Category Archives: Italy

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 JANUARY, 1917: Back Door Man

If you thought 2016 was bad – and let’s face it most people did – cheer yourself up by imagining how ghastly the world looked at the end of 1916.  Feeling better?  Good, now get past the heritage notion that everyone running the world a century ago was stupid, and think about how a smart person like you, equipped with a hundred years of hindsight, might have changed things at the start of 1917.

It’s a tricky one.  You could take an extreme pacifist position and walk away at all costs, forcing peace for its own sake, but only by betraying every clarion call and sacrifice since 1914, and only by leaving the enmities of 1914 unresolved, primed to start another war.  This was morally and politically impossible for anyone in a position of power in any of the main belligerent nations.

Perhaps you could parley for peace, persuade the warring empires to swap compromises in the face of escalating slaughter and socio-economic mayhem – but both the German Chancellor and the President of the United States had just tried that, only to discover that neither side was ready or willing to give an inch.  Given that the Allies had framed their entire case for war as an outraged mission to save civilisation, and that only total victory could save the regime directing the Central Powers, you might as well forget about the spirit of compromise.

So you’re going to have to keep fighting this war, and aiming for final victory, but surely an intelligent, open-minded leader can find a quicker and less costly route to goal than the hideous attrition of the Western Front, or for that matter the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Well, the British and French have tried this before, only to land in trouble at Gallipoli and strategic quicksand at Salonika.  Meanwhile the British Empire, the only Allied state with any resources to spare elsewhere, is already busy fighting sideshow wars in the Middle East, in Africa and across the world’s oceans, and any day now the German Third Supreme Command is going to bet its collective shirt on the almighty short-cut of all-out submarine warfare.  In other words, you’ll struggle to find any viable new route to victory, let alone one you can get past the combined scepticism of military and political forces still fixated on the main European fronts.

Generations of intelligently applied hindsight have failed come up with a convincing alternative to the ‘keep marching to the light’ approach adopted by leadership on both sides during the second half of the War, so it’s no wonder that even the most creative British statesperson of modern times couldn’t crack the problem.  Newly installed as British Prime Minister, at the very peak of his political power and influence, David Lloyd George gave it a characteristically bold try, but by the time the Rome Conference of Allied leaders ended on 7 January 1917, he knew he had failed.

I’m a big fan of Lloyd George. I’m not planning to go into details here, but few people with his energy, pragmatism, vision, boldness and cunning get to achieve much in modern politics while keeping their ideals on the side of the angels. Despite a list of personal flaws to match his gifts, Lloyd George entered office on the back of a brilliant record as both a reformer of British society and its prime organiser for total war. Though the War years burned him out politically, and his career never fully recovered from association with the universally unloved post-War peace settlement, he was a fearless and confident figure throughout the conflict, and at the end of 1916 he was determined to force it to a swift, victorious conclusion.

Ruthlessly effective at streamlining government and bureaucracy to meet wartime needs, Lloyd George was equally adept at shaping press and popular opinion – but though his work on the home front established a platform upon which victory could be built, persuading the military to complete the task his way presented an altogether more formidable challenge.  Broadly speaking the Army, led by Chief of Staff Robertson and BEF commander Haig, was absolutely committed to maintaining maximum focus on the Western Front, and sure the War would be won or lost in France, while Lloyd George was equally sure that victory could be achieved more quickly and less painfully by attacking the Central Powers through a back door.

The trouble was, as mentioned earlier, most of the back doors had been tried and found locked, or at least extremely difficult to open, and though the prospect of an attack on the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire still beckoned in the Middle East, nobody expected it to defeat Germany.  Given the abject performance of Allied forces in Salonika, it was clear that nothing the British Army could do was likely to have much effect on the Eastern Front’s overall picture, and that left Lloyd George with few new options for lateral thinking except the unlikely scenario he came up with: an attack into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Italy.

In military terms, it wasn’t a great idea. Lloyd George wasn’t far wrong in thinking that Vienna’s empire was ripe for collapse, but the Italian Army was going to need a lot of reinforcement and the Italian Alps were still a blood-soaked nightmare for offensive operations. That didn’t stop Lloyd George suggesting the transfer of British and French heavy artillery to Italy within a week of taking office, and he took the idea further at a meeting of Anglo-French leaders on Boxing Day, when delegates accepted his proposal for a summit between the British, French and Italian high commands to discuss overall strategic priorities. Robertson and Haig were unimpressed, and were placing obstacles and objections in the path of any serious military aid to Italy within a matter of days. This was to be expected, but might be overcome if the combined weight of French and Italian opinion could be convinced to swing behind Lloyd George.

