Battle of Caporetto
German-Austrian forces defeat the Italian Army
24 October - 19 November 1917
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
During the Battle of Caporetto the Austro-Hungarians, aided by the Germans, launched an attack against the Italian Army. The Central Powers offensive was a success, and the Italians had to retreat all the way to the Piave river. On the brink of defeat, the Italians received reinforcements from the British and French, and managed to stabilize the line.

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The Battle of Caporetto, also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, was fought between Italy and the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the Italian Front of World War One. During the battle the Austro-Hungarians, reinforced by their German allies, were able to break through the Italian lines and rout the enemy forces opposing them.

On the Italian Front, as everywhere else, it was evident that the Austrians desperately needed support from the Germans; unfortunately for the Italians, they got it.

The German general Erich Ludendorff recognized that an Austrian political and military collapse could follow a 12th battle of the Isonzo, so he sent massive reinforcements. These included elite German units trained in new tactics, in which assault troops, called ‘storm troops’, advanced rapidly, by-passed centers of resistance and struck at the enemy's headquarters and gun lines. In one such unit was an officer with a future: Major Erwin Rommel commanded a company in a Wurttemberg mountain battalion that was to play a key role in the forthcoming battle.

The newly formed 14th Austro-German Army came close to winning the campaign outright. Its commander was General Otto von Below, who had an outstanding record of victories already to his credit. The Austro-German offensive was prepared with a meticulousness that the Italian Supreme Command could hardly imagine. The execution, too, was incomparably efficient.

Ludendorff was only willing to supply German troops for offensive operations, not just to shore up the line, which he considered to be a waste of his valuable resources. The collapse of the Russians on the Eastern Front had given him a last chance to bring the war to a close. His plan was to knock Italy out of the war prior to the great assault he had planned for the Western Front in 1918.

Ludendorff also had in mind another experiment with the assault tactics so effectively trialled by General Oskar von Hutier’s Eighth Army at Riga on the Eastern Front in September 1917. This time he brought in General Otto von Below to command the composite German-Austro-Hungarian Fourteenth Army (consisting of seven German and a number of Austrian divisions). Inserted into the line in the Upper Isonzo sector facing the town of Caporetto, this formidably well-trained force was to spearhead the whole attack. Von Below made their priorities absolutely clear: ‘The ruling principle for any offensive in the mountains is the conquest and holding of the crests, in order to get to the next objective by these land bridges. Even roundabout ways on the crests are to be preferred to the crossing of valleys and deep gorges, as the latter course takes longer and entails greater exertions. The valleys are to be used for the rapid bringing up of closed reserves, the field artillery and supply units. Every column on the heights must move forward without hesitation; by so doing opportunities will arise to help a neighbor who cannot get on, by swinging round in rear of the enemy opposing him.’

Emperor Karl wrote to the Kaiser ‘in faithful friendship’. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ‘has led me to believe we should fare worse in a twelfth’. Austria wished to take the offensive, and would be grateful if Germany could replace Austrian divisions in the east and lend him artillery, ‘especially heavy batteries’. He did not ask for direct German participation; indeed he excluded it, for fear of cooling the Austrian troops’ rage against ‘the ancestral foe’. The Kaiser replied curtly and referred the request to Ludendorff. The German general staff had already assessed that the Austrians would be broken by the next Italian offensive. If Austria-Hungary collapsed, as it probably would, Germany would be alone: an outcome that had to be prevented.

Paul von Hindenburg, the Chief of the General Staff, sent one of his most able officers to reconnoitre the ground. An expert in mountain warfare, Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen had served in the Dolomites in 1915 and seen the emergence of fast-moving assault tactics against Romania. He now prepared a plan to drive the Italian Second Army some 40 km back from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento and perhaps beyond, depending on the breakthrough and its collateral impact on the lower Isonzo.

The attack, in and of itself, was not intended as a fatal blow; the Germans believed the Italians were so dependent on British and French coal, ore and grain that nothing short of total occupation – which was out of the question – could make them sue for peace. Success would be measured by Italy’s inability to attack again before the following spring or summer.

