“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
Those jarring words from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, came to mind as we wandered through the forest.
But we were in more than a forest.
All around us stood grave markers.
Not of stone, but of timber.
Wooden crosses fashioned in haunting poses silently spoke to us. Bronze plates with forgings of “1915”, “1916”, “1917” and “1918” conjured images of war. German names along with the occasional tattered photograph whispered stories into our minds. Wishes and dreams of young men longing to be told, but never to be heard.
What is this place of brooding beauty we wondered? Minutes earlier we were gazing up in awe at the medieval markings of a 13th century castle. And then on a whim decided to cross a nearby footbridge to a hill shrouded in pine and firs. Here we trekked up a steep set of stairs into this forested realm where light swept through the canopy revealing a cemetery unlike any we have ever seen.
A grey monument on the crest of a slight slope held the answer. Inscribed on sable panes were the names of those buried. Next to this list of the fallen, we found the story of the ‘Soldier Cemetery’.
War on the Rooftop of the World
Fighting a war anywhere is hell. Fighting one in the unforgiving heights of the Dolomites is utterly unthinkable. Yet during the First World War its craggy peaks saw thousands of soldiers lost to the madness of mankind and even more to the mountain-born fury of Mother Nature. The warring conditions on the rooftop of the world were among the most treacherous ever endured in the history of warfare. If bullets or shell-fire didn’t tear you asunder, the mountains’ wintry wasp of pummeling snow and hellish winds stung the life out of you.
Brunico (also known as Bruneck) in South Tyrol was home to several wartime hospitals. Those injured battling on the front lines of the Dolomites received care here. Many did not make it out alive. Too many. When the local cemetery could no longer support the dead, a new one was founded on this hill known as Kühbergl.
An Austrian Lieutenant Colonel, A. Bechtold, developed the vision for the Soldier Cemetery. For men who suffered the merciless horror of the mountains, he sought to bring them final peace within the mossy velvet of the forest floor.
The cemetery was built by Russian prisoners of war. Logs from stands of pine became the grave markers — forever memorializing the fallen in harmony with the stillness of the forest.
Resting in Quiet Rapture
One-hundred years ago this year the last shot of the First World War rang out. At 11 am on the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918 Germany signed an armistice bringing the war to an end. Upon receiving the news, soldiers simply laid down their arms and went home.
The toll? 37 million dead.
669 lie in the Soldier Cemetery. They are soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as Russia, Serbia and Romania. Within 20 years the world would spiral into another war taking the lives of 50 million more. 19 German soldiers killed in bombing raids from the Second World War are also at rest in the cemetery.
In a solemn act of respect for the men, the cemetery dedicated sections to the respective faiths of the soldiers. Men of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith lay separate but together. These brothers fighting for pieces of the earth now share it in quiet rapture as their home.
Caretakers of the Deep Wood Light
As we continued walking through the cemetery we came across a few women tending to the graves. We learned they were a part of an association of women that has kept each grave in pristine form since 1921.
Watching them work was as moving as the cemetery itself. In silence, they carefully placed evergreen branches and other favors from the forest throughout the resting places. These beautiful deep wood adornments evoked an even more serene feeling to our timbered surroundings.
The manner in which South Tyroleans reverently care for those lost is touching to experience. Whether encountering a meticulously carved wayside shrine off a hiking trail or rows of crosses masterfully wrought out of iron in quaint, candlelit Alpine churchyards, the traditions of this land inspire awe. Taking time to reflect in such moments requires no belief in the divine to enjoy the beauty of humanity.
How to Visit the Soldier Cemetery of Brunico
A visit to the medieval town of Brunico is an easy trip add-on before or after a trek around Lago di Braies. While in Brunico a walk through the Soldier Cemetery is a must. Every lover of nature and history will find it an enchanting sight. The town offers you a few ways to reach the cemetery.
From the grounds of the Bruneck Castle walk to the south castle wall and continue down a small slope to a footbridge. Cross over the road (Via Riscone) to the Kühbergl hill. Then follow the path to the right for a bit until you come to a set of stairs leading uphill. The cemetery sits at the top.
Additional options are from two parking lots directly off Via Riscone. If you choose either one you’ll have to walk uphill even more, but neither path is difficult.
No matter how you choose to visit, keep an eye out for signposts indicating ‘Cimitero di Guerra’ and ‘Kriegerfriedhof’ to ensure you’re heading the right direction.