The summit convened as the Rome Conference on 5 January. Lloyd George asked delegates to consider increasing military aid to Russia and increasing the strength of Allied forces in Salonika. He also urged the development of joint offensive strategies on the Italian Front, supported by the transfer of Anglo-French artillery and infantry to the theatre. The Italian high command had no problem with the latter idea, and Italian Army c-in-c Cadorna agreed to mount a major offensive provided the Allies added at least 300 heavy guns to his artillery. At first the British and French military commands, neither of which had any official advance warning of the proposal, made it clear they had no guns or troops to spare for the Italian Front, but under pressure they agreed to loan the Italian Army some heavy artillery – only for the French to qualify the offer by insisting on the return of the guns by April. Cadorna pointed out, quite rightly, that Italy couldn’t possibly mount an offensive in the Alps before April, and the conference broke up on 7 January without any firm arrangements on the table, let alone agreed.

When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.
When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.

Lloyd George had been thwarted by the military on both sides of the Channel, had received no substantial support from the French government and, with a characteristic disregard for military realities, declared himself let down by Cadorna’s refusal of a bad offer. His battle against Robertson and Haig was far from over, and the rest of the year would see him manoeuvring to curb their control over strategic direction, but the cross-Channel military solidarity displayed at the Rome Conference set a pattern that precluded any fundamental change in military priorities. From the other perspective, Italian delegates at the Conference came away confirmed in their view that Britain and France were serious about wanting a major offensive into southern Austria-Hungary, but weren’t prepared to pay for it.

The Rome Conference was a failure, but is worth remembering as a nod to the largely forgotten efforts of those trying to alter the character of the First World War at what seemed its hour of deepest gloom. It also merits commemoration as the start of something, because despite Italian scepticism the Conference forced Anglo-French military leaders to at least examine the position on the Italian Front. New French c-in-c Nivelle visited the front in February; Robertson followed in March. What they saw convinced them that the Italian Army, operating far less sophisticated defence systems than those in use on the Western Front, might well need reinforcement, if not for an offensive then for credible defence against any major attack by Austrian or German forces. British and French commanders began formulating plans for the rapid transfer of guns and troops to Italy in the event of a crisis, and these would prove extremely valuable when crisis came the following autumn.

15 JUNE, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug

A month or so back (14 May 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), I wrote about the Austro-Hungarian Army’s Trentino Offensive on the Italian Front.  My focus then was on Austrian chief of staff Conrad’s fatally optimistic (and typical) decision to exploit respite elsewhere for one more grand attack rather than for the reconstruction and recovery the Austro-Hungarian war effort so desperately needed.  I did also mention that the initial success of the offensive – which had caught the Italian Army off guard and forced a retreat into Italian territory – triggered the resignation of Italy’s beleaguered Salandra government on 12 June.  Three days later, on 15 June, the appointment of veteran Liberal politician Paolo Boselli as prime minister of a new coalition reflected an extraordinary and ultimately momentous shift in the Italian political landscape.  Let’s talk about that.

Since the country’s formation in the 1860s, two decades of Fascism aside, Italian politics have been a byword for instability.  Coalition governments have come and gone with bewildering frequency, plagued by bipolar divisions between left- and right-wing factions, while the industrialised north and the agricultural, less developed south have behaved like separate, often mutually hostile nations. This familiar pattern had been reflected in furiously divided attitudes to the outbreak of war in August 1914, to Italian intervention on the Allied side the following May, and to subsequent Italian conduct of its war against Austria-Hungary.

By the spring of 1916, Italy was in the grip of rampant industrial unrest from the left, fuelled by the usual antagonism between those working or dying for a war and those profiting from it, while its government faced furious criticism from the right for its conduct of a war that had so far brought only repeated military failure and heavy casualties.  Food shortages in the north meanwhile bred resentment of the well-fed south, which in turn resented its loss of lives to a ‘northern’ war, and everyone was learning to resent Allied failure to provide the promised military or economic aid.  Basically, Italy was a cauldron of bickering discontent, still locked into a fundamental debate about its commitment to war… until Trentino.

