During the spring and summer of 1917, operations on the Italian Front of World War One resumed, when the Italians sought to break the Austro-Hungarian lines by launching a series of offensive in the Isonzo area. Although the Italians won some territorial gains, they did not manage to achieve a decisive victory against the Austro-Hungarian Army before German intervention.
An Italian attack was planned for early December 1916. On the 7th, a break in the bad weather allowed the artillery to warm up. But the winter soon closed in again and the infantry stood down. According to General Luigi Cadorna, the Italian Chief of Staff, the troops in the Vipacco valley were drowning in mud. The postponement would last five months. Minor actions flared here and there as the Austrians tried to wrest back the territory they had lost in August. Still, the front was relatively calm and sometimes completely so.
When David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as British prime minister in early December 1916, he was bent on carrying out what he would call a ‘fundamental reconstruction of Allied strategy on all fronts’. He planned to launch the process at a conference of Entente prime ministers, ministers of war, and chiefs of staff. Lloyd George wanted Britain and France to lend the Italians enough artillery in the early part of the year - up to 400 medium and heavy guns - that Cadorna would retake the initiative on the Isonzo, capture Trieste, ‘get astride the Istrian peninsula’, and knock out the Austrian fleet. In the end the Italians would receive only limited support because of the French and British generals’ skepticism of Lloyd-George’s plan.
After the winter, operations resumed with the bombardment for the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo. By this time the British and French had at last been convinced by Italian appeals for additional artillery, with the British responding by deploying several batteries of 6-inch howitzers to the front. The problem of troop morale remained. The gloom that settled over the army towards the end of 1916 thickened like fog along the Isonzo valley, and little was done to identify its causes, let alone address them.
Despite artillery reinforcements, little changed as the Italians sought to batter their way forward all along the Isonzo Front. At first, things seemed to be going better, as Monte Kuk, north of Gorizia, was captured. There was also progress on the dreaded Carso Plateau, although in the end the Italians were thwarted by the heights of Monte Hermada which guarded the route through to Trieste. An Austrian counterattack was fended away and in the end the Italians had more than 157,000 casualties, while the Austrians suffered some 75,000.
The Tenth Battle had a codicil elsewhere, far from the Carso. The Austrian counterattack around Hermada in early May led Cadorna to bring forward a long-planned offensive on the Asiago plateau. Here the Austrians recreated their strategic advantage on the Isonzo, by holding firm on a chain of hills that bisected the plateau. The northern end of this chain overlooks the Sugana valley, like the gable end of a house that towers 2,000 meters high. This is Ortigara, a wilderness as rocky as the Carso but steeper, and with even better sight-lines onto the approaches. The attack was a catastrophe: Italy’s equivalent of the Somme.
The focal area would be the Bainsizza plateau, between Gorizia and Tolmein. Since the Tenth Battle, these thinly populated highlands had formed the Austrian front line on the middle Isonzo. Cadorna believed an element of surprise could be preserved here, which was impossible further south. He also believed that the Austrian defenses on the plateau were relatively light.
Undaunted, Cadorna readied himself for his next attempt, the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo. The Italians attacked either side of Gorizia, this time making some progress on both the Bainsizza Plateau to the north and edging forwards towards Monte Hermada. The Italian successes were at crippling expense and were negligible in terms of real territorial gains. At the same time they had some tactical promise if only they could keep driving forward. But the Italians were tiring fast and were unable to press home any advantage.
After the exhilarating advance over the Bainsizza, the attack on San Gabriele brought a reversion to type. Compact blocks of infantry were sent up mountainsides, into field-gun and machine-gun fire, proving yet again that weight of numbers could not substitute for planning and preparation. One brigade after another assaulted San Gabriele for more than a fortnight. The hilltop caverns were impregnable. Cadorna halted the battle and ordered all units onto the defensive.
The next Italian thrust would likely smash the line between Gorizia and the sea. This probability was not lost on Austria’s ally. Ultimately, the strategic significance of the Eleventh Battle is that it forced Germany to pay urgent attention to the Italian front for the first time.