Italy and the Great War: Death in the Snow
Posted on 27th February 2021
In all the slaughter of the Great War none appeared more senseless than the campaign waged by the Italian army on its north-eastern frontier against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a brutal and bloody affair that now viewed very much as a sideshow to the main event achieved virtually nothing. It was in the great tradition of wars down the ages a conflict that need ever have been fought.
Prior to the outbreak of war Italy had been a signatory along with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Triple Alliance but when hostilities began in August 1914, she wisely chose to remain neutral claiming the treaty had been designed only for defence and that Austria by issuing her ultimatum to Serbia had acted as the aggressor. Italy would, however, remain open to offers.
The Italian people remained largely ambivalent to the war but there was a vocal and influential minority of ultra-nationalists such as the poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio and the artist Filippo Marinetti who believing in the martial spirit of youth and the redemptive power of violence who enthusiastically advocated for Italian intervention. By October 1914, the Editor of the Socialist journal Avanti! Benito Mussolini, who had earlier towed the Party line and written that Italy should remain neutral, now also declared that she must be involved as a matter of national honour. He asked: “Do you want to be spectators in a great drama, or its fighters?” The Socialist Party removed him from his post as Editor.
The campaign for entry into the war also had considerable support within the Liberal Party in Parliament but most socialists and conservatives continued to oppose any involvement but the pro-war sentiments of the Prime Minister Alessandro Salandra and of King Victor Emmanuel III saw this majority count for little, however.
For many months Britain and France had been courting the Italians in the hope that she would open a second front on the Allies behalf in southern Europe. After long and often torturous negotiations on 26 April 1915, Italy signed the Treaty of London. In it they were promised considerable territorial gains in Istria, Trieste, the Austrian Tyrol, and Dalmatia, if it mobilised its armies in support of the Allies. Just under a month later, on 23 May 1915, to equal amounts of joy and trepidation, Italy declared war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was as Salandra put it – a matter of Sacred Egoism.
But Italy was ill-prepared for war especially on such an industrial scale. Certainly, it could put a lot of men in the field and even without conscription it was able to mobilise 36 Divisions and 875,000 men but it could provide only 120 modern artillery pieces for its entire army. In its rush to war the Government had given little thought as to how exactly they would supply the large force required to fight it.
Fortunately for the Italians its primary opponent the Austro-Hungarian Army had more than enough problems of their own. Threatened by a Russian Army 3,000,000 strong on their Eastern Frontier they were only ever able to field a limited force on their border with Italy where they were often outnumbered by as many as two to one. Their army was also made up of many different nationalities which not only provided it with a logistical nightmare but led some to doubt their loyalty. Nevertheless, they had occupied the high ground, were well entrenched and were supported by heavy guns.
The Italian Army was to be led by the 64-year-old General Luigi Cadorna, a brutal martinet of limited ability who still believed that in the age of the machine gun the full-frontal assault was still the best way to achieve victory. According to his blinkered mindset if this strategy failed it was no fault of his own but that of his troops who lacked fighting spirit. If this was indeed the case, then those troops would be punished and one out of every seventeen Italian soldiers would face disciplinary action at some time during the war. Cadorna also reintroduced the old Roman practice of decimation or the execution of every tenth man in a unit deemed to have failed in combat. Likewise, he would often order the execution of any Officer whose command had retreated contrary to orders and more than 750 Italian troops would be shot by their own side more than any other combatant in the war.
The area chosen for the Italian campaign would be the Soca Valley and the Isonzo River that runs through it from the Trenta Valley in modern day Slovenia to the Adriatic Sea at the north-eastern Italian town of Manfalcone. There would also be heavy fighting in the Alps and Dolomite Mountains in the region of Trentino and around the town of Bolzano.
Though the Isonzo River ran mostly through Austro-Hungarian territory it effectively formed the border between the two countries.
Mountains scarred the western and eastern sides of the border, but a narrow corridor ran between them through the Vipara Valley and it was this corridor that Cadorna pinpointed as the key that would unlock the door to victory.