The first target was a wedge of mountainous territory, five km wide between Flitsch and Saga (now Žaga) in the north, then 25 km long, from this line to the Austrian bridgehead at Tolmein. The little town of Caporetto lies midway between Saga and Tolmein, near a gap in the Isonzo valley’s western wall of mountains. This breach, leading to the lowlands of Friuli, gave Caporetto a strategic importance quite out of proportion to its size.

Since Austrian military intelligence had cracked the Italian codes earlier in the year, the Central Powers were well informed about enemy dispositions in this labyrinth of ridges rising 2,000 metres, where communications were ‘as bad as could be imagined’.

The Germans went to great lengths to keep their presence secret. Transports arrived by night, some units wore Austrian uniforms, others were taken openly to Trentino then secretly moved eastwards. Fake orders were communicated by radio. The Austrian lines on the Carso, 40 km away, were ostentatiously weakened to deter the Italians from transferring men northwards.

Italian military intelligence had correctly predicted the date and place of the offensive. The Italian line was held at the point of attack by the 2nd Army, whose commander, General Luigi Capello, a sick man, relinquished command four days into the battle. An Italian offensive had been planned, but postponed, and Capello’s dispositions were better suited to the offensive than a sound defense, as became clear when von Below attacked near Caporetto.

For the Italians, the Twelfth Battle began as something unthinkable. By the time they realized what was happening, they were powerless to stop it. The unthinkable had a name: infiltration. If the Italian observers noticed nothing unusual, this was partly because they expected the front to remain quiet until spring 1918. Austrian deserters talked about a planned attack, but their warnings were ignored.

General Luigi Cadorna, the Italian Chief of the General Staff, put the forces on the Isonzo front on a defensive footing. Without ensuring that his order was implemented, he let himself be absorbed by other matters. He was incensed to discover that Colonel Bencivenga, his chef de cabinet until the end of August, had criticized his command in high places in Rome. This mattered because Cadorna’s socialist and liberal critics were finally making common cause, preparing to challenge his command. They would soon have all the ammunition required, as the upcoming battle went very poorly for the Italians.

Cadorna was also vexed by an article in an Austrian newspaper. He filed every press clipping about himself, with references underlined in pencil. Several months earlier, a Swiss journalist had written that the Austrian lines on the Isonzo were impregnable. After the Tenth Battle, Cadorna sent his card to the journalist with a sarcastic inscription: ‘With spirited compliments on such penetrating prophecies about the strength of the Austrian lines, and hopes that you will never desist from similar insights.’ The insecurity betrayed by this gesture swallowed more urgent priorities.

Before the battle, Cadorna went on holiday with his wife near Venice. The rain was so heavy that he returned early, on 19 October, ‘in excellent spirits: calm, rested, tranquil’. By this point, the Supreme Command had been aware for at least three weeks that an attack was likely on the upper Isonzo. The presence of Germans was rumored. Even so, Cadorna’s staff did not take the threat seriously.

As late as 20 October, Cadorna did not expect an Austrian offensive before 1918. On the 21st, two Romanian deserters told the Italians the place and time of the attack. They, too, were ignored. Next day, Cadorna escorted the King to the top of Mount Stol, one of the ridges above Caporetto that link the Isonzo valley to Friuli. They agreed there was no reason to expect anything exceptional. Even on the morning of the 24th, when the enemy bombardment was underway, Cadorna advised his artillery commanders to spare their munitions, in view of the attack on the Carso that would inevitably follow.

The bombardment opened at 02.00 with a wave of gas, high explosive and smoke shells lashing the Italian batteries, command posts and strong points, splaying across the trenches. The German and Austrian infantry had the good fortune to attack in misty conditions. Nothing seemed to stop the Fourteenth Army, and within just a day the Italians had fallen back up to fifteen miles, thereby uncovering the defenses of first the Bainsizza Plateau, then Gorizia and finally the Carso Plateau.

