Posted By Andrew on December 3, 2016
Much like its equivalent in the “Second World War” the Italian Front in “World War 1” has been generally forgotten, downplayed and usually only mentioned as an example of a supposedly wasteful and pointless campaign. With horrible climate and conditions, terrain and infrastructure that favoured the defence, prohibitive casualties and few decisive results the Italian campaign from 1915-18 was hardly destined to be popular, let alone remembered, compared to the titanic struggle on the Eastern Front, the ongoing naval contest between Germany and Britain, and the Western Front where the war was ultimately won. However, despite all of this Italy’s presence did more good than bad for the Entente powers in “World War 1.” By adding considerably more manpower, military power, and resources to the Entente, and increasingly wearing down Austrian forces and diverting them from other fronts, Italy made an important contribution to allied victory.
Italy was a relatively new power in the early 20th Century. Used to being a battleground between Europe’s Great Powers for centuries, much like Prussia and the German states, the individual Italian powers and states had been invaded, overrun, and devastated by continuous warfare. During the 19th Century these states mostly merged together to form Italy.
However, Italian nationalism, driven on by the Italy’s irredentism movement, was unsatisfied as they wanted to annex neighbouring territories with Italian majorities (and in many cases minorities) for Italy. Meanwhile Italy had also signed military alliances with Germany, and ironically since it controlled much of the land Italians coveted, Austria.
Yet this alliance eventually made little sense for Italy, both because of her territorial aspirations and due to geopolitical realities which made such an alliance redundant such as Italy’s vulnerability to a blockade by the Entente and that she was also dependent upon Britain for coal. Since Austria controlled the Italian speaking provinces Italy wished to acquire, and since England and France could do more damage to Italy with their superior land and naval forces, versus a weakened Austria and far away Germany, it made sense for Italy to ally with the Entente instead of the Central Powers during the war.
However, initially Italy hedged her bets seeing if the Entente’s promises for entering the war were better than Central Powers’ attempts at bribery to guarantee her neutrality. Unsurprisingly the Entente was willing to offer more territorial spoils from an enemy like Austria while the latter was hesitant to appease Italy. While Germany, desperate to avoid adding another significant power to her growing list of enemies, pressured Austria to surrender significant territories to avoid war it was a futile effort. Considering the Austrians were unwilling to surrender as much territory as the allies offered in turn, and since the Austrians offered only to cede the territory once the war was over, it was inevitable that Italy declared war against Austria in May 1915 (she would only declare war against Germany in August 1916).
By joining the war Italy added more manpower and resources to the Entente, which already enjoyed significant advantages in manpower, resource and money versus the Central Powers, thus giving the former a better chance to win what was obviously going to be a war of attrition. On paper at least Italy was formidable with 850,000 soldiers in 36 divisions to throw against the Central Powers who were already significantly outnumbered. Another advantage was that with Italy in the war the Entente could complete the blockade of Austria thanks to Italian domination of the narrow Strait of Otranto. Much like the blockade against Germany the one against Austria would prove decisive overtime.
However, while Italy’s entry in the conflict was an overall gain for the Entente the Italian army was not prepared for war. The army was short of machine guns, high trajectory mortars, heavy artillery (Italy had a mere 125 heavy guns) and countless other equipment necessary for trench warfare. The shortage of heavy artillery would especially prove to be a major limiting factor in Italy’s offensives and this would never be solved effectively until 1918 when a combination of improvements in Italy’s munitions industry, and material aid from allies like France and Britain, remedied the matter. For Italy’s weak industrial base, and relatively small economic potential versus not only countries like Germany, Britain and France, but even Austria, would damn her again and again.
Besides material factors Italy’s soldiers, officers and generals also suffered from significant flaws. Peter Hart has suggested that Italian officers had a “lack of professionalism in their general approach,” and once one remembers Napoleon’s maxim that “there are no bad soldiers, just bad officers,” it is easy to see where this inevitably leads. The lower ranks themselves were a mixed lot, being mostly of peasant stock from the countryside. While they would prove to be extremely resilient against harsh climate and conditions, as well as heavy casualties, they suffered from high illiteracy rates which made it hard to make them into effective NCOs, which are essentially the middlemen between officers and privates which ultimately win battles. Yet perhaps the worse criticism belonged to the Italian high command, especially its head General Luigi Cadorna.
The Generals of “World War 1,” fairly or not, are usually a criticized, and unpopular, lot in military history and Cadorna is far from being an exception. In theory he should have been ideal to lead his country to war with 50 years of military experience, steadily advancing through the ranks, having studied the military art carefully and publishing several tactical studies before the war. Yet against this he had no significant combat experience, often had strained relationships with politicians and other officers, was an overly strict martinet and harsh disciplinarian, and many of his ideas about warfare (like many of his contemporaries) were out of date by the “First World War.” Certainly many of the high ranking generals who started the war were eventually overrun by events, the changing nature of warfare, or even the eventual exposure of their inadequacies, and Cadorna was just as oblivious as them when Italy went to war.
However, despite the shortage of Italian modern arms or the questionable quality of Italy’s soldiers, officers and generals, perhaps the biggest disadvantage Italy faced was the geography of the battlefield she was condemned to fight in.
Regarding the 400 mile frontier Italy shared with Austria all but 20 miles was mountainous. During “World War 1,” where most weaponry favoured the defence, communications were ill-equipped to control forces in a quick, efficient manner, and where there was no effective weapon of exploitation to turn a tactical victory into a strategic rout, it was hard enough to succeed in the offence even in open plains. It would be, with a few exceptions, nearly impossible to due so in mountainous terrain. Worse for Italy was that Austria all but controlled all the mountains on, or near, the frontiers and quickly fell back to them at the outbreak of war to give her the best chance of holding out against Italy’s inevitable attacks. The Austrians themselves had been busy building powerful defences in the area, using terrain to its advantage and literally blasting strong dugouts, trenches and gun-pits from the rocks. To defeat the Austrians and drive them from these formidable positions the Italians would need considerable firepower (especially heavy artillery), competent leadership and NCOs, and effective tactics suited to such warfare. It would take Italy a long time to reach this point.
The Italian Front, situated around north eastern Italy, resembled the letter S. Austria controlled the Trentino salient which jutted into Italian territory towards Padua and ultimately threatened the Adriatic coast. Yet this threatened territory also pointed towards the heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire via Gorizia, to Trieste, then Vienna. Among most of the frontline, especially the Trentino, and Julian Alps, communications were undeveloped, especially roads and railways. The best communications existed on the extreme south eastern section of the front, between Venice and Trieste, which perhaps un-coincidentally also had the least mountainous terrain. However, this was relative as the terrain here was still tough, forbidding and ultimately held up the Italians for years.
It was in this area, around the Isonzo River, that Cadorna concentrated his efforts against Austria. Strategically this made sense for as noted above it had the least restrictive terrain and best communications on the front and also provided a route to Trieste and eventually Vienna. While countless historians criticize Cadorna for launching battle after battle along the Isonzo he really had no better options. Any offensive aimed at reducing the Trentino Salient, or scaling the Julian Alps, would not only have been ridiculously difficult but offered no legitimate strategic rewards regarding the capture of important communications, territory, or a route to the Austrian heartland. Outside of Italy Cadorna’s forces could not have had a decisive effect either. It is dubious what results the resource starved and poorly equipped Italian soldiers could have helped to accomplish in Palestine, Salonica or other Mediterranean theatres which took years to show any gain given the poor infrastructure in these places, or the excessive shipping that was necessary to sustain them. Even if these issues had not existed it was out of the question Italy would have devoted considerable resources to these foreign adventures since her geopolitical interests and territorial aspirations lay squarely across the border against Austria.
Therefore, whatever Cadorna’s faults attacking along the Isonzo, and repeatedly at that, was not strategically flawed. It was not just the only area where Italy could significantly threaten Austria but also the sole place where the Italians could realistically deploy most of her forces. Meanwhile even if Cadorna’s offensives in the Isonzo sector failed, and suffered prohibitive casualties for minor territorial gains, they still helped the Entente’s cause indirectly.
For “World War 1” was the ultimate war of attrition where the contest was eventually won by bleeding the Central Powers of resources, morale and especially manpower. While the Entente actually suffered more casualties and devastation as a whole it also severely outnumbered the Central Powers to the extent that it could afford such losses. Attrition is often seen as a poor military strategy, as well as an extremely immoral one, but unfortunately given the military technology of the age (which produced unreliable communications between generals and men in the field, as well as the lack of an effective weapon of exploitation) and the considerable industrial, economic, and manpower potential of the opposing sides, a war of attrition was inevitable. That such warfare is immoral and extremely wasteful there is no doubt, yet it is absurd when historians and armchair generals suggest that “World War” 2 was a supposedly nobler conflict because military technology generally, though sometimes not often enough, produced quicker battles and campaigns (though a longer war). Somehow they forgot that the faster and more reliable tanks and advanced planes allowed the combatants to kill countless more soldiers, and especially civilians, than in the “Great War.” Wars of maneuver look better on TV and maps but they are unequivocally more risky than attrition, and certainly just as bloody.
The point of all of this is that during a war of attrition like “World War 1” inflicting enemy casualties, sinking ships and wearing down an opponent’s home front via blockade, and gradually destroying the enemy’s morale are what matters, even if it takes exceedingly long. It is simply a case of seeing who gives up first. Since the Entente had vastly more resources and men, and since her core nations proved resilient enough not to lose hope and give up she inevitably won.
In Italy’s case despite her military shortcomings during the war she still fulfilled her role of aiding attrition, even if she did so unwittingly. Despite suffering often 2 times as many casualties as Austria it still paid off (while Austria itself had more population, and thus manpower, than Italy the Entente as a whole had much more than 2 times the manpower as the Central Powers) as Italy ultimately could afford such losses fighting just Austria while the latter had to fight debilitating wars against Russia, Serbia, Romania as well as Italy. Italy’s dominance of the Strait of Otranto also helped the blockade of Austria which eventually led to general starvation, and economic woes, for Austria. Finally, the never ending Italian offensives helped lead to the moral collapse of Austria’s armies at the end of the war.
However, none of this was obviously planned. Just like her enemies Germany and Austria, and allies Russia and France, Italy expected and hoped for decisive battles and quick victories. Like all of them Italy failed to accomplish this. While attrition became the main determinant of the war it was not intentional.
