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.

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