Isonzo Front in 1917
Renewed Italians attacks on the Isonzo front prompts German intervention
10 May - 12 September 1917
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
During 1917 the Italian Army launched another series of attacks against the Austro-Hungarians. By the onset of autumn the Austro-Hungarian's situation became fragile enough as to prompt German intervention on the Italian Front.
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.

The Russian Revolution, beginning in March, enabled the Austrians to transfer formations from the east to augment their forces on the Isonzo and Trentino fronts.

At the end of August the Italians seemed on the point of final victory. Austrian morale was crumbling as non-Germanic regiments lost their stomach for the war. However, the Italians were forced to put their forces on a defensive status, while they reorganized themselves, built up their reserves and rested ready to renew the attack in 1918. At the same time, the Austrians were, if anything, in a worse state: exhausted from the long war with Russia, Serbia and now the Italians.

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.

General William Robertson was struck by the ‘absolute quiet’, broken by an occasional rifle shot: ‘a very different state of affairs from what we were accustomed to on the Western Front’.

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.

Robertson was also travelling to Rome. Both he and General Douglas Haig deplored Lloyd George’s attempts to find a way around the Western Front. They were convinced he was toying with public dismay at the scale of killing in Flanders, only pretending not to understand why the enemy must be attacked frontally where he was strongest. At various times, after all, he had promoted the Balkans, the Eastern Front and the Middle East as alternative theaters. Now he was doing the same with Italy, and Robertson would have none of it. He neither trusted the Italian estimates of their own potential nor believed that Germany would let Austria-Hungary reach a separate peace, regardless of how well the reinforced Italians might perform.

In this situation, Lloyd George might have been expected to exercise his powers of persuasion on the French prime minister, Aristide Briand, and his minister of war during their hours on the train. He did nothing of the sort. He did not even show them his memorandum outlining Entente options for 1917. When the party reached Rome, he sent the cabinet secretary to brief Cadorna. But the canny Robertson got to him first.

When Lloyd George made his case, the British and French generals’ skepticism was deepened by the overdone praise of Cadorna. The French objected that lending batteries to Italy would jeopardise the Nivelle offensive, so Lloyd George promised that the 300 guns would ‘absolutely’ be returned in good time. When Cadorna’s turn came to speak, he showed no enthusiasm. Guns that had to be returned in May were, he said, not worth having. An onlooker who knew him quite well was Sir Rennell Rodd, Britain’s ambassador to Rome. Watching Cadorna pass up a unique chance of substantial Entente support, Rodd reflected that it was a moment when character shapes outcome.

Lloyd George offered to let Cadorna keep the British guns for longer. This off-the-cuff contradiction of policy infuriated Robertson without reassuring Cadorna, who was haunted by the specter of a second Austrian attack out of the Trentino, dismayed that the Entente would lend no troops, and troubled that he would have to attack, inviting German reprisals, without simultaneous offensives on other fronts. Lloyd George did not forgive Cadorna for squandering ‘the most promising chance afforded to him to win a great triumph for his country’.

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.

On their arrival, the British troops found the Italian soldier an enigma: ‘Of all armies I should say that it is most difficult to gauge the standard of the Italians. One is constantly confronted with surprises. The Italian is capable of doing everything, and is a master at doing nothing. As regards physique he is, I think, unsurpassed though of low stature, his strength is remarkable. He can carry more than a British or French soldier. Infantry may be seen straggling along a road, the reverse of our idea of ‘smart’, but he will walk all day and feed on little. He is practically never drunk and, though illiterate, extremely handy and ingenious. He has no idea of punctuality or time. 8 o’clock may mean 8.30 or 9.00. But when he works, he works extremely well. The morale of the Italian is easily affected. As an Italian officer said to me, “Tell him he is a brave man, and he becomes one!” Hence the regiments with good traditions are excellent, those without traditions or with bad reputations are very bad, and the contrast is stronger than in other armies.’ (Lieutenant Colonel Charles Buzzard, Headquarters, 144th Heavy Artillery Group, Royal Artillery)

As the army prepared for another winter, visitors noticed a sullen weariness at the front. A reduction in rations in December did nothing for the soldiers’ spirits. The new year brought several worrying incidents where new recruits protested at the draft. Infantry shouted abuse at passing staff cars. When a journalist mentioned these omens to Cadorna, he waved them away. ‘It is like that everywhere, and of course the soldiers are tired after two years.’ A few serious cases of insubordination had been handled in the only proper way: by shooting the malefactors, ‘to prevent sparks from becoming fires’.

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 has to be understood in terms of ridges and summits. Mount San Gabriele, east of Gorizia, stands as an isolated summit. Monte Santo, further north, is the southern tip – and highest point – of a ridge that runs southeast for six or seven kilometers from Hill 383, above the Italian bridgehead at Plava. On its three other sides, Monte Santo falls away steeply. Italian shelling had reduced the church and monastery on its summit to ruins.

