The First World War Fort At Mittelberg, Sexten/Sesto

Ignoring the light, drifting snow, I climbed up to the Mittelberg fortress at 1,575m. that commands the Sesto/Sexten valley and looks westwards to the sheer peaks of the Tre Cime. Deep snow and swirling mist in the Dolomites this March brings back memories of the grim winter war between 1915-18 when Italy attempted to annexe the South Tyrol.

The Mittelberg fort belongs to a time before the arms race took off. It was designed in 1884 as part of the Sexten barrier, just inside the new Austrian frontier with Italy established in 1866 across Passo Monte Croce/the Kreuzberg Pass. The Austro-Hungarians were responding to the loss of the province of Venice.

Seven Austrian forts were built, each with compact construction and a cannon placed within steel armour.

The Mittelberg fort under deep snow

Long before1914 these forts were deemed obsolete. Initially in May 1915 when war eventually broke out, Mittelberg formed part of a line of defence comprising trenches and barbed wire. Behind the forts lay a second line of defence made up of electrified fencing. Almost immediately Mittelberg was downgraded to play a support role as the surreal struggle between Austria and Italy pivoted around the highest peaks of the Dolomites in the shadow of the towering Tre Cime.

A small pushcart railway was employed to provide the stonework for this fort, while the steel armour plating and turrets were some of the first fabricated by Austro-Hungarian factories. It cost 214,000 florins to build and was designed for a garrison of 4 officers and 160 NCOs and men. Once war broke out on 23rd May 1915 the fort appeared too vulnerable to long-range shelling. Its guns were dismantled and moved nearer the front line while the fort like Sexten church in the valley below were damaged by Italian cannons.

Innichen/San Candido war cemetery

Surrounded by hotels and farms today, the fort has a stark anonymity. It belongs to a moment in time as the bellicose pushed nationalist agendas, and as tourists were expelled from these ski slopes. Only the tombstones to fallen Austrians and Germans in a tranquil graveyard overlooking the nearby tourist resort town of Innischen/San Candido mark the brutal consequences of an otherwise savage war in this piece of paradise.

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