White Friday 1916 – History’s Deadliest Avalanche occurred during WWI

Graves of the White Friday avalanche victims
Graves of the White Friday avalanche victims

The deadliest avalanche in history occurred at the worst possible time in the worst possible place.   A powerful avalanche killed hundreds of Austrian and Italian soldiers near Italy’s Mount Marmolada on 13 December 1916, in the middle of World War I. It would come to be known as White Friday. Over the next several weeks, more avalanches in the Alps killed an estimated 10,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers fighting Nature, as well as each other.  Some claim the avalanches were purposefully triggered against the enemy, but we’ll never know for sure.

World War I began in 1914, with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a teenage Serbian boy.  European nations stood by their allegiances and declared war on each other. Austria, Hungary and Germany against Russia, France and Britain.  Italy, on the other hand, did not join the war right away.  According to the 1882 Triple Alliance, Italy, Germany, and Austro-Hungary were allies. However, the terms allowed Italy to remain neutral, at least at the beginning of the war.

As the fighting continued into 1915, the Allies began to woo the Italians into joining their side. The lure for Italy was the promise of the Austrian Alps, specifically the Italian-speaking Tyrol region, in southwest Austria.  After 2 months of negotiations, Italy finally stepped in, declaring war on Germany and Austro-Hungary in 1915.

The border and front was located high in the Alps, where pitiful soldiers would fight in the snow for the next two years.

In the spring of 1916, the Austrian army swept south, through the mountains in a major offensive. Had they reached the Italian plain, they could have marched on to Venice and encircled much of the Italian Army, breaking a year long stalemate. But the Italians were ready, marched north to meet them, and stopped them in the Alps.

In any battle, the side with the high ground has the advantage. So each side tried to climb higher and higher into the Alps, dragging their supplies and heavy artillery with them.  Armies climbed as high as they could … and then dug in.  Tunnels were blasted into the glaciers and mountainsides, while barracks were built to protect soldiers from the freezing cold.

An estimated 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians would die on the Alpine Front during the war, many in fierce battles along the Isonzo River. But the front zigzagged 400 MILES—nearly as long as the France/Belgium front with Germany, mostly in rugged mountains, where the fighting was as hellish as the trenches.

Many armies had marched through these high Alpine passes, going back to Roman days.

But never had the mountains themselves been the battlefield, or the fighting at a modern scale, with fearsome new weapons high up there on the ‘Roof of the World.’  So bloody battles raged amidst the cold, snowy, mountains of Tyrol. The conditions were often worse than the actual battles.  This was certainly true in December 1916, when freakishly heavy snowfall in the Alps created conditions ripe for avalanches. While the freezing cold and enemy fire were obvious dangers, even more deadly were the heavily snow-packed peaks lying just above their heads.

The hundreds of Austro-Hungarian troops stationed in a barracks near the Gran Poz summit of Mount Marmolada were in particular danger. The camp was well-placed to protect it from Italian attack, but was unfortunately situated directly under a steep mountainside of unstable snow. The Kaiserschützen Barracks were built at about 11,000 feet in August 1916 to house the 1st Battalion, Imperial Rifle Regiment. The location on a rock cliff was well situated to protect it from Italian mortar fire.  They were now in one of the most beautiful places on earth AND one of the most deadly.

The winter of 1916/17 saw the heaviest Alpine snowfall of the 20th century.

One gauge recorded 56 inches (143 cm) just that winter. This created conditions ripe for avalanches.  At the start of December, the snow was 8–12 meters (40 feet) deep at the summit. The Austro-Hungarian commander, Captain Rudolf Schmid, could see this through his binoculars and was well aware of the danger his company faced. He wrote to his superior, Field Marshal Ludwig Goiginger of the 60th Infantry, requesting immediate relocation father down the mountain.  His appeal to evacuate was denied.  During the next 8 days, even more snowfall fell, downing telephone lines and leaving each border outpost stranded without supplies or communication.

On Wednesday morning, December 13, 1916, at 05:30 am, a massive rumbling woke the sleeping soldiers in their darkened barracks.  A few might have recognized the sound and had a second to shout, “Lawine!”  But that’s all the time they got.  An avalanche of over 200,000 tons (1 million cubic meters) of snow, ice and rocks plunged down the mountainside.  The wooden barracks packed with groggy soldiers, was crushed under the weight of the avalanche, burying the 332 occupants.  229 were Kaiserschützen mountain infantry and 102 were a Bosnian support column. Only a fraction were pulled from the snow to safety.   The other 270 were buried alive. Only 40 bodies were ever recovered. Among the survivors was a dazed Captain Schmid who escaped with injuries.

The night of December 13th was just as bad, but for the other side. 

A second avalanche struck an Italian division of the 7th Alpini, overrunning their mountain barracks just to the south, killing hundreds of soldiers as well. December 13th marked Saint Lucia, a religious holiday for Italian Catholics. The Italians would call the disastrous day of the ‘Valanga Grande’ La Santa Lucia Nera, Saint Lucy’s Day.

All throughout December 1916, the explosions from tunnel-building and artillery fire took its toll, causing numerous other avalanches both large and small.  According to some reports, both sides deliberately fired shells into the weakened snowpacks above each other in an attempt to bury the enemy. Entire regiments were lost in an instant. The bodies of some victims weren’t found until spring thaw if at all.

Depiction in the press of the White Friday avalanches
Depiction in the press of the White Friday avalanches

A complete estimate of the number of casualties from December 1916 is not possible. Historical records suggest at least 2,000 Italians and Austrians died that month between soldiers and civilians. Though the avalanches started on Wednesday the 13th, the term ‘White Friday’ was used to describe the disastrous series of days that followed.  The best estimate is that between 9,000 and 10,000 soldiers died by the end of the winter due to avalanches.

The destruction of World War I is overwhelming. Nine million dead overall. Twenty-one million wounded.

Trench warfare – the so-called No Man’s Land between them – and the futile frontal assaults took their toll.  Against this, the mountain war in Italy was a series of smaller battles. In subzero temps, men dug miles of tunnels through glacial ice. They hung rope ladders up rock faces to move soldiers onto higher and higher peaks, then hauled up an arsenal of heavy artillery, machine guns, flamethrowers and mustard gas.  The avalanche “White Death” killed thousands.  Yet the Alpine war remains one of the least-known battlefields of WWI, over-shadowed by the trenches of the Western Front.

Deadly fighting continued into late1918, with a total of 12 battles fought in this frozen terrain, mostly in Tyrol near the Isonzo River.  When World War I finally ended, at 11:00pm on 11 November 1918 (the 11hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), the remaining, tired and cold troops from both sides, slowly climbed down the frozen mountains for their homes, leaving their artillery, equipment and buried dead behind.  Altogether, White Friday caused the most deaths by avalanche in our world’s recorded history.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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