High in the Slovenian Alps lies a series of stunning peaks that formed the backdrop for one of the First World War's most brutal battles

Outside the ramshackle hut where frightened soldiers sheltered from the blizzards of both Alpine winter and enemy fire, there are moving messages in the visitors book. "Following in the footsteps of my dear grandfather, who might have done sentry duty here," reads one. Someone else has written: "I sense the pain of young men - their desperation, fear, the hunger, the cold; families losing husbands and brothers." Sentiments like these might almost have been invented for the First World War; the ultimate exercise in futility, with both Western and Eastern Fronts spawning unimaginable slaughter but barely moving for years.

Outside the ramshackle hut where frightened soldiers sheltered from the blizzards of both Alpine winter and enemy fire, there are moving messages in the visitors book. "Following in the footsteps of my dear grandfather, who might have done sentry duty here," reads one. Someone else has written: "I sense the pain of young men - their desperation, fear, the hunger, the cold; families losing husbands and brothers." Sentiments like these might almost have been invented for the First World War; the ultimate exercise in futility, with both Western and Eastern Fronts spawning unimaginable slaughter but barely moving for years.

If you close your eyes and picture a battle scene in any year between 1914 and 1918 it's likely to be set amid a ghastly expanse of scorched mud scarred with trenches and barbed wire, pock-marked with shell holes, human remains and burnt-out tanks, and situated somewhere in Belgium, northern France or Poland. That's where historians have tended to pick over the traces of the "war to end all wars".

But the hut where those messages were left, the nearby storage cave and look-out points, and the giant shell hole permanently indenting a hillock - relics of a jagged line of conflict where nearly one million men lost their lives in less than two-and-a-half years of fighting - are not on a featureless plain in northern Europe, but at lung-bursting altitude across an Alpine ridge. The Isonzo Front ran for about fifty miles along the craggy border between Italy and the old Austro-Hungarian empire, sometimes across the actual summits of mountains. It was as spectacularly pointless as Flanders or the Somme, yet its role in the war has almost been forgotten.

Almost, but not quite. In a small town near the site of the most decisive battle, a remarkable museum succeeds in vilifying the conflict by glorifying the heroism of the ordinary men who found themselves caught up in it. The town - and the battle - are known by three different names. The Austro-Germans, the victors, named it Karfreit. The Slovenians, to whom the town now belongs, know it as Kobarid. The Italians, who lost cataclysmically, called it Caporetto, and still use the word to signify something that's gone very badly wrong.

The two main features of the town are the brooding mountain, Krn, that looms over it, and the fast-flowing waterway that runs through it. The Soca river, in parts, is the most vivid natural blue I have seen anywhere on earth. Calm one moment, frenzied the next, the water has carved deep gullies through the soft limestone of the Alpine foothills in the early stages of its journey to the Adriatic. The river has become a magnet for thrill-seekers with oars, helmets and fast-moving craft. It's classic karst country, with dramatic waterfalls, caves, canyons and excellent fishing. This explains why a relatively remote town of just 1,400 people has a fish restaurant (Topli Val, meaning "warm wave") which is widely regarded as one of the finest in Slovenia.

In 1993, Kobarid won a much greater accolade when the Council of Europe proclaimed its museum to be the best in the whole continent. Commemorating the great battle that took place near the town in the autumn of 1917, the museum's beauty is that it doesn't take sides. The exhibits capture the uncannily similar experiences and expressions of young men from numerous nations who were sent to a dangerous place far from home. Austrian, Italian and German visitors can therefore view the intricate reconstruction of the terrible events with an equal sense of waste. In the entrance hall you are greeted by a collage of 36 young faces - combatants in the battle. They were selected at random so that we can only guess at their nationality, and what fate had in store for them. Across the hall are 18 tombstones.

Since Roman times, the country we now call Slovenia has offered a natural passage between the Adriatic and the Alps - the so-called "cork in the bottle" that Italy aimed to remove when it declared war on Austro-Hungary in 1915 and planned an advance on Vienna and Budapest. On the first day of hostilities the Italians occupied Kobarid, and within a month they had taken and fortified Mount Krn. Over the next 28 months, spanning two hard winters in which some soldiers were permanently billeted at altitudes of 6,000ft or more, the Italians mounted eleven offensives, achieved virtually nothing, and suffered massive losses.

The Austrians paid a heavy price too, but when some well-led German divisions were sent to help them launch a counter-attack in October 1917, the exhausted Italians were routed within days. The defeat was so swift, and the retreat so ragged, that it was feared for a time that Venice itself would fall. Eventually, the Italians - fortified by American, British and French forces - managed to hold a line 65 miles east of where they'd capitulated. Nothing quite so dramatic happened anywhere else in the entire war.

