Category Archives: Italian Front

24 OCTOBER, 1917: This Plan Sucks

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) .

This one needs a map. Here’s a map.

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.

General Cadorna had a good view of the situation – but didn’t see it.

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.

The Italian retreat from Caporetto, not quite headlong but very miserable…

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.

14 MAY, 1917: One Track, Two Minds…

I seem to be running a little late – often a problem with world wars – so this may be a brief trip to northern Italy.  A hundred years ago, as the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo got underway, no trip to northern Italy could have been brief enough, because conditions for troops on the Italian front were at least as bad, and in many ways worse, than those on the Western Front.

All the familiar horrors of trench warfare were in place, replete with hideous ways to be killed, maimed or driven to madness, but the armies involved were poorly fed and equipped by Western Front standards. They were also required to fight in a less hospitable climate, sweltering through hot summers and freezing through Alpine winters, and if anything they were even more familiar with the role of cannon fodder than their Western Front counterparts.

Posterity’s classic image of warfare on the Western Front? Welcome to northern Italy, May 1917…

Through nine previous Italian assaults on Austro-Hungarian positions northwest of Venice, around the River Isonzo, and one major Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Trentino region, the only other part of the front line geographically suited to large-scale infantry attacks, nothing significant had been gained by either side in the theatre since the outbreak of hostilities two years earlier. Hundreds of thousands of lives had meanwhile been lost, and the launch of yet another Isonzo offensive on 14 May 1917 begs two obvious questions. Why hadn’t the leaders of Italy and Austria-Hungary bowed to the stalemate and ended the fight? And why hadn’t the Italian or Austro-Hungarian armies behaved like the Russian or French armies, and simply refused to fight?

The leadership question has some straightforward answers. The government and military leadership of Austria-Hungary did whatever the Germans wanted, or faced economic, military and political collapse, in that order and in short order. Germany wanted the Allies kept as busy as possible on as many fronts as possible while the Third Supreme Command pursued more creative ways to win the War, so the Austro-Hungarian Army remained in position on the north Italian frontier, diminished and dug in for defence but ready to fight any Italian advance.

The Italian position was little more complex, but not much. Italy had joined the War for gain, hoping to acquire the lands it was invading to the north and pick up a number of bonus territories promised by the Allies in return for joining their side in 1915.  Gain was still on the table if the Central Powers could be beaten, and with the USA due to shift the balance of military power some time relatively soon this was no time to let the Allies off the hook.  At the same time Italy couldn’t hope to maintain its military campaign, or indeed its socio-political stability, without Allied military and economic aid, so the Italian leadership generally tried to do whatever the British and French wanted. Most of Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s offensives so far had been conceived and timed in support of Allied attacks on the Western Front, and the latest was no exception, designed to draw German forces away from the Allied Nivelle Offensive in France.

The Nivelle Offensive was already grinding down to failure by the time Cadorna launched his attack, but you couldn’t really call off a major offensive during the First World War. Preparations had taken weeks if not months, such was the weight of manpower and equipment needed for 1917 conditions, and they could hardly take place in secret. With a lot of eggs in one very visible basket, sending them all back where they came from without a battle to show for it would be an invitation to the enemy to exploit yet more weeks of logistic upheaval.

It would also be a propaganda disaster, a major blow to the morale of civilians and troops that might destabilise a nation’s entire war effort. Fear of social and political breakdown, of mass refusal to fight and potential revolution, had been a factor in every European government’s approach to warfare since long before 1914. Almost three years of unproductive mass slaughter had only sharpened the fear, and by May 1917 the revolution in Russia had the fear digging into the psyche of every member of the elite classes in every belligerent country.

So cancelling the offensive at the last minute would have risked sending a potentially fatal shockwave through the Italian political system, but not just because Italian civilians or troops were sick of the slaughter (of course they were). Italian unity and morale were still being sustained by a fervent national desire for victory through military aggression. Since the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive a year earlier, which had briefly threatened to turn into a successful invasion of northern Italy, the young nation’s relatively simple greed for territory and glory had been overtaken by fear, anger and a desire for revenge on the battlefield that was obvious to anyone reading the Italian press. Even if the latest longshot on the Isonzo could have been called off, few people in Italy wanted it cancelled.

That pretty much deals with why Italian soldiers were still ready to fight, despite being prey to all the same socialist and pacifist agitation available to French or Russian troops. As for the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Italian Front, German influence and attachés undoubtedly played some part in keeping discipline fairly intact, but so did circumstances. When your troops are dug into secure and superior defensive positions, able to pick off attackers from height and distance, and in no danger of being ordered into an offensive of their own, they can probably think of better times to mutiny.

Austro-Hungarian troops, nicely perched on the high ground.

Fourteen Austro-Hungarian divisions were in position along the whole front in mid-May, but they were heavily outnumbered. Cadorna, always a master of logistics, had dug deep into dwindling Italian manpower reserves to muster 38 divisions and concentrate most of them for a breakthrough attempt along a 40km front running west from the coast. After a two-day preliminary bombardment of enemy lines, the infantry attack began on 14 May and at first swept all before it, driving the line back to within 15km of Trieste by the end of the month.

