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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.