‘It was a dark and rainy night and in no time a thousand gun muzzles were flashing on both sides of Tolmein. In the enemy territory an uninterrupted bursting and banging thundered and re-echoed from the mountains as powerfully as the severest thunderstorm. We saw and heard this tremendous activity with amazement. The Italian searchlights tried vainly to pierce the rain, and the expected enemy interdiction fire on the area around Tolmein did not materialize, for only a few hostile batteries answered the German fire. That was very reassuring and, half-asleep, we retired to our cover and listened to the lessening of our own artillery fire. At daybreak our fire increased in volume. Down by St Daniel heavy shells were smashing positions and obstacles and occasionally their smoke obscured the hostile installations. The fire activity of our artillery and mortars became more and more violent. The hostile counter-fire seemed to be rather weak.’ (Erwin Rommel, Württemberg Mountain Battalion)

Rommel and his detachment felt their way forward through the mountainous terrain, trying to avoid direct clashes with Italian strong points, always seeking to circumnavigate them, take them from the rear and press on. His vivid account of mountain warfare shows the kind of tactics employed, but also how well he had assimilated von Below’s instructions to concentrate on the Peaks: ‘The ascent proved to be very difficult. Lieutenant Streicher and I followed 40 yards behind the new point. Close behind us came the crew of a heavy machine gun carrying their disassembled gun on their shoulders. At this moment a 100 lb block of stone tumbled down on top of us. The draw was only 10 feet wide and dodging was difficult and escape impossible. In the fraction of a second it was clear that whoever was hit by the boulder would be pulverised. We all pressed against the left wall of the fold. The rock zigzagged between us and on downhill, without even scratching a single man. Happily, the supposition that the Italians were rolling stones down on us was false for the point had dislodged the stone. Finally the steep draw was behind us. In pouring rain, wet to the skin, we climbed the slope through dense undergrowth, looking and listening intently in all directions. The wood in front of us thinned out. If we moved rapidly then we might capture the hostile garrison without firing a shot. I singled out Lance Corporal Kiefner, a veritable giant, gave him eight men and told him to move down the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from up front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison on both sides of the path. Again long, anxious minutes passed and we heard nothing but the steady rain on the trees. Then steps approached, and a soldier reported in a low voice, “The Kiefner scout squad has captured a hostile dugout and taken seventeen Italians and a machine gun!” I then had to decide whether I should roll up the hostile position or break through in the direction of Hevnik Peak. I chose the latter. The elimination of the Italian positions was easy once we had possession of the peak. The farther we penetrated into the hostile zone of defense, the less prepared were the garrisons for our arrival, and the easier the fighting.’

As the Italians began to fall apart, small detachments like Rommel’s had an entirely disproportionate effect: ‘We went downhill through the bushes with our machine guns and carbines at the ready and we soon saw the hostile position below us. It was heavily garrisoned. From above we looked down on the bottom of the trench. The enemy had no cover against our fire. The enemy did not suspect what threatened him. The assault squads made ready and we shouted down to the hostile garrison and told them to surrender. Frightened, the Italian soldiers stared up at us to the rear. Their rifles fell from their hands. They knew they were lost and gave the sign of surrender. My assault squads did not fire a single shot. Not only did the garrison of the positions between us and Jevszek, about three companies strong, surrender; but, to our great surprise, the hostile trench garrison as far north as the Matajur road also laid down its arms. An Italian regiment of thirty-seven officers and 1,000 men surrendered in the hollow 700 yards north of Jevszek. It marched up with full equipment and armament, and I had trouble finding enough men to carry out the disarmament.’ (Erwin Rommel, Württemberg Mountain Battalion)

The weakest section of the front was strategically the most important, around the Tolmein bridgehead. On the Kolovrat ridge and Mount Matajur, many units that faced the German army only reached their positions in the morning of the attack. The main thrust was directed against high ground west of the Isonzo. Again the initial bombardment was highly effective, smashing the Italian cordon around the bridgehead. By nightfall, despite stiff resistance in some points, the attackers had captured the summits that they identified as key to Italian control.

In the northern end of the sector, the Italians were tucked into strong positions along the valley bottom between Flitsch and Saga. If the Germans were to capture this stretch of the river and take the mountain ridge beyond Saga, the Italians had to be rapidly overwhelmed. After knocking out the Italian guns, the Germans fired poison-gas shells into the Flitsch basin. As many as 700 men of the Friuli Brigade died at their posts.

The Austrian units spread into the fogbound valley below Mount Rombon. There was not much fighting; the powerful batteries at the bend in the river, by Saga, had been silenced. In mid-afternoon, the Italian forward units on Rombon were ordered to fall back to Saga after dark. With Austrians above and below them, their position was untenable. The Austrians reached Saga at dawn on the second day to find it empty: the Italians had pulled back overnight to higher ground.

