One grey autumn day, during what may soon be remembered as our belle époque, we made our way up to the Forno mountain hut in the Swiss Alps. The place, we learned, was a favourite haunt of Christian Klucker (1853-1928), an alpine guide active during the decades leading up to the First World War.
|The Swiss Alpine Club's Forno Hut, about 1900 (lithograph: source unknown)|
Klucker, a local man from the Val Fex, turned to guiding to eke out his living as a smallholder. Despite unpromising circumstances – he had to break off his apprenticeship as a wheelwright to take over the debt-ridden family farm – he became the most famous guide that Switzerland’s Engadine region has ever produced. No client in his charge was ever lost or injured.
On one occasion, he came close to tarnishing this exemplary record. And the incident, as related in Klucker’s memoirs, Adventures of an Alpine Guide, seems to raise an intriguing question – whether what starts on a mountain might, one day, end tragically in a completely different arena.
At the end of July, the Englishman asked Klucker if he would accompany him and another guide, Jacob Ufer, to Monte Disgrazia, a mountain on the Italian side of the border. The plan was to spend the night in a hut near the summit, after a long day’s climbing. At first, Klucker was hesitant:-
I could not help pointing out … that as a rule I did not undertake the longer and harder mountain climbs before knowing the capabilities of my companions, and that furthermore, I considered it rather risky to spend the night on the summit of the mountain in view of a possible sudden change in the weather during the night, and the fact that the difficulties of the descent all lay concentrated below the hut. I told him that such mousetraps at that altitude – where a human being might at any time become the plaything of the forces of nature – were not to my liking.
But the confident Englishman, playing “the role of a seasoned mountaineer”, overbore all the guide’s objections. Reluctantly, Klucker gave his consent. On August 4, the party set out over the Forno Glacier, heading for a crossing on the Swiss-Italian border. On the frontier summit, Klucker pointed out the gathering thunderclouds, but was laughed at for his pains. The predicted storm overtook them during their descent into Italy. Nevertheless, they decided to continue.
The ascent over the Piola Glacier in slushy afternoon snow was “very unpleasant”. What concerned Klucker more was the Englishman was demanding halts more and more frequently. The guide suggested that it might be wiser to descend to the Cecilia Hut and try for the Disgrazia on the following day. The weather was getting worse too. But the Englishman wilfully insisted on continuing the ascent. It was already clear to Klucker that they couldn’t now hope to reach the Disgrazia hut by daylight.
As night started to fall, with the party still far below the hut, the Englishman collapsed in the snow, “as if struck by a deadly bomb”. Klucker was at his side at once, and was able to assure himself that his client was alive, albeit with a very rapid pulse. It was obvious, however, that he would not be in marching condition for hours to come and that, if a snowstorm should set in, “the dread catastrophe would not be long delayed”.
Klucker needed to act fast – leaving his colleague to look after their client, he climbed rapidly up a snow ridge to the hut, where he snatched up two blankets and the cooker. Harried by snow showers, he then climbed carefully back down to his companions. Putting up one blanket as a makeshift shelter, the guides lit the spirit cooker and brewed up “a kind of mulled wine” that they forced down their patient’s throat. Then they wrapped him in all his spare clothing and the other blanket, anchoring the whole package to a rock spike with their rope.
Around one in the morning, Klucker was awakened by a peculiar and unintelligible muttering:
I asked my colleague where the sound came from, what was the trouble, and whether he was not feeling well. To which he replied in a tearful voice that ·he was saying his Paternoster. And then he began to blubber like a schoolboy with his ears boxed, lamenting that he should never see his dear wife and children again, because we were certainly doomed, and our Herr already near breathing his last. This behaviour of my colleague annoyed me intensely. I gave him to understand that although unmarried, I also had poor relatives to support, but that my trust in God and myself was such that I did not regard our situation as so desperate as he did, and that I preferred to leave the blubbering to schoolboys. Finally, I suggested that he was demanding of the Madonnas and Saints far too great a feat of strength, if he expected them to help us unhurt down the walls of the Disgrazia.
Only after upbraiding Jacob Ufer did Klucker notice that they were both covered with drifted snow and his boots had frozen hard as flint. Ufer remembered at this point that a full bottle of cognac had been packed up with their provisions. “The deuce there is,” said Klucker, “That’ll make us a fine grog.” The result worked wonders: their client too swallowed the hot drink with avidity.
At daybreak, the guides prepared a fresh portion of grog and made ready for the descent. The young officer was unwrapped from his covers, and Ufer led the way downwards, clearing snow from the previous day’s steps. The officer followed, crawling backwards, while Klucker brought up the rear. It took three hours to reach the foot of the Disgrazia. Then they crossed a pass back into Switzerland, reaching the village of Chiesa late in the evening. On the following day, they returned to Maloja, their starting point.
When the time came to part, the Englishman turned to Klucker and said, “You were right: one should not set out on difficult undertakings with tourists whose capabilities are unknown.”
Some thirty years later – in fact, exactly a century before the date of this blog post, on July 1, 1916 – more than 100,000 British infantrymen left their trenches and advanced into in what became known as the Battle of the Somme. Within hours, 60,000 had been killed or wounded.
Although the offensive would attain few or none of its objectives, it was prolonged until winter, as if in a spirit of “transcendent stubbornness”. In the end, one million European soldiers died during this single campaign. The architect of the catastrophe was Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.
By all contemporary accounts, Haig was well suited to his appointment as Winston Churchill, for one, thought highly of him: “He had obtained every qualification, gained every experience and served in every appointment requisite for the General Command … The esteem of his military colleagues found a healthy counterpart in his own self-confidence….”
His own self-confidence! The parallels with Klucker’s account are compelling, almost irresistible: the guide’s client overestimating his capabilities on a mountain, the same character traits resulting years later in a military disaster of epic proportions.
Alas, a compelling thesis is not the same as a conclusive one. In 1886, the real Douglas Haig had barely joined the Army. He was decades away from his promotion to a general’s rank. And history relates that he was playing polo in America during the August of the Disgrazia incident – a near-perfect alibi – although he did visit the Engadine twenty years later, to recuperate from an illness.
So who was Klucker’s “General Haig”? Instead of an anecdote that sheds a dramatic and ominous light on the psyche of a famous military leader – one with a fateful connection to today’s date – we seem to have stumbled on a small-scale alpine mystery.
Christian Klucker, Adventures of an Alpine Guide, translated from the third German edition by Erwin and Pleasaunce von Gaisberg. (Black-and-white images are from this book)
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General, HistoryNet.
The Pre-War Life and Military Career of Douglas Haig, PhD thesis by Gerard de Groot, Edinburgh 1983.