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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Road the Russians Built

Ninety years ago, on Oct. 24, 1917, the Habsburg army, reinforced by Imperial Germany forces, broke through the entrenched Italian positions on the Isonzo River in one of the most spectacular military successes of World War I. In the resulting rout, described vividly by Ernest Hemingway in his bestseller "A Farewell to Arms," the Italian army was halved in size and retreated all the way to the Piave River in northern Italy. Thus the infamous Isonzo Front, one of the biggest killing zones of the war, was broken. This historic episode had a little-known Russian aspect as well.

The Isonzo flows from the Julian Alps to the Adriatic Sea, traversing the forbidding Karst. Populated by Slovenians for centuries, this barren expanse of rock is a geologically unique plateau of naked limestone, nearly devoid of vegetation and marked by countless depressions. It was here that the Italian army, under the leadership of General Luigi Cadorna, decided in 1915 to attack its neighbor and erstwhile ally. The military goal was to "walk to Vienna" through the so-called Ljubljana gap, the central mountain valley of the Slovenian ethnic heartland. Knocking the Habsburgs out of the war would allow Italy to acquire the territories promised to it by the Entente powers in the secret Treaty of London, including the multinational empire's main port city of Trieste, all of its littoral region, extending deep into the Julian Alps, the Istrian Peninsula, northern Dalmatia and several islands in the Adriatic.

The Italians, however, ran into unexpected difficulties. Although overstretched and engaged on multiple fronts in the East and the Balkans, the Habsburgs managed to mount a successful defense. This was in large part a consequence of the shrewd decision by Vienna to capitalize on the sincere sense of outrage in the wake of the Italian attack among its South Slav subjects, who felt threatened by Rome's craving for the lands where they lived. The Habsburg army thus appointed General Svetozar Borojevic, a Croatian Serb, as its commander on the new front, and rushed most of its Croat Bosnian and Slovenian units to him. Among them were the tough 27th Ljubljana Rifles Regiment and the crack 87th Celje Infantry Regiment, which marched off to battle with unfurled Slovenian flags, in violation of army regulations. In the bitter struggle that followed, the Italian military advance ground to a halt on the Isonzo, although at a terrible cost.

In addition to their will to fight, the Habsburg units brought to the battlefield a hard-learned understanding of the new trench warfare, using barbed wire and machine guns to deadly effect on the Italian massed infantry assaults. Unlike the soldiers on other fronts, however, the defenders were faced with a peculiar problem stemming from the unique terrain on which they fought. In order to dig in, holes had to be literally blasted into the rock, and in order to ensure a steady supply of munitions, brand-new roads had to be laid through difficult terrain. All of this called for numerous construction troops ready to work in the most trying and dangerous conditions.

Vienna decided to solve the problem by using Russian prisoners of war from the Eastern Front, who were quickly pressed into service. Thousands of unarmed Russians thus found themselves working day and night in the Isonzo Valley and the surrounding area. They built stone reinforcements, dug deeper trenches, laid 30-centimeter walls of sandbags, placed steel shields and barbed wire in front of positions and excavated road beds behind the lines. The construction units suffered regular losses to random artillery fire, which was especially deadly in the Karst, where every exploding shell propelled hundreds of razor-sharp rock fragments of brittle limestone in all directions.

Higher in the mountains they faced an altogether different, yet equally lethal danger, popularly called the "white death." The most frightening enemy in the Alps was avalanches and the Russians were exposed to nature's cruel power during the winter of 1915-16. At that time a total of 12,000 Russian prisoners of war were deployed by the Habsburg army to build a strategic road across the 1,600-meter-high Mount Vrsic. The poorly clothed Russians suffered badly during the exceptionally cold months, and many succumbed to illness and the harsh weather. Then, in one catastrophic incident in March 1916, an avalanche on the mountain slope smothered more than 300 men. When the snows thawed, the survivors recovered the corpses, buried their comrades and erected an Orthodox chapel on the mountain.

The road that the Russians built with so much suffering played a significant role in the famous breakthrough in October 1917. It made possible the quick deployment to that section of the front of the elite Habsburg 1st Corps and the legendary German Alpenkorps. A member of the Alpenkorps was an energetic first lieutenant by the name of Erwin Rommel, of the "Desert Fox" fame, who described the preparations for and the course of what came to be known as the Battle of Caporetto in his book "Infantry Attacks." For his exploits as the leader of the assault detachment that contributed significantly to the collapse of the defensive line of the ill-fated Italian 2nd Army, Rommel won the highest military decoration of Imperial Germany, the coveted Blue Max.

Today, the road that crosses Mount Vrsic lies in Slovenia. It has been officially renamed the Russian Road by Slovenian authorities last year in memory of the men who built it. The Orthodox chapel still stands on the mountainside, caringly maintained throughout the decades by the locals. Following Slovenia's independence in 1991, the chapel has become the venue of regular Slovenian-Russian meetings at the end of each July, when a memorial service is held for the Russian soldiers who are buried there. The moving ceremony is always an opportunity for reflection on the devastation and suffering caused by the wars of the last century in this and other parts of Europe. As such, it also bears witness to the maturity achieved on the continent in the years since and reminds us all that we must not forget the past, lest we repeat it. In this sense the sacrifice of the Russians on the Isonzo was not in vain.

Andrej Benedejcic is the Slovenian ambassador in Moscow. His great uncle Jozef Benedejcic died in 1916 as a soldier in the 97th Trieste Infantry Regiment.