Category Archives: Italian Front

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:

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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.