Isonzo Front in 1916
Italian attacks on the Isonzo
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
During 1916, after a failed Austro-Hungarian offensive at Asiago, the Italian Army launched a series of attacks on the Isonzo front. While the Italians managed to capture some territory from the Austro-Hungarians, including the town of Gorizia, they did not manage to inflict a decisive blow on the Austro-Hungarian Army.
After the failed Austro-Hungarian offensive at Asiago, the Italians turned their attention for the rest of 1916 to the Isonzo sector of the front. There they launched a series of attacks that managed to dislodge the Austro-Hungarians from some of their defensive positions, including the town of Gorizia. However, the Italian Army did not manage to achieve a decisive breakthrough on the Isonzo Front.

The Italians were rewarded during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo by the capture of Gorizia. For a short time it seemed that a breakthrough had been achieved; but the momentum went out of the attack.

The Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Battles of the Isonzo soon dissipated any Italian optimism as they repeatedly attacked the Austrian lines, seeking to expand their gains around Gorizia and the Carzo Plateau. Progress was almost non-existent, but casualties soared. General Luigi Cadorna, the Italian Chief of Staff, had done better than he had hoped, with gains of up to four miles on a 15-mile front. With the return of winter, offensive action once more came to a virtual halt apart from raids and patrols.

Cardona wanted to set the Italians up for a future attack on the city of Gorizia and on Mount San Michele, and to make it impossible for the Austrians to break out of Gorizia. For the first time, he would concentrate his firepower ‘in a very narrow space’, the short tract of front between Podgora hill and Gorizia. He also accepted the Duke of Acosta’s suggestion to extend the attack down to Mount San Michele in the south. Although it was separated from Gorizia by the valley of the Vipacco, five or six kilometers wide, San Michele was in tactical terms the southern rampart of the Gorizia enclave.

Cadorna rightly supposed that the Austrians would not expect a major operation on the Isonzo so soon after the close call in Trentino. Given his previous disdain for the element of surprise, this was another sign that something had been learned.

After the restructuring around Gorizia, the offensive came under the Third Army’s responsibility. Prince Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta, made sure the three divisions attacking San Michele had substantial artillery support (though no heavy guns) and the lion’s share of reserves, which were never abundant on the Isonzo.

The task of getting a foothold on the left bank of the Isonzo, on the skirt of land between the river and the city, fell to VI Corps under General Luigi Capello. Capello’s orders reiterated Cadorna’s aim of capturing ‘a small bridgehead’ that could be defended by a few men with machine guns.

The Italians were determined to press on despite the heavy casualties suffered in earlier battles, and they launched the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. The Austrians had been weakened by the transfers to the Eastern Front and so, by dint of concentrating their forces, the Italians managed to at last capture the town of Gorizia and make some gains on the Carso Plateau, although the fighting was as ferocious as ever. This victory had a considerable beneficial effect on morale throughout the Italian Army. Indeed, the Italians were even emboldened enough to finally declare war on Germany on 28 August.

The bombardment began early, pounding the Austrian lines all the way from Tolmein to the sea, before drawing in to San Michele and Gorizia. Cadorna’s gunners had never been so effective. The Austrian lines were shrouded in smoke, their command centers disabled, many observation posts destroyed, and communications wrecked.

Recognizing that previous progress had been made in the first days or even hours, Cadorna curtailed the preparatory bombardment. Capello’s first wave of infantry scrambled out of the upper trenches on Mount Sabotino with large white disks tied to their backs. Thanks to this simple device, the battery commanders coordinated their fire with an assault for the first time. The Dalmatian troops defending the mountain were hopelessly outnumbered when the Italians stormed the summit, taking it in 38 minutes flat.

Further south, across the river, another Italian success lay in store. Although San Michele had seen no major offensives since the Fourth Battle, the Italian XI Corps had not been idle. Secure emplacements were made for the new trench mortars. Salients were protected with extra wire. The assault on San Michele began at 15:30. Though suffering heavy losses, the Italians took the summit while the Pisa and Regina Brigades pushed to the edge of San Martino hamlet. The counterattacks that night, by Hungarian units, were beaten back. The whole sector fell the following day.