Trentino transformed the popular and political mood in Italy.  The spectre of invasion shoved aside internal divisions, unleashing the one thing common to all strains of Italian political and popular thinking – patriotism – and with it an outburst of universal nationalism and belligerence comparable with the those in Britain, France or Germany at the height of war fever in August 1914.

Nationalism, as the twentieth century demonstrated to spine-chilling and murderous effect, can be a powerful and very dangerous force, apt to promote appalling human behaviour, catastrophic geopolitical chauvinism and chaotic socioeconomic chain reactions. First though, and usually by exploiting fear of a dangerous common enemy, it creates an understandably attractive illusion of national unity.  In the wake of Trentino the whole of Italy appeared united in determination to drive out the invader, and that noisy illusion brought Boselli to power.

A political ‘fixer’ in his mid-seventies,  Boselli’s career dated back to the national struggle for independence of the 1860s, and he had emerged from semi-retirement in August 1914 as a committed supporter of intervention alongside the Entente powers.  His strong association with both the war effort and the golden age of national unity made him an obvious candidate to replace Salandra, and maintenance of both were his priorities on entering office.

What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes... shame about the cabinet.
What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes… shame about the cabinet.

While the Italian Army was thrown into a sixth offensive on the River Isonzo, by way of satisfying the national thirst for action, Boselli attempted to seize the moment by appointing a large cabinet designed to keep all sides on board the unity bandwagon.  It included the leaders of the pro-War, moderate socialist faction (Bisoletti) and of the church party, along with staunchly pro-War interior minister Orlando, while the aggressively expansionist (and hugely unpopular) Sonnino, representing the extreme nationalism of the political right, kept his post as foreign minister.  It didn’t work.

The illusion of Italian national unity soon faded.  Under Boselli’s largely inert leadership, the cabinet turned into a cockpit for the usual disputes and the influential Sonnino retained effective control of a war effort that again lost momentum after failure of the sixth Isonzo offensive in August.  Italy’s war also remained subject to remote control by its allies, who demanded and got a belated declaration of war against Germany in August, a move that worsened the country’s economic woes and increased the danger of German intervention on the Italian Front.

Meanwhile left and centre political elements railed against Sonnino’s conduct of the war, the right blamed Boselli for failure to censor an increasingly hostile press or suppress a new wave of strikes, and the serious food shortages that followed 1916’s poor harvest fuelled rising popular discontent.   It is a measure of Italy’s rapid return to the political paralysis of internal conflict that the old man clung to office until a combination of economic chaos and military defeat finally saw him replaced by Orlando in October 1917.

On the surface, Boselli’s government changed nothing.  Italian politics and Italy’s conduct of the War staggered along the same old path with barely a pause to drink in the nectar of nationalist unity. But once experienced, the illusion of tribal togetherness against a common foe takes some shifting from the psyche, and while the fervour of August 1914 (or June 1916) could be absorbed into the political orthodoxies of long-established nations like Britain and France, it could warp the basic fabric of younger, less socially integrated or secure states like Germany or Italy.  Through the pain and disappointment of the next few years, to the end of the War and the peace that followed, Italian politics carried the imprint of June 1916, and recovery of national unity became a guiding principle for many Italians.

Boselli, who stayed alive until 1932, was a case in point.  He retained his parliamentary seat until 1921, when he moved to the upper house and took on the role of spokesman for a rising political leader whose brand of aggressive nationalism was designed to bind all Italians to a struggle against the rest of the world – Benito Mussolini.  Boselli was, as the world knows all too well, not alone.

So although there may not be much reason to commemorate Italy’s change of government a century ago, it seems to me we could do worse than pause to remember the mass psychology behind it, particularly at a time when nationalism’s illusions are poised to wreak havoc in Britain.

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.

AUGUST 20, 1915: Harbinger

Just a quick note to remind anybody not paying attention that, a hundred years ago today, Russian aircraft bombed the Topkaneh arsenal in Constantinople. So what? So the Russian Army Air Service performed most of the tasks carried out by First World War air forces with borrowed or inferior aircraft, and was generally more characterised by bravery that effectiveness, but it was way ahead of the rest of the world in one, dark aspect of aerial warfare. I’m talking about strategic heavy bombing, possibly the most gruesome of all the terrible legacies left us by the First World War, and a hideous blight on human history ever since.

