November 9 1917, Treviso–Cadorna, as Italian Chief of Staff, was ultimately responsible for the disaster at Caporetto. He attempted to deflect blame onto his men, and attempted to cast himself as indispensable, telling his staff: “I, with my will and fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of three million men….If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe…” King Victor Emmanuel III attempted to persuade him to leave quietly, but could not; Cadorna would not leave without a written dismissal, which arrived early on the morning of November 9.
The obvious candidate for Cadorna’s replacement was the Duke of Aosta, who had commanded the Third Army on the Karst until they were forced to retreat by the breakthrough at Caporetto. However, the King did not like his cousin the Duke, and feared that making him the Chief of Staff would just be giving even more power to a popular political rival. Instead, he promoted Armando Diaz, who had served as a corps commander under the Duke. Diaz had an impeccable reputation, was popular with his troops, and had an excellent record compared to his fellow generals on the Karst. Serving has his deputy was Pietro Badoglio, an unexpected promotion for a general whose corps had fallen apart completely during Caporetto.
Diaz now had a difficult task ahead of him. The Italian Army had fallen behind the Piave, but the Austrians were still in pursuit. Diaz hoped the Piave would be a more formidable obstacle than the Tagliamento, and that the Austrians would have greater supply difficulties after such a long advance, but there was no guarantee of this. Furthermore, Italian morale and organization was still quite shaky after Caporetto, and would take time to rebuild. The Italian Army had been on an offensive footing since the start of the war; for the foreseeable future, Diaz and Badoglio would have to reorganize it for defense.
The Italian front of World War I was one of the most unique battlegrounds in history. When it comes to World War I, most people envision muddy trenches, the Italian Front of WWI was mostly fought in the Alps. Thus, entire armies were fighting on steep cliffs and frozen glaciers, often thousands of feet above sea level. It was not uncommon for both the Italians and Austro-Hungarians/Germans to carve large and intricate ice fortresses within Alpine glaciers, complete with machine guns, artillery ports, miles and miles of tunnels and rooms.
One of the largest ice fortresses was a complex created by the Austrian Army and designed by Austrian engineer Leo Handl. Called “The City of Ice”, the fortress consisted of a complex of buildings and fortifications which were carved directly out of the ice of Marmolada glacier on Mount Marmolada in the northwestern corner of Italy. The complex featured 5 miles of tunnels, enough barracks to house 1,500 troops, a number of artillery and machine gun ports, trenches, a cafeteria, a chapel, an armory and a saloon. The Italians had a similar size ice fortress called cittá del ghiaccio.
The Italian Front of World War I was an especially brutal war, where just as many men died due to storms, exposure, and avalanches as did bullets and bombs. In one fateful night in 1917, massive storm caused several avalanches, killing up to ten thousand men. Today, melting Alpine glaciers are revealing the detritus and frozen corpses of World War I.
An Italian anti-aircraft gun during the Eleventh Battle. A few days before, Austrian planes had attempted a rare raid on Venice; Emperor Charles was usually very wary of permitting bombing that might cause civilian casualties.
August 19 1917, Gorizia–Cadorna was determined, once again, to achieve a breakthrough on the Isonzo. None of the ten previous attempts had succeeded; only the sixth, in which Gorizia was captured, had seen anything beyond tactical successes. Nevertheless, there was still some cause for optimism. Many of the previous offensive had come very close to succeeding, often stopped by a single determined Austrian unit at a key moment. By late Summer 1917, the Austrians, fighting a three-front war, were exhausted and out of reserves, Russia’s Kerensky Offensive in July essentially depleting the last of them. Along the Isonzo, the Italians now held a three-to-one superiority in infantry and a four-to-one superiority in artillery.
As in the tenth battle, the main Italian attack was planned with the Second Army on the Bainsizza plateau, to the northeast of Gorizia, while the Third Army would make a subsidiary attack on the Karst to the south. The artillery barrage opened on the morning of August 18, severing Austrian communications and destroying all but the most-hardened defenses. The main attack came at 5:30 AM on August 19. On the northern edge of the Bainsizza, the Italians crossed the Isonzo by boat, covered by heavy fog, and were able to overwhelm the Czech defenders in what had once been a quiet sector of the front. By 10AM, six bridges had been thrown across the Isonzo and the Italians were rushing across the river and onto the plateau.
