White Friday

A mass being held on the glacier of Marmolada (25 Nov 1916) in honour of the new Emperor of Austria, Charles I. Many of these men would be dead less than three weeks later as a result of the Gran Poz. avalanche (Photo: Austrian National Library)

Death in the First World War took many forms. Soldiers would be killed through artillery, machine gun fire, sniper shots, mined from below or bombed from above.

Many others were claimed by sickness, or drowned in water-filled shell holes. The fact is that soldiers died in many, horrible ways. On one front in particular, death came in the form of snow and ice.

The Italian Front, also known as the Alpine Front, was the location of several battles between 1915 and 1918 along the border of Italy and Austro-Hungary.

Italy joined the war in 1915 and a surprise offensive was planned to take land ahead of Austro-Hungarian forces.

However, the surprise element failed to materialise and the Italian Front, like in France, Belgium and the East, ground into trench warfare.

In December 1916, the Italian Front was the scene of the most deadly series of avalanches in human history.

An Austro-Hungarian army barracks, called Kaiserschützen was built on the Grand Poz summit, 11,000 feet above sea level on Mount Marmolada.

The barracks were built in the previous summer, and on 13 December they were packed full of soldiers.

The weather during the winter of 1916 in this area of central/ southern Europe had made for ripe avalanche conditions.

Heavy snowfall followed by usually mild conditions in the Alps resulted in a significant pile up of snow on top of the mountain.

The barracks commanders could see that the danger was looming, and that remaining at the base would become near impossible.

The 1st Battalion of the Imperial Rifle Regiment were housed at the barracks, and their commander Captain Rudolf Schmid wrote to his superior Field Marshal Lieutenant Ludwig Goiginger of the 60th Infantry Division, asking for permission to leave the barracks with his men.

This decision would be a death sentence for hundreds of the soldiers stationed at the barracks.

In the week leading up to the 13 December, more snow piled up on top of the building and then finally, at approximately 5.30am, over 200,000 tons of snow and ice fell from the mountain onto the barracks below.

Soldiers were packed into wooden huts in the barracks, and these were crushed under the weight of the snow.

Very few of the 321 soldiers at the barracks survived, but one of these was Captain Schmid who suffered only small injuries.

Only a handful of bodies were recovered, with the rest remaining in their icy tombs.

The Italians were not spared on White Friday, for on the evening of the 13 December mountain barracks housing a division of the 7th Alpini were crushed by an avalanche.

December 1916 was a month during which avalanches were commonplace on the Alpine Front, but none were more deadly than White Friday.

It is estimated that at least 9,000 people were killed by avalanches in the Alps during 1916, either directly by the snow and ice or indirectly e.g. rock falls or mudslides triggered by the avalanche.

Many soldiers feared the icy mountain conditions more than their enemy, and with White Friday as an example it’s not hard to see why.

Fighting on the Alpine Front would continue until 4 November when an armistice was agreed, and many more soldiers would fall on either side.

Yet it was the events of 13 December 1916 which would be one of the more infamous in this section of the Great War, and something which would have been perhaps one of the most terrifying ways to die during that horrific conflict.

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Patrick Hollis

Patrick Hollis

I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. I’m a published author and journalist with several years experience