While the western pioneers of powered flight were scrambling to design faster, more manoeuvrable single- or two-seaters for interception and ground support work, and while the theorists of heavy bombing as a war-winning strategy awaited machines capable of the task, one Russian engineer was producing bombers of the future by the time the War broke out. By 1915 the Russian Air Force was using them as fleets to deliver heavy, long-range attacks on enemy targets, setting an example to be followed by strategic bombing believers all the way to Hiroshima and ‘Shock and Awe’.

The designer in question was Igor Sikorski. A genius destined to become the greatest name in Russian aviation, he had built the world’s first four-engined aircraft, ‘Le Grand’, in 1913, and by the following February his improved ‘Ilya Mourometz’ model entered service as a passenger aircraft. Named after a mythical Russian hero, the IM was an astonishingly advanced machine, featuring twin tailfins and an enclosed cockpit, and when war broke out the Russian Army began ordering the ‘flying ships’ as bombers.

Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution halted production, a total of 73 IMs were built for the Russian Air Service, and they carried out more than four hundred heavy bombing missions, most of them against targets along the Eastern Front, in Germany or in Austria-Hungary. Heavily armed and reliable, they were steadily refined during the course of the War, so that later models could carry bomb loads of up to 700kg and featured a machine-gun turret in the tail. Thanks to their deadly array of well-positioned guns and because interceptors couldn’t fly through the backdraft from their four big engines, they proved almost impossible to shoot down. Only one IM was lost to enemy attack, along with two to mechanical failure, and they went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.

The raid on the Turkish arsenal was, like all Russian heavy bomber attacks, conducted on a relatively small scale using primitive bombs. It came on the same day that Italy belatedly declared war against the Ottoman Empire, a useful coincidence because you can’t talk about the early days of heavy bombing without mentioning Italy.

The theory that massed heavy bombing of its homeland would bring an enemy to its knees was pioneered by an Italian theorist, Douhet, and was well known throughout the West by 1914, but nobody had a Sikorski. By the later years of the War, two-and four-engined German, British, Italian and French designs would be able to deliver long-range attacks, using purpose-designed aerial bombs capable of causing serious damage to buildings and installations – but they were never available in sufficient numbers to carry out the kind of devastating attacks envisaged by strategic bombing theorists.

In any case, the theorists were never going to get their way.  Despite the enthusiasm of men like RFC commander Trenchard and his protégé, Harris, the barbaric practice of attacking civilians with vast amounts of ordnance was never seriously considered in the relatively civilised atmosphere of the First World War. That gruesome, doomed experiment would get fully underway in its aftermath.

30 JULY, 1915: A Voice from the Past

A century ago today, the papacy made one of its periodic efforts to change the course of history, when Pope Benedict XV sent a letter to the heads of all belligerent states appealing for peace and outlining the principles upon which it should be based. In truth this was a token gesture because nobody, including the Vatican, expected it to have any effect at all. It was duly ignored, subsequent efforts would meet the same fate, and it’s fair to say the papacy has been a powerless footnote in the face of warfare ever since.

So why bother mentioning the letter of 30 July 1915? Well, unaccustomed as I am to being nice about organised religion, it seems to me the papacy has been given a bit of a bad press by heritage commentators – or rather no press at all, so that its reputation around modern warfare rests on the much-deplored performance of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. Without for one moment suggesting that the Vatican was much use to a world engulfed by the ego-driven madness of secular states, its First World War incarnation does merit some sympathy and a pat on the back for trying.

The War had started badly for the papacy. The incumbent pontiff, Pius X, died on 20 August 1914, throwing the Vatican into the turmoil of a hasty selection process that saw Giacomo della Chiesa elected as Benedict XV on 3 September. A cardinal for only four months but regarded as an able diplomat, Benedict’s first attempt to act as a conduit for peace was a proposal for a general truce at Christmas 1914. Delivered at a moment when a direct appeal from God would probably have fallen on deaf ears, it met with predictable silence from all sides, and from early the following year the Vatican’s international influence was drastically undermined by its unavoidable attachment to Italy.

