44: Life and Death on the Isonzo Pt. 1


The Italians enter the war, this episode gives an overview of their military, their commander, and where they plan to fight.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 44. It is good to be back from my brief little summer vacation. I did a ton of research during the time off which should set things up well for the rest of the year. Also, because I have yet to really realize how bad I am at predicting things, there won’t just be 2 episodes on the Italian front like I predicted and instead 3 or 4, haven’t quite figured that out yet. That means there is a whole cascading effect on my schedule, but since you don’t know the exact schedule you probably won’t notice. I am mostly just putting this notice at the beginning of this episode that listener Brad knows that, while the Naval episodes will probably be delayed, they are coming, I promise. I would like to thank Edmund from Texas and William from Washington for their donations during the break. I burned through quite a bit of the donation fund for sources for both this year and the next in a bit of an Amazon shopping spree, which is always fun of course. So on the topic for today you may remember that we discussed Italy’s entry into the war way back in episode 23 and they would be one of the first new entries into the war after 1914 to make a big difference. We will start this episode by doing a brief refresher on how they ended up in the war followed by an introduction to the Italian military leader General Luigi Cadorna. We will then check in with the troops that they would be facing on the Isonzo by looking at what the Austrian leaders had been able to scrape together for their third front before digging into the area in which they would be fighting, where it was actually extremely difficult to dig. One of the sources for this episode is the White War by Mark Thompson who starts with a line that I think puts things into perspective nicely, “In Italy, the names Isonzo and Carso still resonate like the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli, or Stalingrad” and with that quote that hopefully gets everybody in the proper mind set, lets get going.

Italy had only become a kingdom in 1860 and wasn’t fully united until 1870 when the Kingdom was able to take over for the Pope in Rome. This was a big step for the Italian peninsula which hadn’t been fully united since the fall of Rome. Before Italy came into the war on May 20th they were a participant in a long series of events where both sides tried their best to woo them into the war on their side. These events were quarterbacked by Prime Minister Andtonio Salandra who could have went either way, depending on who gave the best deal. In the end it came down to the simple fact that the Allies were able to offer more to Italy than the Central Powers were. Italy wanted Austro-Hungarian land near the Julian Alps across the border from northeastern Italy. The Austro-Hungarian empire of course did not want to give them this land, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation. War was declared on may 20th 1915 on Austria-Hungary, but not Germany. It wouldn’t be for quite some time until Italy was officially at war with Germany, which I always find to be an interesting fact. On May 20th the Italian parliament ratified the declaration of war and it was officially on. Two days later that same body would give much greater powers to the executive branch of the government and the military. Giving them the ability to force any law concerning the ‘defense of the state, maintenance of public order, and the urgent needs of the national economy.’ That is obviously a pretty wide scope and it would set Italy up for one of the most powerful military leaders of any country during the war. The Italian leaders didn’t go into the war without at least some way to drum up support and to do this they tapped into a concept called “Italia Irrendenta” or “unredeemed Italy”. This was the movement within Italy that wanted to see the return of provinces in the norther that were currently under Austro-Hungarian occupation. These areas had large Italian speaking populations and many Italians felt that these areas belonged rightfully to Italy even though they had never been a part of the Kingdom of Italy. The areas were centered around the Adriatic port of Trieste and the area around the city. This was part of the larger movement early in the 20th century of ethnicities either being part of their own countries, as in the Balkans, or being returned to their “home countries” in the case of Trieste. From everything I have read the Italia Irrendenta played a similar role in Italian society as Alsace-Lorraine played in French society. It was an every present item that was constantly used by propaganda but after the initial onrush of the war it probably didn’t play a huge part in continuing support for the war. Another side benefit of the war for the Italian country was its use as a unifying factor. Just a few decades earlier the Italian peninsula had been the home of many different small countries and now they were all, at least on paper, unified. The Italian politicians saw the conscription of large numbers of men as a way to unify the regions. To accomplish this they setup a system where units were made up of troops from two different regions. These men were then combined and sent to a third region for training. I think this is very smart for a young nation to do, and was a smart way to try and get men from different areas to interact and foster a feeling of being unified.

