Erwin Rommel Trail: runs through the story of the Caporetto retreat.
Erwin Rommel Trail: runs through the story of the Caporetto retreat.
Calling the Trail Erwing Rommel, a trail that Castello Ceconi Pielungo goes to Claut climbing over mountains and valleys, could someone brand as a distortion of history.
And in fact, from a strictly historical point of a view, that someone would be right: our route was only partly witness of the exploits of the future” desert fox”. But the reference to the name commonly recognized due to his fame, courage, tactical intuition and luck, allows us to draw attention not only on the event but also the little unknown historical events related to the First World War. Events of the Caporetto days, between late October and early November 1917, found a portion of it’s own theatre in the mountains between the Tagliamento and the Piave, not just little – known: but often mistakenly related only to that one name: Erwin Rommel. This time the name will no longer cause a superficial knowledge but can become, through the track and the legs of our athletes, the opportunity to learn about pages of history that will revive almost 100 years later.
But first, who was Erwin Rommel in 1917?
Norn in Heidenheim in 1891, a 26 years young Lieutenant, was in the Wùrttemberg (Wùrtenbergishe Gebins Batalion or WGB) battalion, under the command of major Theodor Friedrich Sproesser, with whom he had fought on the French front and Romania.
For the major offensive planned by the Central Power between Piezzo e Tomino, the battalion of the Wùrttemberg mountain division, lined up in the German Alpenkorps, one of the leading divisions made available for fights in the mountains.
Eleven companies, trained to combat infiltration according to the innovative techniques between the enemy lines, equipped with heavy machine guns and howitzers but, above all, the new machine guns LMG 08/15, able to ensure the combination of the power of the automatic weapon fire and the speed of movement on the battle field. To Rommel were assigned a division of tree mountain companies and a machine gun company.
At 2 a.m. of the 24th October 1917, beginning of the attack against the Italian lines, the WGB is deployed near Santa Lucia di Tolmino.
After a first day without being directly involved, from morning of the 25th at noon of the 26th October Lieutenant Rommel and his men do miracles: with a series of a skilful infiltration actions and good dose of luck, win over the Italian lines between Kolovnat and Moutajur, capturing thousand of prisoners and large quantities of weapons and ammunition.
The battalion then rushes towards the Tagliamento and on the 30th October reaches Dignano, where they tried without success to overcome the flood.
A few days later happens the encounter of Erwin Rommel with our territory.
On the 3rd November the WGB ceases to be part of the Alpenkorps and recives the order, as the vanguard of the 22nd Schutzen Division (Krauss Group, to pass trough Meduno – Claut reaching as quickly as possible the upper Valley of the Piave in Longarone, blocking the retreat southwards of the Italian forces on the Dolomite front.
But before entering into this part of the Story we have to go back a few days, to tell what happened in the meantime between the Tagliamento and Val Meduna, devoting a few lines to the episodes which gave historical consistency to the first part of the Erwin Rommel Trail.
Episodes that reveal us soldiers, according to Cadorna “cowardly retired without fighting or ignominiously surrendered to the enemy”, instead heroically they resisted on the Tagliamento and the Prealpi Carniche, to the ultimate sacrifice in front of an advancing enemy confident of their chances.
On the 30th October 1917, on the right bank of the Tagliamento, between Preone on the north and Peonis on the south, are deployed the 36° and 63° Italian Division, retreating from the carnic front.
In the south section of the river, the defence is entrusted to the Corpo d’Armata Speciale of General Antonino di Giorgio has defence between the Cornino and Pinzano bridges, crossings the enemy aims to overcome the great mountain torrent.
Under the enemy pressure, the passages are progressively interrupted: the railway bridge of Cornino, the walkway in Pontaiba and finally, at 11.25, on the 1st November 1917, the road bridge of Pinzano, inaugurated in 1906.
The Pinzano Bridge was blown up while on the east bank of the river, on the Mount of Ragogna, is still deployed the brigade Bologna: those foot soldiers, abandoned to their fate in the name of “a sacrifice of disproportionately gravity”, they will continue to fight until the last cartridge.
Interrupted the bridges, the Tagliamento line does not last long.
The Cornino Bridge not completely destroyed and the descend of the river level allow, in the night between the 2nd and 3rd November, the passage of the first Austro-Hungarian units on the night bank of the river. After that started the advance along the foothills.
In those hours, by the Castello Ceconi in Pielungo, starting point of the Erwin Rommel trail, it was established the command of the 36° Italian Division, deployed on the river between Preone and Mena, under general Alfredo Taranto.
That night, a phone call warns that the enemy is exceeding the Tagliamento in Cornino, then was given the order to begin the withdrawal of the two divisions, then the countermand, then the communication were interrupted from that moment the two divisions, about twenty thousands men lined up on the river with the mountains behind, are isolated from the rest of the army.
Only at midday of the 4th general Taranto decides to start the withdrawal, “Thousand of soldiers began pouring in the Arzino valley, through the passes of Valle di Preone, Sella Chiazutan, Forca Armentaria and Cuel di Forchia.
At this point it is clear that the threat of the imperial, advancing along the plain, are closing to the two Italian divisions still isolated in the mountains every chance to get a way out on the plain.
But this threat is a reality now: the Austro-Hungarians come around noon to Travesio, in the evening they exceed Meduno and focus on the entry of Val Meduna, where they found blocking the streets the sharpshooters of Captain De Pace.
From the evening of the 4th to the morning of the 5th they fight at the Bivio d’Agnul: at the end the Carinthia’s 7th regiment have the better over the Italians, who leave the field 21 fallen that are still remembered by the obelisk that appears on the right up the street.
