The Legacy of the Citadel

Although the concept of a sub-glacial fortress is derived from Leo Handl’s real-life experience, Robie Macauley set the story on the Ortler Glacier, which is much larger and higher than Handl’s Marmolata, but was indeed the site of some ice-tunneling. In April 1916 the Italians captured a small ridge overlooking the Zebru Valley. This ridge was known in German as Hohe Schneide (Monte Cristallo in Italian). An attack would have been difficult given the fierce weather, but a crew of Austrians painstakingly bored through the glacier and launched a successful assault on the ridge. Their plan was nearly foiled when an Italian sentry fell through the ice just moments before the Austrians were planning to attack, however the Italians were eating breakfast and did not hear their comrade’s cries.

Citadel of Ice recounts a number of true stories harvested from obscure military reports and alpine histories. The war in the Alps was fought under such extreme conditions that it is a wonder that either side considered it worthwhile. Melchior certainly was not committed to fighting; rather, his goal was to provide shelter for the troops so that they could survive. The First World War was notable for its utter negligence of the value of human life: soldiers were sacrificed in mind-boggling numbers in pointless attempts to capture small swatches of territory, mowed down by machine-guns or blasted by artillery barrages. Technology had clearly superseded the traditional notion of the warrior on the battlefield, to the point where the Western Front became a deadlock of equivalent forces. The inventions of poison gas, the flamethrower and the tank were attempts to overcome the stalemate with new technology. In the end, economic exhaustion and the mere lack of men led to a weary and reluctant armistice.

The Citadel relied on technology to bring men and supplies up into the mountains, but the construction of the Citadel was no technological wonder–it was merely the realization that the ice was sturdy and reliable enough to house and protect the troops. Like Handl, Melchior was one of those engineers who wanted to preserve life and reduce risk. For him the war was an engineering challenge that had nothing to do with victory. But he was neither a coward nor a traitor: after nearly losing his life on three occasions he returned immediately to the front without question.

In Melchior’s words, “What was the legacy of the Ice Citadel? Did it bring us any closer to winning the war? No, although it undoubtedly delayed our defeat by giving us a safe and clandestine position to defend. But in the grand tapestry of the war the Ortler glacier was an insignificant corner, a skirmish compared to the Somme, Verdun and for that matter, the Isonzo. I take pride in the recollection that for one winter at least, over a thousand men were sheltered from the weather and from enemy fire, which allowed them to go home to their families. If God has any pity on soldiers, then perhaps I was His instrument.”

Map of the actual Hohe Schneide tunnel, which took 7 months to build.
Map of the actual Hohe Schneide tunnel, which took 5 months to build.
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