Before we go any further in this episode it is imperative that we discuss the leader of the Italian army for most of the war, General Luigi Cadorna. Luigi Cadorna was born in 1850 and entered military academy at the age of 16. His father was Count Raffaele who had led an army that had tried to take Trieste from the Austrians during the Unification wars so there was a family legacy in the region. After the academy Luigi was slowly promoted, making Major General in 1898. When Cadorna became the Commado Supremo of the Italian army he would enjoy a huge amount of power, maybe even more than Joffre had in France. Cadorna was nominally, but not really, under the command of the Prime Minister or the King. He would enjoy this power until 1917 when the disaster at Caporetto would finally bring about his downfall. Through the two years of his command he would be stationed just 17 miles from the front, although he would almost never visit it, and would in fact give little thought to the situation at the front. When appointed as the commander Cadorna promised a rapid breakthrough and a swift victory. He thought his troops would easily break through the Austrian defenses in the mountains and march straight through the Ljublijana Gap, which led directly to the flatlands of Austria-Hungary and hence right to Vienna where the war would end. I will say that I am quite glad that I won’t have to say the Ljublijana Gap again, because that word is pretty hard to say. Cadorna planned to achieve these goals with attacks very similar to what was seen on all fronts in the opening months of the war. In 1888 he released a pamphlet that he called Frontal Attack and Tactical Training which he was quite proud of. In this little pamphlet can be seen his entire philosophy that he would put into place once the war started in 1914. Most of its content was non-revolutionary and shared by most of the Generals around the world at the time of its publication. It was very committed to the compact infantry offensive that would be seen often during the first few months of the war. The most relevant quote to what we will discuss over the next few weeks is this “The offensive is profitable and almost always possible, even against mountainous positions that appear to be impregnable, thanks to dead ground that permits (a) advance under cover, (b) deployment towards the flanks or weak points, unseen by the enemy.¹³ If the defender holds the crest, he will not see. If he descends to lower ground, his retreat will be very difficult. It is often possible to use diverse lines of fire, obtaining the participation of successive ranks in the attack.” Throughout all of the pamplet very little is said about the defensive or how to properly defend territory. Cadorna believed very strongly, just like so many others, that it was only the offensive that would win a war. In 1915 Cadorna would actually have 25,000 copies of this document printed up and distributed to his Italian officers. In what is quite the head scratcher and I can’t quite figure out how he thought this was correct, he made a few small changes to the document that claimed that the action no the Western Front in 1914 and early 1915 actually confirmed his beliefs instead of discounted them. Massed infantry without the aid of huge amounts of artillery would be sent right into the teeth of the defenders. It also wasn’t like he didn’t know what had happened in those attacks on the Western Front. Several Italian military attaches had sent back very detailed reports about the events on the Western Front since the start of the war but even with these evidence Cadorna was still confident that he troops would succeed where others had failed. All that Italian troops needed was enthusiasm and high morale and they would find victory. These beliefs would mean that Cadorna would continue ordering attack after attack again and again, in some ways they would end up being worse than those attacks we have discussed in the west so far. When things started to go wrong he would also share other supreme commanders penchant for firing leaders. During the 2 years of his command he would dismiss 217 generals, 255 colonels, and 355 battalion commanders. Quite the trail of dismissals in his wake. The absolute power and the method of his attacks would mean that Cadorna would be blamed for a large amount of the Italian failures after the war. I have poked through a lot of sources for these episodes on Italy and almost all of them are very negative on Cadorna. Almost all generals have detractors in the historian community but rarely have I seen them so adamant and repetitive in their criticisms as they are of Cadorna. Some of the best sources I have found on the action on the Italian front literally, and I mean that like literally literally not as in literally figuratively, pages on how horrible Cadorna was. I am personally inclined to in some ways agree with them, especially after the first few months of attack but when you look at Cadorna’s beliefs and actions they aren’t that much different than Joffre’s or Haig’s. They all kept attacking and attacking when in hindsight we can see they had no chance of success. The only difference was the terrain in which they fought, which made Cadorna’s attacks not just a failure to gain ground, but a failure to gain anything at all.

