Along the road to Predel Pass, on the border between Slovenia and Italy, stands a stone pyramid with a bronze statue of dying lion. The memorial is dedicated to a squad of Austrian soldiers who bravely defended the fortress above the monument in the days of Napoleonic wars.
Napoleon vs Franz II
Napoleon doesn’t really need an introduction, but if your history knowledge needs a slight refreshment we advise you to check this truly awesome book called Badass written by our favourite author Ben Thompson. In this very amusing biography you will learn all about an underprivileged kid from Corsica – turn general – turn First Consul of France – turn Emperor of France – turn prisoner on a tiny island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. To use Ben’s exact words: “It’s safe to say that Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t exactly the most popular kid to ever live.” At the time of our story he was already a self-declared Empereur des Français and made everyone call him Sire.
On the other hand, you’ve probably never heard of the Austrian Emperor Franz II. Therefore, let’s say a few words about him. Actually we’ll steal it all from the article on Wikipedia. Born in the royal house of Habsburg he was raised to become a ruler. Back in those days it meant the use of Sparta-like educational methods that were full of fear and unpleasantness. The young Archduke was isolated to make him more self-sufficient. And, to complete his training Franz was sent to join an army.
After the death of his uncle and father, Franz was now an emperor at the age of 24. And, like his uncle and father before him he hated Napoleon. One of the reasons for such intense feelings were Napoleon’s social and political reforms inspired by liberal and radical ideas of the French Revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man. Franz was the monarch of multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire in which different nations didn’t have equal rights. So, he was worried about a revolution at his own backyard. Now it’s important to note that revolutions at the time were deeply connected with the use of guillotine – a device that made you lose your head, literary. The most famous victim of guillotine to this day remains French queen Marie Antoinette, our Franz’s beloved auntie.
Therefore, Franz II had more than enough reasons to declare war on Napoleon and get rid of him once and for all. The strategic road connecting Italian region Friuli with Austrian region Carinthia passed Predel and Bovec, and so just a few days later our valley was full of soldiers.
Yet another Napoleonic War
This war, officially called War of the Fifth Coalition, was one of the rare occasions when Napoleon did not initiate a conflict. The Austrian plan involved three separate armies. One was to invade Italy, the second was to threaten the Duchy of Warsaw and the third (the largest) was to occupy Bavaria.
On early morning of 10th April 1809 a part of Austrian army began their march from Tarvisio to pass Predel. The weather was awful and the road was narrow and steep. But this army of infantry, cavalry and artillery had a Kingdom of Italy to invade and no blizzard was to stop them. Tired and shivering with cold they came to Bovec and continued to Kobarid. After 16 hours of exhausting march, they made it to Cividale without any serious military clash with the French troops. The victorious Austrian army progressed rapidly all the way to the suburb of Verona.
In the meantime things weren’t so brilliant on the other side of Europe. In Bavaria Austrians managed to win a few battles at first, but then Napoleon gathered his thoughts, took a deep breath and said to himself: “Ok, time to teach these Austrians a lesson.” When Franz II realized what this lesson was about, he panicked. In severe fights Austria lost some 50.000 men and Napoleon’s army was on the way to Vienna. Franz quickly slammed the emergency break, turned his army around and send them back home to defend the capital.
Battle for Predel Pass
Just a month after passing Predel and Bovec, the Austrians were here again with the French army right behind them. The military headquarters have decided to occupy the fortress on Predel in order to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the army. The Predel Fortress in 1809 looked rather poor. Today you can see the remains of two stone fortifications on each side of the road. But back then all you could find were two small wooden barriers not big enough to support the whole army. It was clear that these structures mainly made of wood, rocks and dirt couldn’t withstand the enemy.
But time was running out and Captain Johann Hermann von Hermannsdorf had volunteered to defend the fortress with his soldiers, almost all Croatians. Everyone knew it was a suicide mission. On 13th May 1809 this young man (he was just 27 years old) took command of the barrier. He only had few days to gather the food, water and ammunition for 240 men. There was no time to strengthen the construction, but Hermann ordered to set up as many roadblocks as possible.
The only positive thing about the whole situation was the location of the fortress. Defenders had a great view on the road and all 10 cannons were pointed at that direction. French units under the command of general Seras started their ascent to the village of Strmec on 15th May when intense bombardment surprised them. General Seras was already in a bad mood. His men were tired and hungry. Napoleon always made sure his army had enough of ammunition, but commanders had to take care of the food. And, food was rare luxury in this mountain region with no fertile land. Locals were poor and could barely produce enough food for themselves. What was left, the Austrians have taken twice in less than a month.
A day later general Seras still had no idea how to crush the resistance and take over the Predel pass. The artillery was useless because the road was too narrow and too steep. So, he sent one of his officers with white flag to negotiate with Hermann. If the Austrians surrender they will be free to go. Of course Hermann refused and bombardment continued until night. During that night French somehow managed to place several cannons in the vicinity and on the following day the fortress was severely damaged. Hermann lost many men, but once again he refused the French demand to surrender.
On 18th May general Seras finally got some good news. French reinforcements were just about to reach pass Predel from Tarvisio. The fortress was caught between two French units. But Seras hesitated and asked the defenders to surrender again. For the third time they refused. Hermann was determined to fight to the death. When the French officers left Hermann gathered all his soldiers and gave them a speech. We can guess what it was about. It surely raised their morale – they were fighting like lions without any hope to win.
Believe it or not general Seras send a demand to surrender one more time later that day. He must have secretly admired the Austrians determined to die rather than surrender. Well, you can guess Hermann’s answer. So, on 18th May at 5PM general Seras ordered full attack. Thundering of cannons mixed with loud beats of drums and rebel yell of soldiers swallowed the fortress. Imagine the outstanding courage of the defenders who didn’t give in even after French have burned the upper fortress, the one above the road. They were fighting shoulder to shoulder until the last man was killed and both wooden fortifications burned to the ground.
Pyramid with lion statue
At the end Austrians lost their war and Franz II was forced to sign yet another humiliating treaty. What about Napoleon? Well, when he came back to Paris he decided it was time for a new wife. Not only because his Josephine was a bit advanced in age, but because she failed to give him a heir. This time he will wed a woman not merely royal, but imperial. And, there was imperial family far more ancient than the most royal families at the time and therefore perfect for Sire’s titanic ambitions – the Habsburgs. Right, his new bride Marie Louise was the daughter of emperor Franz II, his bitter enemy. We all know how that story ended.
The fortress on Predel was rebuilt fifty years later by another Austrian emperor. In memory of the brave men who lost their lives there a stone pyramid with the statue of lion was set. Who rebuilt the sarcophagus under the road is still a mystery. We’re not even sure if the remains of Captain Hermann and his men are truly in the sarcophagus.
A century after this sad event Austria was at the dawn of another war. In the preparations of the First World War another fortress was built on a plateau above the Kluže Fortress. It was named Fort Hermann after the young captain whose courage was beyond outstanding.
- always open
- free entry
HOW TO GET THERE
- Predel Fortress map
- from Bovec take regional road Bovec – Predel (R1 – 203)
- pass villages Log pod Mangartom and Strmec
- 2km from the village of Strmec there’s a stone pyramid with the statue of lion on the right side of the road just before Slovenia – Italy border
- easy to moderate
DURATION OF THE TOUR
- 5 min (200 m)
- in case of rain or snow the trail is slippery, so walking shoes are recommended