An Austrian division overran the fragile lines below the summit of Mount Mrzli, which the Italians had tried so hard to capture since 1915. The Italians were rolled back towards the valley bottom. By noon, the rain had turned to sleet and the Germans occupied Kamno, a hamlet halfway to Caporetto.

All the gains that had cost so much in Italian blood had to be hastily abandoned as they were forced to pull right back to a new line established along the Tagliamento River. Soon there was chaos and only the fact that the German and Austrian communication lines had been overstretched prevented a real disaster. In the end the Italians were forced to retreat all the way to the Piave river, in front of Venice.

Gas was widely used, and the Italian gas masks proved ineffective. Fog and rain helped the storm troops to infiltrate the Italian rear areas. The 14th Army crossed the Isonzo and by nightfall on the first day von Below had penetrated the Italian reserve lines and taken the high ground on the defenders' side of the river. The 2nd Army disintegrated, although some units stood firm as the German storm troops swept round them. So great was the impetus of the attack that a withdrawal to an intermediate line ordered by Capello, who rose from his sick bed only to collapse again, was overtaken by the onrushing Germans.

During the morning of the second day, an image of disaster emerged from the information reaching the Italian Supreme Command: breakthroughs all along the front; morale collapsing; thousands of men making their way to the rear. The first towns west of the mountains were already threatened. Late in the afternoon, Cadorna wrote to his son: ‘The men are not fighting. That’s the situation, and plainly a disaster is imminent … Do not worry about me, my conscience is wholly clean … I am very calm indeed and too proud to be affected by anything that anybody can say. I shall go and live somewhere far away and not ask anything of anyone.’

There was huge congestion on the roads to the rear. Bridges were blown by panicky engineers before retreating units had reached them. Across the plains immense crowds of men and animals poured back towards the Tagliamento river where Cadorna intended to stand. Thousands of men from the 2nd Army were demobilizing themselves, discarding arms, uniforms and equipment as they sought by any means to get away from the battle area and make their way home. The 3rd Army, however, retained its discipline and cohesion.

There was no chance of holding on to the Tagliamento Line, so back went the Italians all the way to the Piave River just in front of Venice. There they were able to form a more compact and easily defensible line that linked across to the Asiago Plateau and the Trent front sector.

The last-ditch stand had to be made on the line of the Piave, where the defenders dug in. They were barely 20 miles from Venice as Cadorna issued his last Order of the Day, predictably exhorting his troops '...to die and not to yield'. The line held.

As the flood of Italian troops ebbed towards the Piave and the Supreme Command reasserted control over shattered units, the Central Powers made errors. Instead of striking from the northwest as von Below and Boroević swept in from the east, Conrad von Hötzendorf’s underpowered army advanced to the southern edge of the Asiago plateau and no further. The Krauss Corps was sent north to secure Carnia instead of pursuing the Italians westward.

After the war, Hindenburg described his disappointment over Caporetto. ‘At the last the great victory had not been consummated.’ Krauss accused Boroević of failing to clinch victory over the Third Army. These recriminations reflect the bitterness of overall defeat in the World War, which made Caporetto look like a missed opportunity.

In some ways the worst was over for the Italians. A new attack by German and Austrian troops failed to break through. A further attempt nearly did so, but in the end the Italian line again held. Shortly afterwards, the Germans withdrew their troops, intent on securing victory on the Western Front before the Americans arrived. They had run out of time to finish the job in Italy.

After the disaster at Caporetto an astonishing spirit of national unity blazed in Italy; thanks to inspirational public speaking and writing by an oddly-assorted pair, the poet and aviator Gabriele d'Annunzio and the socialist journalist Mussolini. A surge of patriotism drove hundreds of thousands to enlist and make good the losses at Caporetto. Prime Minister Orlando told his deputies that Italy would never surrender even if the army had to be withdrawn to Sicily.

The new line after Caporetto lay some 150 km west of the Isonzo. The fulcrum of the line was a rugged massif called Grappa, some 20 km square. If Grappa fell, the Italians would be vulnerable both from the north and the east.

When the Germans hit the Grappa massif in mid-November, the Italians were almost knocked back onto the plains. The ensuing struggle was a battle in itself; the situation was only saved at the end of December, with timely help from a French division – the Allies’ sole active contribution to the defense after Caporetto. This achievement gave birth to two new, much-needed myths: the defense of Mount Grappa was acclaimed as a victory that saved the kingdom, and the ‘boys of ’99’, sent straight from training to perform miracles, proved that the Italian fighting mettle was alive and well.

The new lines had settled by the end of the year. From the Swiss border to the Asiago plateau, the front was unchanged. From Asiago to the sea, it now ran east to Mount Grappa, then swung south-eastwards for 130 km along the River Piave. Fortunately for the Italians, defeat had cropped 170 km from the front: otherwise their much-reduced army might not have blocked the last Austro-German thrusts at the Piave line.

The Battle of Caporetto had been a disaster for the Italians. In its aftermath General Luigi Cadorna was dismissed and replaced as Chief of General Staff by General Armando Diaz. He promptly began the arduous task of rebuilding confidence throughout his battered armies.

Hosting his last supper at the Supreme Command, Cadorna addressed posterity over the meal: ‘I, with my will and my fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of 3,000,000 men, until yesterday. If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe…’ Early the following day, the King arrived to persuade Cadorna to leave quietly. They conferred for two hours. Cadorna knew he could not survive, yet the humiliation was too much. There was no graceful exit. Diaz arrived late that evening. When he presented a letter from the minister of war announcing his appointment as Chief of Staff with immediate effect, Cadorna broke off the meeting and telegraphed the minister: he would not go without a written dismissal. The order arrived early next morning. A new regime took over at the Supreme Command.

Diaz, a 57-year-old Neapolitan, had risen steadily through the ranks. After the Libyan war, in which he showed a rare talent for winning the affection and respect of his regiment, he served as General Pollio’s chef de cabinet. After a year in the Supreme Command, he asked to be sent to the front, where his calm good humor was noticed by the King, among others. He led the XXIII Corps on the Carso with no particular distinction. Diaz would vindicate the King’s trust. News of his promotion struck him like a bolt of lightning. Accepting the ‘sacred duty’, he said: ‘You are ordering me to fight with a broken sword. Very well, we shall fight all the same.’ He proved to be an exceptional administrator and skilful mediator, reconciling the government and the Supreme Command to each other, and rival generals to his own appointment.

Diaz’s first statement to the troops urged them to fight for their land, home, family and honor – in that order. He was what the army and the country needed after Cadorna. While he showed no brilliance as a strategist, he made no crucial mistakes and took the decisions that, in the end, led to victory. Diaz went quietly about the task of restoring his army, reinforced by French and British troops, together with guns and aircraft sent hurriedly from the Western Front. Morale rose again as the enemy, exhausted by their efforts and short of food, gave up trying to pierce the line.

After the front settled in December, Diaz rounded up the soldiers who had dispersed, resurrecting 25 infantry divisions and more than 30 artillery regiments by the end of February 1918. Some of the men who were judged less reliable were sent to serve in labor units in France. He devolved more operational decision-making authority to lower levels. Training and equipment were improved. At the Supreme Command, Diaz restored responsibility to the competent offices, decentralizing the authority that Cadorna had gathered in his fist. Diaz took steps to reform the conditions, morale and treatment of his men.

The Operations Office could play its proper part for the first time. A network of liaison officers ensured a flow of information between the Supreme Command and the front-line units. General Pietro Badoglio became a trusted and effective deputy.

Diaz’s attitude to the state authorities was cooperative without being submissive. He lunched with the King twice a week and met the Prime Minister several times a month. He had no objection to the formation of a war committee inside the cabinet, and was always ready to brief politicians.

Diaz’s strategic priority was purely defensive, so he did not need to devise offensive tactics. On the other hand, he could not yield any ground: if the Piave line broke, the Italians would probably lose Venice, Padua and Vicenza – the whole of the Veneto, maybe more.

In December 1917, the army rations were increased and made more varied. Pay was increased. Canteens were placed near the front, selling food and useful goods at discounted prices. Annual leave was raised from 15 to 25 days, and older draft classes were granted extra leave to work their land. All soldiers were provided with free insurance policies, and death benefits were paid to the families without delay.

Under Diaz, the soldiers’ attitude to the war – hitherto a vast neglected hinterland – became a focal point, crowded with officers taking notes. An internal report in November and December 1917 found that the men were physically inert and morally apathetic. Against this alarming background, Diaz issued directives and guidelines on vigilance, propaganda and care for the troops. Propaganda would be channelled through newspapers, posters and leaflets, theater and cinema. Meetings should be organized to learn the men’s views and to impart ‘a healthy, fortifying word’. Each army should have its own newspaper, with a humorous angle on army life, written by the men themselves where possible. ‘Care’ referred to material and moral well being, such as hygienic accommodation and palatable rations. ‘The best system for fighting anti-war propaganda,’ Diaz stated, ‘is the elimination, as far as possible, of the causes of discontent.’ This approach was unthinkable before Caporetto.

A new structure called ‘P Service’ was set up to coordinate the operations designed to increase morale. Its task was to spread ‘the conviction of the absolute necessity of our war’ among the troops and bolster civilian morale. Its officers included many gifted and sometimes eccentric figures who took deep pride in their work. This, after all, was a time when, as one officer said, ‘the flower of the Italian intelligentsia [was] in a fervor of moral renewal’. These men were the commissars of national recovery.

The German guns were transferred to the Western Front during November, followed in mid-December by the troops. The Austrians were on their own again. Not so the Italians, who benefited from several Entente divisions and their batteries: 130,000 French and 110,000 British troops by the end of the year, deployed as a strategic reserve. Other support in the form of munitions, shipping and extra loans ensured that coal and food shortages did not become acute.

Arriving from France and Flanders, the British soldiers were touched by their warm welcome. Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers were greeted at Ventimiglia with ‘extravagant fervor’, ‘showered with carnations, and barrels of wine stood waiting for them at the official welcoming ceremony’.

After the dull tones of Flanders, the Britons were captivated by the scenery. Moving along the Riviera to Genoa, Gunner James Blackburn (197th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery) gazed at the ‘red tiled roofs, pale pink and pale green buildings, the blue sky, green fields, greener trees and hedgerows’. The longest lived British veteran to serve in Italy was Gunner Alfred Finnigan, who in 2005 still remembered the ‘absolute joy’ of seeing the Mediterranean and the sun in December.

Some, like Captain L. Ferguson (1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment), felt embarrassed by the largesse – ‘we found the troops getting pelted with oranges and figs’ – and distributed corned beef and biscuits to the children around the train. After the dismal sight of Italian soldiers begging for bread at Verona station, he was cheered to meet some Alpini who spoke enough English to blame southerners for Caporetto and to promise that ‘the armies now have no idea of retreating an inch more’.

The British troops only knew the Italians had taken a hard knock, not how close they had come to collapse or the scale of the task facing Diaz, who had to consolidate the new line with only 33 intact divisions, half the number before Caporetto.

Now the Entente reluctantly came to the help of the Italians. By the end of the year, five British and six French divisions had been dispatched to prop up the Italian Front, although by then the line had stabilized. It had been a stunning victory for the Central Powers and another demonstration of the potency of their new attack tactics which the Italians had been unable to counter.

The Italian casualties were estimated at 305,000, of which the vast majority had become prisoners-of-war during their chaotic retreat.

The French and British were shocked by the speed of the disintegration and alarmed at its potential impact: if Italy were to be neutralized along with Russia, Austria would be free to support Germany on the Western Front. Britain and France agreed to send troops. William Robertson and Ferdinand Foch, the respective chiefs of staff, offered six divisions: hardly enough to bail out their ally, but sufficient to bolster the defense.

An Entente conference was convened at the Italian town of Rapallo after the battle. This assembly resolved to form an Allied Supreme War Council to establish some unity of command among the Entente, with a particular emphasis put on building up a collective reserve that could be employed in threatening situations such as had just been experienced in Italy.

The Italian insistence on retaining centralized control at senior levels was outdated beside the German devolution of authority to assault team level. Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organization, one of the most old fashioned in Europe.

The essence of Caporetto lay in the wrenching uncertainty of late October, when the Italian commanders did not know what was happening, the officers did not know what to do, the soldiers did not know where the enemy was, the government did not know if Italy was on the brink of losing the war, and ordinary citizens did not know if their country might cease to exist.