Which leads us to the battles waged along the Isonzo. Whatever the strategic sense of attacking there or the ultimate beneficial results it accomplished, the fact remains that Cadorna’s 11 “Battles of the Isonzo” were mostly unequivocal operational and tactical failures. It is at this level where the Italian army in general, and Cadorna in particular, deserves censure.
To be fair the sheer difficultly of the battlefield Italy had to attack in should be noted again. Much is made in military literature of the high ground during the “Battle of the Somme” or the ridges and hills during the “Third Battle of Ypres” but compared to the Italian Front these were laughable. Perhaps the best comparison would be the Turkish assaults in the Caucasus mountains early in the war which resulted in perhaps the most bloody repulse the Turks suffered during the conflict. Regarding harsh climate, forbidding terrain, and problems of tactics and logistics, the Italian Front probably deserves the dubious award of being the worst front during “World War 1.” Not only was it harder to advance or support troops in this region but it was also potentially more deadly. The prospect of suddenly falling to one’s death or the fact that shellfire in such rocky terrain caused 70% more casualties per round expended than on the soft ground in Belgium and France, due to the resulting rock splinters effectively becoming shrapnel, are telling factors.
Italy goes to war:
After declaring war Cadorna hoped to exploit Austria’s precarious situation, breakthrough on the Isonzo sector, and advance on Vienna. Initially at least Italy made some territorial gains as the Austrians wisely abandoned weak points and open ground to fall back on her mountainous defences. Yet Cadorna was hopeful despite such defensive advantages Austria could be beaten relatively quicker since not only was she now fighting on 3 fronts, but Austrian forces had received terrific blows against the Russians and Serbs during the past year.
Unfortunately for Cadorna Italy’s entry into the war in 1915, like Romania’s in 1916, came at a bad time. Italy declared war on Austria on May 23, 1915. During the first month Italy pursued Austrian forces falling back to their main defences and after meeting significant resistance prepared for the first major offensive along the Isonzo. For the Italians this should have been their finest hour. However, factors on other fronts told against her.
Instead of Russia keeping pressure on Austria the Central Powers had beaten Italy to the punch and had launched a major offensive against Russia in early May 1915 before Italy declared war. This campaign, the “Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive,” was probably the most impressive of the war and captured more territory, and inflicted more casualties on the enemy, than any other during the entire conflict. The next most impressive offensive of the war would occur on the Italian Front in late 1917. Russia lost perhaps 2 million casualties, all the territory she had conquered during the war so far, as well as Poland, and had been thoroughly beaten and humiliated. This would buy Austria a year of relative ease on the Eastern Front.
Serbia was also disappointing. Instead of helping Cadorna by attacking the Austrians, who they had been thrashing since the beginning of the war, the Serbs, who were rivals with Italy regarding territory in the Balkans and along the Adriatic, sent their cholera stricken army to invade Albania instead.
This allowed the Austrians to devote enough troops to hold the Italians during the “First Battle of the Isonzo” although the latter still outnumbered them 2 or 3 to 1. This battle, the first of 11 along the Isonzo, began June 23rd, 1915. Cadorna hoped to cross the Isonzo, seize the Carso Plateau, and then move onto open country towards Vienna. Despite the confidence of Cadorna and the eagerness of his soldiers the results proved to be less than satisfactory.
It was not just that Italy had to attack against forbidding terrain and strong defences while receiving no worthwhile support from the Russians or Serbians. Or that the Italian army had neither the firepower, equipment, or frankly competence to prevail in such a battlefield environment. There was also the fact that on this front at least the Austrians were relatively well led, motivated and experienced. Austria’s main commander on this front during the conflict was General Svetozar Boroevic, a well experienced soldier who would prove to be an extremely competent defensive general. Meanwhile the divisions under him had already fought in Serbia and knew mountain warfare and understood its nature.
Therefore the results were unsurprising. Italian forces ordered to conduct frontal attacks against strong Austrian positions, and expected to succeed via courage, élan and numbers, were easily defeated by the Austrians who had most of the advantages and re-captured Italy’s small gains during their counter-attacks. The Italians suffered disproportionate casualties, did not advance much across the river, and the offensive failed. Cadorna was unfazed from this setback; blaming the defeat on the supposed lack of determination of his officers and soldiers, rather then the shortage of adequate weaponry, a poor military system that had failed to produce efficient officers or motivated soldiers, or even failings regarding the Italian high command including himself. While it would be unfair to suggest Cadorna never learned anything from the ongoing struggle on the Italian Front, or that he failed to attempt to improve his army, with the benefit of hindsight there is little doubt that his learning curve as a general was too slow to suggest he belongs amongst the list of great military leaders in history. Meanwhile the human cost was approximately 15,000 Italian casualties to 10,000 Austrian ones.
Cadorna launched the “Second Battle of the Isonzo” only 11 days after the conclusion of the first. To his credit he amassed more artillery for this offensive and tried organizing a shorter, sharper artillery bombardment (foreshadowing later effective artillery methods in the war) to hopefully surprise and quickly overrun the Austrians. Yet this innovation was offset by the fact that Italy still lacked sufficient heavy artillery to smash the Austrian positions and that her gunners were generally unskilled, and inexperienced, compared to German and French ones, and perhaps even the British despite the latter’s small army in 1915. Additionally, the Italians also lacked adequate numbers of war materials such as rifles, artillery shells and even shears to cut barb wire. Finally, the offensive was launched by the same 18 Italian divisions that had just launched the “First Battle of the Isonzo” and unsurprisingly they were perhaps not as well rested or motivated given their recent defeat as they should have been. In fact Cadorna pushed his soldiers ruthlessly during his command, launching offensives every three months on average from May 1915 to August 1917. This was more often than the supposedly offensive obsessed French and British Generals on the Western Front managed during the war, and helped wear down the Italian army both physically and mentally and partially explains the disaster which it experienced in late 1917.
However, given that Italy still outnumbered Austria 3 to 1 (roughly 250,000 to 80,000) there was still hope that with its new artillery advantages the Italian army could succeed and breakthrough. Initially the Italians enjoyed some success by capturing 4000 Austrians but their territorial advances were meagre. There was severe, often hand to hand, fighting on the Karst plateau which produced no decisive results. Mount San Michele was captured but then later taken back by the Austrians. Mount Sei Busi was captured and held, giving Italy a foothold on the plateau, but a subsequent advance from it failed. The Italians also took Cappuccio Wood, south of San Michele, which dominated a big area including Austria’s bridgehead at Gorizia, which Italy needed to decisively push eastwards. However, despite capturing these few features which threatened Austrian positions on the front the Italians lost overall; failing to breakthrough to Gorizia and Trieste.
Cadorna halted the offensive in early August when it was clear his army was running out of artillery shells, highlighting Italy’s infant munitions industry and her general lack of war readiness. This second battle cost Italy between 42,000-62,000 casualties and the Austrians 45,000-48,000. Austria suffered more casualties than was perhaps expected considering her arguably foolish policy of holding onto, or recapturing, all frontline positions (an error the Germans repeated at the Somme in 1916) instead of adapting defence-in-depth or other more imaginative defensive means. They also apparently suffered heavily in their poorly fortified rear positions from Italian artillery. Thus despite Italy’s second failure along the Isonzo there seemed to be hope for the future if Cadorna and Italian industry could give their soldiers the tools to finish the job.
A few months later the “Third Battle of the Isonzo” began in October 1915. Realizing he was still severely deficient in artillery Cadorna managed to concentrate 1200 artillery pieces by taking guns from forts and naval assets, giving Italy a 2-1 advantage in artillery on the front. He also still outnumbered the Austrians at least 2-1 in troops and decided to limit the scope of the offensive to taking bridgeheads across the Isonzo, especially Gorizia, rather than hoping for an unlikely breakthrough. However, Cadorna erred in spreading his attacks too widely instead of focusing on a more limited portion of the front. While it was not a bad idea to attack on a wider front per se (especially since it was easier for a defender to attack a relatively narrow salient produced by an limited attack versus a larger bulge created via a wider attack) the fact remains that at this point in the war Italy did not have the artillery, let alone other resources or combat experience, to successfully execute a widespread offensive on this front. Therefore, just like the British at the Somme in 1916 the Italians may have had more artillery then before but it was wasted by having to be disproportionately deployed over more territory. The fact that many were of a relatively lighter calibre, and thus could not effectively smash Austrian trenches or barb wire, only compounded this.
On October 18th, 1915 the Italians began an unprecedentedly strong artillery bombardment which lasted 3 days. Like the lead up to the “Battle of the Somme” in 1916 it was hoped this would lead to victory. Yet also like the Somme it led to disappointment and tragedy as the attackers were caught on the barb wire and slaughtered. Italy made limited gains before being forced back. Mount Sabotino was temporarily seized but recaptured by the Austrians. Mount San Michele, another key objective, was also ultimately retained by Austria. Perhaps the only real result was the capture of the trenches on Mount Sei Busi. Either way Cadorna’s attempts to initially out flank Gorizia, and having failed this to overrun it directly with brute force, did not succeed.
With Cadorna spreading out his forces, especially artillery, on the front against strong defences, the Austrians having a perfect view of Italy’s preparations (given their command of the high ground) and since Austria adopted better defensive tactics during this battle (keeping their front lines, which would be overly exposed to Italy’s bombardments, light so that their second lines would be strong enough to counterattack any Italian advance) than the last Italian offensive doomed Cadorna’s third battle. Yet again Italy had accomplished little territorial gains for disproportionate casualties with 70,000 to 40,000 Austrian ones.
Before 1915 ended Cadorna fit in one more attack, “the Fourth Battle of Isonzo,” which began November 10th, 1915. By this point Italy had increased her forces from 19 divisions to 28, and Austria 11-15, while the artillery balance was approximately 1375 to Austria’s 625 (which effectively meant the overall balance of forces remained the same for this battle). The majority of the fighting occurred near Gorizia and the Carso plateau, although there was fighting along the entire Isonzo sector. The usual problems with insufficient Italian artillery and experience existed but there were some small advances including terrain overlooking Gorizia as well as the capture of Trincea dan Razzi which gave Italy a foothold on the Carso plateau. However, once more another ambitious offensive by Cadorna failed. Besides again running low of artillery shells, and other equipment, as well as the mutual exhaustion of Italian and Austrian forces, winter arrived and took a deadly toll. Snowfall blocked many of the narrow mountainous roads and disrupted the logistics of both armies. Frostbite also rendered countless soldiers hors de combat.