As a proponent of the charge with bayonets fixed, he dreamed of penetrating the Austrian defences in overwhelming force, taking Ljubljana and sweeping on unopposed to Vienna. But there was little room to manoeuvre, and the restricted space permitted the Austrians to concentrate their forces and build formidable lines of defence. It was also not uncommon for the Isonzo River to flood not that this geographical anomaly deterred Cadorna from pursuing his chosen strategy with a blind almost obsessive determination; neither did the fact the Austrians held the high ground way above the valley below nestled in dug outs of rock and steel.
Determined to take the initiative the First Battle of the Isonzo began on 23 June 1915, barely a month after Italy’s entry into the war. Preparations had been made in haste, but her troops were enthusiastic and full of fighting spirit and attacking uphill they made a number of gains early on and almost took the town of Gorizia before finally being repulsed.
The battle had cost them 14,947 casualties but their short-lived success encouraged Cadorna to try again just over a week later. Yet again it was reported how well the Italian troops had fought but at the end there was little to show for the 43,000 casualties incurred less than those suffered by the Austrians defending entrenched positions indicating perhaps the hand-to-hand nature of the fighting and the level of its ferociousness.
The Second Battle of the Isonzo then had been fought with great courage on both sides but over the next three years there were to be ten more and at the end of it all the Austrians still held the high ground and the enthusiasm for war among the Italian troops began to wane as it became increasingly apparent that Cadorna had no alternative strategy to sacrificing men in ever greater numbers seeking to capture the same old objectives in the same old way.
Life at the front was also miserable in the extreme, the weather in the mountains was harsh and the troops were not only cold but suffered greatly from frostbite of which some 40,000 of them were to die. They were also frequently hungry due to problems of supply and there were always shortages of ammunition. The danger of avalanche was also a constant one and some 60,000 Italians were to lose their life to the so-called “White Death” including 20,000 over a two-day period in December, 1916. The rocky terrain also meant that the detonation of artillery shells invariably broke of shards of rock that acted as a particularly deadly form of shrapnel.
The harsh discipline imposed on the army by Cadorna also did much to undermine morale and the blame culture that prevailed every time an assault failed sapped the will to fight.
By the time of the 11th Battle of the Isonzo on 18 August 1917, both sides were exhausted but the attack went ahead nonetheless in the same old way and with the same old results – 148,000 Italian casualties, 105,000 Austrians with little gained by either side. But unknown to the Italians the Austrian Army was indeed close to breaking point. One more assault might well have achieved the breakthrough they had so long sought but the Italians too were overstretched and their centre dangerously weak and strung out.
The Austrians, meanwhile, had been forced to go to their allies the Germans for assistance.
With morale low and close to starvation the Germans quickly realised how near the Austrian Army was to disarray and being made to abandon its positions. They took effective command of operations, and they also took the initiative. The 12th and final Battle of the Isonzo was to be the only major Austrian advance on the Italian front and it nearly turned out to be the decisive one. The Battle of Caporetto as it is also known began on 24 October 1917.
Following a, short but well targeted artillery barrage and the extensive use of poison gas trained German Infiltration Units armed with flame-throwers and hand-grenades tore holes in the Italian lines which were quickly exploited by the mass of the Austrian Army following close behind. Despite both flanks of the Italian line holding its ground the centre collapsed completely and General von Below’s German troops advanced an astonishing 16 miles in a single day.
Ignoring repeated requests to do so Cadorna refused to permit an orderly withdrawal of his forces, and it wasn’t until 30 October that he finally relented by which time what could have been a retreat had become a rout. It was also clear that he had made no provision for such a contingency and that there were no reserves with which to plug the gap. His neglect had left the Italian Army close to meltdown.
Over the three weeks of the Caporetto campaign the German and Austrian Armies advanced more than 63 miles and got to within 20 miles of Venice. The Italians had lost only 11,000 men killed but more than 265,000 had surrendered and many of these had laid down their arms willingly and greeted their captors as liberators even singing the German National Anthem. Tens of thousands of others simply fled the front, deserted the army and went home.
