Ukraine: The Battle of Flat Mountain

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Monte Piana (“Flat Mountain”) in the Italian Alps. A bloody and protracted battle was fought there between the forces of Italy and of Austria-Hungary. One more example of how often history rhymes. This ancient battle may tell us something about the current situation in Ukraine

The Monte Piana in Northern Italy is a place that deserved to be seen: a strange mesa-shaped mountain in the middle of the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. It is an eerie place because it still maintains relics of the bloody battles that were fought there between 1915 and 1917. 

There is a relatively easy dirt road that takes you to the plateau, at some 2200 meters in height. There, you can walk along the gentle slope of the plateau, an area of less than one square km. It is difficult to imagine how so many people could have fought and died for that chunk of land. And yet, it happened. The number of dead is unknown, but it is estimated as between 10,000 and 20,000. If the ghosts of all those dead men were to congregate together on the plateau, they would form a crowd of the density that you see in a crowded city park on a warm Sunday. Maybe they do that on moonless nights. 

On the plateau, there is very little left of the great noise of more than a century ago. You can see depressions on the ground that, probably, mark the hits of artillery shells. There are traces of old trenches and fortifications, wood splinters that, probably, were part of barracks or fences. It takes a certain degree of imagination to picture in your mind how life must have been for those men who found themselves stranded there, surrounded by rugged mountains. A scenario of incredible beauty. The kind of beauty that kills. 

The story of the battles of Monte Piana is simple: it was an open-air slaughterhouse. The Austrians occupied the North Side, the small plateau, while the Italians occupied the Southern side, the larger one, The two plateaus were separated by a natural trench that marked the boundaries of the two sides during most of the war. The Italians would resupply their forces (and bring back the wounded and the dead) using a road that they built expressly for that purpose (it still exists). The Austrians would do the same using a more precarious cable car that arrived at the top from the valley, North of the mountain.   

The problem for both sides was that they were in the range of the artillery pieces placed on nearby heights. Howitzer shells continuously battered the area. Both armies had built tunnels in the sides of the mountains, where they would be reasonably safe. But some of them had to man the trenches, and that meant crouching down all the time, hoping that the next shell would kill someone else and that you would survive long enough that your unit, reduced to a small fraction of its initial strength, would be replaced with a fresh new one. The Italians were more aggressive and, every once in a while, the survivors were told to attack the enemy at the bayonet. Every time, they were mowed down by the Austrian machine guns. Sometimes, they would be able to advance into the enemy area, but they were usually repulsed by an Austrian counterattack. 

What it must have been to go through such an experience is beyond imagination. And what’s most impressive is how futile it all was. Even assuming that one of the two sides could have conquered the whole plateau (and both did for short periods during the early months of the war), they could not have kept it, and in any case, it would have been useless. Anything placed there in the open would have been blown up to smithereens by the howitzers placed on higher ground around. So, why engage in that absurd battle? Why, instead, not use the troops to fight somewhere where there was a chance to break through the enemy lines? But I can imagine the headquarters of both sides: could someone propose to retreat and leave the plateau to the enemy? Unthinkable: it is a question of National honor. 

And so, the slaughter went on for nearly 3 years. In late 1917, the Austrians broke through the Italian lines at Kobarid (that the Italians call “Caporetto”) and nearly succeeded in knocking Italy out of the war. The Italian army abandoned Monte Piana and the Austrians occupied it without the need of fighting. About one year later, the starved and demoralized soldiers of the Austrian Empire marched back North. It was now the turn of the Italians to occupy the Monte Piana plateau without the need of fighting. The whole story was futile as it could possibly have been.

And now, let’s see if this sad story can teach us something about current events. Compare the absurd battle of Monte Piana with the current one in Ukraine. In both cases, we have a flat area where the fight is dominated by long-range weapons. It was artillery on Monte Piana, it is still artillery nowadays, although more precise, and more long-range. Drones are dominating the battlefield, and they can be seen as a kind of artillery. So, the battle has taken very much the aspect of what was World War I. Trenches, soldiers standing there while battered by the enemy artillery, little or no chance to maneuver using tanks or other mobile weapons. The times of Guderian’s panzergruppen of WWII seem to be gone, perhaps forever. Recently, the Ukrainians have gained some territory by massing troops on the battle line, but it seems to have cost them dearly. In a certain way, the Ukrainians are behaving like the Italians at Monte Piana, attacking, while the Russians are playing the role of the Austro-Hungarians, defending and counterattacking. 

Of course, history never repeats itself, but there is some rhyming, there. If things go nowadays as they went during WWI, the battle in Ukraine will be completely futile, a useless slaughter of young men on both sides, The war will be decided somewhere else. It will end when one of the two sides, NATO and Russia, collapses, just like it happened in WWI — where the economic collapse of the Central Empires eventually gave the victory to the allies. 

And now? Who will collapse first? Time will tell, but the useless slaughter continues. 

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More

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