The “fourth battle of Isonzo,” along with it any significant fighting on the Italian Front for 1915, was over. Italy suffered approximately 50,000 casualties to Austria’s 32,000.
How should Italy’s 1915 campaign be summed up? For Italy and Cadorna the first four battles of the Isonzo were obviously disappointing as all attempts at breakthrough, let alone securing important territory, ended in failure. The casualties were also worrisome with Italy suffering perhaps 250,000 casualties (66,000 dead) to 128,000 Austrian (28,000 dead) ones. Not only were these disproportionate losses they also represented more than 25% of the Italian army’s strength at the beginning of hostilities. On the one hand this was not un-beneficial to the Entente since it enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in manpower. Even regarding Austria and Italy it was not unfavourable for even though Austria had more population than Italy the latter only had to fight on one front whereas the Austrians had to fight on four during the war (usually several at a time) including against Russia, Serbia, Romania and Italy. While the casualties Austria suffered against Italy in 1915 were bad enough they was nothing compared to the slaughter of her armies against Russia which produced significantly more than a million casualties by the end of 1915. Casualties would only increase for both sides on the Italian Front during subsequent years.
Although Italy had a bad year in 1915 her entry into the war was still a plus for the Entente and likewise a net loss for the Central Powers. Already struggling against Serbia and Russia the Austrians had been desperate to deploy enough troops to the Italian Front to hold out. It also forced Germany to devote more troops to the Eastern Front to ease the Russian pressure off Austria and attempt to knock Serbia out of the war. Italy’s not inconsiderable army of 35 divisions and blockade of the Strait of Otranto also placed more pressure on the Central Powers. Italy’s army would continue to expand, growing to 48 divisions by the end of 1915, and she would slowly acquire more weapons and artillery, even if there never seemed to be enough for such a harsh front. Unfortunately her leadership, especially Cadorna, who was proving to be excessively harsh regarding discipline, and seemingly uncaring to the brutal conditions facing his troops, would still prove to be relatively backwards regarding tactics and innovations which were being formulated much quicker on the Western Front. This old fashioned and lackadaisical approach to warfare would eventually lead to disaster on the Italian Front even as Italy amassed more troops, weapons and equipment, and slowly bled the Austrians white.
Austria herself had a mixed year. Given the thrashing she suffered in her fighting against Serbia and Russia, Austria’s desperate defence against Italy, resulting in Italy suffering twice as many casualties and no significant territorial gains, can only be seen as a notable strategic defensive victory. Meanwhile a joint German-Austrian offensive in mid-1915, Gorlice-Tarnow, routed the Russians on the Eastern Front, conquered Poland, forced the Russian army to fall back significantly and inflicted arguably 2 million casualties on the enemy. Probably the most impressive battlefield victory of the war it gave Austria a much needed year of breathing space on the Eastern Front. Austria also benefited from a combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian offensive against Serbia in late 1915 which overran the latter and therefore closed down at least one front for Austria. Therefore a case could be made that at the end of 1915 Austria’s strategic situation had improved. However, this has to be balanced against Italy’s continued militarily growth, the naval blockade that would slowly starve Austria of food and resources, and the horrendous casualties the Austrian army had already taken in 1914-15.
Cadorna used the winter interlude, its harsh conditions prohibiting offensives anyway, to train and equip his forces more thoroughly in the hope that his army would accomplish better results in 1916. This was not in vain as some progress was made. New tactics for mountain and trench warfare were being adopted and much of the equipment necessary to fight it was arriving in significant quantities. This included machine guns, mortars, wire cutters, grenades but unfortunately even at this point not enough heavy artillery. Italian industry still lagged behind regarding its production and Britain and France were too busy equipping their own expanding armies themselves with heavy artillery to spare any for Cadorna. Yet despite this disappointment Italy was, theoretically at least, better prepared for its next offensive than the costly ones of 1915.
During the winter the Entente and Central Powers formulated allied strategy for the upcoming year. The Entente, motivated mostly by Joffre, the commander of the French army, decided to launch synchronized offensives sometime in mid-1916 to hit Germany and Austria all at once. On paper this made sense given since Germany, and her allies, enjoyed interior lines of communications and a central position; they had been able to reinforce their threatened points along their fronts quicker than their enemies and had thus defeated Entente offensives that had been launched separately instead of at the same time. Thus even though the Entente had more soldiers, artillery and weapons than the Central Powers the latter’s shorter communications, and close proximity to each other, allowed Germany to defeat Entente offensives one at a time. By launching offensives at the same time the Entente hoped to stretch their enemies’ forces, and their reserves, so thin that eventually the Central Powers would collapse at one point which hopefully began a rout.
Strategically it made sense except that it assumed Germany would sit back and do nothing. Once again a battle plan did not survive contact with the enemy. Germany and her allies had their own plans for 1916 and the German army preempted the Entente by attacking French forces at Verdun in February 1916. General Falkenhayn, Germany’s military leader, understanding the attritional nature of the war, strove to bleed the French army white in 1916 by initiating a brutal battle at Verdun where it was hoped that superior German artillery, and French pride in defending the city, would wear down the French and force her to leave the war. Unfortunately for Germany while her offensive did much to diminish the chances of the Entente’s plan for 1916 to succeed by distracting the French army, the most reliable allied army in 1916, it was perhaps misguided: Not only as an attritional fight since Verdun resulted in almost even casualties for both sides, which benefited the Entente and not Germany, but because Falkenhayn assumed the French would simply throw in the towel despite how dedicated they were to continuing the war.
Then there were the distinct plans for 1916 regarding Italy and Austria. Italy’s was easy, predictable, and also conveniently overlapped with Joffre’s strategy by seeking aggressive attacks against Austria to produce more decisive results on the Isonzo than in 1915.
Austria’s was more controversial. As the Serbian front had been eliminated, the Russians bloodied and pushed back, and Italy’s attacks stymied in 1915 Austria had some leeway regarding what strategy to adopt in 1916. Since Italy was weaker and easier to contain (given the terrain of the front) than Russia which was still in the war, it arguably made sense that Austria’s priority for 1916 should have been to reinforce the Eastern Front and hold the Russians. While it gave the initiative to Russia and Italy with hindsight at least it would have been the better choice. Instead Austria’s leading soldier, the militaristic and temperamental Conrad von Hotzendorf, decided to try knocking Italy out of the war with an audacious offensive. He would get his chance but before then Italy renewed major fighting on the front in 1916 by launching the “Fifth Battle of the Isonzo” on March 9th, 1916.
Ironically Cadorna, among the most offensive minded generals of the war, launched this offensive somewhat reluctantly. He would have preferred to wait until the snow melted and weather improved but pressure from France, which was suffering horrifically due to the German attack at Verdun, pressured him to launch an attack to take heat off the French army. The preparations for this offensive were rushed and perhaps less thorough than the earlier ones along the Isonzo. Therefore despite enjoying probably a 3-1 advantage in men and artillery the Italians pushed forth against not only mountains and machine guns but snow, rain and fog, and the results were limited as usual.
Limited attacks were launched against Tolmino, Gorizia and the Carso plateau. Generally they were conducted more to show the Entente Italy was responding to Verdun than Cadorna actually trying to accomplish anything notable. The offensive lasted less than 10 days, saw Italian forces move little farther than a few 100 meters in some areas, and cost Italy and Austria roughly 13,000 casualties each. It was quickly called off due to the terrible weather and because Cadorna realized the Austrians were preparing a major offensive of their own. As for its ostensible objective of taking pressure off the French at Verdun it failed considering it likely did not force a single German soldier to depart from there.
The next major offensive on the Italian Front was launched by Austria. Named the “Strafexpedition” (Punitive expedition) by Conrad von Hotzendorf, who had wanted to punish Italy for entering the war against Austria for the past year, its objectives were no less ambitious than Cadorna’s initial offensives in 1915. Conrad hoped to breakout from the Trentino Salient onto the coastal plain of north east Italy, seize Padua (Italy’s main railhead supplying the Isonzo front), and hopefully cut off and destroy the majority of the Italian army. The Austrians failed to get support from the Germans as Falkenhayn saw the offensive as a foolish distraction. No doubt he thought the scheme was unrealistic given the poor communications in the Trentino, the difficulty of the terrain, and the grandiose ambitions of the Austrian army which had barely survived the last two years of war. Undeterred Conrad found the necessary troops for his offensive by withdrawing significant forces from the Galician front, gambling the Russians would be too weak to conduct a major offensive during the summer.
Launched May 15th, 1916 the Austrians outnumbered the Italians on the Trentino sector more than 2-1 in artillery and perhaps 4-1 in infantry. Additionally, despite the fact Italy had some advance warning of the offensive, and had therefore sent reinforcements to this sector, the Italians had deployed their forces poorly to meet the attack. Rather than having significant forces for defence in depth, or to counter-attack, the Italian commander in the Trentino, General Roberto Brusati, had his front lines grossly overmanned. This deployment showed how little Italy had learned of defensive warfare during the past two years as the various armies on other fronts had abandoned such a poor defensive stratagem. Essentially if the Italian front lines could be pierced the Austrians could potentially breakthrough rather easily as there would be few forces farther back to stop them.
Indeed Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” initially went quite well, especially compared to Cadorna’s thus far five failures along the Isonzo. With the Italian front lines dangerously overcrowded Austria’s artillery, which had considerably more heavy guns than Italy’s forces, wrought havoc and took a severe toll on the defenders. Attacking on a 50 km front the Austrians were held on the flanks but broke through in the center and thus pushed the Italians back and began taking considerable territory and prisoners. In two weeks the Austrians advanced 12 miles on a 20 mile front (which admittedly was more impressive than what France and Britain had accomplished on the Western Front since 1914 and obviously superior to anything Cadorna had done), occupied the Asiago plateau and captured at least 50,000 prisoners. The Austrians even came close to breaking onto the open plains of northeast Italy but they would not reap strategic success from their operational victory.
