world war i: italian front

Austrian Counterattacks End Tenth Battle of the Isonzo

June 4 1917, Jamiano–The latest Italian offensive had ended on May 28, having won (at great cost) many of the hills around Plava and some modest gains on the Karst–the most success the Italians had had since the capture of Gorizia.  The Austrians had once again prevented a breakthrough, though they had suffered tremendously as well.  Despite their heavy losses, Boroević was determined to retake some of the lost ground, and had been ordering local counterattacks.

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 in 1916: The Brusilov Offensive
Today in 1915: Third Allied Attack at Krithia on Gallipoli

Sources include: John R. Schindler, Isonzo; Mark Thompson, The White War; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

5

The Ice Fortresses of World War I,

 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.

Ernest Hemingway.  

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.

Huge Bombardment Opens Tenth Battle of the Isonzo

A few British artillery pieces did help the Italians; here a howitzer crew rests in a camouflaged position two days before the battle.

May 12 1917, Plava–Initial plans for Italy in 1917 had featured an Italian offensive to be conducted early in the year, in conjunction with a renewed Allied push on the Somme.  These plans changed when Joffre was replaced by Nivelle, and despite proposals to lend the Italians artillery, completely fell apart by early February, when Cadorna informed Nivelle that any Italian attack would come after Nivelle’s planned offensive.

The Italians thus had over six months to prepare for a renewed push on the Isonzo.  Unlike the previous battles, which had mainly focused on the Karst plateau to the south of Gorizia, the initial drive in the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo would take place on the Bainsizza [Banjška] plateau to the north, with the attack on the Karst to come later once reserves had been diverted.  Unlike with previous offensives, the Italians were careful to hide their preparations: concealing troop movements, minimizing radio chatter, and taking advantage of the poor weather in April and early May.  The Austrians knew an Italian attack was coming at some point, but were unsure exactly when or where it would occur.  Around May 8, improving weather and an increased rate of Italian desertions meant the Austrians knew an offensive was imminent, though a lull in Italian activity on May 10 and 11 meant Boroević for a moment thought he had received a reprieve.

However, at dawn on May 12, Italian guns opened a massive barrage along a thirty-mile front–giving no indication of where the Italian infantry would attack, if at the expense of a concentration of firepower.  The Austrian guns, outnumbered nearly two-to-one, could not keep up without risking being knocked out themselves.  A Scottish volunteer in the area recalled:

…this extraordinary strip of hell, right down 2,000 feet below like a volcanic rift in the ground, full of noise and black smoke…the [Austrian] trench line stood out as the base of a continuous smoking wall of dirty black fumes.

Today in 1916: Executions of Easter Rising Leaders End
Today in 1915: South Africans Capture Capital of German South-West Africa

Sources include: John R. Schindler; Isonzo; Mark Thompson, The White War.

Vain Italian Attack in the Trentino

Some of the Austrian defenders around Mt. Ortigara.

June 11 1917, Mt. Ortigara–The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo had resulted in frightful casualties for only meager gains.  In an effort to win some substantial victory, especially one on Italian soil, Cadorna planned an offensive in the Trentino, attempting to retake some of the ground lost last summer.  When the Austrians counterattacked on the Karst in early June, the date of the offensive was brought forward by nearly 2 weeks, in order to keep the Austrians preoccupied.

When the Italians attacked on June 10, the fighting on the Karst had long since died out.  The attack was conducted in the mist, preventing the Italian artillery from knowing whether they were hitting anything or not.  The mist later turned to heavy rain, making the ground extremely difficult to navigate, especially as the advance was up a mountain.  At 3PM, the Italian infantry, all well-trained mountain troops, attacked on a front scarcely a mile wide.  They suffered tremendously; the Austrians were unscathed from the bombardment and could attack them from above.  Some units suffered upwards of 70% casualties, with the survivors left clinging to the mountainside.  Despite this, further attempts occurred once the weather cleared.  While Mt. Ortigara changed hands several times, ultimately, two weeks later, the Italians withdrew to their original lines, after suffering over 25,000 casualties in some of their most elite units.

Sources include: John R. Schindler, Isonzo; Mark Thompson, The White War.

One Year On

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: 

10) 5/29/1915, First German Minelaying Submarine Deployed

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Tapum Canto Alpino

An Italian song from World War I. The “tapum” sound is supposed to represent the sound of an artillery blast, or a bolt action rifle.

If anyone could translate it, that would be most appreciated.

Josef Sudek (1896 - 1976)

Josef Sudek (b. March 17, 1896, Kolin, Bohemia – d. September 15, 1976) was a Czech photographer, best known for his haunting night-scapes of Prague.

Originally a bookbinder, Sudek was badly injured during action by the Hungarian Army on the Italian Front of World War I in 1916. Although he had no experience with photography and was one-handed due to his amputation, he was given a camera and studied photography for two years in Prague under Jaromir Funke.  His Army disability pension gave him leeway to make art, and he worked during the 1920s in the romantic Pictorialist style. Despite only having one arm, he used large, bulky cameras with the aid of assistants.

Sudek’s photography is sometimes said to be modernist. But this is only true of a couple of years in the 1930s, during which he undertook commercial photography and thus worked “in the style of the times”. Primarily, his personal photography is neo-romantic.

His early work included many series of light falling in the interior of St. Vitus cathederal. During and after World War II Sudek created haunting night-scapes and panoramas of Prague, photographed the wooded landscape of Bohemia, and the window-glass that led to his garden.

Sudek’s individualism did not fit in with the new post-war Czech Socialist Republic, but fortunately the strong artistic tradition of the country meant that there were many mavericks in the establishment who supported his work, and it continued to be published. Finally he was to become the first photographer to be honoured by the Republic with the title of ’Artist of Merit’ and in his 70th year, his life’s work was recognized by the ’Order of Labour’.

Known as the “Poet of Prague”, Sudek never married, and was a shy, retiring person. He never appeared at his exhibit openings and few people appear in his photographs. Despite the privations of the war and Communism, he kept a renowned record collection of classical music.

He died, still keen to do more work, at the age of 80 in 1976.