In war, moral considerations make up three-quarters of the game; the relative balance of manpower accounts only for the remaining quarter.
In October of 1917 the most famous battle of the Great War on the Italian Front, Caporetto -- fought along the Isonzo -- would result in near catastrophe for Italy. The joint German and Austro-Hungarian assault would break open the Isonzo line, destroy the Italian Second Army and remove 275,000 Italian soldiers, almost all of them as captives, from the battlefield. In that battle there were many tactical shortcomings demonstrated by Cadorna and his subordiantes and the Central Powers successfully applied the new "Hutier" or shock tactics. These matters will be discussed in La Grande Guerra's article on Caporetto -- but, when entire battalions surrender without fully engaging their opponents, relative skills in the arts of generalship seem inadequate to explain things. A clue as to what must have happened at Caporetto was given a century earlier by [coincidentally] a prior veteran of the Isonzo sector, Napoleon Bonaparte. As quoted above, he identified moral considerations as the major determinant in warfare.
By October 1917, the moral and psychological well being -- the morale -- of the Italian troops on the Isonzo had reached bottom. Certainly, pacifistic and defeatist propaganda from within Italy combining with the Pope's call for the war to end contributed to this. It must have seemed to the mostly Catholic Italian soldiery that everyone but their generals thought the war was a bad idea. Additionally, the brutal treatment they received from the high command ranging from frequent executions to a policy of minimal leave time furthered the sense of oppression. Also, as pointed out by historian Luigi Villari, there was a problem of isolation primarily amongst the troops of the Second Army assigned to high mountain posts. He wrote, "These positions were usually on the rougher mountain areas, dominated by an invisible enemy, where. . .Headquarters were unavoidably far from the front line, out of touch with the troops."
But, as far as we can tell from firsthand accounts, it was, most concretely, the endless and apparently pointless war of attrition on the Isonzo that magnified the psychological toll. And, if the first nine battles of the Isonzo had pushed morale downward, the offensives of Spring and Summer 1917 shoved it off of a cliff. In raw life and death terms, the survivors of the nine offensives waged through the end of 1916 had seen about 70,000 of their comrades killed. In the two offensives of 1917 they would see 76,000 more die. This accelerating rate of loss must have compounded the doubts and stresses felt by men already trapped in an endless war of annihilation. The Tenth and Eleventh Isonzo Battles of 1917, therefore, are keys to understanding the collapse of the Italian army that followed at Caporetto.
Mte Krn [Mte Nero] with Caporetto [Kobarid] in Foreground
Tenth Battle of the Isonzo
By 1917 Italy had agreed to coordinate its operations with its allies. Spring of that year was to be the occasion of a decisive breakthrough on the Western Front to be led by French general Robert Nivelle. Italy, therefore, also had to plan for a decisive breakthrough in its only feasible area for offensive operations, the Isonzo. The usual priority, expansion of the Gorizia corridor for a further push to Trieste, was this time turned into a diversionary part of a broader attack. For mysterious reasons, in early 1917 Comando Supremo seemed bent on capturing as many mountains as possible. Moving from North to South, they engaged in an indecisive war of mines for control of Mte Krn's peak east of Caporetto. The largest assault [sound in its thinking, but weak in execution] on the Tolmino bridgehead began on May 15th and failed. Mte Kuk and Mte Vodice near Plava were successfully captured, but Mte Santo across the river from Mte Sabatino was not.
May 12 - June 8, 1917
As the main battles in the north staggered to conclusion, Third Army was ordered to attack again on the Carso. After some initial progress, they reached the outskirts of Mte Hermada in the last days of May, but eventually were halted by stiff Austrian counterattacks on June 6-8. Units of the Catanzaro Brigade refused to advance in a last futile attack on Mte Hermada and were subsequently formally decimated as punishment in July. After taking 157,000 casualties [killed, wounded and captured] it was time for General Cadorna to adjourn the blood letting.
Bridgehead at Tolmino
Austrian Forces Occupied Both Sides of River
Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo
Unable to clear the Austrian 5th Army off the dangerous Tolmino Bridgehead, Comando Supremo developed a plan for both flanking that position and threatening the enemy's rear marshalling areas, possibly even gaining another route to ever-elusive Trieste. The objective was to capture the Bainsizza Plateau southeast of Tolmino. Unfortunately the planners combined this somewhat creative solution with the old standby of scheme for capturing Trieste by just pounding very, very hard through the Carso. Guided by this two-pronged strategy, Italy's Second and Third Armies began the largest of all the Isonzo Offensives on August 19, 1917.
August 19 - September 12, 1917
In both areas the attackers suffered from the same handicap. The Bainsizza and Carso are, as described in our Isonzo Background article, "enormous natural fortresses". The new target for 1917, the Bainsizza, rises so rapidly and so high from the Isonzo that a frontal assault would be nearly suicidal. For once, however, tactics were adjusted to the situation. In another admirable bit of creativity it was decided that the plateau, with the help of fourteen bridges to be placed across the river by engineers, would be assaulted from the north at a section where the terrain was not as challenging for assault troops. Despite heavy casualties the men of the 24th Corps crossed the river, advanced behind an effective artillery barrage, forced their adversaries to withdraw and eventually occupied about half of the plateau.
On the Move in the Isonzo Sector
On the south edge of the plateau a secondary attack was staged from Mte Kuk resulting in the capture of Mte Santo which had resisted in the 10th Battle. These advances around the plateau stopped when the artillery support was not able to follow further and the Austro-Hungarian forces, always good on the defense, started taking advantage of the many caverns and hiding places provided by the Bainsizza's weird geology. Nevertheless, after the success of the 6th Battle of the Isonzo when Gorizia was captured, this effort was the most impressive military achievement by the Italian Army on the Isonzo.
Elsewhere, it was the same old story of frontal assaults on well developed defensive positions. After a final, inadequate attempt to capture Mte Gabriele which had been fortified with galleries and dugouts for years, the offensive ceased. Something was in the air. Cadorna sensed the Germans were about intervene and he wanted to get ready.
His preparations were to prove thoroughly inadequate, but that is a story to be told elsewhere. With the end of the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo one of the sadder chapters in humanity's annals concludes. There were other dreadful battlefields in the Great War Verdun, the Somme, Ypres, Gallipoli where multiple battles were fought, but only on the Isonzo was the same futility engaged in ELEVEN times.
Sources and Thanks: A number of works were consulted for this article including:
The British Official History, Military Operations: Italy, 1915-19, Edmonds & Davies; The War on the Italian Front, Luigi Villari; An Illustrated Companion to the First World War, Anthony Bruce; Purnell's History of the First World War, Vol. 2, Num. 16, Barrie Pitt, ed. and Vol. 4, Num. 12, Peter Young, ed.; Isonzo: La Dove Morirono, Schaumann & Schubert; La Guerra Italo-Austrica: 1915-1918 Amadeo Tosdi; Mark of the Beast, Alfredo Bonadeo.
Photos were kindly provided by Ray Mentzer, Mike Iavorone and Alessandro Risso.