Cadorna reacted calmly to the debacle and ordered reserves from the Isonzo sector to help the Italians falling back in the Trentino sector. These moved via railways and reached the threatened area quicker than follow up Austrian troops who had to proceed on foot. The Austrian offensive also began to lose momentum as their lines of communication, already tenuous in the Trentino, became increasingly stretched. Yet perhaps the real death knell to Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” was due to the spectacular success enjoyed by the “Brusilov Offensive” launched by the Russians in early June.
After pleas by Cadorna to begin their offensive early to aid the Italian army the Russians launched an extremely effective attack against Austrian forces on the Galician front. As the attack was unexpected, given that the Austrians in Galicia were relatively weak because Conrad had withdrawn troops from here to launch his attack in the Trentino, and since the Russians frankly usually beat the Austrians anyway, the “Brusilov Offensive” was one of the more brilliant victories of the entire conflict. In a matter of a few months Austria suffered nearly one million casualties, almost half of them prisoners. In fact during this short period Austria lost almost as many casualties against Russia than it would against Italy during 3 and a half years. This disaster not only forced Conrad to withdraw half of the divisions attacking in the Trentino but also made the Germans send many from the Western Front as well.
Needless to say, the “Strafexpedition” was over. Looking at a balance sheet the results seem impressive (if the sheet doesn’t include the effects of the “Brusilov Offensive” of course) with Austrian forces advancing relatively far by “World War 1” standards, taking 50,000 prisoners and inflicting another 100,000 casualties on the Italians. The price was 80,000-100,000 Austrian casualties. That Austria managed to inflict more casualties on Italy when it was attacking is certainly damning to the Italian forces considering most of Italy’s offensives had resulted in disproportionate casualties for themselves. In fact Italy would continue to suffer, with some exceptions, significantly more casualties than the Austrians during the rest of the battles during the conflict.
How should the “Strafexpedition” be judged? At a tactical and operational level Austria certainly beat Italy and managed a greater victory on the Italian Front than the latter had accomplished so far. It even led to the fall of the Italian government, though ironically not the dismissal of Cadorna. Yet strategically it was a Italian defensive victory considering it had eventually been stopped and gave the Austrians no decisive gains. Even the territory Austria conquered was mostly recaptured or abandoned in the aftermath. It also helped the “Brusilov Offensive” since Conrad had had to take troops from Galicia to conduct his attack. While it is questionable how much better the Austrians would have weathered the Russian attack had they not withdrawn these troops at least part of the subsequent disaster would have been mitigated by their presence. Finally, the “Strafexpedition,” along with the “Brusilov Offensive” it helped indirectly, weakened Austria so much that Germany essentially had to bail her out and would now dominate Austrian major strategic decision making during the war.
After surviving the Austrian offensive and pushing back most of its gains Cadorna prepared for his latest attack along the Isonzo. This offensive, the “Sixth Battle of the Isonzo,” began August 6th, 1916. Thanks to the near debacle in the Trentino Cadorna scaled down expectations for this offensive. However, Italy had some advantages during the attack. Despite heavy losses suffered by the Italians during the “Strafexpedition” the Austrians had had a much worse summer given their losses during that attack and especially the mauling they took by the Russians. Meanwhile Conrad had previously withdrawn troops from the Isonzo front to help stem the Russian advance. Taking advantage of this Cadorna used his railways to move significant troops from the Trentino to the Isonzo to attack the Austrians while they were still falling back on the Eastern Front.
Meanwhile this Italian offensive arguably benefited from more thorough preparations then the earlier ones, especially regarding aerial reconnaissance and better cooperation between infantry and artillery. Additionally, having scaled down his ambitions Cadorna concentrated his forces on a smaller area, mostly against Gorizia, which meant his superiority in men and artillery could be focused on a more limited, and realistic objective, instead of attempting a fantasy breakthrough.
The main attack was launched by 16 divisions supported with 1250 artillery guns and 750 mortars. After a 2 day preliminary bombardment half of the artillery and six Italian divisions, focused on a single Austrian division. This proved decisive as Italy managed to take Mt. Sabatino and 8,000 prisoners very quickly. More gains followed in the next few days as Austrian positions on San Michele and Podgora, forbidding heights in front of the Isonzo which had held earlier Italian offensives, were taken. Gorizia itself was captured and the Italians finally gained a foothold on the east bank of the Isonzo. Much of their success was due to the fact that unlike previous offensives the Austrians had no reserves to counter-attack against the Italian advance. However, while they could not reverse Cadorna’s initial gains the Austrians simply retired to a line of even higher hills to the rear and then entrenched and waited until Austrian reserves arrived to stabilize the situation.
Cadorna then launched a general attack along the whole Isonzo front on August 14th. However, this attack did not benefit from the conditions which had made the earlier part of the offensive a success: Thorough preparations, weak Austrian forces, and overwhelming concentration of troops and artillery on a narrow front. With his forces making no real progress Cadorna called off the offensive on August 17.
Many historians view the “Sixth Battle of the Isonzo” as the most successful one of the entire war. Certainly Italy’s quick capture of the territory dominating Gorizia, establishing a foothold on the east bank of the Isonzo, and capturing 8,000 prisoners are noteworthy. Much like Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” Cadorna’s offensive was a significant tactical and operational victory. Unfortunately, also like the “Strafexpedition” it did not result in decisive strategic results. Italy may have finally conquered the first major line of Austrian defences from her enemy but there plenty of more for Conrad’s forces to fall back to and slowly bleed the Italian forces. Just as it was a long way from the Somme to Berlin the road from Gorizia to Vienna was hardly a more accommodating route.
This offensive also changed how Cadorna conducted his offensives, with him abandoning broad front offensives (which severely dissipated his strength) in favour of more limited and focused assaults hoping to seize important objectives with mass and firepower. Indeed this formula had done much to make Cadorna’s 6th offensive somewhat a success. It remained to be seen how well this new offensive approach worked.
However, perhaps the main benefit for Italy was psychological with her gains in the offensive giving the Italians a much needed morale boost. Italy was so emboldened by her victory that she finally declared war on Germany on August 28th, 1916; however Italian and German troops would not effectively clash until much later in the next year. Meanwhile the human cost of the battle, as usual, was disproportionate as the Italians lost approximately 50,000 casualties (20,000 dead) versus 40,000 Austrian ones (10,000 dead).
The “Seventh Battle of the Isonzo” began September 14th, 1916. After their victory in the last engagement the Italians hoped for another success. Cadorna was encouraged by the fall of Gorizia, as well as the entry of Romania into the war against the Central Powers in August 1916 which pushed Austria to her limits. He not only hoped the Austrians were weakened on the Italian Front but that Austria’s soldiers were so spread out having to deal with yet another belligerent that he could defeat the enemy forces deployed near the Isonzo.
Believing the same formula which had shown results during their last offensive would work again the Italians concentrated their firepower and soldiers on a relatively narrow avenue of attack expecting to enlarge the bridgehead at Gorizia by attacking to the southeast along the Kras plateau. However, while their artillery bombardment did significant damage to the Austrian front lines it was hampered by poor weather that limited observation of enemy defences, as well as Austrian attempts to carefully camouflage their positions. Meanwhile, unfortunately for Cadorna, the Austrians were not as spread out due to Romania entering the war as he hoped and Austria managed to scrape enough men and artillery to hold out.
As such Cadorna’s 7th battle was anti-climatic after his last victory. Attacking with 14 divisions against perhaps 8, and enjoying at least a 2-1 advantage in artillery at the point of attack, the Italians made some minor gains but were generally defeated by the Austrians who beat the main attack with the help of tear gas and flamethrowers. After conquering some limited territory, and taking 4500 Austrian prisoners, the attack failed and Cadorna called it off after a few days. The relevant casualties were 17,000 for the Italians and 15,000 for the Austrians.
The unflappable Cadorna shrugged off this latest failure and prepared for the next offensive. The objective was the same as the last one, mainly enlarging the Gorizia bridgehead across the Isonzo. Supported by 1300 guns to Austria’s 500, and enjoying the usual superiority in infantry, the Italians began their bombardment on October 9th and launched their attack the next day during heavy rainfall.
Despite the weather the Italians made some progress by capturing large parts of the Austrian front line, and took Mt. Sober and Nova Vas, as well as 5000 prisoners, the first day. However, operations were halted on October 11th due to heavy fog. Renewing the attack on the 12th the Italians managed to push the Austrians east of the Isonzo but then Cadorna called off the attack. During this short lived offensive Italian gains were not negligible, having advanced several kilometres, capturing 8000 prisoners and even seizing a number of Austrian artillery pieces. In fact the Austrians were surprised Cadorna halted the attack; they had been hard pressed and believed the Italians could have gained a major victory had they launched another strong attack.
In lieu of the battle Austria’s commander on the front, General Boroevic, pushed his soldiers to prepare new defensive positions and pleaded with Conrad to send him reinforcements he knew were necessary to hang on in case of another Italian attack. Both sides suffered roughly 25,000 casualties each which at least showed that Cadorna and the Italians were starting to suffer less disproportionate casualties against the Austrians. Therefore despite another overall failure for Italy this battle gave little solace for Austria.
Before the end of 1916 Cadorna managed to squeeze in one more offensive. At the beginning of November the “Ninth Battle of the Isonzo” began with more Italian attacks to the east of Gorizia and on the Carso Plateau. The Italians managed to advance despite wet weather that often produced waist deep mud and the fact that with only 1400 artillery guns to Austria’s 1000 they did not enjoy as much of a firepower advantage as customary. With 200,000 men concentrated on a very narrow front the Italians overwhelmed the first line of defence and forced the Austrians to retreat a few kilometres. The Austrians tried to recover the initiative by launching a counter-attack but it failed.
At this point the situation was critical for the Austrians. With the Italians advancing towards the second line of defence General Boroevic had literally only one battalion, less than 1000 men, left in reserve to hopefully stop the enemy. Sent to defend height 464, a key point in the Austrian defence, it managed to hold out against an Italian force six times stronger and this temporarily stabilized the front and shook the resolve of the Italian soldiers. After this one Austrian division arrived from Galicia and Boroevic and his soldiers hoped they might have enough luck to counter a further attack.