Five regiments were launched against the lone Habsburg battalion on Hill 383. Outnumbered by 15 to 1, the Austrians still inflicted 50 percent casualties on the attackers before succumbing. Italian interdiction fire played a part: reinforcements could not reach the beleaguered defenders.

On Monte Santo, after a devastating bombardment involving the batteries hidden in the summit of Sabotino, the Austrians could not resist the Campobasso Brigade. The summit was taken but could not be held. For the next 24 hours, attackers and counterattackers chased each other across the summit in increasingly ragged waves.

On the central Carso, the Duke of Aosta threw 60 battalions at the fortified line beyond the Vallone, aiming to deepen the salient that was carved out during the Ninth Battle. The Duke had dramatically increased the reserves, ready to exploit any success. But there was nothing to exploit. To their amazement, the Italians found they were outgunned on the central Carso. With their usual pinpoint accuracy, the Austrian batteries barred the way.

Batteries belatedly opened the second phase of the battle. Supported from the air and by floating batteries at the mouth of the Isonzo, the infantry’s surprise attacks widened the salient, rolling over three Austrian lines to capture a band of territory two kilometers deep from central Carso to the sea. The Austrians melted away in front of the Italian right. Habsburg prisoners reported a crisis of morale, yet the Austrians did not buckle.

The Austrians would, though, have the last word. General Svetozar Boroević used his reinforcements from the Eastern Front to launch surprise attacks north of Hermada, regaining some of the ground lost to the Italians.

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.

Cadorna’s first assault in the area, in November 1916, had come to nothing. Now he resolved to overwhelm the Austrians with sheer weight of shells and men. A new force was created for this purpose: the Sixth Army, under General Ettore Mambretti. The target was a chain of four peaks that had to be approached over open, steep terrain.

Low cloud cover meant that Italy’s guns and mortars could not target the enemy wire. The general commanding the division directly below Ortigara realized the implications, and asked permission to delay the assault. This was refused by Mambretti, who was unaware that, as on the Carso, the Austrians had abandoned their trenches and excavated deep caverns for men and artillery, often three meters under the surface. The Austrian gunners on the adjacent summits had excellent sight of the Italian positions and the ground where the Sixth Army had to pass.

Torrential rain had turned the mountainsides to quagmires. The effect was like flypaper: the infantry were trapped under the machine guns, in front of intact wire. Some battalions took 70 percent losses. After three waves of attack, progress was made elsewhere on the line, at immense cost. The survivors spent the night on the mountainside, trapped in front of the wire, pressing their bodies into the gaps between boulders, playing dead under Austrian flares, waiting for the order to retreat. No order came.

The Italians stayed on the mountainside for eight days. When the skies cleared, the artillery opened up and the infantry attacked again, with air support from Caproni bombers. Next day, men of the 52nd Division hacked their way to the summit of Ortigara with daggers and bayonets. They hung on for several days, until stormtroopers swept them off with gas and flame-throwers. The Austrians repeated their success elsewhere on the line. Mambretti ordered a withdrawal to the original positions. The Italians suffered at least 25,000 casualties over the 19 days of the battle, on a front of three kilometers, for no gains.

A captain in the Alpini, Paolo Monelli, recalled that when the last enemy bombardment stopped, ‘ … a vast silence spreads … Then groans from the wounded. Then silence once more. And the mountain is infinitely taciturn, like a dead world, with its snowfields soiled, the shell-craters, the burnt pines. But the breath of battle wafts over all – a stench of excrement and dead bodies.’

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.

Once again, Cadorna let General Capello – now commanding the Second Army – add a new element to the plan without caring how this affected the whole design. For Capello decided that the Second Army, once the Bainsizza had been secured, should wheel northwards toward Tolmein, the only point on the front where Austria still held both banks of the Isonzo. Even with their enlarged forces, however, the Italians could not expect to reduce the Tolmein bridgehead and the hills behind Gorizia while also attacking Mount Hermada, on the southern edge of the Carso.

By early August, Cadorna had more than half a million men ranged along the front, maintaining but not exceeding the 10:4 advantage in manpower that he had enjoyed since 1915. What was new was a crushing superiority in firepower. The factories were working flat out to supply the front with guns and munitions, while Austrian heavy industry had ground almost to a halt. For the first time, the Italians could match the power of offensives on the Western Front.

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.