But before leaving this place, where we will encounter Erwin Rommel, we have to go back to Pielungo, on the morning of the 5th November 1917.
Gathered under the command of General Francesco Rocca, up early the two Italians divisions are putted in columns from San Francesco to Clauzetto, to get to the plain of Travesio.
At the height of Pielungo the German avant-garde of the Jaeger Division surprised the Italian column. The fight for the entire morning, before the village is lost, then the Alpini recaptured it and the column could continue to Forno, and in this place, in the afternoon of the same day thay fight again, against an entire German battalion: the fight continues until dusk but then the enemies abandon the village that remains in the hands of the Italians.
The Italian troops, arranged for the night at the height of Forno, are awakened by the arrival of General Rocca, who at 22:00, orders the immediate recovery of the advance towards the Pradis ridge.
The soldiers of the 49° infantry regiment advancing in the dark, following the route of the route of the Pradis battle: at midnight they encounter the german Jaeger division that from dominant points, hidden among woods and rocks, follow the desperate Italian advance. Among the first to fall heroically is Sisto Frajria, head of the III Battalion of the 49th infantry. The Italian advance reaching Val de Ros from the edge of the ridge, arriving almost to Toscans a village in the middle of the line.
It is the Pradis Battle, which last until afternoon, when the Italian avangarde began the withdrawal but under the eyes of general Rocca who observe the scene from Forno, is surrounded by the enemy and must lay dawn the weapon.
It is the evening of the 6th November as the last Italians with general Rocca take the mountain path Taiet to try the last escape route to the west, crossing mountains and valleys towards Tramonti and then Claut, in the hope of reaching the Piave before the enemy. This last brave group will arrive to the Meduna valley, in Selis, the present Ciul lake, where on the 9th November will fight as the “last defender of Friuli” before falling prisoner of the Austro-Hungarians.
But now that this part of history takes place on the first stretch of Erwin Rommel trail, between Pielungo and Pradis, we must resume our route, this time right on the steps of the young german lieutenant.
And we cross his steps just dawn the upstream of Meduno through Borgo del Bianco and Roburnon, on the road leading to Tramonti.
The WGB, with the new assigned target, after they probably slept in Travesio, on the 6th November, where’d in Pradis was the fighting, he focuses on Meduno. Rommel with his mountain rifle men passes the bivio d’Agnol, where he probably sees the signs of the fighting the ended just 24 hours before, continues until Racli bridge then going through Faidona and Chievolis he asents to Val Silisia. In the evening of that day the germans have reached Pecorat and Tronconere, at the head of the present lake Selva, and there they stop for the night. The day after the germans begin the ascent of the trail made by the Alpini between 1911 and 1912, a masterpiece of road engineering that still today we can see, that leads to the 1432 m. of the Forcella Clautan, a necessary step towards the Val Cellina. The WGB tackles the climb to the Forcella Clautana under the fire from the Italian troops lined up on the ridges on either side of the Forcella: to the defend the pass are the Alpini of the Susa battalion, the remaining of the LVIII battalion, the bold 18th spearhead regiment.
To Rommel and it’s detachment is entrusted the circumvention to the left, the detachment Grossler moves on the night, the side from which the road salt.
At night fall the detachment Rommel reaches the summits located 600 m. southeast of the pass and established the connection with Grossler. The plan of attacks that is expected is that at midnight two minutes of fire of heavy machine guns shall neutralize the Italian reaction, while the two rifle companies must attack conquering steel weapons and throwing hand grenades.
But the attack fails and Rommel with his companies goes back to Pecolat. In his “Infantry attack” he wrote: “I am very angry with the outcome of this night attack. Since the beginning of the war it is the first attack that I fail”.
At sunrise he is informed over the phone that the Italians have cleaned up and so on, back to the pass, two times in a few hours his men, loads of weapons and equipment, date back more than 800 m. in altitude that lead to the Forcella Clautana: the same Rommel is amazed over the sprint with which his men face the dual effort.
Around noon, the first german enter to Claut.
At this point, started from Pielungo, walked 64 km and climbed 3000 m. in altitude, we would arrive at the end of our trail, but the story of Erwin Rommel among our mountains continue beyond Claut, and must at least briefly be told. Toward the evening of the day the battalion enters Cimolais, where the mayor welcomes the german handing over the keys of the town.
That night Rommel is commissioned by his commander to lead the attack on the Sant’ Osvlado pass.
Before the attack he goes in exploration to the Church La Crosetta, from the Cimolais hell tower he watches the Italians: at 9 on the 9th November 1917 he begins the operation.
The Italian defence yield almost immediately, the cycling avant-garde launched themselves at fun speed toward the Piave. They reach San Martino little after 10. The “ Bridge highest in Italy” falls intact in Rommel’s hands and reaches the valley of the Piave at 11.00 on the 9th November.
At the same time in Selis surrender also the last fugitives of Pradis.
On the opposite bank of the Piave the Italian column is descending still in perfect running order. The Longarone battle lasts until the next morning, the germans risk being overwhelmed by the Italian force, also then Rommel could have fallen prisoner.
On the morning of the 10th November the Longarone square surrenders. The booty was enormous: 200 officers and 6000 prisoner soldiers, 60 machine guns, 18 mountain guns, 2 rapid fire cannons, 250 leaded trucks, 10 transport trucks and 2 ambulances.
For this undertaking Rommel and his commander Sproesser were awarded with the order “Pour le Mérite”, the highest german military decoration comes to two officers by mail, while engaging against the Italian lines, on the Monte Grappa. But now the Italians do not retreat anymore….