With Sabotino lost, the 15 km line around Gorizia began to crumble. Most of Podgora hill – insuperable for so long – was overrun. Counterattacks could not roll back the Italian gains. The Austrian artillery had run out of shells, and other sectors on the Isonzo were so sparsely manned that they could only spare half a dozen battalions, nothing like enough to wrest back control of Sabotino.

As the last pockets of resistance on Podgora were being mopped up, a few platoons of the Pavia Brigade gathered on the right bank of the Isonzo, opposite the city of Gorizia. The first Italians to get this far, they had discovered a tunnel under the flank of Podgora and made their way through it, towards the river. Machine-gun fire was incoming from a trench across the river, some 20 metres from the water’s edge. As the only intact bridge was under heavy Austrian fire, a young officer, Lieutenant Aurelio Baruzzi, got permission to wade across the Isonzo, carrying an Italian flag: ‘I must cross that field. I have sworn to my flag that it will fly over the houses of Gorizia. Now the flag helps me for the second time. I unfurl it and shake it open. Our gunners see it and lengthen their fire. We run across the field to the station.’ The station is protected by wire, but Baruzzi finds a breach and races up the staircase: ‘Moments later, the flag is flying from the highest roof-beam under the hot August sun.’ By afternoon, Gorizia was in Italian hands.

On San Michele, the Italians secured the summit and attacked the Austrian second line on the rearward slopes. Here they were stopped for the first time – another testament to Austrian defenses. The loss of Gorizia removed the point of sacrificing more Austrian lives for San Michele. The withdrawal from the western Carso – abandoning Mount Sei Busi, Cosich and other battlefields as well as San Michele itself – was perfectly executed.

The Italians had shifted their problems several kilometers eastwards. The challenge ahead was all too familiar: attacking uphill against well-built positions defended to the death by battle-hardened troops. They had spent more than a year besieging San Michele and Podgora. In the next phase, they would hurl themselves at Monte Santo, San Gabriele, Fajti hrib and other obscure heights across the Vallone that soon became household names in Italy.

Coming so soon after the much-trumpeted defeat of the Austrian Asiago Offensive, this made Cadorna’s position unassailable. He had proved that he could carry out a successful offensive. Cadorna’s finest hour confirmed his limitations. Far from exploiting the breakthrough, he clung to his original plan. By the time he awoke to the opportunity, fresh troops, cavalry and munitions could not be brought up in sufficient strength to attack the enemy second line before it was reinforced.

As Italian morale surged, the Austrian army’s slumped. Successful resistance on the Isonzo had created a unique esprit de corps. This spirit was potent but highly vulnerable; the first substantial reverse might burst the illusion that the empire could defy all odds, indefinitely.

On 10 August, realizing that a golden chance had slipped beyond reach, Cardona censured Capello for his ‘slowness’ in attacking the high ground behind Gorizia, in line with the ‘objectives’ that had been assigned to VI Corps. This was disingenuous, for Cadorna had never anticipated capturing the city, let alone any ground beyond it. Capello, for all his show of audacity, was hardly better. Astonishingly, no one seemed to realise that the Vipacco valley, leading to the Slovenian hinterland, lay wide open. The enemy’s second line was still weak here, with shallow trenches and wire fixed loosely to the soil.

In mid-September 1916 Cadorna launched the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo. Following the Sixth Battle, fresh recruits and munitions had poured across the Isonzo. While the Second Army consolidated around Gorizia, the Third Army geared up for another offensive on the Carso, to strike down towards Trieste across the Vallone. By this time the Austrians had heavily fortified lines of defense. Over the following days, repeated attacks brought few durable gains for the Italians.

