One of WWI's bloodiest frontlines

It’s hard to imagine that Slovenia’s Soča Valley, a land of aquamarine river rapids and dense emerald forests, was once the site of WWI’s Isonzo Front, where 1.7 million soldiers died.

Looking at Slovenia’s Soča Valley today, with its aquamarine river rapids, waterfalls gently tumbling down steep cliffs and dense, overgrown emerald forests, I had a hard time imagining that the area once resembled the barren and grey Soča Valley of Ernest Hemingway's novel, A Farewell to Arms:

“There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with autumn.”

What’s even more difficult to imagine is that the valley was once part of the Isonzo Front, one of the bloodiest frontlines in WWI. Approximately 1.7 million soldiers died or were mutilated for life fighting on the Isonzo Front, many losing their lives attempting to navigate the steep mountain slopes, fight through whiteout blizzards or traverse unsurpassable canyons.

"The Soča Valley – and the Bovec area in particular – is unique because of its microclimate," said my Soča Rafting guide Jure Črnič. "With the Julian Alps on one side of us, the Mediterranean Sea nearby, the Bovec Basin and the deep canyons and rivers together, the weather can change quite suddenly – and with adverse conditions.”

During WWI, the Soča river (known in Italian as the Isonzo river) ran north-south along what was then the border of Austria and Italy, opening a new 600km front when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on 23 May, 1915. A total of 12 major battles were fought there between 1915 and 1917, with the Italian side launching 11 of the 12 offensives. Despite the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s efforts to refurbish the old mountain pass defensives and fortify the jagged mountains that flanked its side of the river, the Allies eventually won WWI, causing the land that is now modern-day Slovenia to be annexed to Italy under the 1920 Treaty of Rapallo.

During the Battles of the Isonzo, many of the Soča Valley’s 300,000 residents were displaced to central Austria-Hungary to avoid the crossfire of the front line, while others were forced to relinquish their homes for soldiers’ barracks. Countless residents never returned, and for the thousands of soldiers who were transported to the region and died there, few records or traces of them remain.

In the years that followed, the region underwent even greater transition, and many of the old WWI sites were left to decay in the wilderness. Italianization turned into occupation by Nazi German forces, and eventually the region was absorbed into Yugoslavia at the end of WWII. It wasn’t until 1991 that the Slovenes won independence, and today, many Soča Valley residents have turned to adventure and cultural tourism to make a living.

In particular, a foundation known as the Ustanova Fundacija Poti Miru v Posočju is working to prevent WWI’s mark from disappearing. It collaborated with the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to create the Pot Miru, or “Walk of Peace”, a 90km-long trail that divides some of the major sites of WWI and the natural highlights of the Soča Valley into five one-day sections.

The walk’s first section stretches approximately 11km, from the town of Log pod Mangartom to the open-air museum of Čelo, a former Austro-Hungarian artillery fortification just north of the town of Kal-Koritnica. I joined the trail about 5.4km south of Log pod Mangartom, at Kluže fortress, which has excellent vantage points of the Koritnica river gorge.

Despite its strategic importance in defending the Mt Rombon mountain pass during the 1809 invasion of Napoleon, the Kluže fortress was outdated by the time WWI began, and it was partially destroyed by the Italian forces’ relentless artillery fire. The formidable grey stone structure that remains contrasts the peacefulness of the deep gorge and surrounding forests.

Down the heavily-wooded trail approximately 4km to the southwest, the Walk of Peace opens onto a curved paved road, the trail markers pointing toward the Bovec WWI Military Cemetery: a tree-lined clearing with several small grey mounds poking up between the grasses. During WWI, mass unmarked gravesites were hurriedly created to provide resting places and prevent disease from spreading; Italian and Hungarian soldiers were buried side by side. After WWI, the Italian remains were exhumed and transferred to an Italian military cemetery in Caporetto, the modern-day Slovenian town of Kobarid. The remains of more than 600 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were then gathered from surrounding makeshift cemeteries and buried here at Bovec, but only a quarter were given tombstones.

Bending down in the wet grass, I brushed the spongy moss from a stone. No name, no date: the grave was simply adorned with a carved cross. I sidestepped to its neighbour, searching for some identification of the person beneath, but there was nothing. Again and again I zigzagged through the rows of tombstones, but none contained any information about the soldiers who had died. Gazing at the rows of grey stone, I was overwhelmed with the injustice that so many would give their lives only for their sacrifice to be forgotten with the disappearance of their identity.

Continuing about 1km southwest on the trail, I passed the Bovec town limit. Here, a brown and silver sign marked the entrance to Ravelnik, another former Austro-Hungarian artillery fortification. Adorned with rusted military gear such as bullets, helmets and barbed wire, the sign bore the words “Isonzo Front” in several languages.

Narrow trenches lined with grey stones lead to a concrete doorway built into the hill. Large, rusted sheets of curved ribbed metal formed a protected roof over the trenches’ open sections. Despite the pockets of green fauna and shafts of sunlight that escaped through the foliage, the site was eerily still, creating an unsettling atmosphere.

Today, Ravelnik’s trenches have been restored to their former state, and re-enactments and guided tours have been scheduled to celebrate the centenary of WWI. On the day I was there though, the only sound was the scuttling of my feet as I timidly passed through the concrete doorway, which led to a network of caves and tunnels deep inside the hill.

Stumbling through one of the tunnels, I wondered how soldiers could have possibly fought and lived in this pitch black, with bombs exploding overhead and machine guns firing. Rain is frequent in Bovec, which made me think of the quagmire of mud that likely gathered in this cave.

Emerging into the sunlight, I headed toward a small wooden shack that once served as the soldier’s first aid station. Inside, there were two bunk beds, a modest collection of food tins and black-and-white photographs of the site during the war. Looking at the images of the soldiers, seeing their camaraderie and snapshots of their daily life, I understood how this place could have felt like home, no matter how short a time they were here.

About 3km southwest of Bovec, closer to Kal-Koritnica, the end of the Walk of Peace's first section, the Soča river picks up speed; the fast-moving current and wildflower-lined banks create a striking contrast between the valley’s natural beauty and grim history.

The Soča river is nicknamed The Emerald Beauty due to its emerald-green water, which is renowned for its clarity. I could see schools of endemic marble trout and graylings lazily swimming along the river’s floor between rocks, despite being several metres deep. Basking in the sunshine and colourful landscape, I felt the heaviness of the day's earlier stops lift.

Soon the trail crossed a rickety wooden bridge, entering a particularly beautiful part of the valley. Soft white sand lined the riverbank and the water took on an aquamarine hue. Mt Rombon rose in the foreground, and clouds slowly snaked around its peak. Birds answered each other's calls from the branches of the forests, patches of which had turned crisp autumnal shades of red, deep orange and vibrant yellow. For an hour or so I perched on the edge of a boulder halfway across the bridge, admiring the view with complete solace.

As the sky began to turn a faint orange, I rose to leave, and only then did I realise the carvings on the boulder next to me:

P.A.

bh J.R.4

7.IV.1916

I traced my fingers through the sharp lettered edges, and marvelled at how, even with nature’s recovery, WWI’s mark could never disappear from this remote pocket of the world.