I was curious about the mention of the World War One avalanches being the worst in terms of fatalities in history. A few websites, such as Britannica, and a graphic novel claim that the avalanches that were so deadly on 13 December 1916 were started deliberately through artillery fire, rather like as was demonstrated in the video, with the cannon that Zac wanted to fire. However, I am unable to find any evidence to back up these claims.
I have found three testimonies from soldiers and a priest who lived through these particular avalanches, none of whom mention artillery fire. This is also the case with the only two brief articles I can find looking specifically at these avalanches, which both suggest that massive snowfall and a warmer than average December were responsible (see https://boris.unibe.ch/90786/1/december1916.pdf and here). I find it surprising that there has been so little written about these avalanches. Books I have seen on the Alps War only mention the December 1916 avalanches in a sentence.
The testimony of Renker, an Austrian soldier: ‘The storming avalanche tore at me, pulled and shook me—but in mad mortal fear I held on. And then it raged around me, white waves surged, lifted my feet from the ground … higher and higher climbed the tide over my legs, over my chest, my breath failed as if a clamp had been placed on my nose and mouth. Now it is covering me—this is the end! Suddenly everything is still, only to the left is there rushing like a torrent from the mountain. I could breathe again and sucked the air like a man dying of thirst drinking water, but I cannot move, can see nothing … then a voice pulls me out of the hypnosis. From up above the First Lieutenant calls, “Doctor are you still alive?” and a pale face with large, starring eyes looked down on me. “That was close,” I said slowly and with difficulty. “Yes,” he replied, “but where are the others?” “They are all dead,” I murmured to myself.’
The next two testimonies are from a book on natural disasters called The Weather Factor.
‘It was the day of St Lucia, 13 December 1916. The men of 2nd Company had been shovelling snow all day long. It had made them wet and tired, and they had stripped off their clothes and crawled into the bunks in the huts on the slope leading up to the ridgeline. Father Martin Metschik, the priest of the 1st Battalion, 3. Kaiserschiitzen Regiment, told what happened next:
‘I was in the company of my good friend Hercules in a shelter near the cliff. It had begun to snow in November, which brought down the avalanches that caused more victims than the war. On this particular morning, around 5.30 am, we heard the growling sound of an avalanche. It surprised our men in their sleep inside the huts on the slope of the Gran Poz. The cries of the injured made us realise that a drama had taken place. The first shelter we got to, that of our commander, Rudolf Schmid, the one directly against the cliff, was covered by a thick layer of pressed snow hard as concrete. It took seven hours to dig him out. Yet he was one of the lucky ones. Nothing was left of the huts of the 2nd Company, only a swathe of raw ice showed where the avalanche had passed on its destructive way. The air pressure had turned another series of huts, just off the direct path of the monster avalanche, into a mass of splintered, crushed rubble that stuck from the mountains of snow mixed with lumps of ice and big rocks. We worked for four days, shovelling and digging, always in danger of more avalanches. We found only broken bodies with blue faces. On the fourth day, we dug one last hole and ended up in a natural ice cave where seven soldiers had found refuge; one was dead, one was half frozen, but five were well. But they had lost all measure of time. One told me he thought that he had been under the snow for only twenty-four hours.’
And from the Italian side, Lieutenant Tullio Minghetti of the 7th Alpini Battalion:
‘It was the night of St Lucia [13 December] and my thoughts were with my family back home. We were thirteen in a lean-to that housed the motor for our cablelift. As fortune had it, I found myself on the southside of the narrow hut, which was anchored by two steel cables in the solid rock of the precipice that dropped vertically into the Val Ciampi d’Arei. Suddenly, I felt a terrible pressure in my ears and I thought that my head would burst. The candles went out. Next came a hellish crash which shook the hut and I clearly heard one anchor cable snap. “It’s all over, now we’re falling,” was my first thought. But we didn’t. Snow filled the room and my back was pushed against the wall. Air—I was frantic for air. I dug with my hands until they were raw, but I still managed to open a small passage. I managed to stick my head out when, to my shock, I discovered that half of our hut was missing, and it was dangling at a crazy angle over the abyss. Far below, where the monster avalanche had ended its devilish ride, I noticed a great mound of piled-up snow, the tomb of my company.’
The avalanches have been making news recently in connection to climate change. Melting ice has revealed bodies and relics of the December 1916 avalanches over the last few years. For example, see here from earlier this month, and here