Colonel Charles Buzzard, one of the senior British heavy artillery officers attached to the Italians, was quite astounded at the complete lack of sophistication in the artillery tactics employed by the Italians on the Carso Plateau. To him the following characteristics were painfully evident: ‘1. Almost entire lack of information supplied to the Heavy Artillery. We were never told which way the infantry would attack, the hours named were never adhered to. 2. Fire was lifted far too soon: infantry had no support in passing over four or five hundred yards of open and difficult ground. We could have kept on firing until the infantry was 200 yards from objectives. 3. Austrian prisoners say that during our bombardment all their men were in caverns, and they hardly lost any; the trenches were quite wrecked: no shells can touch their caverns. 4. The remarkable thing is that with such utter lack of cooperation between artillery and infantry, the Italian infantry ever take any of their objectives. The artillery preparation is good, a large number of the infantry are quite heroic; but to advance behind a proper creeping barrage is unheard of.’

The gunners had learned how to register on their targets, and the effect along the 12 km Bainsizza front was devastating. Italian pilots controlled the sky, and their raids added to the Austrian sense that there was no protection to be had. From Tolmein to the sea, the Habsburg lines and rear positions were shrouded in smoke and fire, roaring day and night with shell bursts. Hermada was pounded from floating batteries, fixed on rafts near the mouth of the Isonzo.

The infantry attacked along the whole front. On the Carso, the Third Army dented the Austrian lines in three places. The biggest advance was at the hamlet of Selo, long since pulverized, several kilometers inland. The Hermada massif was still impregnable. A push up the Vipacco valley, between the Carso and Gorizia, gained some ground before Habsburg counterattacks forced the Italians back to their starting point.

Above Gorizia the Second Army had stormed across the Isonzo and made dramatic progress on the Bainsizza, where Boroević’s skeleton force was overwhelmed. Capello was exultant: ‘They do not know what a torrent of men I am unleashing.’ Four corps were poised to exploit the opening. For several days the Italians made good progress across the Bainsizza, rolling forward for five kilometers, smashing 45 Austrian battalions as they went, capturing dozens of guns and 11,000 prisoners. Italy had seen nothing like this.

The Italians did not know that Emperor Karl had visited Boroević’s headquarters in Postojna. It was, they agreed, a moment of crisis. Long-range fire blocked their supply routes to the front, and the troops were running short of munitions. The Bainsizza was untenable, and Karl prevailed on his general to fall back. It was risky; a tactical withdrawal from the Bainsizza would lengthen the front around an Italian salient and boost enemy morale. On the other hand, given the Austrians’ excellent defensive record, it should be possible to block the enemy when they reached the eastern limit of the plateau.

Instead of reinforcing his forward units, Capello launched several half-baked sorties towards Tolmein, which the Austrians swatted back. The flanking movement to the south, towards Monte Santo and San Gabriele, never transpired: the Austrians’ cordon around the plateau contained it.

The pull-back also affected the defense behind Gorizia. Capello’s assault on Monte Santo had groped upwards into the blaze of shellfire crowning the hill. Since the Italians captured it in May, only to lose it again, the Marian shrine on the summit had been razed. The imminent Italian occupation of the Bainsizza would expose another of Monte Santo’s flanks, rendering it indefensible. Accordingly, the last Austrian defenders quietly pulled back from their foxholes in the rubble, down the eastern flank of the mountain, and across the narrow pass to Mount San Gabriele.

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 fire was so intense that the mountain lost 10 meters in altitude during the battle. Teams of Italian arditi – newly formed shock troops – came close to seizing the summit. At one point, Boroević believed it could not be held.

One of the men ferrying cartridges up San Gabriele was Private Antonio Pardi of the 247th Infantry: slogging uphill with a crate on his back, clambering over the dead, hunching under continual explosions, dumping his crate by the forward positions and half running, half sliding down again in a panic, grabbing at corpses to keep his balance, arriving at the bottom ‘clotted with filth, blood and mud’. Pardi set down his memories fifty years after the event, ‘not out of love for a just and terrible war’, but so that later generations could know what it had been like. ‘Death was so certain that you almost stopped thinking how to avoid it, yet every passing second was another second of life.’

The Italians had suffered 166,000 casualties, including 40,000 dead, of whom 25,000 died on San Gabriele for trivial gains. Some 400 of the 600 battalions involved in the battle had lost between half and two-thirds of their strength. Proportionately, Boroević’s losses – at around 140,000 men – were even heavier, and could not be made good.

The Eleventh Battle was a technical victory that felt like defeat for the Italians. A close bystander who grasped the enormity of this failure was Colonel Gatti, the official historian at the Supreme Command. As the corpses piled up on San Gabriele, he wrote despairingly in his diary: ‘I feel something collapsing inside me; I shall not be able to endure this war, none of us will; it is too gigantic, truly limitless, it will crush us all.’ He found solace in the men’s morale, which was holding up well, he thought. Yet he picked up a sense that their stamina was linked to a mysterious expectation that this would be the final battle. They were making a last colossal effort. What will happen, he mused, when they see that this is not the end?

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.

The German Supreme Command realised that further loss of ground would lead to the loss of Trieste, which held the key to Austria’s economic independence. Trieste must therefore be saved, with German help if not otherwise.