Saturday 23 September 2023

The Forgotten WWI Trenches of Lake Garda: preservation efforts using both conflict and public archaeology

In Evidenza

It was considered to be an immobile front, not only due to the geographical advantages of the Alto Garda. The Dosso Merlo WWI trenches were built by Italian forces in a dominant position on the northern side of the lake located within the boundaries of the town of Malcesine in the province of Verona. They were part of a rear line of defence that allowed them to be ready for breakthroughs from the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army, located in one of the traditional areas where penetration warfare was carried out along the peninsula. The rear line of defence was neither far away from the front, nor was it completely safe from danger, seeing as Dosso Merlo was in fact subjected to heavy artillery fire throughout the conflict from 1915 to 1918. The great defensive post, like many others between the lake in Navene and Monte Altissimo, has now been gradually taken over by vegetation and forests that are poorly maintained due to the neglect of forestry, especially in this area near the Garda, which has many other economic uses.



During WWII, military history began to mark the region yet again in the same locations up until the battaglia delle gallerie or ‘battle of the tunnels’ took place on 28-29 April 1945. This was a long, drawn-out conflict between American and German forces that occurred at the end of the war. During the pursuit (30 April), the conflict witnessed the death of Colonel William Darby (legend and founder of the Rangers), as well as that of dozens of other soldiers. The fleeing enemy troops furiously defended the line of retreat, which made the eastern shore of Lake Garda once again a centre of conflict. There is still much to be studied about this land; however, there is no denying that some of the structures were reused, others were built from scratch, and that the German line of defence was a serious issue for the American soldiers, as they wanted to swiftly advance.

Military maps and struggle on the field

The surveying, recovery and enhancement of these structures and traces is underway and has been carried out tenaciously since 2013 by the town of Malcesine – by Emiliano Colombo, in particular – and with the field work of geoarchaeologist Nicola Cappellozza, who oversees the research and execution endeavours throughout the region. It is not only a project of conflict archaeology, as it comprises the use of public archaeology, as well. The involvement of the local branch of the National Alpine Association (Associazione Nazionale Alpini/A.N.A.) and the use of advanced landscape archaeology techniques are two components that make this endeavour especially noteworthy.

The layout and the definition of the coastal defence operation and logistic posts under the control of the Regia Marina on a map scaled at 1:100.000 from July 1918 (AUSMM). This reproduction has been overlaid on top of an extract of a military document from the time, which was drawn to the same scale. (Carta Giraldi). Shown to us by Nicola Cappellozza.

The Italian front between the Alto Garda and Vallagarina areas (Italian lines in red)
The Italian front between the Alto Garda and Vallagarina areas (Italian lines in red)

Archiving was an extremely important task, as the maps – which would have been in the hands of Lieutenant General Guglielmo Pecori Giraldi, commander of the Italian First Army (1ª Armata)– precisely indicated the artillery posts, lines of defence and observation posts, until at least 1917. This allowed for field work to be carried out rigorously, by surveying, cataloguing, photographing and, when possible, excavating using archaeological methods. The trenches, which had disappeared under vegetation with little natural value, were first mapped and then released from the shrubs, revealing the connection between the different strongholds, observation posts, ammunition depots, and areas of refuge. One of the five Italian defensive lines, which would have been deployed in the event of an Austrian breakthrough, has now been brought back to life and is in the process of being restored and consolidated. It is now able to be visited and boasts an unparalleled landscape.

305mm/46 model 1909 naval cannon of the Regia Marina in Punta Campagnola, Malcesine

305mm/46 model 1909 naval cannon of the Regia Marina in Punta Campagnola, Malcesine

The Italian Navy: on the Garda and in the trenches

The history of the defending of this area of the Alto Garda has seen, as in other areas of the front, the involvement of the Navy. There was a strong Naval presence, which could be witnessed by Lake Garda’s very own fleet – including both naval vessels and other vessels outfitted for military purposes -, as well as the presence of naval soldiers, which were mixed in with the army. Lastly, the great naval artillery was dismantled from the battleships and placed on the front to fire against the farthest enemy posts. To shoot with the gigantic 305mm in Malecesine, it was necessary to obtain the authorisation of the commander for every shot fired, given the exorbitant cost of the projectiles.

Backlit photograph of Italian soldiers on Monte Baldo, WWI

Backlit photograph of Italian soldiers on Monte Baldo, WWI

The efforts of a small town and a team of scholars and volunteers have obtained remarkable results that might serve as an inspiration for other areas along the front between Trentino and Veneto. Such an endeavour would be primarily focused on protecting history and carrying out a rigorous archaeological study that honours the fallen, not just in regards to their remains, but that reconstructs their history and brings them back to life, thanks to the material testimonies found in the documents: a feat that only archaeology could accomplish.

The British Expeditionary Force in Italy, WWI

In March 2018, the 14th Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) was deployed between Asiago and Canove, not so far from the trenches discussed in this article, in one of the bloodiest fronts of the Great War. French troops were present, whilst the Italian forces remained to the East. Sir Herbert Plumer was in command of five divisions: the 5th, 7th, 23rd, 41st and 48th.  The first three, composed of little more than 36,000 men, were deployed to the West of the plateau. On 15 June, Austrian forces attempted their last desperate breakthrough towards the Venetian plains; the British were strongly engaged and this ferocious battle, often forgotten by British historians, was paid by the Tommies with 1,400 dead, injured and lost.


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