However, Cadorna, shaken by the setback on height 464 and having reluctantly accepted that his soldiers were exhausted and demoralized, instead ended the offensive. Like the previous battle Italy ended the fight when it was arguably on the cusp of decisive results. Instead a respectful, if not strategically beneficial, advance of 3 kilometres on a 5 kilometre front was made which took some further ground around Gorizia and on the Carso Plateau. The Austrians had held again but it was becoming questionable how much more pressure they could take.
Meanwhile protests and criticism was mounting on the Italian side regarding not only the tactics and methods being used to fight but also the often harsh treatment meted out to the common soldier. Predictably rather than addressing such concerns Cadorna responded by tightening censorship and instituting even harsher measures for those who expressed any pessimism or negativity regarding the war effort. Cadorna and his army would pay a terrible price one year later for the neglect of his men’s conditions and morale. Casualties for this offensive included 39,000 Italians to 33,000 Austrians, of which 9000 of the latter were captured.
What is the verdict on Italy’s 1916 campaign? Unfortunately Cadorna’s army failed to accomplish a breakthrough, let alone decisive results, despite trying 5 more times along the Isonzo. After another year of sacrifice and heavy losses the Italians had little to show for their efforts besides the ruins of Gorizia and a few mountainous heights of strategic dubious value. Much like the Germans at Verdun and the British and French at the Somme Italy paid a high price for undervalued real estate.
However, there is another way to view the situation. While far from producing a first class fighting force Cadorna had at least learned some lessons and his armies in 1916 had been better equipped, took more territory, and inflicted more proportionate casualties on the Austrians, than those of 1915. In fact his armies had arguably been close to accomplishing significant results in the last two offensives before they were halted. Attrition, as always, benefited Italy and the Entente.
For whatever the sufferings of the Italians in 1916 the Austrians endeared much worst, even if the latter had still inflicted more casualties on the former on their mutual front. Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” had done damage to Italy but this gain had been more than nullified by the gargantuan losses Austria suffered due to the “Brusilov Offensive,” not least because Austrian forces had been severely weakened on the Eastern Front to allow Conrad his foolish vendetta offensive against Italy. Meanwhile, although Romania’s entry into the war had been parried by intervention by the Germans and Bulgaria it potentially could have been crushing for Austria, especially had Romania joined during the success of the “Brusilov Offensive” instead after it had been largely contained. Additionally, since Italy was slowly improving her military prowess and considering more and more Austrian divisions had to be devoted to the Italian Front, ultimately 36 out of 65 of their total in 1916, meant Austria had a worse year in 1916 than 1915. Meanwhile another year of blockade starved and wore down ever more Austrians while Italy suffered no such inconvenience.
During the winter of 1916-17 the Entente and the Central Powers debated strategy for the upcoming year. Unlike the previous winter this was less simple. Regarding the Central Powers, Falkenhayn, the author of Verdun, had been replaced mid-1916 when his strategy to bleed the French white had clearly failed. Replacing him was the duo of Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, who had enjoyed considerable success on the Eastern Front. Realizing the Entente had come close to breaking the Central Powers in 1916 (at one point during the summer the Germans had a single reserve division on the Western Front) and that attrition favoured the enemy they adopted an unorthodox, and very un-Prussian, strategy for 1917.
Prussian military strategy since the time of Moltke the Elder had emphasized quick, decisive battles of maneuver against enemy forces, preferably either via encirclements or battles of annihilation. The Germans had tried this in 1914 against France and to a more limited extent against Russia in 1915, and failed. Falkenhayn, employing a less popular Prussian strategy of attrition using the strategic attack via the tactical defence against France in 1916, failed as well.
Having dismissed Tsarist Russia as relatively backwards and close to revolution, and France as a strong military power though not on the same par as themselves, Germany believed England was now the main enemy. With the Royal Navy strangling the German economy and home front, British money financing the Entente’s war effort, and the realization that the British army in France was slowly becoming the Entente’s best sword, the Germans pondered how to defeat the British. Realizing England was an island nation dependent upon merchant shipping to survive and noting the success German submarines were having against British commerce, Germany hoped to starve Britain into submission. As such she adopted unrestricted submarine warfare which meant Germany would sink any merchant vessel, Entente or Neutral, trying to supply England. The gamble was whether or not German subs would sink enough ships to force England to surrender before neutral countries, especially America, became indignant enough to declare war on Germany.
Meanwhile on land Germany planned to build a strong defensive line on the Western Front, the Hindenburg Line, and weather the British and French attacks in the spring and summer long enough to hopefully allow her naval campaign to succeed.
The Entente’s strategy was more of the same as before: Simultaneous offensives on all major front with one odd difference. General Nivelle, France’s new top General, promised to deliver a war winning offensive on the Western Front in the spring. Perhaps unsurprisingly the war wearied French and even British political leaders supported this fantasy despite the considerable reservations of many French and British military leaders. Unfortunately for Nivelle his spring offensive would be diluted by a few factors. The Russians deposed the Tsar in march and in the ensuing upheaval the Russian army could not support the attack in France. Cadorna also let Nivelle down and did not launch an Italian offensive in time to support him. Finally, the Germans unexpected withdrawal on the Western Front in early 1917, and their construction of the Hindenburg Line, did much to throw off the preparations for Nivelle’s offensive.
While Germany and France made their plans Italy and Austria continued with theirs. Yet again Cadorna would attempt to badger away along the Isonzo hoping for results whereas the Austrians planned to hold out praying Germany would somehow win the war or come to their aid.
The “Tenth Battle of the Isonzo,” taking place more than half a year after Cadorna’s last major offensive, began in May 1917. Originally Cadorna had wanted to start his attack at the same time as the French and British effort in the spring but he had to delay for a few weeks. Cadorna was also worried about the potential of the Germans intervening on the Italian Front, as they had already done so against the Russians, Serbs, and Romanians; crushing their armies decisively during the past few years. To safeguard against this Cadorna had met with Ferdinand Foch, one of France’s best generals. However, rather than send any allied reinforcements to Italy the French and British merely promised to send help in the event of an emergency, arguably a strategy of reinforcing failure instead of preempting it. On the plus side Cadorna finally received some heavy artillery from his allies including several batteries of 6 inch howitzers from the British.
This latest offensive was the biggest one launched so far on the Italian Front, included approximately 400,000 Italian soldiers backed by 2400 heavy and field guns against perhaps 200,000 Austrians with 1400 guns of all calibre. This time Cadorna switched up his operational planning once more. Whereas in the latter offensives in 1916 where he had focused on narrow front attacks against limited targets (usually to expand the Gorizia bridgehead) he reverted back to a broad based offensive on a front of 40kms hoping to achieve a breakthrough toward Trieste. Another objective was to take Mount Skabrijel to open the way to the Vipava valley.
After a two day bombardment the main thrust was made towards the east of Plava and north of Gorizia. Later attacks were made to the south on the Carso plateau. Initially some ground was taken such as the capture of Monte Kuk and Vodice Ridge. On the coast Italian forces also took Duino and two Austrian counter-attacks in May failed to stymie the Italian advance. However, Mount Hermada, guarding the approaches to Trieste, was held.
Then the Austrians, reinforced by 3 fresh divisions, launched a successful counterattack against the wearied, exhausted Italians and reconquered most of the territory the latter had taken. The Italian advance had again been minuscule and they suffered 157,000 casualties (including 27,000 prisoners and 35,000 dead) versus 75,000 Austrian ones (including 23,000 prisoners and 17,000 dead). Therefore, not only had the Italians again failed to take significant territory but they had also suffered disproportionate casualties as in 1915; the total casualties for both sides during the last 3 battles in 1916 had been 75,000 for the Italians versus 63,000 for the Austrians respectively. After two years of war this must have been a bitter blow to Cadorna and his soldiers.
Meanwhile there were major strategic fluctuations occurring in the spring and summer of 1917. The Italian offensive had failed and harshly at that. Much worse the “Nivelle Offensive,” foolishly promoted to win the war, had failed to inflict a decisive defeat on the Germans on the Western Front. In its wake the French army, up until now the main sword of the Entente, became infected by disobedience and mutiny. While it did not collapse the French army effectively remained on the defensive for the rest of 1917. The Russians were also teetering towards quitting the war, especially after the failure of their last offensive of the conflict in July. The Entente’s initial strategy for 1917 had failed.
As for the Central Powers Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign did not knock Britain out of the war despite taking a terrible toll on the latter’s shipping. However, her submarine campaign had finally alienated and angered America, the strongest industrial as well as soon to be primary financial power of the world, enough to declare war against Germany. Additionally, the British army in France, having learned quickly from its trials on the Somme, and finally receiving abundant weapons from British industry, had inflicted impressive defeats on the German army during the “Battle of Arras.” Therefore while the Germans had effectively neutralized the Russians, brought the French to mutiny (though this remained hidden from the Germans), and her ally Austria had again contained the Italians, the future still looked bleak for the Central Powers. Not only was the Entente’s naval blockade still in effect, and the British army becoming a more formidable foe, but now there was the prospect of an American army with millions of soldiers being shipped across the Atlantic to face the Germans. As usual manpower, resources, money, industry, and now especially time, was against the Central Powers.
However, much of the Entente’s advantages were in the future as Britain’s main army was still relatively small compared to the German army and the Americans would probably take at least a year to arrive in sufficient strength to effect the overall balance in Europe. It was in these circumstances that Cadorna launched the “Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo” which would turn out to be his last offensive.
Beginning August 18th, 1917 the “Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo” was conducted by more than 500,000 Italian soldiers in 51 divisions supported by 5200 guns. Launched on a broad front from Tolmin in the upper Isonzo valley to the Adriatic Cadorna hoped to conquer the Bainsizza plateau, expand the Gorizia bridgehead, conquer the high ground defending Trieste and finally take the city which had eluded him since 1915. Additionally, like the British offensive in Flanders it was also intended to be a diversionary offensive to take heat of the mutinous French army and the Russians who were on the brink of revolution.
While little progress was made in the south in the north the Italians did quite well. Advancing 10 kilometres they took the Bainsizza plateau, along with five mountain tops, and 20,000 Austrians were captured. In fact Italian forces had arguably advanced too quickly and their offensive became stalled as they had to move their heavy weapons and supplies across the rough terrain of the Bainsizza plateau. In the meantime the Austrians withdrew to a new defensive line including Mount Saint Gabriel and Mount Hermada which guarded access to Trieste. During the next part of the offensive the Italians launched several costly assaults trying to take these strategic points but ultimately failed and Cadorna ended the battle in mid-September.