Just so you know…

The unfamiliar scent of victory soon faded away. Like so many breakthrough attempts on the Western and Eastern Fronts, this one couldn’t sustain momentum once it outstripped immediate contact with supply lines and supporting artillery. Austro-Hungarian forces concentrated for a counter-attack on 3 June that quickly pushed the stalled Italian offensive back to where it had started, and virtually all the ground gained had been lost by the time Cadorna called off the operation on 8 June.

The offensive had gained nothing at a cost of more than 150,000 Italian casualties (against about half as many Austro-Hungarian), and its failure triggered exactly the kind of reaction that its cancellation might have provoked. Disappointment fuelled a surge of popular fury at the government and high command, and the national unity promoted by fear of invasion began to fall apart.

Food and fuel had been in desperately short supply since the start of the year, particularly in major cities, while pacifist and socialist agitation had been feeding on Russian revolution and the winter’s failed peace initiatives. Now the bread queues began to riot and strikes began to mushroom out of control, reaching a climax in August when a worker’s uprising in Turin had to be put down by the Army. With Cadorna already scraping the manpower barrel in preparation for yet another attack on the Isonzo – intended to finish off the Austro-Hungarians while the Eastern Front was still keeping potential German reinforcements occupied – there was a logic to conscripting the uprising’s ringleaders, but the punishment’s most significant effect was to plant experienced agitators in military units already showing alarming signs of disaffection.

The tenth Isonzo offensive and its fallout offer a snapshot of how Italy was permanently maimed by the First World War. The nation’s pre-War thirst for adventure and glory may have been dangerously teenage (geopolitically speaking), but for good or ill it was sure of itself. During its first two years at war, failure in attacking an enemy, followed by the spectre of invasion and an another, even greater attacking failure, all accompanied by hunger, weariness, bereavement and fear, split what I’ll risk calling the Italian political personality.

Italian society had learned to turn on itself and play the blame game. It had rediscovered a swaggering unity in the face of shared danger, but had tumbled back into introversion after this latest failure. It would flip again before the end of the year; it would keep flipping in the aftermath of the War; and it’s fair to say that, pace Il Duce, it has been flipping ever since. Italy would somehow stumble through to the Armistice in one piece, but by 1917 it had already been permanently damaged, infected by a strain of War-induced volatility that still hasn’t gone away.

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

14 MAY, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!

First of all, apologies for the condition of Poppycock’s brain last week. Foreign travel, sport and associated misdemeanours left it addled and exhausted by the time it came to contemplate the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and with hindsight I’m not too impressed with its work. Ah well, at least a spell of feeble-minded lassitude sets the right tone for today’s foray into folly, because it’s time to check in on the shambles that was Austria-Hungary in 1916.

A century ago today, Austro-Hungarian forces launched their first offensive on the Italian Front.  Known as the Trentino Offensive, or sometimes as the Asiago Offensive, after the town near the centre of the heaviest fighting, it was planned by Austrian chief of staff Conrad, a man whose obsessive militarism and blind optimism made him one of the First World War’s great unsung villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy).  The operation was intended to fulfil his longstanding fantasy of cutting off the Italian armies that had been attacking Austrian positions further east, on the River Isonzo, since June 1915.  Here’s the theatre map, by way of a reminder.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915. 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo Front.
Action areas on the Italian Front: 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo.

Conrad was in some ways a very lucky commander. For one thing, he was still in his job after almost two years of expensive military failure, thanks largely to lack of serious competition in a command corps that had long since fossilised around an ageing Emperor’s courtly appointments.  What’s more, German support had saved the Empire from the immediate consequences of Conrad’s strategic and organisational blunders.  Most of these followed from an unshakable faith in launching offensives, followed by more offensives, regardless of his armies’ actual capacities at any given moment, backed by a fixed belief, based on no evidence obvious to anyone else, that each would bring total victory.

In spite of Conrad and the general inefficiency of Austro-Hungarian military action, German help meant the conquest of Serbia was complete by the spring of 1916, and an essentially positive position of stability had been achieved on the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile on the Italian Front, where Imperial forces had successfully defended their lines without German aid, the comprehensive failure of the latest Italian Isonzo Offensive, in March, brought a lull in the fighting.  This, at last, was a chance for the Empire to pause for much-needed recuperation, reorganisation and reinforcement.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s need for a pause was even more urgent than that of its theoretical peers.  Without the industrial strength in depth, infrastructural and bureaucratic organisation, national unity or autocratic leeway that, in various combinations, helped Germany, France, Britain and Russia respond to the demands of total war, Austria-Hungary (pictured below) had been in crisis when the War began and was in danger of disintegrating before it ended.

Austro_Hungary_1000

Quite apart from the territorial disputes with Russia, Serbia and Italy that took Vienna to war (not to mention a squabble between Hungary and Romania over part of Transylvania that would later extend it), the Empire had faced major internal problems in 1914. Separatist movements were gathering strength among the Empire’s Poles, Slovaks, Slavs and Czechs, while all was far from well between Austria and Hungary.  The Hungarian government opposed Vienna’s plans for military expansion, and was working to increase industrial Austria’s already considerable dependence on Hungarian agricultural produce.

These problems had temporarily evaporated amid the bellicose euphoria of August 1914, and the Empire’s ruling elites had, like their German counterparts, watched in happy amazement as a multiracial population (Bosnians aside) rushed to mobilise in a noisy display of national unity– but other weaknesses remained.

