In what is quite possibly the most bizarre result of global warming yet, a melting glacier in the Northern-Italian Alps is slowly revealing the corpses of soldiers who died in the First World War. After nearly a century, the frozen bodies appear to be perfectly mummified from the ice. With the remains also comes the story of the highest battle in history—‘The White War’.
The year is May 1915. The newly unified Italy decides to join the Allied Forces in the First World War, which by then is 10 months underway. Italy, eager to expand its borders, decides to wage war against Austria in an effort to annex the mountain areas of Trentino and Southern Tirol. The conflict results in what is now known as ‘The White War’: a cold, four-year-long standoff between Italian mountain troops, named ‘the Alpini’, and their Austrian opponents, ‘the Kaiserschützen’. The battle was fought at high altitude, with special weapons and infrastructure like ice-trenches and cable transports. Often the sides would use mortar fire to try and incur avalanches—‘the white death’—on each other’s camps, claiming thousands of lives.
Now, thanks largely to decades of global warming, the Presena glacier running through the battleground is slowly melting away. And with that melting the remains of the White War are slowly emerging. Remarkably well-kept artifacts have been streaming down with the melting water of the glacier since the early 90s: A love letter dated from 1918, to a certain Maria that was never sent. An ode to an old friend, scribbled down in a diary. A love note picturing a sleeping woman, signed, in Czech, “Your Abandoned Wife.”
Now, after almost a century, the bodies are following suit. Because of the cold, the remains often surface completely intact, still wrapped in their original uniforms. Last September, two Austrians emerged from the ice, aged 17 and 18, both blue-eyed and blonde—with bullet holes in both of their skulls.
Image: Museo della Grande Guerra, Peio
“The first thing I thought of were their mothers,” Franco Nicolis from the local Archeological Heritage Office told the Telegraph. “They feel contemporary. They come out of the ice just as they went in. In all likelihood the soldiers’ mothers never discovered their sons’ fate.”
The local community has been laboring for years now to reveal the remains of this largely forgotten war. In 2004, Maurizio Vicenzi, a local mountain guide and head of the Peio’s war museum, discovered the bodies of three soldiers hanging upside down from an ice wall at an altitude of 12,000 feet—victims of one the highest front lines in history. Multiple findings followed. In one rare find, a team discovered a hidden ice tunnel, that, after being melted open with huge ventilators, turned out to house an enormous wooden structure used as a transportation station for ammunition and supplies.
All bodies that have since emerged pass through the office of Daniel Gaudio, a forensic anthropologist tasked to trace the identities of the war victims. Despite the fact that in most cases he’s able to extract the DNA from the corpses, he rarely succeeds. They’re missing contextual information, he says, that is necessary to determine the possible whereabouts of the families of the war victims.
To date, more than 80 bodies have appeared from the depths of the glacier. And more will surely follow. On the Italian side alone more than 750,000 soldiers died in battle, according to historian Mark Thompson, author of The White War. Next summer, archeological teams will continue their search for more remains of icy melee. And the bodies are certain to keep on coming—climate change looks certain to continue, even accelerate, the thaw.
For now, it’s winter. Not far from the place where the soldiers were first discovered lies Peio, a ski resort where Italians, Austrians, Germans and Russians are once again sharing the same mountain. They do so more peacefully now.