Once more Italian forces had arguably been on the brink of a major victory but this time they had been frustrated by the terrain at the front which frustrated their logistical efforts. The Austrians again survived the onslaught but they no longer felt as though they could survive on their own. As such they appealed to the Germans for help telling their ally they would not be able to hold out against another major Italian offensive. Meanwhile Cadorna, perhaps bitterly and reluctantly, told his allies there would be no more offensives on the Italian Front for the rest of the year. Casualty figures for this battle are less certain than others along the Isonzo, with estimates for the Italian side running from 150,000 to 165,000 against 85,000 to 100,000 or even 140,000 for the Austrians.
In the lieu of this latest offensive the Germans finally became involved on the Italian Front. Having been asked by the Austrians for help against the Italians, General Ludendorff, the de-facto head of the German army, agreed to send half a dozen German divisions to the front. However, the overly aggressive, and battle-centric General made it clear he would only do so if they were used to spearhead a strong Austro-German offensive attempting to crush the Italian army. With little choice the Austrians agreed thus setting the stage for the “Battle of Caporetto.”
During September members of the German Imperial General Staff toured the Isonzo sector looking for a good place to launch an offensive; especially one aided by gas (which had not been used much on this front). They settled on the quiet Caporetto area where a decent road went west though a mountain valley towards the Venetian plain. Ironically the Italians aided the German efforts by giving weather information over the radio.
The Germans and Austrians, despite being slightly outnumbered in soldiers, and having perhaps the same amount of artillery as the Italians, planned to break through Italian lines and crush Cadorna’s army to give Austria the breathing space it desperately needed. In order to accomplish these goals they hoped to rely on a relatively short, brutal bombardment (with an emphasis on gas) accompanied by elite storm troopers using infiltration tactics which would find weak points in the Italian defences and push through Italian lines to hopefully generate a quick, widespread collapse of enemy forces. The Germans also emphasized seizing, and advancing along, the high-ground and peaks in the battlefield to support their soldiers as well as putting the Italian forces below at a terrible disadvantage. These concepts and ideas had been the result of the horrible battles Germany had endured on the Western and Eastern Fronts, and after being tested successfully against the Russians at Riga in late 1917 the Germans were confident they could use them to a decisive effect against Cadorna’s army.
Meanwhile Cadorna and his army did little to help themselves against the gathering storm. Thanks to enemy deserters and aerial reconnaissance Cadorna realized the Germans and Austrians were preparing for an offensive. However, he obviously underestimated its scale and while he did tell his army commanders to adopt defensive dispositions he failed to stress this as well as touring the front to make sure his army was prepared for an attack. As such the Italian front lines were heavily manned with some Italian commanders actually still hoping to launch attacks of their own while their secondary or rear lines were weakly held. Perhaps worst of all Cadorna kept the bulk of his men on the right bank of the Isonzo, no doubt because it would be detrimental for Italian morale had they abandoned the hard won gains they had bled for since 1915. However, the Austrians still held bridgeheads across the Isonzo to the north and these could potentially be used to cut off the Italian army in the Isonzo valley in the event of an Austro-German offensive.
The Austrians and Germans began the offensive October 24th, 1917 with a devastating bombardment of Italian command posts, strong points and batteries with gas, smoke shells and heavy explosives. The bombardment was not lengthy and was designed more to disrupt Italian communications rather than causing widespread damage. Meanwhile it was hoped the Italians would not be used to gas and that a heavy gas attack would facilitate a sudden breakthrough.
After an initial bombardment the Italian trenches were overwhelmed by poison gas and the defenders fled knowing their unreliable gas masks would only protect them for a short period. A few hours later the Italian wire and trenches were hit by mortars and soon afterwards the rest of the Austro-German artillery opened up, much of it targeting a valley road where Italian reserves were moving along to plug the hole in the front. Finally, an hour later 2 great mines were detonated under Italian strongholds on the heights bordering the valley and then the infantry began to attack. In general the Italians held the offensive on the flanks but in the center the Germans quickly broke through and began the rout of Cadorna’s army. Helped by the mist storm troopers bypassed centres of resistance and cut off Italian positions and formations to be dealt with by follow up troops. The Austro-German advance was stunning and inexorable moving forward perhaps 25kms on the first day at some points.
It did not take long for the Italians to fall apart. Realizing the potential disaster unfolding before him the commander of the Italian 2nd army, Luigi Capello, told Cadorna that Italian forces should fall back to the Tagliamento River many miles to the rear to regroup. Capello, who was currently bedridden with fever, and whose poor defensive deployments did much to contribute to the Italian defeat, was still correct in this recommendation. However, Cadorna, perhaps unaware of the Germans progress or how close his army was to being bypassed and destroyed, and no doubt hesitant to abandon all his hard earned gains along the Isonzo for the past few years, overruled Capello hoping the Italians could hold out and retrieve the situation. It is difficult not to sympathize with Cadorna here: His field commander was asking him to abandon all Italy’s gains so far in the war after a single day of combat against the Germans and certainly experience suggested that most offensives started well but quickly petered out.
Despite these arguably sensible points with the benefit of hindsight Cadorna was wrong. The Italian Front did not hold but instead collapsed after 3 days. With enemy forces getting behind them (often surrounding Italian forces via the high ground around them), few mobile reserves available to help them, and morale quickly plummeting the Italian 2nd army began disintegrating. The 3rd army to its south conducted a more respectful defence but became in danger of being cut off due to the collapse of the 2nd army to its left. Finally, Cadorna, who remained remarkably calm, reluctantly ordered his soldiers to fall back behind the Tagliamento River.
Unfortunately this retreat came too late and the Italians fell back in disarray against the Germans and Austrians pursuing them ruthlessly. Despite blowing up all the bridges on the Tagliamento the enemy quickly got across, allowing the Italians no time to rest and regroup, and as such a further withdrawal was made to the Piave River much farther to the south. The Germans and Austrians, who did not expect such success or the comprehensive defeat of the Italian army, struggled to keep pace with the retreating Italians. Cadorna’s response to the debacle was predictable; sacking senior officers and summarily executing soldiers instead of trying to win hearts and minds or showing inspired leadership.
The Germans and Austrians reached the Piave River in early November. Exhausted after one of the most impressive advances of the war, their supplies lines stretched to the utmost, and feeling the effects of hunger and privation after years of the Entente’s blockade, they tried and failed to force the river and defeat the Italians again. Realizing it was too late in the year to accomplish more results, knowing their men were worn out, and wanting to withdrew his German troops for the upcoming offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1918 anyway, Ludendorff ended the battle.
Meanwhile France and Britain had sent 11 divisions to the Italian Front to help their ally. Ironically, instead of being deployed earlier in the year to prevent such a defeat they arrived after the Italians managed to hold the line on the Piave. Thus instead of helping the Italians during Caporetto France and Britain had instead denied the Western Front crucial divisions which arguably could have made the “Battle of Cambrai” into a significant victory. However, even if the allied divisions came too late to participate in the battle their subsequent presence and influence would do much to turn the war around for Italy.
Either way the “Battle of Caporetto” was undeniably a crushing defeat for Italy. Regarding casualties, the loss of military equipment, and territory overrun, it was perhaps the second greatest defeat (Gorlice Tarnow being the first) the Entente suffered during the war. Cadorna’s army suffered nearly 700,000 casualties in less than a month including between 30,000-50,000 dead and wounded, at least 300,000 captured, and more than 300,000 that simply deserted and ran away. Italy lost 3000 artillery pieces, half of its divisions (33 of 65) and retreated 80 miles in perhaps 3 weeks! Combined German and Austrian casualties were between 50,000-70,000. While the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Gallipoli, and the bloodletting on the Eastern Front dominates most “World War 1” literature Caporetto, in terms of casualties per day and in relation to the capabilities of a nation, was much more damaging for Italy than these other battles were for their respective nations. Italy did not have the manpower or territory like Russia to sacrifice, or the money or resources as the French and British Empires to squander.
Cadorna’s army lost the battle despite having more men, the same amount of artillery, and enjoying the natural defensive advantages of mountainous terrain which had repulsed so many of its own offensives. The reasons for this include the poor defensive preparations of the Italians despite three years of war which should have made defence in depth an obvious option over forward defence. Additionally, Cadorna’s harsh, uncompromising style of command, which tended towards punishments, sackings and firing squads versus hearing his officers out, encouraging initiative and innovation, as well as improving conditions for his soldiers, obviously did little to mould the Italian army into an effective, let alone cohesive, fighting force. Moreover, the German soldiers and officers were simply better than their Italian equivalents: In terms of training, motivation, equipment, leadership, and pretty much every other category the Germans had the Italians beat. The Italians found it hard enough to fight the Austrians, who had been consistently bested by the less than stalwart Russian and Serbian armies. It is no surprise they floundered against a first rate army that knew no equal during the war until perhaps late 1917 or 1918 when the British army matured enough to finally beat the Germans at their own game.
Cadorna would have ample time to ponder his, and his armies’, failings as he was finally relieved of command in November 1917. Not only had his generals, officers and men lost confidence in him but even his allies as well. One condition the French and British stated for sending divisions to Italy’s aid in the lieu of Caporetto was that Cadorna had to go. The Italian government, who Cadorna had often ignored and treated with derision, gladly complied.
How should Cadorna be judged by history? In his defence he started his war with insufficient equipment, especially heavy artillery, and had to deal with perhaps the worst terrain an attacker had to deal with in “World War 1.” Cadorna also had few options of where, and how, he could launch his offensive. The Isonzo valley, with its high ground and poor logistics, was bad enough, but it was the logical place to attack on the Italian Front versus the Julian Alps or the Trentino. Meanwhile, given the mountainous terrain which the Austrians held and thus could always view Italian preparations, there was little chance Cadorna could surprise his enemy or accomplish a great military feat without attrition or lengthy offensives. Strategically Cadorna was probably mostly correct in his approach: Attacking the Austrians, hard pressed and worn down on other fronts, as strongly and as much as possible hoping they would collapse sooner or later. Considering the Italians came close in certain offensives to overwhelming the Austrians, and that the latter appealed to the Germans in late 1917 to help them claiming they were close to breaking, suggests Cadorna’s approach was working better than many would like to admit.