The Second Army’s other attacks, at Tolmein, Plava, and Mt. Santo, failed with heavy casualties. The Third Army had some success on the Karst, but only on a small area of the front. As a result, Boroević was optimistic at the close of the day, though the Austrian collapse on the upper Bainsizza was highly worrying.
Sources include: John R. Schindler, Isonzo; Mark Thompson, The White War.
During the First World War, Ernest Hemingway volunteered to serve in Italy as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. In June 1918, while running a mobile canteen dispensing chocolate and cigarettes for soldiers, he was wounded by Austrian mortar fire.
“Then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red,” he recalled in a letter home.
Despite his injuries, Hemingway carried a wounded Italian soldier to safety and was injured again by machine-gun fire. For his bravery, he received the Silver Medal of Valor from the Italian government—one of the first Americans so honored.
Italians cross the Tagliamento; shortly thereafter, the bridge is blown.
October 29 1917, Codroipo–The Italians, soundly defeated at Caporetto, hoped to stabilize their lines behind the Tagliamento. However, Cadorna, deeply pessimistic about the quality of his armies, was unconvinced that they could hold the Tagliamento, and on October 29 began issuing orders in preparation for a possible retreat to the Piave, another 25 miles to the west. In an effort to at least delay the Germans and Austrians, the Italians blew most of the bridges over the Tagliamento on October 29. In some cases, this was premature, leaving over 12,000 Italian soldiers on the far bank. Most of these troops were able to conduct a fighting retreat across the river and evaded capture, however.
Further upstream, the first Austrians reached the Tagliamento around Cornino, where they found the last intact bridge across the river, and prepared to seize it by force. The bridge was in two spans, separated by an island in the middle of the river. Within two days, the Austrians had taken the first span, but by this time the Italians had blown the second; this did not deter the Austrians for long, however.
Along the coast, the Italian Navy evacuated as much as they could. On October 30, the Italian Navy finished their evacuation of the seaside town of Grado. When the Austrians entered shortly thereafter, they had retaken all of the territory they had lost along the Isonzo since the Italian declaration of war.
Mt San Gabriele, pictured after the Italian retreat from the area next month.
September 11 1917, Mt. San Gabriele–The Italian successes on the Bainsizza plateau in August soon became bogged down in attempts to take Mt. San Gabriele, which guarded the Vipacco valley above Gorizia. If it were taken, Cadorna was convinced that the Italians could push on towards Ljubljana to the east, and outflank the Austrian defenses guarding Trieste. On September 4, Cadorna renewed attacks on the mountaintop, taking it briefly. Boroevic was equally convinced as to the mountain’s importance, and devoted his last reserves to the battle, retaking the mountain that afternoon. However, he thought he could not hold onto it for long.
Over the next week, the fight for the mountain continued, in incredibly close quarters. During a brief pause in the battle one night, an Austrian mail carrier got lost and delivered his mail to the Italians instead. On September 8, Cadorna simply began trying to destroy the mountain, bombarding it with such intensity that its peak was reduced by more than thirty feet over the next three days. A defending Austrian recalled: “Who could full describe this San Gabriele, this sort of Moloch which swallows up a regiment every three or four days…”
On the night of September 11, Boroevic was able to scrounge up two elite companies of shock troops and backed them up with a whole artillery brigade. They pushed the Italians clear from the mountaintop, reversing the gains the Italians had paid for with over 10,000 casualties over the previous week. This was to be the furthest the Italians would push until the final days of the war.
One of the most successful of these came on the southern Karst on June 4. After a brief yet accurate barrage before dawn, Austrian stormtroopers (many freshly arrived from the Eastern Front) attacked the Italian positions reeling from the barrage. They successfully seized their objectives, advancing more than a third of a mile and capturing over 7,000 prisoners in a few hours. In many places, the Italians had surrendered without resistance. Cadorna, outraged that his few gains were being reversed, launched counterattacks the next day to little effect; the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo was over by the end of June 5.
Neither army was in a condition to continue the fight. Both sides had suffered around 60% casualties, though the Italians had suffered four times as many killed. An ominous signal of Italian morale was that more of their troops had been captured than the Austrians, despite being on the offensive.
Today marks the 101st anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and the end of the first year of coverage here at today-in-wwi. It’s been a great year; I know I’ve learned a lot, and I hope some of you have as well. As with the similar post at the close of 1914, here are the highlights of the first year of the war, as chosen by the readers: