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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.