However, whatever his difficulties or strategic foresight Cadorna generally failed not only at the operational and tactical level of warfare, but regarding leadership and the welfare of those under him as well. While he did learn how to conduct battles more effectively as he went on his learning curve compared to most successful generals in the war was exceedingly long. On one hand it is fair to note that Italy’s finance, industry and technology was hard pressed to produced the weapons and techniques necessary to succeed in such a conflict compared to Britain, France and Germany. However, Italy’s army never really developed the competency, professionalism, tactics, and confidence until after Cadorna was sacked, not least because he never encouraged the kind of open, innovative, team-like atmosphere where officers and men felt comfortable solving the problems of trench warfare and collaborated with leaders who welcomed their ideas that was adopted in countries like Germany and Britain. As such Cadorna observed lessons but only slowly on his own, not because of feedback from his men who generally feared and hated him.
Therefore Cadorna was never poised to be at the forefront of military technology, doctrine or innovation and his army never developed sufficiently under him to manage impressive feats like the British at Neuve Chapelle, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Cambrai, the French at Malmaison and Soissons, or the Germans at Riga or Caporetto. The capture of a ruinous Gorizia along the Isonzo after 6 battles was the best he did.
Regarding Cadorna’s leadership his mantra should have been Machiavelli’s quip that “it is better to be feared than loved.” Certainly Cadorna was universally feared but rarely loved in his army. However, his harsh discipline and punishment, which was unique in “World War 1,” did not improve his army. Infamous for his bad relationships with the Italian government and his Generals, having sacked 217 generals, 255 colonels, and 355 battalion commanders, and executing significantly more Italian soldiers than the more numerous German and British armies combined, Cadorna was more than feared… he was hated. Machiavelli may have suggested it is better to be feared than loved but he also wrote it was better to be feared and loved. Yet perhaps most damning for Cadorna Machiavelli stressed that it was good to be feared and not hated. Having fought for him for 3 years in terrible conditions, coupled with ruthless discipline and seeing few signs their leaders cared about their welfare, is it really surprising the Italians fell apart during Caporetto? While his draconian behaviour was certainly nothing compared to the heartless Soviet, or exceedingly obedient German, generals of “World War 2” Cadorna deserves to be censured as perhaps the most martinet, callous and harsh disciplinary general of the “First World War.”
Versus the best generals the conflict arguably produced: Foch, Ludendorff and Haig, Cadorna pales in comparison. Foch may have often been too offensive minded and caused excessive casualties early on in the war for his pre-war theories, but he learned really quickly and his confidence, unparalleled strategic mind, and temperament, made him the best candidate to be the Supreme Allied Commander in 1918 when it seemed the Germans were on the verge of winning the war. General Ludendorff was arguably a bad strategist but his brilliant tactical mind not only held the Entente’s offensives in check in 1917 but nearly produced a German victory in 1918. Sir Douglas Haig, the much maligned British commander who is criticized for mistakes from Loos, to the Somme and Passchendaele, nurtured the British army from a force of 6 divisions to an army of millions which by the end of the war was not only more innovative, and better equipped, than any other but which decisively defeated the German army on the Western Front in 1918 to effectively end the war. Against this Cadorna has nothing. When it comes to renown his only claim is that he executed more of his own soldiers than any other commander in “World War 1.”
In his place General Armando Diaz took command of the Italian army during the dying days of Caporetto. Diaz had risen up through the ranks and proven himself a competent commander. Showing that he had learnt from Cadorna’s poor example Diaz set about improving his soldier’s conditions much as Petain did for the French army after the ill-fated “Nivelle Offensive.” Many would later criticize Diaz as overly cautious; only willing to commit his army after the most thorough preparations, yet considering the black shadow of Cadorna’s influence, and given the brutal defeat at Caporetto, Diaz was probably correct to take as much time as possible to correct the many failings of his army.
1917 was a harsh year for Italy. She had supposedly been more ready for war than before and although she had came close to overwhelming Austria during Cadorna’s last attack at the end of the year the Italian army had been brutally defeated, pushed backed, and humiliated by the Germans. All the hard won gains from 1915-17 had been quashed by Caporetto and Cadorna had been sacked. However close Austria was to collapse or starvation the average Italian soldier could have been forgiven for pessimism after the retreat to the Piave.
Seen at a higher level the strategic picture for the Entente was mixed. Germany had brought the French to near mutiny, the Russians were on the path to revolution, Italy had nearly been knocked out of the war, and Britain’s promising offensives on the Western Front had been contained. On the plus side America was now in the war and would potentially provide inexhaustible amounts of troops and resources, but this was negated by the potential of Germany, now freed from fighting on the Eastern Front, being able to concentrate her full potential against the Western Front. Thus in 1918 there would be a race between Ludendorff’s attempt to win the war in the west before American intervention became overwhelming.
For the first half of 1918 Italy and Austria, both exhausted and de-moralized, sat out the conflict while the French and British fought against the Germans to determine the outcome of the war on the Western Front. Eventually the Germans, being worn down by the French and British, demanded the Austrians conduct a do or die offensive against the Italians. This offensive, the “Battle of the Piave River” began in mid-June 1918.
On paper at least the Austrians had many advantages. With Romania and Russia knocked out of the war the Austrians for once outnumbered the Italians on this front with nearly 60 divisions against a few less Italian and allied ones. Austria also had 5000 artillery guns for this battle versus perhaps 4500 for the Italians. Meanwhile the Austrians had been trained by the Germans in the latter’s latest offensive tactics and it was hoped Italian morale would still be questionable after the rout during Caporetto. However, on the other side Diaz had done much to improve his army, not only physically and morally, but regarding its doctrine and tactics. Thanks to improving his soldiers’ conditions and giving them better rations and pay their morale gradually improved. Italy’s munition industry, along with help from the Entente, finally began equipping the Italian army with good weapons in plentiful quantities. Meanwhile the French and British divisions deployed to Italy influenced the Italian army and the latter’s fighting proficiently was greatly improved.
Austria’s offensive was controversial from the start. Rather than impose a simple, realistic plan on his subordinates, Austria’s main General, Arthur Arz von Straussenburg, allowed his principle subordinate commanders to turn it into a complicated plan which was arguably doomed to fail. Straussenburg’s main commanders on the Italian Front, the venerable defensive General Svetozar Boroevic, and Conrad von Hotzendorf, the supposed military genius who turned out to be a poor Chief of Staff in practice (and whom Straussenburg had indeed replaced in 1917) were bitter rivals with strong personalities and rather than reign them in Straussenburg appeased them by assigning each of them an equal portion of the army. Theoretically they were supposed to collaborate by each launching strong attacks, Conrad from the Trentino, Boroevic in the east along the Piave, on the wings of the Italian armies to hopefully inflict another Caporetto on the Italians. However, this plan would be frustrated due to the enmity between both commanders and the fact that the Austrian attacks were ultimately spread out along the entire front instead of concentrating a strong, decisive blow as had been done at Caporetto.
General Diaz and his army were more in unison and better prepared than the Austrians for the upcoming battle. Firstly, Diaz strongly fortified the defensive line along the Piave. Diaz and his staff had also learned from the failures of the Italian army during Conrad’s Trentino Offensive and Caporetto where the Italians had overmanned the front lines, failed to prepare for defence in depth, and where there were few mobile reserves to respond to a potential crisis. Therefore, instead of relying on an inflexible defensive system Diaz used elastic defensive techniques allowing his men to fall back onto strong defences in the rear to wear down the enemy and give time for reinforcements to arrive. Meanwhile 13 divisions supported by 6000 trucks was held back as a mobile reserve to reinforce any faltering points and/or deliver strong counter-attacks.
The “Battle of the Piave River” started with an Austrian diversionary attack close to the Tonale Pass on June 13 named “Lawine” which was defeated by the Italians without much effort after two days. After this inauspicious beginning the Austrian main attack, launched from the Trentino and along the east part of the Piave River, was scheduled to begin June 15th. However, Austrian deserters had already betrayed the plan of the offensive to the Italians and this allowed Diaz to concentrate his forces against the main Austrian thrusts. Moreover, knowing the timing of the Austrian offensive Diaz ordered a strong artillery barrage against the Austrian front lines across no man’s land. This inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrians who were overcrowded in the trenches and in some cases this bombardment delayed, or even stopped, Austria’s offensive at certain points along the front.
The assault in the Trentino on the Asiago plateau broke into the Italian defences, and initially made some advances, but was checked by the end of the first day. Conrad, who turned out to be no better as a field commander than a chief of staff, compounded this failure by continuing to attack in this region instead of sending reinforcements to the Piave where Boroevic was doing better against the Italians. As such Conrad reinforced failure instead of helping his hated colleague attempt to accomplish some notable results for the Austrians. However, it is debatable how useful such reinforcements would have been to Boroevic since Italy had the advantage of interior lines, and mobile reserves, in this battle and could probably have moved enough troops to meet such a threat. Indeed once Conrad’s part of the offensive was contained Diaz quickly shifted forces against the more successful attack being conducted along the Piave by Boroevic.
While Conrad’s offensive stalled quickly it at least occupied a lot of the Italy army’s attention and Boroevic’s forces managed to get 100,000 soldiers across the Piave and eventually occupy a bridgehead 15 miles wide by 5 miles deep. However, the Italians managed to stop the Austrian advance with their improved defensive tactics and deployments, along with help from reinforcements after the Austrian thrust from the Trentino had been thwarted. Perhaps worse Italian artillery, and even air power, took a terrible toll on Austria’s bridges on the Piave and the Austrian forces across the river were severely denuded of reinforcements and supplies. Realizing it had passed the culminating point of its offensive, being battered by Italian artillery and counter-attacks, and knowing it was all but cut off from support, the Austrian army was ordered to retire back across the river. However, given the destruction of many of the Austrian bridges, and the swollen state of the Piave, thousands of Austrian soldiers drowned. By June 23rd when the battle ended the Italians had reconquered all territory the Austrians had taken south of the river.
