An unusual wooden chapel tells a sad story of the Russian prisoners of war who lost their lives in an avalanche in 1916, while building a road over the pass Vršič.
When Vršič road on the Kranjska Gora side descents almost to the valley, between 9th and 8th bend, stands a small chapel of larch wood. It was built in the dark times when our country was shaken by fierce clashes of the Isonzo Front. It is dedicated to the victims of war who are usually overlooked -prisoners of war.
Vršič Pass road
At the beginning of the Isonzo Front landscape and transport connections were not in favor of military operations, especially in the high mountains. It was, therefore, necessary to build roads, railways and cable cars fast.
20.000 Austro Hungarian soldiers were fighting in the high mountains between Mt Rombon and Tolmin and they daily needed 800 tons of various material – food, water, ammunition, building materials, fuel, medicines.
With 1611m the Vršič Pass is the highest pass in Slovenia. After Italy entered the First World War, the road over the pass Predel was no longer safe due to the proximity of the border.
For that reason the road over the Vršič pass suddenly became strategically important. The works started in summer 1915 when snow melted. But the Austro-Hungary was facing a lack of workforce so they brought in the Russian prisoners of war from the Eastern Front, to do the job.
Russian prisoners of war
For 12.000 Russian soldiers the hell on Earth begun. The guards were very cruel, every little offense was punished severely. In addition, hard-working conditions were unbearable.
Prisoners were poorly clothed and not given enough food, various diseases (Cholera, Typhoid, Smallpox and various fevers) also threatened their lives. Mortality was extremely high. And, then one day a deadly avalanche turned this dark scenario into massacre.
To ensure uninterrupted supply of material to the Isonzo front line, the pass was to be kept passable year-round. Locals from both Kranjska Gora and Trenta were warning the authorities that avalanches are common events in these mountains.
But the winter 1915/16 was unusually mild. Even in February there was still no snow. So the works proceeded.
Then in March the snow started to fall. And, it didn’t stop. Headquarters ordered the prisoners to shuffle the snow from the road both day and night since the weather conditions begun to seriously disrupt the supply to the front. Meanwhile, wet heavy snow begun to accumulate on the mountaintops around the pass.
On Ash Wednesday, March 8th 1916 at around noon immense amounts of wet, heavy snow reached the critical point and accelerated from slopes of Mt Mojstrovka. A massive avalanche demolished everything in front of it and nothing could stop it. A few minutes later the constructions, the modest settlement of Russian prisoners and even 20 m high statue of Archduke Eugen were smashed.
We still don’t know the exact number of victims. It’s estimated that 100-300 Russian prisoners and 10-30 Austrian guards lost their lives on that day. Their bodies were mutilated beyond recognition by the great force of nature. At the snow slide area every day about 15 new dead bodies were found and buried in various nearby cemeteries. Because of the war the data on the victims was strictly protected.
Wooden orthodox chapel
In the autumn of 1916 Russian prisoners decided to build a wooden chapel to honor their dead friends. Those who lost their young lives in the avalanche, as well as others who died of malnutrition, various diseases and other accidents at work.
Unusual shrine is built in Orthodox style to reflect the religion of the victims. On the immediate right side of the chapel you can see the pyramid-shaped memorial. The inscription in Cyrillic says: Synam Russi – To the sons of Russia. This is where most of the victims of avalanche are buried, but some graves are also lying along the path that leads to the chapel.
Not far from the chapel, between 2nd and 3rd bend, you can also see the Russian cross. The Austrian soldiers build it in memory of the Austrian officers who lost their lives in an avalanche.
The exact number of Russian soldiers who died during the construction of the road over the pass Vršič, will never be known. They were forced to carry out some of the hardest work in the hinterland and died of exhaustion, malnutrition, disease, accidents at work, as well as the cruelty of guards.
Some of their graves can also be found at the Military cemetery in Trenta.
- open at all times
- every year on last Saturday in July there’s a memorial ceremony at the Russian Chapel and access to the chapel is limited
- free entry
HOW TO GET THERE
- Russian Chapel and Russian Cross map
- from Bovec take regional road Bovec – Trenta – Vršič Pass – Kranjska Gora (R1 – 206)
- between 9th and 8th bend
- on the right side of the road