Trentino

 

Rumania’s Day

Although he acquitted himself with distinction behind the eastern front, Josef Kolbe was probably eager to see action on the front line.  Negotiations had been ongoing for some time between neutral Romania and the Allies, with the Romanians demanding recognition of their rights over the territory of Transylvania, where they were in a majority, despite having been under Hungarian rule since the 11th century and under Austro-Hungarian control since the 17th century.  By 1916 it was obvious that an agreement would be reached, and Captain Kolbe requested a transfer to the zone in order to defend his beloved Transylvania.  However, he was frustrated in his attempt and it was only with the help of the German high command that he arrived on the Italian front in Trentino five days before the beginning of the Battle of Asiago (also known as the Trentino Offensive and in German as the Maioffensive, Südtiroloffensive or Frühjahrsoffensive).

The offensive started on 15 May 1916, with 2000 Austrian guns attacking along a 50 km front. The Italian wings stood their ground, but the center yielded, and the Austrians, under the command of Archduke Karl, broke through, reaching the beginning of the Venetian plain. With Vicenza about 30 km away, all the Italian forces on the Isonzo faced outflanking. A disputed action of the offensive was the taking of one of the Italian fortresses by a number of companies of the 50th Infantry Regiment. Casa Ratti was a fortress strategically situated on the flanks of the Val d’Astico about which doubts still persist as to whether it was captured by the Austrians or abandoned by the Italians. While this action was taking place Captain Kolbe, commander of the 6th company, advanced down the valley to protect the mortars directed at Arsiero and later took up a position in the plain below, with the intention of storming the Italians’ stronghold at Velo d’Astico. However, on 4 June the Russians unexpectedly took the initiative in Galicia, where they managed to enter Austrian soil and, although they were effectively countered by German troops, the Austrians were forced to quickly withdraw half of their divisions from Trentino. This scuppered Josef Kolbe’s plan of attack, as on 24 June he was ordered to evacuate his position and withdraw to the crest of the mountains. He achieved this without the loss of a single man, blowing up bridges, paths and defensive positions on his way, reporting to Archduke Karl and presenting his two battalions for the heir to the throne to review.

Battle of Asiago,May to June 1916

Battle of Asiago,
May to June 1916


right:
strategic positions (green)
50th Infantry Regiment positions (blue):
28 May (empty boxes)
6 June (shaded boxes)

Battle of Asiago, 1916

Battle of Asiago,
May to June 1916

Captain Kolbe's position, Val d'Astico, May 1916

Captain Kolbe's position,
Val d'Astico, May 1916

Positions before Velo d'Astico, June 1916

Positions before Velo d'Astico, June 1916

Monte Seluggio and surroundings, c2000

Monte Seluggio and surroundings, c2000

Josef Kolbe’s actions in the field must have come to the attention of Lieutenant General (later General) Ernst von Horsetzky, Commander of the 3rd (later Edelweiss) Division, to which the 50th Infantry Regiment belonged, for on 2 July the latter ordered Captain Kolbe to take a company of men to reconnoitre Monte Seluggio, with a view to holding it as a permanent position.  A forward jutting spur which afforded a view on three sides over the surrounding valleys, Monte Seluggio was a highly strategic position, but also extremely vulnerable to attack.  It was connected to the rest of the range by a narrow saddle by Stalle Campiello over which ammunition, supplies and water had to be transported, there being no water on the summit.  For the first 17 days Captain Kolbe and his men were attacked by the enemy, whose intention it was to cut them off and take them prisoner, but they succeeded in fighting back and even enlarged their area of manoeuvre.  It took a month to clear their back and right flank of enemy fire and start building a permanent position.

Monte Seluggio landmarks, Bing Maps

Monte Seluggio landmarks,
Google Maps

Sole supply path to opposite Stalle Campiello,spring 2015

Sole supply path opposite Stalle Campiello, spring 2015

Stalle Campiello, spring 2015

Stalle Campiello on the saddle
connecting Monte Seluggio
to the hinterland,
spring 2015

Winter supply route, 1916
Jurnal de Front, D. Ciumbrudean

Fronts around Monte Seluggio, 1916

Fronts around Monte Seluggio, 1916

Monte Seluggio, 1916

Monte Seluggio, 1916

Despite the lack of trained sappers or special equipment such as boring machines, they gradually built defensive lines on the three flanks, making use of the caves in the limestone terrain to make bomb-proof machine gun positions and to store supplies and ammunition, all the while coming under enemy fire, often suffering from lack of food, water and firewood and in constant danger of avalanches in the winter. Each of the three lines was protected by barbed wire and all major points reached by hidden paths so that, under Captain Kolbe’s command, Monte Seluggio became a virtually unassailable bulwark and was considered a model position by Ernst von Horsetzky, who devoted a paragraph to it in his book. Major (later General) Hermann Pokorny makes special mention of the “Kolbe Rib” in his memoirs, which he inspected in November 1916, stating that it was named after a well-known Transylvanian hunter.