A clumsy bureaucracy and command structure, easily dominated from a faction-ridden centre, was no more equipped for the sudden demands of modern, industrial warfare than a supply system that evolved into something like the German model, but without the efficiency provided by Germany’s War Materials Department (the KRA). Run by and for Austria’s major landed and industrial interests, central associations formed to control individual resources and commodities unbalanced the impact of war on the economy, concentrating vast profits in a few hands while leaving small or medium-sized businesses out of the equation.

Meanwhile tension between Austria and Hungary mounted steadily as the War progressed from optimism through disappointment to stalemate and hardship.  A poor harvest in 1914, devastation of grain belts on the Eastern Front and Hungarian premier Count Tisza’s national approach to food resources had already combined to create food shortages in urban Austria by early 1915.  Later that year, Tisza ended customs union and restricted food exports to occasional surpluses, while Allied blockade began to stifle overseas imports and overland trade with Italy ceased – but the government in Vienna was never sufficiently organised to impose a centralised food policy or systematic rationing.

So by the time the Empire’s three fronts all went quiet in 1916, the civilian population was hungry and poor, the Army had been bled white and was short of supplies across the board, and cracks were starting to appear in the surprisingly durable loyalty of soldiers from ethnic groups, especially Slavs and Czechs.  Something needed to be done while the going was, if not good, at least steady – but it was entirely typical of Conrad that he treated the breathing space as an opportunity to fling every available unit into one more shot at the big time.  Letting him get on with it was equally characteristic of the regime he served.

Though refused German support for his offensive, because chief of staff Falkenhayn was still pouring everything he had into the mincing machine at Verdun, Conrad massed 18 divisions of troops and some 2,000 guns (including several gigantic Schlanke Emma howitzers) in the Trentino sector during early May.  Meanwhile the Italian chief of staff, General Cadorna, helped Conrad’s cause by sticking with his own offensive obsessions, ignoring obvious Austrian preparations, keeping most of his troops on the Isonzo sector, ordering them to maintain offensive positions, and ordering General Brussati’s relatively small Italian First Army in the Trentino area to do the same.

Austrian forces outnumbered their opponents 4-1 in men and guns when the attack began on 14 May.  Advancing down into the Trentino Valley along a 70km front, they forced the centre of the Italian line back 8km by 22 May, and two days later a renewed push drove Brussati’s central divisions another 10km south, beyond Asiago, which was evacuated on 29 May. By the static standards of the Italian Front this was startling progress, but the offensive, like so many during First World War, soon fell victim to its own success.

The Italian line had bulged but not broken, so the defenders’ internal communications remained intact, and northern Italy’s good railway system allowed Cadorna to rush 400,000 troops to the critical front during the next few days.  They brought Austrian advances to a halt on the plains south of Asiago, and casualties on both sides were mounting fast when, from 10 June, a major Russian offensive on the Eastern Front forced Conrad to start transferring troops away from the Trentino.

I’ll talk in detail about the Russian Brusilov Offensive another day, but for now it meant the end of Austrian ambitions in Italy.  With the Italians preparing strong counterattacks on the flanks of the new bulge (or ‘salient’), Conrad ordered theatre commander Archduke Eugen to withdraw to a line about 5km south of the offensive’s starting point.  There the front stabilised, leaving the Austro-Hungarian Army shorn of some 150,000 men, and the Italian Army about 147,000, for territorial returns that could only be called trivial.

The Offensive’s side effects were more momentous.  In Italy, the spectre of invasion sparked a public sense of crisis and urgency that brought down the Salandra government on 12 June, and forced an almost immediate resumption of offensive operations on the Isonzo in defiance of the Army’s debilitated condition.  For Vienna, the military consequences of Conrad’s cavalier optimism were terminal. The Austro-Hungarian Army went on to suffer huge losses to the Brusilov Offensive, and would never again mount an offensive of its own, on any front, relying on German command and reinforcement until the Armistice.

At best, Conrad’s Trentino Offensive was a desperate, long odds gamble; at worst it was a prime example of blind folly that cost 300,000 casualties, achieved nothing of value and further weakened an Empire that was already falling apart.  It might be going too far to suggest that, given a chance to rebuild its war effort in early 1916, Austria-Hungary might have survived, or even survived a little longer – but thanks to Conrad and his inert masters we’ll never know for sure.

This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.
This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.

21 MARCH, 1916: Sealed In Mud

Today’s centenary marks the high water mark, or maybe I mean the high mud mark, of a Russian offensive that Allied propaganda, always committed to accentuating the positive, named the Battle of Lake Naroch.  The first offensive action of the year on the Eastern Front, it differed from the half-baked attack on Bessarabia with which the Russian Army had ended 1915 (1 January, 1916: Pantomime Time) in that it was forced on the Russian high command rather than a product of its chronic strategic hiccups.  This is why.

By the old-style calendar of warfare, the world was entering the War’s fourth fighting season in the early spring of 1916.  For the geographically linked Central Powers, close military cooperation had been a necessity since 1914 and the only real change had been in the degree to which their most organised member, Germany, dictated strategy.  For the Allies, this season was supposed to be a first attempt at strategic coordination, as agreed at their Chantilly summit meeting in December, and sure enough they were cooperating – but not as planned, because their strategy was also being dictated by Germany.

