When the First World War got started everybody knew it couldn’t last long, because the social and economic effort required to fight a war with the massed armies simply couldn’t be sustained for more than a few weeks, even by the world’s richest and powerful empires. The only person of any military or political significance to doubt this blindingly obvious truth in the late summer of 1914 was British war minister Lord Kitchener, who insisted the war would last for years and cost millions of lives but never explained his views. Given that Kitchener generally gave off an air of enigmatic mysticism, the more normal movers and shakers felt he could be safely ignored.
We know now that the normal people got it wrong. Military stalemate spurred every nation at war, and in particular the great empires at the conflict’s heart, to previously unimagined levels of industrialisation and organisation that extended their military lifespan beyond anything thought possible in 1914. The stresses created by their extraordinary responses to the demands of total war eventually helped destroy the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, permanently diminished the British and French, and wrecked Italy’s self-conscious attempt to join the ranks of what were, until 1914, known as the ‘great powers’.
The strategists guiding them were well aware that the War’s big European players were running their systems too hot, and the repeated failure of military efforts to conjure any kind of decisive victory during 1915 reduced them to the desperate resort of attrition. Effectively a gamble that the enemy’s war effort would crumble first, war of attrition depended on the efforts of Europe’s two strongest and most industrial economies, Germany and Britain.
Although France was just about capable of surviving the hothouse into 1917, the bloodletting at Verdun had confirmed its inability to win a war of attrition against Germany on its own, while neither Russia nor Italy possessed the economic infrastructure to fight one with more than simple manpower. All three relied on military and economic aid from Britain’s (once bottomless) well of money and goods, and on Britain to make attrition work.
By late 1916 Berlin’s principal allies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, were only able to fight at all because Germany’s astonishing economy was continuing to provide large-scale military and industrial support. The Third Supreme Command had come to power well aware that a strategy of attrition depended entirely on Germany, and convinced it was doomed to failure. From the moment the it chose to provoke US involvement by launching an all-out U-boat offensive, attrition was no longer an option for Germany, but it looked like a guaranteed winner for the Allies, albeit in the medium-to-long term and far too late save the Russian Empire, once the US had entered the War in April 1917.
During the summer of 1917 it became clear to both sides that submarines were not going to knock Britain out of the fight anytime soon. While the British could choose to keep piling into the Western Front, this time around Ypres, in the knowledge that even if Haig’s big offensive failed attrition was on their side, Germany was now in desperate need of a new game-changer. Ultimately, only a sweeping victory in France would do the trick, but the only hopes of that lay in distraction at least some Allied strength from the Western Front as a preamble to concentrating all German and Austro-Hungarian strength in the theatre.
The most likely theatre to attract large-scale military aid from Britain and France was the Italian Front. Italy had been promised substantial Allied reinforcement in the event of a crisis, and after more than two years of almost continuous warfare – most of it unsuccessful, all of it attritional – the Italian war effort appeared volatile and fragile enough to collapse in the face of a major military setback. Unfortunately from Germany’s point of view the Italian Army’s immediate opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Army, was in grave anger of collapse in its own right, in no condition to mount an offensive and only notionally in a position to plan one.
The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Baron Arz von Straussenberg, had replaced the appalling Conrad the previous March, but had little actual influence over the course of the War. He functioned as a personal advisor to the earnest, reformist young Kaiser Karl, taking instructions rather than formulating policy, and had little say in the dispositions of Austro-Hungarian armies controlled from Berlin through German military advisors. He kept himself strategically occupied wit proposals to Berlin for joint operations in Italy, and had no more success than his predecessor until mid-September. Aware that Austrian positions on the Isonzo had barely survived Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s eleventh offensive in the sector – which was only just slowing to a halt – the Third Supreme Command finally said yes, and committed German forces to an attack on the Italian Front.
The attack was launched a century ago today, and is known as either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Caporetto Offensive. Like so many efficiently conceived and executed German offensive operations in a war defined by victory’s mirage, this one began with a flourish and promised the Earth but couldn’t quite deliver.
The Austrians had proposed a repeat of their 1916 near miss in the Trentino valley, but were overruled by German planners, who prepared a limited offensive intended to buy the Austro-Hungarian Army a breathing space for reconstruction. Nine Austrian divisions were reinforced by six German divisions drawn from General von Hutier’s highly successful army around Riga, to form the German Fourteenth Army. Commanded by General Otto von Bülow – not the Karl von Bülow who messed up the invasion of France in 1914 –it concentrated against a lightly defended 25km stretch of the Italian line north of Gorizia, in front of the town of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) .
