on for more than three years, and both sides suffered more than two million casualties each.

Attacking fortified positions in such extreme terrain required extreme methods, one of which was mining. Tunnels were dug beneath enemy positions, then mines would be detonated in the tunnel, weakening the position and killing the enemy, in theory. The excerpt below describes the mining efforts undertaken at just one position on Monte Lagazuoi Piccolo in the Dolomites:


The Cengia Martini, on Monte Piccolo Lagazuoi, was conquered in October 1915 and had been doggedly defended and strengthened throughout all of 1916. The small rock spur of a year and a half ago was now a position dug in a cave and protected by an entrenchment of solid rock that penetrated the mountain, with tunnels provided with loopholes that enabled the Italians to hit the enemy positions in the Valparola Valley below. The ledge was still defended by the Alpini of the Battaglione Val Chisone.

 After the attempt with the mine on January 1, 1916, the Austro-Hungarians had tried using all possible means to expel the Italians with continuous shelling, machine gun fire, and asphyxiating gas, with no result. Therefore, they decided to make another attempt with a new mine. The works for the mine tunnel started in the autumn of 1916, but soon the Italian observers noticed the activity and understood that the target would be the entrenchment; the solution was to dig a countermine tunnel that would disperse the force of the explosion into another direction. The Austro-Hungarian mine blew up on January 14, 1917, but, as had been calculated by the Italian engineers, the countermine tunnel absorbed the greatest part of its force; thus, the trenches above did not suffer great damage. The Austro-Hungarians realized this as soon as the smoke of the explosion dissipated and, accordingly, canceled the infantry attack that was to follow.

However, still convinced that there was no other way to get rid of the Italians, they started a new mine tunnel in February. This time, the excavations were kept more discreet, and the Alpini noticed them only a few weeks later. Once it was clear that the countermine tunnel would not be ready in time, Italian headquarters decided to leave the entrenchment temporarily but reoccupy it immediately after the explosion in order to forestall an anticipated enemy move. On May 22, 24 tons of explosive blew up the entrenchment, making the whole mountain tremble. Immediately afterward, the Austro-Hungarian artillery started a terrific barrage. However, the Alpini were quick to leave the cover of the caves and occupy the ruins of their positions, which were now—paradoxically—even more inaccessible to the enemy than before due to the huge pile of amassed debris. At the same time, the Italian artillery immediately started to shell the enemy trenches, de facto preventing the Austro-Hungarian infantry from launching its attack. In brief, the action had been a complete failure, and to underline the defeat of the enemy, the battalion’s brass band played an Alpine song, which was heard by all of the troops deployed on the surrounding mountains!

After three attempts by the enemy, it was the Italians’ turn to attempt to blow up the Austro-Hungarian positions with a mine. . . 


Incredibly, this back-and-forth tunneling and mining around this one position persisted through September, nine months after the first attempt! For more on the Italian front in WWI and the greater history of the Italian mountain troops, preorder a copy of Alpini: Italian Mountain Troops: 1872 to the Present by Enrico Finazzer.
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