German concentration on the Eastern Front in 1915 had inflicted major, if ultimately indecisive, defeats on the Russians during the summer, but hadn’t persuaded Allied commanders on the Western Front to bring forward their plans for autumn offensives. Understandably of the view that they’d been left high and dry, Russian delegates at Chantilly had pushed through an agreement for all the Allies to launch offensives if one of them was attacked. The German offensive at Verdun in late February triggered the agreement, and French c-in-c Joffre wasted no time calling in the IOUs.

Nothing anyone could say or do was going to make the British rush into their planned Western Front offensive around the Somme, but Joffre had more success with the standard Allied practice of bullying the Italians.  Though Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s army was in no fit state to attack anything after the unproductive attrition of 1915,  he launched yet another offensive on the Isonzo front (the fifth since the summer) on 12 March.

Aimed at the usual target – Gorizia, on the plateau north of Trieste – the fifth Battle of the Isonzo had barely begun before bad weather intervened, and it ground to a halt on 17 March without achieving any territorial gains or in any way diluting German strength in France.  Conditions would prevent major operations on the Italian Front for the next two months, by which time the Austro-Hungarians would be ready to launch their own attack in the Trentino region.

That left the Russians, hoist on their own petard and obliged to answer the French call for help with an offensive of their own – but in superficially good shape to make a strategic difference.  Russia’s military supply system, reorganised since the summer by the War Industries Committee, was at last providing the army with the guns and ammunition to match its surfeit of manpower.  Meanwhile German withdrawals to other fronts had left the Central Powers defending the theatre with just over a million troops, against the Russian Army’s 1.5 million.

Russian chief of staff General Alexeyev chose to attack where the manpower disparity was greatest – at the northern end of the front, in Lithuania, from positions east of Vilnius.  Along with a secondary advance on Vilnius from the northeast by General Kuropatkin’s Northern Army Group, the main thrust of the offensive was planned from east of the city, where General Smirnov’s Second Army was built up to 350,000 men and 1,000 big guns, against the 75,000 men and 400 guns of General Eichhorn’s German Tenth Army.  So far, so promising, and the offensive eventually opened with a preliminary bombardment on 18 March… at which point Russia’s reformed armaments programme fell foul of all the other things wrong with the Empire’s war effort.

Russian transport and communications systems remained primitive, slow and unreliable, not merely delaying offensive preparations but rendering tactical flexibility during large-scale operations almost impossible.  The high command running such operations, Stavka, was still under the personal control of the Tsar and barely fit for purpose, and though Alexeyev was able to exert some restraining influence on courtly factionalism it was never enough to enable a coherent strategy.   Alexeyev, appointed when the Tsar had taken personal command of Stavka in September 1915, was also part of the problem, obsessed with detail, unwilling to delegate even the smallest task and hampered in his work by a serious heart condition.

But though infrastructural weakness and strategic inefficiency delayed the offensive towards Vilnius, its fate was sealed by tactical incompetence.

The arrival of a lot more guns and ammunition hadn’t made the Russian Army much better at using them.  The rank and file was still very poorly trained – as demonstrated by the spectacular inaccuracy of the battle’s opening bombardment – while commanders were still trying and failing to master the German ‘breakthrough’ tactics of 1915.  When the infantry attack east of Vilnius began later on 18 March, 100,000 Russian troops under General Pleshkov massed along a 2km front for a concerted hammer blow against German positions – but were sent in without reconnaissance, adequate supply systems or reserves ready to exploit any breakthrough achieved.  The result was horrible.

Forewarned, and with closely bunched infantry marching into their sights, German artillery inflicted some 15,000 casualties in the first few hours of the advance, and though sheer weight of numbers took Pleshkov’s attackers beyond the first line of German trenches, they were never given support and soon driven back by counterattacks from either flank. The breakthrough attempt was repeated next day, and again on 21 March, but with the spring thaw in full swing both efforts quickly collapsed in a murderous mudbath.

Kuropatkin’s advance from the northeast, around Riga, also began on 21 March, but was halted a day later with 10,000 losses, while a planned attack by the northern wing of Smirnov’s army failed to happen at all.  The only small Russian success came to the south of Smirnov’s front on the same day, when a force under General Baluyev advanced a few kilometres along the shores of Lake Naroch in thick fog.

Attempts to extend the gains failed over the next few days, as did a couple more stabs at breakthrough by Pleshkov’s cannon fodder, after which both sides settled into a pattern of artillery duels until late April, when German counterattacks retook all the lost ground. By that time the offensive had cost the Russian Army 110,000 men against 20,000 German casualties.  No territory was gained, and no German forces were diverted to the front from elsewhere.

Apart from providing a comment on the fruits of hasty summit diplomacy, and forcing Russian generals to belatedly rethink their approach to breakthrough tactics, there was nothing very special about the Battle of Lake Naroch – but I wanted to talk about it anyway.  With the UK commemorative industry gearing up to dwell long and hard on the horrors of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front  (and presumably on the high-tech non-event of Jutland) it seems worth remembering that millions died in conditions every bit as gruesome, in battles every bit as pointless, on a massively important battlefront that is barely acknowledged by the confectioners of popular history.

hqdefault
Russian PoWs at Lake Naroch: the same stunned looks you see on survivors of France or Gallipoli, but cooler hats.

