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For mules and cannons

Military roads

The splendid military road joining Valscura lakes to Questa refuge (A. Rivelli/PNAM).

The strategic needs that arose after the unification of Italy, and especially with the conclusion of the Triple Alliance made paramount the strengthening of the defensive line on the western front.

So, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the construction of defensive barracks, bunkers and lookout posts on all the Alpine passes of the Maritime Alps began. To reach these high altitude settlements and bring supplies, it became necessary to adapt the existing road network to the changing demands of war and to develop new lines of communication, both in the valley bottoms and high up on the mountainsides. At the same time pathways were built, cross connections between neighbouring passes, designed to allow troops and baggage-trains to move with the least possible difference in height.

The Valle Gesso, because of the rough and rugged nature of its territory, and for the height of its peaks and passes, has always been considered a potential invasion route only suitable for small contingents of infantry,and so has never seen the construction of large permanent fortifications. Nevertheless, the road network here is extensive and has its roots in times before the strategic needs of the Kingdom of Italy. In fact, from 1857, when King Vittorio Emanuele II obtained the exclusive rights to the hunting territories of the municipalities of Valdieri and Entracque, work began on the construction of mule tracks and paths that were essential for chamois hunting. From the late nineteenth century, the existing road network began to be widely exploited for military purposes, often after renovation and modernisation that made it suitable to meet the new needs.

Over the decades, constant changes were made, often to the same tracks, whether to widen the road, or to reduce the slope, or to increase the radius of curvature of bends, in order to facilitate the passage of equipment or for towing artillery. In many cases, new work deleted the previous tracks, in other places it is still possible to find traces of the work carried out over the years. A good example of this is the road to the Bassa del Druos.

Marco Boglione (Le Strade dei cannoni Blue ed.) Reports that, in 1931, the Military Administration decided to improve the 'Terme di Valdieri-Hunting lodge road to a 'Type C track' carrying out work on the existing road; however, from a beautiful inscription on a stone in Terme di Valdieri, we can be assume that maintenance took place in 1927. As you can see, none of the dates mentioned above coincide with those reported in Engineers' other documents: according to which the contract for the work was dated June 1928 and the work was completed in July 1929.

The next stretch of road, the mule track from "Hunting lodge-lower Valscura lakes" built between 1906 and 1909, soon proved unsuitable for towing artillery pieces. Therefore it was decided to radically modify the route, which involved the replacement of a large number of bends with two long traverses, the excavation of a tunnel through the rock, widening the road and the radius of the bends up to lower Valscura lakes (the two variants of the track can still be done on foot). It makes little difference knowing whether the upgrade to the road was in 1929 or 1931.

The Bassa del Druos was served by a track that, in 1931, seemed sufficient for the needs of the time. Just a few years later, however, the decision to build an underground battery at the pass changed things radically. In 1939, a detail from the GAF (Border Guard had to work for about a month, widening and improving the road surface to allow the transportation of the artillery.

Finally a special mention should be given to the mule track "Valscura barracks-Fremamorta". This bold track, built between 1906 and 1909, winds for over 10 km at altitudes above 2,000 meters and links the defensive deployments of Druos and Fremamorta.

Refurbished by the Dronero Battalion (probably in 1929 or in the following years), you can still see stretches paved with incredible skill that wind through the rocky debris, evoking awe in those who see it for the first time. About half way along the track the Ricovero delle Portette was built (better known today as Rifugio Emilio Questa), named after Captain Eugenio Cappa 1st Alpini Regiment, who died on Monte Campigoletto in June 1917.

Abandoned their military function, today these roads, tracks and paths are used by thousands of hikers who climb easily up their almost constant gradient. Only rarely, however, do those who pass stop to reflect on the expertise and toil that made it possible for them to move so smoothly and quickly over otherwise broken and uneven slopes.

Marking out a military road in the mountains was a serious affair: in fact it was necessary to take into account many factors. The path had to be adapted to the terrain, accommodating its impositions; shelter from the prevailing winds; and good exposure limiting the formation of ice and the permanence of snow on the ground, had to be considerations; as was the necessity to avoid the risk of landslides and avalanches on the roadway. This was not all! A military road also had to be out of the enemy's line of fire and observation, but at the same time clearly visible and covered by friendly artillery fire so as not to compromise the safety of defensive positions. Not to mention that to allow vehicles to advance, the path had to maintain almost constant and never excessive gradients throughout.
Before starting the excavation, the constructor marked out the path with stakes, then began to form the body of the road, excavating, transporting material, raising levels or burying obstacles. Excavation in the mountains was principally done with pick and shovel, but often explosives had to be used to remove bedrock from the slopes. Often the more challenging parts were tackled first, such as engineering structures (eg bridges) or hairpins. Curbs, gutters and areas that needed filling, were usually completed with materials from the excavation of the roadway.

For the construction of the roadway itself, the bed was dug 15-20 cm deep and the width of the road, after tamping the surface, four progressively finer layers of gravel and crushed stone were layed down, each layer was compacted by means of repeated transit with the wagons. Italian companies are the first to adopt 'rolling' as a faster and more efficient method of compacting the road surface. The width of the road and gradients were established according to the function that the road would have to play: it ranged from 3 metres wide and slopes not exceeding 12% for 'single transit' roads, to a metre and a half wide and a maximum gradient of 30% for 'mule tracks', and 80 cm for 'paths'.

The construction of the major military roads was entrusted to civilian enterprises, sometimes with the use of military manpower ; most of the secondary roads were built directly by military personnel.

Once completed, the maintenance passed to the road-mender soldiers, each of which, under the supervision of a corporal, was responsible for about one kilometre. They were instructed to continuously fill the furrows formed by the wheels of vehicles or by water run-off with gravel or soil, to keep the track clear of snow and rocks and to communicate the need for maintenance of greater magnitude. When brooms, shovels and snowploughs were no longer sufficient, the snow on the roadway was beaten, smoothed with a heavy wooden cylinder and strewn with gravel, so that the transit was guaranteed.

At the end of the Second World War, with the destruction of the border fortifications imposed on Italy by the Treaty of Paris of 1947, the road network also lost importance: disused and abandoned by the military administration, despite the care with which they were built, the military roads are slowly disappearing, swallowed by the mountain or reduced to narrow paths. With them, the traces of an entire period of history and marvelous works of engineering will be lost.

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