Touring The World War One Battlefield Of Isonzo

World War One, Isonzo
Sean McLachlan from public domain image. Original photographer unknown.

Like every other nation involved in World War I, Italy suffered terribly. It joined the war in 1915, throwing its lot in with the Allies against the Central Powers. Italy’s most immediate threat was its neighbor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border was mostly in the Alps and soldiers on both sides carved out ice caves from which to snipe at one another and used artillery to fire above each other’s positions in over to create avalanches. To this day, almost 100 years later, bodies of dead soldiers are being found frozen in the ice.

The most active part of the front was along the Isonzo river valley, the border between Italy and what is now Slovenia. For most of its length it cuts between steep mountains on either side.

I toured the Isonzo front with an organized bus tour from Gorizia. Without a car it’s the only way to quickly visit this long and rugged battlefield. Unfortunately, the pouring rain that had been plaguing northeast Italy and western Slovenia for the previous few days didn’t let up. In the higher latitudes it turned into a driving snow. This meant that except for a few glimpses of the terrain, the tour was pretty much a washout. At least we got an inkling of what it was like to have been stationed up here, and we did get to visit the excellent Kobarid Museum in Slovenia.

This is one of the best military history museums I’ve seen anywhere. While there are the usual flags and uniforms and weapons, the bulk of the exhibition is a vast collection of period photographs. These bring the visitor face to face with life on that terrible battlefield where half a million men lost their lives. Both armies are treated impartially and instead of glorification of the war there’s a frank, human look at the people involved.

%Slideshow-82%We get to see them at the front lines, perched high up on alpine peaks or hunkering down in trenches carved into snow and ice. A great amount of detail goes into how the vast armies were supplied, with displays on everything from cooking to handling horses. We also see the soldiers’ more relaxed moments, writing letters home or goofing around behind the lines.

There are some surprises too. One small display is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who was a Red Cross ambulance driver at the front and who fell in love with a nurse there. He used these experiences to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

The battles were mostly bloody stalemates, with the Italians making their only significant gains in the sixth battle when they took Gorizia. That was all undone in the 12th battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, when the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies shattered the Italian army. “Caporetto” has entered the Italian lexicon as a word signifying any horrible defeat, from a politician losing a landslide election to a football team getting spanked by their rivals.

The museum doesn’t shrink from the true face of war. In one grim display, we see photos of the dead lying unburied on the battlefield, and the grim portraits of some of the mutilated survivors. Some of these images are included at the end of the slideshow here, preceded by a warning. They are not easy to look at but I included them because I think it’s important for civilians to see what war really looks like.

Anyone with an interest in military history will want to see this museum. While visiting the remaining trenches and bunkers along the Isonzo front gives a feel for the terrain, a visit to the Kobarid Museum is essential for putting it all together and understanding the terrible waste of World War I.

Gallipoli battlefield being mapped by GPS

Gallipoli
Archaeologists in Turkey are making a detailed survey of the famous World War One battle of Gallipoli. Using period military maps and GPS technology, they’re mapping the old trenches and redoubts used by both sides.

Gallipoli was the scene of fierce fighting starting in 1915. A peninsula with highlands dominating the Dardanelles strait linking the Black and the Aegean seas, it guarded the western approach to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was on Germany’s side during World War One and the British Empire’s high command believed an attack on Gallipoli would be the first step to knocking the Ottomans out of the war.

They were wrong. The Ottoman Empire, long dismissed “the sick man of Europe”, put up a determined resistance and the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops got stuck on the beaches as Ottoman troops pummeled them from the highlands. After nine bloody months, the allies sailed away.

The international team of Turkish, Australian, and New Zealand archaeologists and historians have discovered large numbers of artifacts from the battle and are busy working out a complete map of the complicated network of trenches, many of which can still be clearly seen today.

The battle started 25 April 1915, and this date is marked as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who did some of the toughest fighting in the campaign. Many people in both of these countries feel the soldiers’ efforts proved the worth of the two young nations.

Last year archaeologists discovered the HMS Lewis and a barge sunk off the shore.

Archaeologists discover world’s oldest wine press in Armenia

wine, armenia, ArmeniaArchaeologists in Armenia have discovered what they believe to be the world’s oldest wine press. The press is inside a cave, where they found the remains of grape seeds, pressed grapes, and vines of Vitis vinifera vinifera , the same type of grape still used in winemaking today. The site is dated at 4,000 BC, about 900 years older than the previous record holder–wine from the tomb of King Scorpion I, a ruler of Upper Egypt before that country became unified.