16 FEBRUARY, 1916: The Walrus In Winter

A month ago I mentioned that European weather in January 1916 was weirdly warm, but that exploiting it with any serious offensive action was beyond the military technology and orthodoxies of the day.  By mid-February, northern and western Europe were well into an almost equally extraordinary spell of wet weather, destined to last another week or so before a fall in temperatures signalled an unusually cold, wet March.  On the Western Front, where major offensives by both sides were still in preparation, weather conditions presented no more than a logistic nuisance – but soggy ground, mud and freezing cold were about to have their day in France and Belgium… and how.

So spare a small, forgiving thought for contemporary leaders when, amid the appalling carnage that took place on the Western Front in 1916,  the heritage lines get clogged with contemptuous dismissals of their idiocy.  Bad ideas, badly executed by bad generals were a problem by 1916, but commanders were not only dealing with a form of mechanised warfare that was still in the experimental stages, and working with unprecedented numbers of lightly trained, inexperienced troops, they were doing it under conditions created by one of the strangest winters in European history.

A little further south, on the alpine front between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, the weather was essentially normal for the time of year, that’s to say wintry, unpredictable and unsuited to fighting.  Both sides were still in recovery from the four fruitless offensives launched by the Italians in the Isonzo valley during 1915, but while Austro-Hungarian forces were being reinforced for a future attack on positions further west, in the Trentino region, Italian commander Cadorna was preparing his battered troops for yet another Isonzo assault.

Nobody has much good to say about General Cadorna’s long, ugly campaign on the Italian Front, and quite right too, but in February 1916 even he deserved some sympathy.  Italy had entered the War bent on territorial gain but in no economic condition to fight it, and was dependent from the start on Allied promises of military and economic aid.  Nine months on, with public and press criticism of the military campaign mounting and urban food shortages becoming serious, Allied aid had become critical to national survival but was delivered only on the condition that the Italian government did exactly as Britain and France asked.  In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, Italy had of course agreed that any Allied offensive should be supported by attacks on other fronts, so once Haig and Joffre had finalised their plans for offensives on the Western Front, Cadorna had no choice about mounting an attack. Given the requirement to do so quickly, he had little practical choice about its general location.

Elsewhere, the Eastern Front was still paralysed by winter, Salonika was inert, British plans for an advance into Palestine were still brewing, and the Mesopotamian campaign was locked around the siege of General Townshend’s troops in Kut.  In Africa, German Cameroon had just reached the end of the line, and in German East Africa a new South African commander, Jan Smuts, was preparing a major British offensive against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s resolute defence.  In other words, the First World War was under starters orders for the year… unless you were in Armenia.

When I last gave the Caucasian Front its due (15 August, 1915: No Silver Lining), it lay fallow while both sides were busy elsewhere – Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, Russian coping with German advances on the Eastern Front.  West of the front line, remaining Ottoman authorities then spent the latter part of 1915 attempting to wipe out the Armenian people, while on the eastern side Russian General Yudenich could only hold his positions until the high command provided sufficient reinforcements for an attack.  The vast improvement in Russian industrial output, as discussed back in June, meant that by the end of the year Yudenich had built up a force of some 300,000 troops, including reserves.  This outnumbered Ottoman forces at the front by at least three to one and Yudenich, aware that reinforcements were on their way from Gallipoli, chose to launch an offensive before they arrived.

On 10 January, in deep snow, Yudenich launched his advance into Armenia with preliminary attacks all along the front. Ottoman forces, most of them still in winter camp, were taken by surprise, and a week later the Russians broke through the lines at Köprukoy, inflicting some 25,000 casualties but failing to surround the rest of the Turkish Third Army, which retreated into the reputedly impregnable fortress city of Erzurum.

By the end of the month Russian forces had besieged Erzurum, and a century ago today, on 16 February 1916, the garrison surrendered, giving up some 13,000 prisoners and 350 (largely obsolete) artillery pieces.  Two days later, a secondary advance to the south took the town of Mus.  All this deserves a map, but as I’ve mentioned before the Internet is a little short on remotely comprehensible maps of the Caucasian Front, so this is the best I can do:

400px-Russian-Caucas-Front-1916
You’ll just have to work this one out for yourselves…

The fall of Erzurum and Mus ended the first phase of a genuinely successful campaign. Alone among senior Russian commanders at the time, Yudenich understood the concentration and reserve strength needed to achieve a breakthrough, knew how to take enemies by surprise and was open to innovation. Crucially, he also recognised the inherent dangers of over-extension that had been ruining grand offensive plans since 1914, and pursued strictly limited objectives. Better yet, because regional commander Grand Duke Nikolai was busy with factional intrigue in far off Tbilisi, Yudenich was left to get on with being a good general without interference from Stavka.

Having caught the Turks unawares and under strength, and broken through their lines, Yudenich made no attempt to exploit the victory by sweeping onward into the heart of Turkey, as the likes of Ludendorff would surely have done (and as British commanders in Palestine were hoping).  Instead he sprung another surprise by turning his armies northwest from 22 February, and using naval landings to occupy Black Sea coastal positions before taking Trabzon in April.