Estimates put the Italian losses as high as 400,000 and they also lost 3,000 artillery pieces, 3,000 machine guns, and 2,000 mortars. The Italian soldier after almost three years of meaningless slaughter had simply had enough.
Panic swept the country and Cadorna was replaced by the more pragmatic and less brutal General Armando Diaz who with the assistance of French and British troops was able to stabilise the line along the natural barrier of the River Piave. The Germans and Austrians made repeated attempts to break the line unable but were to do so.
The Battle of Caporetto was a national humiliation for Italy but it also served as a rallying cry. The Italian people who had come so close to defeat at last rallied behind the war effort and with British and French troops now involved they would no longer be expected to fight on their own.
Having only been a unified State since 1871 many Italians felt a greater loyalty to their region or town than they did to their country and so had never embraced a war they felt had been forced upon them and there is much uncensored correspondence that indicates how many Italians just wanted their sons to desert the front and come home. Many farmers also hoarded food and hid their livestock where possible to try and prevent it being requisitioned for military purposes.
The relentless and seemingly pointless attacks on the Isonzo Front and the ever increasing casualty lists posted in every town served only to sap morale even further but the scale of the defeat at Caporetto,and the threat the enemy now posed to Venice and the very integrity of an independent Italy was in large part to change all this. The Italians realising, they were in a life and death struggle at last they began to get behind the war effort.
But it wasn’t all bad news, the war at sea at least went better for the Italians; Though there were no major naval engagements between the Italian and Austrian fleets, both having effectively bottled each other up in the Adriatic, it nonetheless set the stage for acts of great daring and drama.
On 10 June 1918, the Austrian Dreadnought Szent Istvan was sent to the bottom following an attack by Italian Motor Torpedo Boats, an incident dramatically captured on newsreel. Five months later, on 1 November, two Italian frogmen Rafaelle Rossetti and Rafaelle Paolucci attached mines in Pola Harbour to the Battleship Viribus Unitus and the Coastal Defence Vessel Wien, sinking both. Rossetti and Paolucci became national heroes and even if such acts of courage had little strategic value, they did serve to distract the Italian people from the relentless slaughter in the north. It did as they say, read well in the papers.
Under General Diaz the attacks on the Isonzo ceased and the harsh code of discipline imposed by Cadorna relaxed as over time the morale of the troops was restored. Now with the Allies advancing on the Western Front it was time to take the initiative once more and so plans were laid to attack the main concentration of Austrian forces around the town of Vittorio Veneto.
The battle began on 24 October 1918 and for four days the fighting was as intense as ever and little progress was made but the Austro-Hungarian Empire was already beginning to disintegrate from within. On 28 October, the Czechs declared their independence, the following day the South Slavs did the same. On 30 October, Hungary abandoned its Union with Austria. It was as if there was nothing left to fight for and on 3 November, without warning, the entire Austrian Army laid down its arms.
They had lost 35,000 men in those final frantic few days of fighting and more than 300,000 others now went into Italian captivity. So, after years of interminable attrition, countless advances and retreats and endless casualties for the cost just 5,500 troops killed and wounded the Austro-Hungarian Empire had not only been defeated it had ceased to exist – the humiliation of Caporetto had been avenged.
The Austro-Hungarian Army had paid a high price in defeat but Italy no less so in victory with 620,000 of its young men killed and a further 947,000 wounded for the sake of Sacred Egoism. Many civilians had also been killed and the economy had been brought close to collapse. Yet the rewards were minimal. At the post-war Versailles Conference, they received few of the territorial gains they had been promised, most of them going to the newly-created South Slav State of Yugoslavia. Indeed, both ignored and humiliated the Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando was reduced to tears and forced to abandon the Conference in a state of some distress with the “mutilated peace” as it was known becoming a valuable tool which the Far-Right in Italy used to discredit liberal democracy.
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