Cadorna had always known that winning Gorizia would not change the strategic balance on the Isonzo. ‘There are other fortified lines right behind the city’, he wrote to his daughter late in 1915. ‘This war can only be ended through the exhaustion of men and resources… It’s frightful, but that’s how it is.’ The King knew it, too. Observing the Fourth Battle from a hilltop in the rear, he had remarked: ‘Who knows what people in Italy will think when we do take Gorizia! Militarily, Gorizia means nothing in itself.’

Cadorna wanted to catch the Austrians before they had recovered from their first real defeat and fortified their new positions. He also wanted to capitalize on their distraction by Romania’s entry into the war on the Allied side at the end of August.

By early September, the Austrians had 152 battalions on the Isonzo, as well as 168 medium and heavy artillery pieces and 606 field guns. Working around the clock, they dug trenches, laid wire, and built roads and gun emplacements in the rear. By early September, they had four defensive lines – two more than the Italians realized.

With the help of aerial observers, the heavy batteries reduced much of the Austrian front line to rubble, blowing broad holes in the wire and shattering their communications. Cadorna took heart; he believed the Austrians were packed into their front-line bunkers. In fact they had left only a token force in the front lines, so their losses were relatively slight; their men were nearby, and ready. So were their skilfully disguised batteries.

Emerging through smoke and dust in compact blocks, the Italians presented ideal targets. The Italians kept coming, wave after wave, across open ground in close order formation, shoulder to shoulder, against field guns and machine guns. To one Austrian artillery officer, ‘it looked like an attempt at mass suicide’. Those who reached the deserted Austrian line met flamethrowers, tear gas, and machine-gun and rifle fire emanating from hollows and outcrops on the crumpled Carso.

The Austrian VII Corps, ably led by Archduke Josef von Habsburg and well positioned on the eastern rim of the Vallone, bested the weary regiments probing uphill. A few scraps of ground were taken here and there. For the most part, where the Italians broke through, inexorable counterattacks drove them back before they could dig in and bring up reserves. An isolated attack on Mount Rombon, at the northern end of the front, met with no greater success.

When the guns fell silent, the Supreme Command was already planning the next offensive. Aware of what was pending, General Svetozar Boroević begged for extra forces. The empire was still heavily engaged on the Eastern Front, and now committed against Romania as well. Even when Conrad released two more divisions, the Austrians were outnumbered almost three to one on the Carso. On the Italian side, fresh men and munitions were hurried to the front.

A senior staff officer arrived from Vienna to inspect the defenses. He proposed a new fortified line to run the length of the Carso, three kilometers behind the current front line, from the Vipacco valley to the Hermada massif, a labyrinth of ridges sloping steeply to the Adriatic – the last natural bastion before Trieste. Grottoes in the limestone would be enlarged and linked. Hamlets on the new line would be razed. This was a project for the future: there was no time to get these works under way before the next attack.

Commencing with a bombardment that lasted more than a week, counting interruptions for bad weather, the Eighth Battle replayed the Seventh, except that Cadorna involved the Second Army more actively, attacking from the north while the Duke of Aosta’s men pushed eastwards. The epicenter would be 800 meters wide, around the village of Nova Vas, where 10,000 men were massed. Fog settled overnight, slowing the next Italian assault and favoring the counterattacks. The Austrians clawed back some of the lost ground. The danger of a breakthrough was averted.

The Austrians contained the first assault on the central Carso. In the north, however, the Second Army made some gains, driving the Austrians back a couple of kilometers. The next day, Cadorna widened the front to 18 kilometers, diluting the Austrian fire. The Italians had a very good day, capturing several villages beyond the Vallone. If the Czech riflemen had not mounted a spectacular charge on Hill 144, at the southern edge of the Carso, the road would have lain open to Hermada, which was not ready to withstand a major offensive.

Again, the halt was intended as a pause for regrouping. The Duke of Aosta thought ten days would suffice. New artillery and trench mortars rolled to the front from the factories of northern Italy. The Austrians transferred another division from the Eastern Front, and fresh regiments of Bosnian, Hungarian and Tyrolese infantry were scraped together.