In the summer, Yudenich expanded his area of control with an attack west of Erzurum, advancing the front line some 150km and taking the town of Erzincan in late July.  The advance nipped most of a planned Turkish offensive in the bud, and although the Ottoman Second Army did advance at the southern end of the front to take Bitlis in August, Russian counterattacks had recovered all the lost ground by the end of the month.  At that point, aware that the theatre was of secondary importance to Stavka and unlikely to be heavily reinforced, Yudenich cashed in his chips and spent the rest of the year consolidating his gains.

The long-term strategic importance of the Erzurum Offensive is debatable, given that the collapse of both competing empires made it irrelevant to the political future of Armenia, but in the short term it did protect at least some of the region’s population from the further predations of genocide-inclined Ottoman officials.  Its main claim to fame, or at least to my interest, is that (with the qualification that it benefitted from some very poor defending by ill-equipped Ottoman forces) it can honestly be called efficient and successful, which is more than you can say for anything else attempted by the major powers since the autumn of 1914.

Yudenich was not the only general to have begun solving the offensive conundrum posed by the state of the military-technological world in early 1916.  Australian General Monash had, for instance, been learning similar lessons on a smaller scale in the cauldron of Gallipoli.  For now though, they were voices in the wilderness, drowned out by the sweeping strategies of leaders desperate to end the agony with one killer blow.  It would be another two years before the pragmatic good sense of their step-by-step approach to victory would find much general acceptance, and that, as history’s grim statistics record, was a terrible shame.

03 NOVEMBER, 1915: Plain Dumb

By late 1915, the military and political orthodoxies behind the War’s genesis were dead in the water, and nothing workable had been found to take their place.  For the major belligerents, strategic horizons were being widened and tactical systems sharpened… but one major European army was still living in the past, marching to the doomed drum of 1914 and suffering accordingly.  Today marks the centenary of a brief pause in the midst of that suffering, the day the Italian Army called a halt to what has been dignified as the Third Battle of the Isonzo.

I’m the first to remind people that the story of the First World War is more about the disastrous coincidence of global conflict and a particular moment in the history of technology, than it is about a worldwide epidemic of command stupidity.  But that’s not to deny that – as in every war, everywhere – some commanders were pretty dumb.

In some cases the very nature of the War could be held up as an excuse. General Hamilton in Gallipoli and General Nixon in Mesopotamia spring to mind as British examples of men raised far above their capabilities by the sheer scale of a conflict that forced armies to find literally hundreds of new generals.

In other cases – Joffre or Sir John French on the Western Front fit the bill – those considered the best in the trade turned out to be one-eyed, stubborn, incompetent or all three when faced with the new problems of modern warfare.  The man responsible for the Third Battle of the Isonzo, Italian Army chief of staff General Luigi Cadorna, falls into this category.

I’ve been over the bare essentials of the war on the Italian Front, so I’ll just repeat a couple of strictly relevant points. Italian forces had gone to war with a commitment to attack Austro-Hungarian positions in the alpine regions along Italy’s northeastern frontier. The only areas spacious enough to mount a large-scale attack were the valleys of the Trentino and Isonzo rivers, and neither offered promising conditions for an offensive.  Both were overlooked by well-established Austro-Hungarian defensive positions in the mountains, and the marshy, broken terrain of the Isonzo valley was particularly unsuitable for heavy equipment.

Unfortunately for the young men of Italy, the more easterly Isonzo was also the gateway to Trieste, the prize that put the gleam into Italian nationalist eyes in 1915. Given the optimism and confidence running rampant through Italian war preparations, Cadorna’s decision to focus his offensive operations on the coastal plain east of the Isonzo valley was understandable.  How he went about them was not.

The first two Italian attacks at the Isonzo, launched during the summer, had been excellent examples of Cadorna’s organisational skill, in that he got his armies into position and ready to attack with impressive speed, but also of his tactical limitations. As if a year of warfare in France had changed nothing, Italian infantry was committed to massed frontal attacks along a broad front with limited artillery support – and was cut down by well-prepared defenders, given a grandstand view of the preparations for every Italian move.

By the time he was ready to launch the third Isonzo offensive, in mid-October, Cadorna had learned to imitate the ‘breakthrough’ tactics of his Western Front counterparts, but only up to a point. With his usual logistic efficiency, he did concentrate about 1,200 big guns to support an attack towards Gorizia, some thirty kilometres northeast of Trieste, but he didn’t mass his troops against the single point intended for the breakthrough.  Instead, the main offensive was diluted by half a dozen secondary attacks elsewhere along the line, often against virtually impregnable positions.

Again able to watch Italian preparations from the high ground and deploy accordingly, Austro-Hungarian defenders inflicted heavy casualties and had lost no ground when Cadorna called off the offensive on 3 November.

Everybody can make mistakes, but Cadorna generally liked to make his twice. He waited only seven days before launching the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo, a slightly prolonged repeat of the Third that gained only a few kilometres of ground during three more weeks of gruelling combat. At that point Cadorna, having sacrificed around 115,000 troops on the altar of his blindness to well-known tactical realities, suspended major operations for the winter.

It almost goes without saying that, like Joffre in France, Cadorna compensated for blindness in one eye by fixing the other on the illusion of imminent victory, and that come the spring he would launch yet another doomed assault on the plain of the Isonzo, followed by another, and another…

To be fairer than the Italian high command deserves, the battles of autumn 1915 did cost the Austro-Hungarian Army more than 70,000 casualties it could ill-afford, prompting Vienna to ask for German help on the Italian Front.  Berlin agreed, and in theory this fulfilled one of Cadorna’s strategic aims: the diversion of German forces from other fronts. In practice even that small saving grace proved illusory.  The German high command didn’t actually send any help to the front until 1917, and when reinforcements finally arrived they very nearly knocked Italy out of the War.