As pro-War factions took the ascendancy, papal peace mongering was viewed with increasing suspicion by the political class in Italy, and attitudes were hardened by Benedict’s role in promoting talks between Rome and Vienna aimed at avoiding war. When signing up to enter the War on the side of the Entente powers, the Italian government persuaded its new allies to agree, by a clause in the secret Treaty of London, to ignore any future peace proposals from the Vatican. Meanwhile in Germany, and above all in Protestant Prussia, the Pope was being denounced as a pawn of the Entente, his diplomatic approaches to Vienna dismissed as a cunning plan to weaken Germany’s alliance structure.

While repeatedly announcing its strict neutrality in the face of accusations from both sides, the Vatican could only perform minor charitable works for victims of the War, and make a show of fulfilling its global obligations to the faithful in the face of utter disdain from the Christian states at war. The letter of July 1915 functioned primarily as a reminder to neutral audiences that the Pope still wanted peace, and that the Vatican still refused to fall into either warring camp.

Two years down the line, with war-weariness on his side, Benedict would make a second, more concerted attempt to broker peace, but his proposals would again be brushed aside by European powers, and dismissed by US President Wilson as an endorsement of the pre-War status quo. Despite the Vatican’s claim to a major role in the post-War peace process the Pope would not receive an invitation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and Benedict would go on to issue several denunciations of the punitive Versailles Treaty in the years before his death in 1922.

So the big story about the Papacy during the First World War is that it never managed to become a big story, and the sub-plot tells us that, for once, failure to exert any significant influence over the dogs of war wasn’t the Vatican’s fault. Like so much else we dismiss as evidence of human and institutional culpability during the First World War, the papacy was trapped into impotence by the circumstances of the times.

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.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

Thanks to extraordinary military conditions, underpinned by equally unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals, a war that couldn’t possibly last for more than a few weeks was still raging out of control nine months later.  It seemed reasonable to assume – no, it was reasonable to assume that it couldn’t last much longer, so when the main belligerents contemplated their big moves in spring 1915 they did so in a spirit of military optimism.  Whether pouring resources into existing fronts, widening their military horizons to take in less direct routes to victory or experimenting with new weapons and tactics, strategists everywhere operated in the understandable belief that one big push in the right place must bring an end to the War’s unnatural life, and planned accordingly.

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the exception to the rule, Serbia, which had survived three invasions in 1914 but had been completely exhausted by the effort, and was still deep in the process of licking its wounds and reorganising what was left of its army.  Quite incapable of any aggression and surrounded by enemies intent on its demise, Serbia was focused only on survival.

Serbia’s most powerful enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wasn’t really focused at all.  Struggling to replace huge manpower losses during unsuccessful campaigns on two fronts, and facing a third on its Italian frontiers, the Empire was showing ominous signs of internal collapse.  As well as rising nationalist discontent among subject populations, especially Czechs and Slovaks, shambolic infrastructural management and Hungarian reluctance to share food supplies had left Vienna close to starvation.  Increasingly reliant on Germany to shore up its military position, and required to focus economic effort on its well-developed arms industry in accordance with German needs, the Austrian high command was nevertheless ignoring reality in favour of what might be called endgame optimism.  Having just abandoned a disastrous offensive in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front, Vienna was planning towards a renewed invasion of Serbia and offering support for further German offensives in the east.

At least Vienna planned to stick on good defensive positions against the Italians in the Alps. Italy, on the other hand, was preparing to ignore the depleted condition of its armed forces (after a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911–12), its desperate wartime supply shortages of everything from ammunition to food, and the tactical realities of alpine warfare to launch attack after costly attack on those positions. The Ottoman Empire, under attack in modern Iraq, at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus, was meanwhile facing internal breakdown of supplies and sliding into dependence on German aid, but was planning a new offensive in the Causasus and further attacks on depleted British positions around Suez.

