26 August 2013
Collett’s Mountain Holidays have been working alongside Isabelle Johnson, a local war historian, for many years. Every Wednesday guests are encouraged to join a fascinating walk through the tunnels, trenches and fortifications of Sass di Stria built by the Austrians in the First World War.
It has to be said that the morning’s weather really set the scene for a day reminiscing about World War One. Isabelle greeted every guest as they arrived in turn at the Tre Sassi Fort and soon enough fourteen eager faces, a mixture from Chalet Angelo and Chalet Haus Valentin, stood ready to go. A short walk along a flat path gave everybody a chance to make introductions and become familiar with one another.
Upon reaching a clearing, Isabelle sat everyone down to give an introduction to the War in general. As she delivered prime information, she passed round photographs which set the scene perfectly. The clouds continued to creep across the mountain tops so we headed up higher in anticipation for them to come into view.
On the saddle of Sass di Stria, we all explored the trenches before coming together to listen to more of what went on in the area during 1915 onwards. Direct quotes from soldiers’ diaries were read out and Isabelle pointed out that almost six months passed without any mention of gunfire or fighting. This was apparently a common occurrence; propaganda photographs gave the impression that most of their time was spent smoking and drinking instead!
After a quick stop for lunch, it was time to clip on our helmets and turn on our torches, for we were about to head inside the tunnels. Some of the lookout points were very small and had to be explored in small groups whilst the rest would gather in dormitories and artillery storage caves. Many times I heard guests describe each turn and discovery as extraordinary, swapping theories and ideas on what the living conditions must have been like for the confined soldiers. More photographs relating to each part of the tunnel were handed round, giving a real feel for what it was like. I was amazed to find out that a diesel generator had been placed deep within the tunnels which provided electric lighting and powered the drills used for cutting rock. After witnessing the charred ceilings you can only imagine how the smoked filled rooms would have affected the soldiers’ lungs over time and the smell it would have created.
Isabelle did extremely well to keep everybody involved, answering any questions she could with confidence and detail. It was agreed by most that without a knowledgeable historian to co-ordinate the walk, many facts would be missed and the tunnels would not come to life as they did with Isabelle’s presence. In fact, many would not dare explore the tunnels in fear of safety issues and the unknown route without the organisation and enjoyment of a group. Upon return, with perfect timing for the museum to open, many of the guests headed inside to expand their knowledge further on what must have been a horrific war here in the Dolomites.