Before I turn away from General Cadorna’s ghastly game of tactical catch-up, conceding that the War’s popular reputation does apply to at least  some high-profile donkeys, a trivial footnote:  the Third and Fourth Battles of the Isonzo are often (and quite understandably) lumped together as one, and that’s why sources disagree about the overall number of Isonzo battles.

7 JULY, 1915: Elephants and Mosquitoes

A hundred years ago today, the Italian Navy suffered its first significant wartime loss, when the large ‘armoured’ cruiser Amalfi went down in the northern Adriatic, killing about 150 of its 400-strong crew.

I mention this anniversary for two reasons. First of all, as I never tire of pointing out, big warships were the ultimate deterrent weapons of their day, and their failure to punch their weight was one of the great shocks to wartime military orthodoxy. It shouldn’t have been. Torpedoes and mines had been around for decades and were obviously a cheap, effective way of destroying even the most heavily armoured big ships – but as with (for instance) nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s, there came a point at which so much money, prestige and propaganda had been invested in battleships and big cruisers that it was easier for those at the top to bury their heads in the sand than admit such a colossal mistake.

All the world’s big navies were riddled with internal disputes about how to protect big ships, how to deploy them and whether it was worth deploying them at all, and the Italian Navy was no exception. Its main components were five modern dreadnoughts completed since 1912, eight pre-Dreadnought battleships, three modern light cruisers and 18 older ‘armoured’ cruisers, of which the Amalfi and her Pisa-class sisters were among the best. When Italian Navy chief of staff Admiral Revel ordered four Pisa-class cruisers to Venice, close to the main Austrian Navy base at Pola (modern Pula), he overrode opposition from those who thought the move too risky, including battlefleet commander Admiral Abruzzi. Admiral Cagni, commanding the cruisers, evidently shared Revel’s head-in-the-sand approach, because he took his ships on patrol with only minimal protection from small ships capable of hunting submarines or deterring torpedo boats.

Only two Italian torpedo boats were screening the Amalfi when she was sunk by single torpedo from a German U-boat sent to the Adriatic in pieces and rebuilt as the Austrian U-26, and an outraged Italian press was quick to blame both Cagni and Revel for the disaster. Revel learned his lesson. The three surviving cruisers remained virtually inactive in Venice until April 1916, when they scampered back to the relative safety of the southern Adriatic, reduced, like so many of their counterparts in other European navies, to a role defined by self-protection.

The Amalfi sinking also gives me a chance to mention a naval theatre of war that was small, deadly, essentially trivial and destined to be largely forgotten by the Anglophone heritage industry.

The Mediterranean as a whole was a crowded hotchpotch of competing navies in 1915, overlain and dominated by the large Royal Navy presence in the region – but the Adriatic was a straight fight between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Since the early years of the twentieth century both sides had been building up their naval strength without knowing if they would be enemies or allies. If Italy stuck with its Triple Alliance partners, the two fleets could combine to threaten Anglo-French dominance of the Mediterranean, and if Italy sided with the Entente they would be needed to fight each other.

Italy duly declared the War against Austria-Hungary in May 1915, and from that point the Austrian Navy was effectively bottled up in the Adriatic. Its only big base was at Pola, pretty much opposite the biggest Italian base in the northern Adriatic, at Venice, and its secondary bases along the eastern Adriatic coast were equally vulnerable to Italian attack. The Italians meanwhile kept most of their modern warships at Taranto, at the Adriatic’s southern tip, and stationed just enough vessels across what was known as the Otranto Barrage to dissuade the Austrians from a breakout that might influence other Mediterranean theatres. Here’s a map, borrowed and removable on request:

CGHtd60UYAAjqqo

Both sides opted for caution. The Austrians never attempted a breakout, despite German and Turkish requests for help in the Dardanelles and the Black Sea, and the Italians never attempted a major attack on any Austrian bases. Minefields prevented either side from committing major ships to direct support of troops on the Italian Front, and once the Amalfi‘s fate had illustrated the folly of boldness war in the northern Adriatic became a private affair between light naval forces.

Fought by light cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, minecraft, naval aircraft and submarines, including German U-boats operating under the Austrian flag out of Cattano (now the Montenegrin port of Kuta) because Italy and Germany were not officially at war, it was a ‘mosquito’ war of coastal raids and attacks on Entente supply lines to Serbia.  It would rage uninterrupted until late 1918, generating dash, derring-do and the destruction of several more big ships, providing both sides with plenty of colourful propaganda and making no strategic contribution to anything, except the parlous state of both wartime economies.  But it was still a war in what we now consider a relatively local holiday region, and it cost a lot of lives, so why ignore it?

9 JUNE, 1915: How Bad Can It Be?

Hindsight, the historian’s friend, tells me I’ve been sloppy about Italy in 1915.  On one hand, when discussing Italy’s passage from essentially pro-German neutrality to war against Austria-Hungary, I don’t think I made clear quite what a socioeconomic mess the country had become since the end of its war with Turkey in 1912. In 1915 the country was suffering supply shortages of everything from food to raw materials, beset by strikes and civil unrest, and experiencing falling living standards, particularly in the south and among the urban poor.