Visiting the site of the bloodiest mountain battle in history is a curious experience. Blackened, rusting war relics have mainly been preserved in the Triglav National Park, one of the first areas in Europe to have been ring-fenced for its sheer beauty. Mount Krn itself is a silent, lonely place, overlooking lovely villages and swathes of empty Alpine pasture. Locating an abandoned trench or a thicket of barbed wire in such a beautiful setting is a sobering reminder of man's capacity to make a mess of things. As they endured terrible hardships on the freezing slopes, all the troops had to do was look up at the glorious, towering summits of the Julian Alps to appreciate the pointlessness of their endeavours.

Despite the futility, there remains evidence of great ingenuity, too, by both sides as they sought to gain a marginal advantage over an enemy entrenched in places less than 130 feet away among the sharp limestone rocks that tore the soldiers' shoes to pieces. There are well-preserved remains of pulley systems used to transport food, ammunition and sometimes lazy officers up and down the mountains.

There are tunnels dug so deep into the rock that they extend from one side of a mountain to the other. One of the hairiest mountain roads, over the famous 1,628ft pass of Vrsic, was built by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war brought in from the Eastern Front. Hard labour at such a height would have been penance enough, but in 1916 an avalanche buried more than 100 of the prisoners and some Austrian guards. The Russians were allowed to build a chapel in their memory - set back from the road in a conifer wood, the exquisite memorial is now a place of pilgrimage. Higher up the mountain, a tiny walled graveyard contains nine apparently random mounds overlooked by a tall crucifix: not the sort of things you expect to find in the middle of the wilderness.

The panicky retreat down Mount Krn and across the Soca river in the general direction of Venice did not display Italian soldiery at its finest. The fresher, fitter German troops used phosgene and chlorine gas and employed an early form of blitzkrieg to surprise and outmanoeuvre their foe, whose bewildered commanders hesitated fatally. When the Italian troops realised that the game was up and their 28 months of effort had been in vain, they surrendered or mutinied in their tens of thousands. Some angrily rounded up officers and shot them - appalling scenes that were witnessed by a 19-year-old American who had volunteered as an ambulance driver and only narrowly escaped the firing squad. Ernest Hemingway would use his experiences years later in A Farewell to Arms.

At Kobarid today, the scale of the defeat is poignantly illustrated by the only Italian war memorial outside Italy. A road winds above the town past strikingly carved "stations of the cross" to a mausoleum and chapel. Three circles of columns contain the remains of more than 7,000 troops - some of them named, others militi ignoti. Surprisingly, the ossuary was opened by Mussolini in 1938. The dictator had sought to rewrite history after he came to power, overlooking the catastrophic retreat from the Soca valley and lauding the Italian soldier as the finest in the world.

But the stories told in Italian homes were very different from the proclamations of self-important men on balconies. Caporetto could not be airbrushed from the memories of ordinary people. Summing up the war as a whole, the great historian AJP Taylor delivered a scathing broadside: "Brave helpless soldiers; blundering obstinate generals; nothing achieved." For the Italians, that was Caporetto in a nutshell. Hemingway waxed lyrical about the layers of glorious mountain ranges stretching away into the distance, but his only comment on the fighting comes through the lips of a young English nurse: "It's a silly front. But it's very beautiful." A generation of unfortunate men from Austria and Italy would have nodded in agreement, if only they had lived.

SURVIVAL TIPS

GETTING THERE

Adria Airways (020-7437 0143; www.adria-airways.com) flies daily from Gatwick to Ljubljana and twice a week from Manchester; easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) flies daily from Stansted. Kobarid is about 90 miles north-west of Ljubljana, served by about half a dozen buses every day.

Although Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) does not fly to Slovenia, its daily flights from Stansted to Klagenfurt in southern Austria are convenient for reaching Kobarid.

STAYING THERE

The Hotel Hvala in Kobarid (00 386 15 38 99 300) is the only hotel in town worthy of the description. The fish restaurant mentioned in the article, Topli Val, adjoins the hotel and is owned by the same family.

ORGANISED TOURS

The writer travelled as a guest of Slovenija Pursuits (0870 2200 201; www.slovenijapursuits.co.uk), which offers a six-night trip with two nights each at the Hotel Hvala in Kobarid (half-board), the Grand Hotel Toplice in Lake Bled (bed and breakfast) and Pristava Lepena (half-board) for £603, including flights from Gatwick and car rental. From Manchester it costs £30 more.

ATTRACTIONS

The Kobarid Museum (00 386 538 90 000; www.kobariski-muzej.si) is open all year. From April to September, it opens from 9am-6pm weekdays, 9am-7pm weekends. In winter it opens at 10am and closes an hour earlier. Admission is 800 Slovenian tolar (£2.50). Slovenian Tourist Office (020-7287 7133; www.slovenia-tourism.si)

Comments