Major Pokorny was received by Colonel Simacek at the command HQ of the 50th Infantry Regiment, which consisted of “primitive wooden structures built against the sides of steep cliffs”.  He remarks that the officiers’ mess was decorated with a number of risqué pictures, on the back of which were depicted battle scenes and leading military men. During important inspections, like that of Field Marshal Archduke Frederick and Duke Schönborn, commander-in-chief of the army corps, the pictures were hastily turned over for the duration of the inspection!  It was at the command HQ that Corporal Dumitru Ciumbrudean, a Romanian telephone operator from Transylvania, received the news of Romania’s declaration of war on Austria-Hungary on 28 August 1916.  During the following months he witnessed widespread demoralisation within the 70% Romanian regiment and had to communicate repeated desertions, at least three from Captain Kolbe’s battalion, but he remained at his post.  He had reason to regret his loyalty a year later when he found himself on the flanks of Monte San Gabriele in the thick of the fighting during the 11th battle of the Isonzo.

Monte Seluggio then and now

Summit above right flank, 1916
Growing with the War, V. Curta

I.R. 50 command HQ, August 1916 Jurnal de Front, D. Ciumbrudean

I.R. 50 command HQ, August 1916
Jurnal de Front, D. Ciumbrudean

gunners' quarters, c1916 Bildarchiv Austria

Gunners' quarters, c1916
Bildarchiv Austria

Building battalion quarters, 1916
Growing with the War, V. Curta

Heroes' cemetery, c1917 behind: Monte TormenoBildarchiv Austria

Heroes' cemetery, c1917
behind: Monte Tormeno
Bildarchiv Austria

Above the right flank, winter 1916-1917

Summit above the right flank
winter 1916-1917
Bildarchiv Austria

Site of I.R. 50's command HQ? spring 2015

Site of former I.R. 50 command HQ?
spring 2015

Site of former gunners' quarters photo Silvio Bettone, 2015

Site of gunners' quarters
photo: S. Bottene, 2015

Site of former battalion quarters?
summer 2013

Site of former heroes' cemetery,photo Georgio Schiesaro, spring 2015

Site of former heroes' cemetery
photo: G. Schiesaro, spring 2015

Summit above right flank, 2015

Summit above right flank
spring 2015

D. Ciumbrudean, February 1917 outside telephone operators' hut

D. Ciumbrudean, Feb. 1917
outside telephone operators' hut

Site of gunners' quarters? spring 2015

Site of former gunners' quarters
spring 2015

Site of battalion quarters? spring 2015

Site of former battalion quarters?
spring 2015

Guiseppe Invernizzi, buried on Monte Seluggio, 1914

Guiseppe Invernizzi, buried on Monte Seluggio, 04.02.1914

Monte Seluggio today: right flank

Hamlet occupied by donkeys, summer 2013

Below Stalle Campiello, spring 2015

Below Stalle Campiello, spring 2015

Fortified cave, exterior, summer 2013

Fortified cave, interior, summer 2013

Monte Seluggio today: left flank

Decapitated Monte Cimone,
Arsiero and Velo d’Astico, summer 2001

Hidden path, summer 2013

Cave with double entrance, exterior, summer 2013

Cave with double entrance, interior, summer 2013

Monte Seluggio today: summit

Towards the summit and
Monte Priafora, summer 2013

Foremost position
and Monte Priafora,
summer 2013

Hamlet behind the summit and Monte Tormeno, summer 2013

Hamlet behind the summit
and Monte Tormeno,
summer 2013

Communication trench, spring 2015

Communication trench behind the summit, spring 2015

Apart from 20 days’ leave in November 1916, Josef Kolbe was to hold Monte Seluggio with a battalion of men for over a year, from 2 July 1916 to 17 August 1917.  His troops changed but, by his own volition and out of his sense of duty to the fatherland, he remained at his post, forsaking sleep and setting an example to his men through his hard work and enthusiasm.  He was justly proud of his achievement in building up this advanced position and had nothing but praise for the bravery and indefatigability of the men who helped him hold it against the onslaughts of the enemy and nature.  (In his later years he received a surprise visit from one of his men who had travelled all the way from what was by then Yugoslavia to shake his hand.)  His actions did not go unnoticed by his immediate superiors, and he was promoted to the rank of Major on 1 November 1916.

Major, 1916

Major's insignia
on sky blue facing colour

Major Josef Kolbe, 1916

Sources:
Im Felde 1914-1918, General Ernst von Horsetzky
Emlékeim, A láthatatlan hírszerző, Pokorny Hermann
La Cattura di Forte Ratti, Enrico Acerbi
Jurnal de Front, Dumitru Ciumbrudean
Growing with the War, Virgil Curta: https://www.academia.edu/227800/Virgil_Curta_Growing_with_the_War._A_Romanian_Volunteer_on_the_Austrian-Italian_Front_1915-1917
Rovereto War Museum: http://www.italiamappe.it/arte_cultura/musei_mostre/14084__Museo-Storico-Italiano-della-Guerra

Austro-Hungarian Army 1914-1918: http://austrianphilately.com/dixnut/index.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romania_during_World_War_I
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Asiago