|The Isonzo Front 1915-1917|
(borrowed from the excellent blog 'Things have changed'
The Isonzo front ran from the mountain towns of Plezzo and Bovec in the north down to the Adriatic sea with the river estuary between Montfalcone on the Italian side and the coveted city of Trieste on the Austrian side (see Map). No less than twelve separate battles took place on the Isonzo front from 1915-1917. For the most part they were depressingly 'Groundhog Day' struggles. Following Italian bombardments that grew in intensity with each battle, swathes of infantry would be hurled at Austrian defences that were numerically inferior but strategically placed on mountainous higher ground. Slaughter in these battles was comparable to anything seen on Western and Eastern Fronts. Cadorna, the dominating Italian C-in-C was a good organiser, but his arrogance and pig-headedness resulted in senseless casualties. He sacked hundreds of senior officers for failing to achieve their objectives, or for questioning his tactics. He rarely visited the front, and persisted in his Haig-like belief that one more push would create the breakthrough to open warfare and an advance on Vienna. He treated his troops as fodder, even employing the ancient Roman barbarity of decimation, whereby one in ten troops of a line up post 'failure' were taken out of the line and shot for cowardice in order to stiffen the resolve of the rest. Unbelievable.
Of the 12 battles, only 6, 11and 12 had strategic impact. The 6th battle resulted in the capture of Gorizia and a toehold on the Carso plain (Post 3/11/2016). The 12th is better known as Caporetto and will be covered separately. Battles 10 and 11 took place in May and August of 1917.
It wasn't as if hostilities ceased and the poor troops got some respite in the winter months. It was that the ferocity of the winter weather - snow, vicious winds, freezing temperatures and avalanches - made mass movements impossible. Men suffered as much (possibly more) as in the major battles, but in localised actions designed to improve defensive positions; create footholds or enhance communications.
In the winter of 1916-17, which saw record snowfalls and dreadful blizzards, both sides made major preparations for the 1917 season of carnage. Boreovic led the Austrian forces in the Isonzo region. Although a Croat rather than Germanic, he was accepted by all as one of Austria's finest generals. Not that that helped his constant appeals for more reserves and equipment. He made the best of his defensive positions lined up, as he was, against greatly superior numbers of Italians. He worked hard to strengthen the new defensive positions he had been forced to take up following the 6th Battle and the loss of Gorizia. Cadorna's larger forces on the front comprised the 2nd Army to the north, led by Capello, and the 3rd Army (south of the Carso plateau to the sea) led by the aristocrat Duke d'Aosta. Capello organised the building of a new road to support the bridgehead east of Gorizia. Cadorna's plan was to blast through beyond this bridgehead, further on to the forbidding Carso plain, drawing the Austrian reserves into that area. Once this was achieved he would launch d'Aosta's 3rd army to take the Monte Hermada heights overlooking the coast and road to Trieste. The town of Kostanjevica was an important target in this move.
Isonzo 10 began on 12th May 1917 with the heaviest bombardment to date, strengthened by British and French artillery. As before, the infantry rush was successful initially. Bridges were constructed across the river, and a broader advance from the Gorizia positions penetrated to the Austrian seond lines 300 metres above the river. In two days Capello's men made incursions into the western end of the Carso and Bainsizza plateaus - physically very different from each other - and both were strategically important. Capello finally took control of Hill 383 (aka Hill of Death to the troops), giving Cadorna a great propaganda prize. So far, so good, despite the predictable counter-attacks from the Austrians that regained some of the lost ground.
|Duke d'Aosta - a fine|
commander of the 3rd Army
The 10th battle was judged a success alongside 7, 8 and 9 but all things are relative. The Italian losses for the battle exceeded any other to date. The Austrians also had suffered serious losses, and with their inferior numbers were now stretched very thinly. Boroevic made further appeals to the centre for reinforcements, this time with different and important results. In March 1917, one of the new Emperor Karl's early actions had been to dismiss the vainglorious Austrian Commander in Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf. His replacement was General Arz von Straussenberg, who had considerable experience on the Russian front. He had a constructive relationship with the senior German Military, who had seen Conrad as an irrelevance. Reinforcements that included German equipment were moved from the Russian front and, in early June, strong counter-attacks were launched from the eastern Alpine section of the front, thereby relieving the pressures on Boroevic on the Isonzo. The counter-attacks featured some of the most spectacular and intrepid fighting of the war, involving crack mountain divisions of both sides.
Cadorna's attritional strategy was coming under pressure, not only from these counter-attack on his flank, but from popular and political opinion behind the line. The enormous losses (both sides had lost more than a million men) were sapping the previously strong support for the war. Italy appealed to Britain and France for support in making the 'final' assault across the Carso. Both had major challenges of their own and, despite Lloyd George's enthusiasm to divert from Flanders, could only offer more materiel now, and troops later.
It was, then, with a measure of desperation that Cadorna prepared for what would be his final attempt to lead the breakthrough to the 'road to Vienna'. Whereas Isonzo 10 had focused on two short sections of the front, Isonzo 11 would attack from Plezzo to the sea, seeking for weakness at one of three critical points: Tolmino; Monte San Gabriele, and Monte Herada (see map).
The statutory massive bombardment began on 18th August. By dawn the next day the Italians had secured the river along the whole section and had thrown fourteen bridges across to transport men and equipment. Between Plava and Tolmino two divisions led by General Caviglia scaled the heights of the east bank and made a genuine breakthrough to the Bainsizza plateau. Reinforcements rushed through the gap and in a further three days had taken the ground between Monte Santo and Monte Gabriele. Twenty thousand Austrian prisoners had been taken. Steady but slowing progress was made so that by the twelfth day Cadorna's cavalry was poised to move on to the plateau. But the lengthening supply lines and difficult terrain stymied the cavalry (for the umpteenth time in WW1), and the Austrians held on to sufficient high defensive positions to halt the advance. After a short pause the terrible final phase of Isonzo 11 commenced. Cadorna focused his forces to grind their way along the San Gabriel ridge, a section of about one mile in length, guarding access across the Carso plain and, as a consequence, honeycombed with defensive positions. By 4th September the Italians had taken nearly all of the ridge. Both sides were now desperate. The Austrians rushed in more than thirty battalions to shore up the remaining positions and to launch counter-attacks. The bilateral slaughter continued until mid-September when Cadorna accepted that his famous breakthrough would not be sustained. This phase of the battle had cost over 150,000 casualties, and during 1917 his losses now were approaching three quarters of a million. On the 18th September he informed the Allies that his offensives were at an end.
With heavy irony so typical of WW1 the 11th Battle of the Isonzo reversed the strategy for the two protagonists. Cadorna's armies had been all but smashed on the anvil of mountainous defences, and his own position was precarious. He accepted, at last, the need for defensive positions to hold what he had.
|Boreovic - a superb|
The French and British leaders failed to appreciate the significance of this shift. Imagining that the Italian front would now go to sleep, they withdrew the reinforcements they had provided reluctantly for battles 10 and 11. In doing so they made their own contributions to one of the Allies biggest defeats in the whole of the war - Caporetto.