On the other hand, while stressing the loud enthusiasm for war of much Italian political and popular opinion, I didn’t give enough space to those opposed to it. Pacifist deputies had brought down the government in May, only to be overwhelmed by royal intervention, and once war had been declared opposition gathered around the Pope and a small but noisy group of socialist deputies in the Italian parliament.

Both points are worth making in the context of what was portrayed, a hundred years ago today, as Italy’s first important victory against Austro-Hungarian positions on its northeastern frontier – the capture of Monfalcone, a port near the mouth of the River Isonzo. The event’s apparent importance was propaganda nonsense, because the ‘victory’ had been a mere occupation, after the small Austrian garrison left to watch over the town had withdrawn in good order, and the small advance involved couldn’t be exploited further against more serious Austrian defences. Monfalcone was nevertheless a glimpse of things to come on the First World War’s latest battlefront, and an early indication that it would become yet another ghastly stalemate.

Let’s start with the basics. Italy went to war against Austria-Hungary (and not, at this stage, Germany) for the ‘lost provinces’ east of Venice that were then under Vienna’s control and are now part of Slovenia. Nothing much else interested the Italian government or people, and Anglo-French appeals for Italian help at Gallipoli and elsewhere fell on deaf ears. The Italian high command’s sole focus in June 1915 was its Treaty of London promise to launch an attack across the frontier with Austria-Hungary as soon as possible. Planning for the offensive was well underway by early June, and was conducted in a spirit of optimism that, even by the self-delusional standards of 1915, bordered on the criminal.

On the plus side for Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were along the frontier were outnumbered, and commitments on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts meant they were likely to stay that way. Everything else was on the minus side.

First, the frontier between Italy and Austria ran through the southern Alps, linking a series of inhospitable mountain passes and offering only two areas for large-scale military activity: in the Trentino region, where the frontier bulged south into flatter territory; and along the River Isonzo, where relatively open coastal areas led on to the lost provinces. An attack in either area called for a lot of complicated and slow-burning mountain warfare, but the Trentino was the more suited to mass infantry operations. Italian Chief of Staff Cadorna, sufficiently worried by pacifist opposition to keep his plans secret from politicians and public, plumped for the tougher Isonzo option in the hope of securing the optimists’ Holy Grail, aka the port of Trieste.

In case that hurt, here’s a map, nicked off the net and removed at the drop of a complaint.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915.  1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps.  3.  Isonzo Front.

Secondly, even if the high command had chosen the more practicable route of attack, the Italian economy and military were in no fit state to carry it out. Cadorna could raise men, and he was good at rapid concentration of large forces, but the Army was desperately short of food, uniforms, ammunition, modern rifles and machine-guns.  While defenders were equipped with plenty of modern artillery from Austria-Hungary’s well-developed arms industry, Italian attackers could muster a total of 700 artillery pieces, most of them antiquated relics from nineteenth-century wars. Italian air power was poorly developed, so that only its innovative Caproni heavy bomber was really fit for service in 1915, and though the well-equipped Italian Navy was modern and expensive, it never took more than a passive support role, harassing enemy supply lines and monitoring its Austrian counterpart in the Adriatic.

Finally, while the Austrian high command was content to defend the line against Italy until reinforcement was possible or German forces joined the battle, Cadorna was running on optimism, and his logistic capabilities were not matched by strategic or tactical gifts. Having a promised a quick attack, and despite the tactical warning posted when Italian troops tried and failed to move forward from Monfalcone, he prepared to confront well-equipped, dug in defenders on high ground with a half-baked version of the anyway disastrous ‘breakthrough’ tactics preferred by Joffre in France. Massed, concentrated infantry would assault Austrian positions on the Isonzo, but they’d have to do it without the benefit of an artillery bombardment.

With commendable dispatch, Cadorna would be ready to launch his attack on 23 June. It would fail, as would ten more offensives at the Isonzo before the autumn of 1917, when an Austro-German counterattack forced a temporary Italian collapse. Elsewhere the frontier soon settled into the pattern of stagnant, claustrophobic trench warfare already established on the Western and Gallipoli Fronts, punctuated in 1916 by a single, limited Austrian offensive in the Trentino.

In the end, a battlefront that was ill-suited to decisive military success, contested by one empire being bled to death on other fronts and one young nation that was economically, socially and psychologically ill-equipped for the fight, would cost both sides hundreds of thousands of men and do both a lot more harm than good. The fight was part of the process that killed off the Austrian Empire, and though Austrian disintegration eventually enabled Italy to seize the territories it craved, the country had by then been dragged to a level of civilian hardship, social unrest, regional separatism and political instability that left the door wide open for Mussolini’s tabloid solutions.

By way of justifying the existence of this catastrophic episode, it is often claimed that the campaign in Italy helped Britain and France by distracting enemy resources from the Western Front. Even that apology for an excuse doesn’t hold much water, given that Austria barely contributed to the war in France, that Germany didn’t commit troops to Italy until 1917 and that the War in the west went on for another three and a half years after the first Italian offensive. Whichever way look at it, the Italian Front was just one bad idea after another.