While the glaciers in the northern Italian Alps are melting and shrinking, long-frozen relics of the First World War emerge from the ice.
This includes cups, cans, letters, weapons and bones with the marrow sucked dry. They were found in cave barracks not far from the cold summit of Scorluzzo, which is more than 300 meters above sea level in northern Italy near Switzerland.
The Austro-Hungarian soldiers who occupied these barracks fought against Italian troops in the so-called White War. There in the Alps – away from the better known Western Front, a site of bloody trench warfare between Germany and France – troops climbed to precarious heights in the stinging cold to carve fortifications in rock and snow.
The weather that put the troops to the test on Mount Scorluzzo ultimately preserved their barracks and froze the entrance after the soldiers left their posts at the end of the war in 1918. The structure was essentially impenetrable for decades – until 2017, when enough ice and snow had melted and allowed researchers to enter.
The barracks have now been excavated, revealing the items left behind and offering a fuller insight into the people who lived in the narrow space more than a century ago.
The barracks in the Stelvio National Park are “a kind of time machine,” said Stefano Morosini, a historian who coordinates heritage projects for the park and is a professor at the University of Bergamo in Italy.
“We are interested not only in a historical but also in a scientific way,” he added. “How was the pollution? What were the epidemiological conditions like in the barracks? How did the soldiers sleep and how did they suffer? What did they eat?”
Many of the relics will eventually be shown in a museum slated to open next year in the town of Bormio, Morosini said. There is already another museum dedicated to the White War in the nearby town of Temù. The employees there are now working to restore the relics found in the barracks.
Luca Pedrotti, a science coordinator at the park, said the relics received instruction in both environmental science and history. Extremely cold weather killed soldiers in northern Italy more than a century ago; The warmer conditions present a different type of threat today.
Mr Pedrotti, who lived in the park as a child, said he had watched glaciers recede over decades. He has seen changes in the flora and watched cold-loving animals move towards the mountain tops and cling to habitable areas that continued to shrink.
“I think it’s important that we use the park as a study area to raise awareness about climate change,” he said.
In the White War, it was believed that most of the soldiers who died were killed not by the fighting but by the environment. Their remote outposts were difficult to fortify with food and supplies, and the windswept peaks were prone to avalanches.
“Here men spend their days in shaggy furs, their faces smeared with grease to protect them from the stabbing explosions, and their nights in holes dug in the snow,” wrote E. Alexander Powell newspaper correspondent in Italy at War “, A book published in 1918.
“On no front, neither in the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian swamps or in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighter lead such an arduous existence as up here on the roof of the world. ”
Now Italian scientists and researchers are working to reconstruct the daily lives of soldiers who fought on the frozen front.
It is already clear that they were fighting hunger – they were hungry enough to eat bone marrow and fruit pits – and that they did their best to fight the cold with layers of cloth and fur. They also wrote letters to loved ones reporting spectacular views and terrible conditions.
“We’re not that interested in guns because guns are a way to kill,” said Mr Morosini. “We are interested in the relics that show the extreme environmental conditions and the extreme living conditions of these soldiers.”
No bodies were found in the barracks, although frozen bodies of people who fought in the White War have appeared nearby. However, researchers found at least one sign of life, said Alessandro Nardo, the park’s director.
“When I first came here in late 2018 to manage the Stelvio National Park, one of the things that piqued my curiosity was a small pot on a desk with a green wild geranium,” he said.
“I asked my colleague what it was and he said it sprouted from the seeds found in the mattresses of the Scorluzzo barracks.”