A similar disdain for reality infected planners in St. Petersburg. Having held off the Austrian spring offensive in the Carpathians and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus, they could call on all the manpower they needed but precious little else, not least because Russia possessed none of the state mechanisms that enabled its western allies to wage ‘total war’.   Designed by a general staff (Stavka) specialised in factional squabbling, Russian strategy in spring 1915 lacked coherence, took a very long time to get from drawing board to action, and ignored any lessons from recent failures.  The result was scattergun optimism, with massed offensives planned for both the northern and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.  Forces were being slowly built up for these as May got underway, a process that depleted defences in the centre of the front and weakened Russian armies in the Caucasus, where the need for a defensive posture, though unavoidable in the short term, was seen as no more than a temporary delay on the road to Constantinople and the Mediterranean.

You couldn’t accuse the French war effort of lacking focus in 1915. A single-minded national commitment to victory on the Western Front was backed by an economy capable of delivering total war (at least for the time being), and fuelled by the conviction that enough firepower, properly concentrated and deployed with sufficient offensive spirit, would soon drive the enemy from the gates. This had been the basis of all French military thinking since the autumn of 1914, and nothing had changed by the following spring, so C-in-C Joffre and his staff were simply planning bigger, more concentrated and more dashing attacks all along the front line until the predicted ‘breakthrough’ came to pass.

The British believed in breakthrough and, despite minor tactical differences, were following the French lead on the Western Front, but Britain controlled enough resources to indulge in plenty of aggressive optimism elsewhere. While men and materiel were still being poured into France, the Royal Navy was pursuing victory through blockade, an ill-conceived, under-resourced and ill-led attempt at decisive intervention was stuttering towards disaster at Gallipoli, and British Indian forces in Mesopotamia were advancing into serious trouble on the long road to Baghdad.  All these, along with a fistful of minor campaigns all over the Empire, combined to disperse and dilute the British war effort, and none of them came close to unlocking the stalemate in 1915, but within twelve months the British would be at it again in Salonika and Palestine

Like most other belligerents, even Austria-Hungary, the British had a choice about dividing their resources, but Germany was stuck with it.  Both its principal allies were in constant and growing need of economic, military and technical support, and it faced enormous demand for resources in both the War’s principal theatres.  The spring season of 1915 presented the High Command with a genuine dilemma: should Germany seek all-out victory on the Western Front and merely hold its own on the Eastern Front, or vice versa?  Chief of staff Falkenhayn wanted to concentrate on the west, but the need to support Austria and Turkey on other fronts, along with the combination of extravagant promises and relentless propaganda coming from the Eastern Front command team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded him to take the less expensive option, a major offensive against depleted Russian defences along the central sector of the Eastern Front.

Eight German divisions were moved east from France and two were transferred south from the Carpathians.  Equipped to western Front standards, they became the Eleventh Army under General Mackensen.  Supported by eight Austro-Hungarian divisions, and preceded by a four-hour artillery bombardment far bigger than anything yet seen in the east, they attacked along the Gorlice-Tarnow sector of the front on 2 May.  Russian defenders, outnumbered six to one, desperately short of even the most basic equipment and denied reinforcements while offensives were prepared elsewhere, simply ran away.  By 10 May a chaotic Russian retreat, punctuated by feeble counterattacks, had fallen back to the River San with losses of more than 200,000 men, almost three-quarters of them as prisoners, and by early June the central section of the Russian line was retreating towards Lvov.  The offensive eventually halted to consider future strategy in the last week of June, by which time Austro-German forces had occupied all of Galicia, crossed the River Dneister, taken almost a quarter of a million prisoners and captured 224 big guns for a total loss of 90,000 men.

Gorlice-Tarnow was a German victory, no doubt about that, and on a scale that very nearly matched Ludendorff’s sales pitch, but it completely failed to achieve the prime objective of every major offensive conceived and carried out that spring because it didn’t end, shrink or even noticeably shorten the War.  Russia wasn’t knocked out of the fight, the two things it had lost in large measure – men and territory – were the things it could most afford to lose, and the main practical effect of the success was to extend Austro-German supply lines for further operations.

In failing to end the War, much of the season’s military endeavour was ruined by flawed planning, refusal to recognise reality or command incompetence, but even when the optimists of 1915 avoided all those pitfalls – as Gorlice-Tarnow did – their hopes were wrecked by a historical coincidence of military, technological and social conditions that rendered outright victory all but impossible. Deride First World War leaders for their efforts if you will, join me in condemning the egoists and fantasists among them, but they were dealing with a world that defied all contemporary logic in sustaining a conflict it lacked the technology to end.