This isn’t the first time Armenia has broken an archaeological record. Last summer archaeologists found the world’s oldest leather shoe in the same region. These discoveries are hardly surprising. Armenia is an ancient land with a rich history. It had a complex prehistoric culture that culminated in the Kingdom of Urartu in the 9th century BC. Urartu was one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the Near East.

Armenia suffered from its position between several empires, and while it was often independent it also changed hands between the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and other powers all the way down to the Soviet Union. Now it’s an independent nation again. It also has the distinction of being the world’s oldest Christian nation, having converted in the early 4th century AD.

During all this time they never stopped making wine. They were one of the main wine producers in the Soviet Union and have since started exporting their wine worldwide. Armenian wine even spread to Africa. During the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War One, some Armenians fled to Ethiopia, where they cultivated vineyards. Many Armenian reds are very sweet and rich, and Ethiopian wine has a similar quality.

All of these past cultures and the Armenians’ own rich heritage has created an interesting destination for adventure travelers. Sadly I’ve never been there, but it’s been on my shortlist for years. Poring over maps and books, it’s easy to see that I’d need to spend a lot of time. The mountains offer remote trekking, there are medieval buildings to explore such as the Saghmosavank monastery pictured below, and there are even wine-tasting tours. People who have been there tell me it’s still pretty cheap, making it an attractive budget travel destination.

Maybe 2011 will be the year for me to finally get there?

[Wine photo courtesy Arthur Chapman. Saghmosavank photo courtesy Olivier Jaulent]

Armenia, armenia

Touring World War One battlefields


On the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the First World War ended. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and it redrew the map of Europe. As the 100th anniversary of the start of the war approaches in 2014, there’s been an increased interest in visiting the places where it was fought.

War historian Mike Hanlon is leading three tours next year that investigate the Great War. Hanlon is the editor of Trenches on the Web, the definitive site on the subject. He’ll be leading guests of Valor Tours on visits of the battlefields of Europe, including some that aren’t seen very often.

From April 30-May 7 he leads The Great War Experience, starting in Brussels at the Royal Military Museum (one of the best military museums in the world, and I’ve seen a lot of them) and continuing through some of the most important battlefields of the Western Front. From July 18-31 he’ll offer a rare opportunity to visit the Italian Front. High in the Alps, the Italian army held off the Germans and Austro-Hungarians until their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, immortalized in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Included in the itinerary is the Isonzo river valley, scene of no less than eleven bloody battles. As my post on military museums in Rome shows, it was a tough fight. Frozen bodies are still being found to this day. The third tour looks at how warfare has changed in the past 500 years. From August 3-11 guests will see Agincourt, Waterloo, the Somme, and the beaches of Normandy.

While these tours aren’t cheap (they start at $2,950) you’re sure to learn a lot. I’ve been reading Hanlon’s work for years and he’s undoubtedly one of the top experts in military history today, especially about World War One.

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[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

Happy birthday King Wangchuck and other national holidays

Going to a far-flung destination and want to connect with the people and see something special? One easy way is through local and national holidays. These are often unique to a particular country and provide insights into its culture and history. But it can often be hard to find out what’s going on next week in Tuvalu.

The Holidays Around the World blog is your answer, providing daily updates on all the major happenings. Today, for example, is the birthday of the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He abdicated last year, but his birthday is still a national holiday. The website does more than list holidays, it goes into detail about what you can expect while you’re there. Today the people of Bhutan are celebrating by eating emadatse (chili pepper and cheese stew) and chang (warm beer made from barley, millet or rice). If it’s anything like Tibetan chang, be careful. With the high altitudes in the Himalayas this stuff gave me the worst hangover I’ve ever had.

November 11 is, of course, the anniversary of the end of the First World War. The ceasefire started on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The soldiers on both sides knew it was coming, but instead of keeping a low profile until the war officially ended, they blasted away at each other with a massive artillery barrage. People are weird. This holiday is known as Armistice Day in France, Remembrance Day in Canada, and a more general Veterans Day in the United States.

So head on over to this cool little blog, and don’t forget to dance in the streets tomorrow to celebrate Azerbaijan’s Constitution Day.