Annihilation fire demolished the Austrian front-line positions. With almost 200,000 men, Cadorna said he could crack the Carso and open the road to Trieste before winter. And indeed, on the northern Carso, the Austrians were forced back, giving the Italians a salient five kilometers wide and three deep.

Cardona revised his battle plan before the Ninth Battle. While he still paid lip-service to the aim of reaching Trieste before winter, his goal was more modest: an improvement in Italy’s position on the Carso, reaching an imaginary line between the hills of Trstelj and Hermada – at least 15 km north of Trieste – without incurring huge casualties. By providing the army, the government and the nation with limited but secure territorial gains, without colossal bloodletting, he would build on the capture of Gorizia, disarm his critics and end the year on a positive note.

The hill of Fajti, bulwark of Austrian defense on the northern Carso, had fallen. The flood was stemmed on one flank by an Austrian division, clinging to its positions between Gorizia and the Vipacco valley, and on the other by a tough Czech regiment. When the counterattack came, eight Austrian battalions tore forward from their second line. Even this line looked untenable.

As historian John Schindler finely recounts, the focal point was Hill 464, a few hundred meters east of Fajti. Boroević sent his last reserve battalion into the fray. Although they were outnumbered by six to one, their rampaging counterattack triggered one of those failures of nerve that overtook Cadorna’s men. This turned the tide, and the arrival of an extra division from Galicia a few hours later clinched Cadorna’s decision to halt the Ninth Battle.

Throughout the long Isonzo campaigns, the Italians failed to make any significant advances in their tactical thinking, still relying on courage and numbers to breach the Austrian lines, with the support of limited and largely unfocussed artillery barrages. Overall, Cadorna was driving his men on, setting a much higher tempo of offensive operations than had been established by the British, French or Russian generals. Cadorna was a harsh disciplinarian and an enthusiastic devotee of using the threat of the death penalty to keep his men up to the required performance.

The Austrians had adapted their tactics to turn static defense into dynamic counterattack. Instead of trying to hold their front line against the shelling and frontal attack, they waited in their second line, then rushed forward to clash with the enemy around the almost deserted front line. The element of surprise and enhanced morale made this method effective enough to be worth using, though the depth and improved accuracy of Italian fire ensured that initial casualties stayed high.

Cadorna had finally done what his critics wanted: he had concentrated his forces on a narrow front, and employed his batteries more effectively. Yet, in other respects, these offensives repeated the errors of 1915. The outcome confirmed that defensive superiority could be overturned only by a combination of patient preparatory sapping, artillery fire that was both colossal and precisely accurate, and the timely deployment of reserves. Worst of all, Cadorna had discovered a knack for abandoning offensives when Boroević had committed his last reserves.

These battles brought the Italians within sight of the goal of attritional warfare: exhausting the enemy to the point of collapse. The Austrians had no hope of replenishing their losses. Since August, at least 130,000 had been killed, wounded or captured on the Isonzo. Many divisions were shadows of themselves; almost all had been completely reconstructed half a dozen times.

Cadorna’s advantages were less solid than they appeared to the enemy. His recruits were poorly trained, incoming officers likewise, and the army’s material superiority did not nullify the defenders’ advantage. As for his actual gains on the Carso, they amounted to several villages and a couple of kilometers of limestone, won at a cost of 80,000 casualties. The Italians were nowhere near achieving a decisive breakthrough.

If the Italians were not driving ahead, they were, by definition, failing. The finest trench-memoir was written by a lieutenant who fought on the Carso in the winter of 1916: ‘It is not dying that is the demoralizing thing, the thing that grinds you down’, he recalled. ‘It is dying so uselessly, for nothing. This is not dying for the fatherland; it is dying for the stupidity of specific orders and the cowardice of specific commanding officers.’

The mood of incipient despair grew during the last months of 1916, and found expression. As the Ninth Battle got underway, the Duke of Aosta had six men summarily executed for mutiny. Cadorna seized on this grim incident to issue a directive that commanders were duty-bound to decimate mutinous units. While he had no authority to revise the military penal code, nobody was prepared to challenge him.