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.