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because the ‘victory’ had been a mere occupation, after the small Austrian garrison left to watch over the town had withdrawn in good order, and the small advance involved couldn’t be exploited further against more serious Austrian defences.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.

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