The Southern Front in the First World War ran between Austria-Hungary and Italy through some of the highest Alpine regions in the world. The military priority to secure the high ground led to fighting at altitudes that carried an high risk of death from severe cold and avalanche. The front lines were sometimes difficult to reach in the best of weather and impossible in the worst.

The cable systems that were engineered throughout the region by both sides were the last link in the chain that brought supplies and troops from the railheads and Alpine roads up to front line positions; in the other direction they brought down the dead and the wounded.

The cover of the issue of Scientific American 100 years ago carries a single image with a short caption: “Cableway ambulance system in a precipitous Alpine region.” A wounded soldier is shown being carried down to a medical tent below.

There is no information as to whether it is an Austria-Hungarian cableway or an Italian one. My impression is that it does not matter: the soldiers that fought in the awful conditions sometimes felt that the real enemy was the cold. Even today, as glaciers melt, bodies of soldiers left behind on the mountains are recovered from the melting ice, and with great reverence laid to rest with maximum respect by former adversaries.


Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on medical care in the First World War. It is available for purchase at