Well informed of German movements by spies and deserters, Cadorna and the Italian high command reacted to the long-feared news that the Germans were finally coming to the theatre by suspending all offensive operations on the Isonzo – but no attempt was made to take up superior defensive positions in preparation for an attack. Italian armies merely stopped where they were and adopted a generally defensive posture.
While history has never doubted that this was a mistake, explaining it has been harder. Cadorna probably underestimated German strength and overestimated the fighting capability of his exhausted troops. He also seems to have assumed that Italian numerical superiority over the whole front (41 divisions against 35) provided sufficient protection against attack, and ignored the fact that enemy concentration had left Italian forces heavily outnumbered in the Caporetto area. Defensive preparations weren’t helped when the commander of the Caporetto sector, an inveterate maverick by the name of General Luigi Capello, ignored orders to withdraw his artillery to safe positions across the river and instead deployed his best units for an attack on Bülow’s east flank.
If the Italians were ill-prepared to meet attack, they certainly weren’t ready for General Hutier’s new ‘infiltration tactics’ (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire). The main German advance in the centre of the position took Italian defenders by surprise on the morning of 24 October, broke through the lines almost immediately and had stormed forward some 25km by the end of day. Secondary attacks on either flank were held off by defenders, as was an Austro-Hungarian attempt to push south from positions near the coast, but the collapse at the centre threatened to leave the majority of Capello’s army cut off at the River Tagliamento.
Capello wanted to retreat at the end of the first day, but Cadorna ordered counterattacks in the centre. They lasted for another six days, and although they failed to block the central gap they did give most Italian troops time to get back across the Tagliamento. German attempts to take a bridgehead beyond the river began on 2 November, prompting Cadorna to order a further retreat to the fast-flowing River Piave, less than 30km north of Venice.
By the time the retreat was complete, on 10 November, the shock of defeat had reverberated around Western Europe. The somewhat inert liberal government of Paolo Boselli, in power in Italy since June 1916 and already under pressure as the economy lurched into crisis, was voted out of office on 25 October. New premier Vittorio Orlando, the former interior minister, wasted no time appealing to Britain and France for emergency help, meeting British PM Lloyd George and French premier Painlevé at the north-west Italian port of Rapallo on 5 November.
In line with contingency plans laid out during the spring, Italy’s allies agreed to reverse the recall of heavy artillery lent from the Western Front for Cadorna’s last Italian offensive, and to provide substantial ground and air reinforcements to help stabilise the Italian line at the Piave. Rapallo also saw the dismissal of Cadorna – on 7 November, at the insistence of the Allies – and creation of the Supreme War Council, originally comprising (as its military representatives) new Italian c-in-c General Diaz, French General Foch and British General Wilson. Established as a means of curtailing the independence of Italian field commanders, and as such a classic case of shutting the stable door, the Council would eventually mature into a fully unified Allied military command, led by Foch.
Six French and five British divisions from the Western Front reached the Italian front line in early December, but by then the Austro-German offensive had run out of steam. An attack by two Austrian armies in the Trentino area had opened on 12 November, but was short on reserves and made little progress. Further east, attacks between the upper Piave and the River Brenta resumed on 13 November, but were held off during five days of heavy fighting. The battle dragged on into late December, with attacks steadily diminishing in scale, before bad weather and the withdrawal of German units from the theatre halted major operations for the winter.
Although the German high command had orchestrated a stunning victory, it had lacked the resources to complete the job, and had exhausted the last offensive gasp of an enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Army, which would never again mount a successful offensive. In strategic terms, the transfer of Allied troops from France could be called a minor German success, but in the end it made much less difference to the balance of power on the Western Front than it did on the Italian.
The Italian Army lost 300,000 men at Caporetto, all but 30,000 of them as prisoners, as well as most of its artillery, but it survived and would be strengthened from now on by Allied involvement in the theatre, which brought both a continuous stream of reinforcements and a major reorganisation programme. What’s more the threat of invasion silenced the rising crescendo of popular pacifism in Italy, as public opinion reacted as it had done at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive in 1916, uniting behind the government and military in time of national crisis. So the Third Supreme Command’s best-laid plans, intended to knock Italy out of the conflict, had instead breathed new life into a failing Italian war effort.
If there’s a point to this story it’s that even the most careful plans for war – about its size, its length or its strategic direction, not to mention its tactical details and aftermaths – are never much more than blind guesswork. History, particularly heritage history, inevitably draws on the rationalisations of participants to give war a coherent narrative, to make its outcomes look planned, but war is always a time of chaos and none of the plans has ever worked.