The casualties were roughly 85,000 for the Italians versus between 120,000-150,000 Austrian ones. This was one of the few battles where Italy inflicted more casualties on Austria then she received. Besides a better butcher’s bill Italy’s soldiers and generals had displayed much more competence than in earlier battles, having adopted better tactics and ideas (with some help from their British and French allies). It is difficult to find fault with Diaz, or his army, regarding the “Battle of the Piave River” which can only suggest that whatever the flaws of Italian arms from 1915-17 that the Italian army had turned itself around to become an effective instrument of war in a relatively short period of time (much like the British had done after the Somme in 1916). After so many disappointments and disasters Italy’s soldiers could feel some pride and confidence.
On the other side this battle was devastating for Austria. Not only had the Austrians failed to beat the Italians despite concentrating the biggest army on this front during the entire war but they had been thoroughly defeated by an army that not only proved to be far from broken but was now extremely well led and competent. Whereas Austria had little left to give after years of blockade, bloodletting, and countless setbacks Italy seemed to be getting stronger. Thus the “Battle of the Piave River” destroyed what remained of the heart of the Austrian army. Austria’s last hope was that Germany somehow won the war on the Western Front. Yet Ironically Austria’s defeat in the battle actually severely demoralized the Germans with even General Ludendorff saying he “had the sensation of defeat for the first time.”
In fact Ludendorff’s offensives on the Western Front during the spring and summer of 1918 failed to beat the French and British armies before significant American forces arrived in France. Germany’s final gamble to win the war had failed. Thereafter the best the Germans could do was hold out for the rest of the year on the Western Front hoping the war wearied French and British would agree to a negotiated peace. However, this was not to be as the Entente forces in France, spearheaded by the British army, decisively defeated the German army during the “Hundred Days Offensive” which would lead to the unconditional surrender of Germany and the end of the war. During this offensive the back of the German army was broken and it lost over 300,000 prisoners and 4000 artillery pieces.
While this was happening Germany’s allies, realizing the war was lost, bowed out of the contest one by one. With the German army being concentrated and crushed on the Western Front there were insufficient German forces to help the Bulgarians, Turks and Austrians when the Entente put extreme pressure on them during the autumn of 1918. German divisions had always been the fire brigades of the Central Powers and once they could no longer help their allies the latter collapsed.
Bulgaria was the first to go after the Entente launched a strong offensive from the Salonica bridgehead in September 1918. In general the Salonica campaign had been a futile and wasteful campaign during the war but now it paid off to some degree as this offensive put enough pressure on Bulgaria to surrender by the end of the month. The collapse of Bulgaria put neighbouring Turkey in an untenable position. With Turkish troops falling back in Mesopotamia and being routed in the Levant there were too few to guard Constantinople which was now vulnerable to an advance by the Entente forces on the Salonica Front. As such Turkey surrendered at the end of October.
Austria would be next. In late October 1918 General Diaz was finally prepared to attack the Austrian army across the Piave. While he had been pressured by his allies to attack in the aftermath of the failed Austrian offensive in June, especially considering Austrian deserters reported widespread privation and demoralization among their forces, the Italian army had become too spread out during the battle and Diaz still wanted more time to train and equip his soldiers to make sure they were ready. It was one thing to defeat a poorly planned Austrian attack using sophisticated defensive tactics, quite another to improvise an offensive at short notice with an army that had enjoyed seldom success on the attack.
The last offensive on the Italian Front during the war, the “Battle of Vittorio Veneto,” was more of a mop up operation than a pitched battle. Italy and her allies had 57 divisions, 7700 artillery pieces, and air superiority versus 61 Austrian divisions and 6200 guns. However, such numbers were immaterial little since the Austrians had little morale left, were deserting in droves, starving and infected by revolutionary sentiment, all while the various ethnic groups in their empire were poised to declare independence. Conducted along the length of the Trentino and Piave fronts Diaz’s objective was to advance on Vittorio Veneto to drive a wedge between Austria’s armies in the west and east and cut their communications; hopefully producing a general rout.
Launched on October 24, 1918, exactly a year after Caporetto, the Italians made quick progress. After some initial progress the Austrian army dissolved. On October 27th the Austrian commander, the reliable General Boroevic, ordered counter-attacks against the Italian bridgeheads on the west bank of the Piave. His forces refused to obey and thus began the disintegration of an empire that had lasted many centuries. Czechoslovakia declared independence from Austria-Hungary on the 28th of October while the South Slavs did so on the 29th. The Hungarians withdrew from the Empire on the 31st and considering the Italians were “more likely to encounter white flags than machine guns” at this point according to one notable scholar it was obvious the war was over. Taking advantage of the collapse of the Austrian army the Italians conquered as much territory before the German capitulation in November ended the conflict. Among other prized objectives, Trieste, the city Cadorna could never take, was seized via a naval operation in early November. Italy had supposedly been completely liberated and redeemed.
Casualties for this final battle included between 35,000 to 40,000 Italians versus a staggering 400,000 to 500,000 Austrians, mostly prisoners, illustrating perhaps a Caporetto in reverse. Austria surrendered November 3rd, 1918 leaving Italy the victor on this harsh, forbidding and usually forgotten front.
What did Italy gain by participating in the “First World War?” Certainly she conquered enough territory to satisfy “Italy redeemed” and beat her long time rival Austria whose empire was completely dismembered after the war but otherwise her rewards could be summed up as “less than satisfactory.” Despite the lavish promises Britain and France had given Italy in 1915 for joining the Entente the former powers let Italy down during the subsequent peace process. Italy received no territory from former German colonies, little regarding the coast of Dalmatia, and was robbed of her supposed gains from Turkey when the French and British favoured Greece instead. Certainly Britain and France had done considerably more to win the war than Italy, and perhaps harshly still had enough prestige, money, and military power despite the horrors of war to dictate such an unfavourable outcome to Italy, her ally. However, even if Italy had often failed to live up to expectations she still deserved a better share in the Entente’s victory.
Yet according to realpolitik “might is right” so Britain and France took most of the spoils from the war and left Italy relatively angry, bankrupt, and unstable during the war’s aftermath. A few years later a relatively unknown malcontent named Benito Mussolini came to power in Rome and eventually turned Italy’s democracy into a Fascist state which would ally itself with Nazi Germany in “World War 2” and lead Italy to defeat and despair. Maybe this result was inevitable given Italy’s turbulent history but perhaps a more generous attitude by Britain and France after 1918 could have alleviated this to some extent.
As for the human cost of the war Italy did not escape lightly. Regarding absolute numbers Italy lost less soldiers compared to Germany, Austria, France and Britain, but she also had a significantly smaller population base versus these nations or empires. Compared to her main antagonist Italy at first glance did well suffering perhaps 2,200,000 casualties (dead, wounded, prisoners or missing) versus a staggering 7,000,000 for Austria. However, when one remembers Austria had to fight Serbia, Romania, Italy and Russia this looks less impressive, especially since Italy only had to fight on one front. Then again Austria suffered perhaps close to one third of her total casualties on the Italian which suggests both sides came off even regarding casualties versus each other. Yet Italy’s war deaths were obviously higher on the Italian Front versus the Austrians and it is certain the latter had countless more captured on the Eastern Front then against Italy. Ultimately though it does not matter if Austria accomplished a better casualty ratio overall against Italy. Italy, supported by the Entente, could afford lopsided casualties and it is obvious that the Italian Front hurt Austria more than Italy despite the latter’s heavier losses. Kill ratios are not everything: Killing 20,000,000-27,000,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians did not save Nazi Germany from defeat.
Whatever Cadorna’s failings, the countless Italian defeats along the Isonzo, or the pathetic rout with Caporetto, Italy made an important contribution for the Entente during the “First World War.” Italy’s control of the Strait of Otranto completed the blockade of Austria which helped starve and wear down the latter decisively by 1918. Moreover, the addition of Italy’s resources, industry, and especially her manpower, to the Entente placed ever more pressure against the already strained Central Powers. In the summer of 1915 one third of Austria’s army faced Italy, a year later it was close to 40% and by Caporetto it was perhaps 60%. In 1918 with the collapse of Russia the proportion was even higher as Austria gambled on beating the Italian army and lost. By distraction so much Austrian manpower Italy helped her allies on other fronts. In 1916 it helped facilitate the “Brusilov Offensive” that gutted the Austrian army, and by putting considerable pressure on the Austrians the Italian army forced the Germans to either intervene directly (as at Caporetto) or at least deploy German divisions to the Eastern Front to allow the Austrians to move divisions from there to the Italian Front. Meanwhile too many Austrian divisions remained stuck on the Italian Front when they could have proven more useful against Russia, Serbia, or Romania (all of whom Austria needed significant German help to contain and defeat). During the war every front had an impact on the others but only a few (the Western, Eastern, Italian, and naval ones) were decisive in regards to wearing down enemy manpower and resolve, distracting and straining their divisions, and eventually leading to the collapse of their armies and war efforts. Italy’s victory against Austria was slow, clumsy and disproportionately bloody, but in many ways so was France’s and Britain’s against Germany. Italy did more good than bad for the Entente during the war and deserves more credit for her part in the allied victory than she has generally received.
Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Keegan, John. The First World War. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000.
Philpott, William. War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War. New York: Overlook Press, 2014.
Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson. The First World War. London: Cassell, 1999.
Strohn, Matthias. World War 1 Companion. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2013.
Terraine, John. The Great War. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1999.
Article from “1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War”: Warfare 1914-18 (Italy) by Filippo Cappellano. http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/warfare_1914-1918_italy 
Articles from “Firstworldwar.com”: The Battles of the Isonzo, 1915-17 by Michael Duffy. http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/isonzo.htm 
Articles from “HistoryOfWar.org”: Battles of the Isonzo by John Rickard. http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_isonzo1.html 
Articles from “Itinerari della Grande Guerra”: The Battles of the Isonzo. http://www.itinerarigrandeguerra.com/code/43696/The-First-Battle-of-the-Isonzo 
Articles from “WorldWar1.com”: The Isonzo 1915-1917 by Michael Hanlon. http://www.worldwar1.com/itafront/ison1915.htm 
Wikipedia articles on the “Battles of the Isonzo”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battles_of_the_Isonzo [July, 2016]
Wikipedia article on the “Italian Front (World War I)”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Front_(World_War_I) [November, 2016]