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23.9.2017 : 23:54 : +0200

 

War for the Alps

 

The First World War in the Alpine Region and Bavarian border control measures in Tyrol

Abstract of the PhD Dissertation by Alexander Jordan

In May 1915 Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result, a new front, which ran along the Alps, was created. The Italian Front was the site of the largest scale mountain warfare in history, and battle took place at an altitude of up to 10,000 feet. This PhD thesis will show the special features and theoretical basics of the war in the Alps during World War One.

The fighting that took place in nearly sub arctic regions and even lower mountainous terrain was completely different to the fighting that took place in France or Russia. Fighting at high altitude was exhausting and uniquely dangerous. Supplying and reinforcing the troops was extraordinarily difficult. Over 10,000 soldiers died in avalanches in the winter of 1916 alone. The tactical and engineering innovations implemented to deal with these challenges were often spectacular. The geographic emphasis is Tyrol, more specifically the area along the front from the Swiss border (Ortler mountains) in the north-west, down to Lake Garda next to the Dolomites, to the Isonzo/So?a river in the east and Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. However the high mountains front must not be considered isolated. Interdependence with the battles along the river Isonzo/So?a must also be considered. In particular the fighting period between October 1917 and November 1918 along the Isonzo and later the Piave River was of decisive importance even for the domestic situation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


The strategic interplay between the south-western front against Italy and the other theatres of war can be expressed in the conflicts and discord between the chiefs of the general staffs of the central powers. They had vital effects on the operations at the alpine front as shown, e.g. in the spring offensive of 1916. The above-mentioned lack of a homogeneous military management of the central powers took effect very disadvantageously in the course of the war and goes back to a mutual ignorance of the allies to tolerate special characteristics in the army and military structures of the ally. A view of the shared troops in the dissertation will give a clarifying insight into the ‘pluralistic’ and thus different army organization during the war.


The three war years in the Italian theatre are dismantled in several stages. The first weeks were shaped from a mutual scanning. The war of high mountain patrols changed after the bloody battles along the Isonzo river to trench warfare with special features. The Austrian spring offensive of 1916 is of special importance because it was at the operational level one of the largest planned and executed large-scale operations in mountain regions.
Since the Austrian defenders were strongly burdened by continuous defence battles, they decided for an ultimate counter-attack battle to release the south-western front and to finally roll up the alpine front. The break-through Battle of Caporetto in 1917 is the most famous and most misunderstood battle of the Italian front. New facts will be considered in this dissertation.


A central part of the thesis is the situation leading up to and shortly after the Austro-Italian armistice of Villa Giusti in November 1918. Bavaria was threatened, and the Bavarian High Command feared an invasion by entente troops into Bavaria. Hastily compiled troops pulled into Tyrol in the morning hours of November 5th, 1918. The Tyrol National Council was pleading for help. A catastrophic food situation, more and more mutinying troops and the general chaos caused by the withdrawal of the dissolved Austrian Army led Tyrol directly to an anarchic state. These days of chaos, despair, anarchy and uncertainty are unfortunately excluded too often in historical research and are therefore the foundation for the thesis.


The methodological direction does not stress operational or mere military history. It is not a traditional or conventional ‘general staff history’. It is instead an analysis based on the complex relationship of military, society and diplomacy In particular the interfaces between politics and military are of interest.