Monte San Michele is located on the Karst Plateau above the town of Gradisca d’Isonzo. Calling it a mountain is possibly a misnomer as it is only 275 meters above sea level but when cycling up there, as I did, it certainly feels like a mountain. For the Italian and Austro Hungarian soldiers who fought various battles for it during WW1, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, it must also have felt like a mountain.
It is the story of the battles that dominate the area. Approaching it one passes both Italian and Austro Hungarian positions, normally the former occupied those trenches that the latter abandoned. Close by there is the enormous memorial monument at Redipuglia which serves as a cemetery for more than 100,000 men of the Italian Third Army which were killed in the region.
When Italy attacked Austro Hungary on 25 May 1915, the defenders pulled out of the lowlands next to the border leaving only roadblocks and anything else that would slow down the attackers. They retreated to the high ground in the foothills of the Alps and close to the towns of Monfalcone fortified the Karst Plateau and San Michele which dominates the Soca Valley. Given the nature of the rock on the plateau, caves were fortified into shelters and gun positions which made the Italian advance very slow and costly.
On 29 June 1916 the Austro Hungarians tried to relieve the threat to Monte San Michele with a gas attack between the height and San Martino del Carso. The Italians were not equipped with defences against the gas and a hole in the line was torn open but as happened so often in WW1, the Austro Hungarians were not able to exploit the gap. Six weeks later the Italians attacked and captured the mountain during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo.
After the battle, Italian military engineers built deep caves into the mountain for artillery, the guns of which could dominate the countryside for many kilometres around.
The bitter irony of the battles for Monte San Michele is that the site which had cost so much blood to capture had to be abandoned in order to stop an outflanking movement in October 1917.
From the summit one can see the northern part of the Adriatic sea whilst looking east one has a very good view of the Julian Alps. This area has been declared a protected area where one can find a museum, various plaques and the Museum of Monte San Michele. In January 2010, the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and the Province of Gorizia launched a project to make the San Michael area the largest museum in Europe dedicated to the First World War with an expected capacity of over one million visitors per year.