The tool that Cadorna was trying to accomplish his goals with was the Italian Army and it was a pretty tough spot in 1914. They had the weakest army of any of the great powers in Europe even though they had spent more money, percentage wise, than anybody else in the decade before the war they still were unable to overcome decades more of deficiencies since unification. The army had its roots in the army that had unified Italy, and primary part of which was the Army of the Kingdom of Savoy. Since that time they had faced many challenges that had sapped it of any real strength. Two of the primary reasons for this was a number of overseas adventures and a government that wasn’t very stable and strong in the early years of the country. Most of the army at the time of the war was made up of peasants from the southern areas of Italy and Sicily. These peasants were poorly paid and almost never got any extended leave to go back home. The families that they left behind also received very little help from the state to make up for the absence of the men. It is somewhat amazing that, given the circumstances, there wasn’t a wide ranging mutiny in the Italian army during the war. This was mostly thanks to Cadorna’s draconian disciplinary tactics that included, and I have this on multiple sources, decimation, the old Roman tradition of executing 1/10th of a unit that retreated from battle. The army as a whole was criminally undertrained and the officers were of a very low quality. The only exception to these rules were specialist units like the Alpini who were specially trained mountain troops who were equipped with the best weapons and equipment. The Italian army was some 875,000 strong when the war started but the equipment they had was in a sorry state. Tehre were just over 1,000 pieces of artillery, only 120 of which were of the heavy variety that was so critical. They also had a sum total of 618 machine guns. If the fighting lasted very long at all they would also very quickly run out of ammunition and other critical supplies. One interesting fact about the Italian army at the start of the war was the fact that there was a shortage of horses in the Italian Army, there just weren’t that many horses in the country in general for the army to use, so they were the first army in Europe to heavily use automobiles in a military capacity. Even with these mechanical means of moving around mobilization was scheduled to take 23 days and it would end up taking twice that long, not being completed until mid-July. During that time more conscripts would be brought in and their training would begin to be ready to replace any casualties, and they would come very soon. By the time Cadorna was ready to launch his first attacks he would have a million men in the north ready to take part in the attacks. They would even outnumbers their opponents 3 to 1 at the beginning of the campaign. Before we talk about what exactly Cadorna was planning to do with these men lets look at the men that they were facing them.

While the Italians were new to the war, the Austrians were grizzled veterans by this stage. They had been fighting a two front war for almost a year when Italy came in against them as well Austrian-Hungary was definitely in a bad spot when suddenly they had a third front to defend and the Polish and Serbian fronts were going away any time soon. Before the declaration of war the border was only held by a few local militia units, training battalions, border guards, and customs officers and they were roughly, very roughly, organized into two divisions. They had bene put under the command of a general who was charged with organizing some form of defense along the border and as the situation with Italy looked more and more towards war another division was sent in, and then another 3 as well. Although this front sucked manpower from the other fronts it wasn’t without at least some benefits. The threat of Italian invasion, and the betrayal of a former ally, was a morale boost for the troops in the area and for the nation as a whole. The ethnicities from within the empire that were not considered top of the line troops in other theaters would fight harder and with more dedication on the Isonzo than on any other front. For the Slovenes, Dalmations, and Bosnians who were fighting the Italians they were fighting for their very homelands. If the Italians were able to push through them they would find themselves living in Italian territory after the war. On the Italian front roughly 40 percent of the troops would be of Slavic descent and to command them was the highest ranking Yugoslav in the entirety of the Austro-Hungarian army, a Croatian general named Boroevic. Boroevic had entered cadet school at the age of 10 and before the war he was the commander of Croatia’s home guard. Before the fighting started Conrad had planned to let the Italians advance over the mountains before cutting them off and destroying them, but to make such an operation happen German troops were needed which Falkenhayn adamantly refused to give. This is part of the reason that Boroevic was given the command of the front because he had proven to be adept at the defense in the Carpathians against the Russians. On the Italian front Boroevic would be forced into a strictly defensive mindset and on his first day of command he would issue orders that would be the guiding principles of the defense for the campaign. All positions must be held to the last man, Commanders must allocate all manpower not needed in the front line to the sacred duty of adapting positions so that counter offensives could be launched, defenses had to include at least five rows of barbed wire, with the first row camoflaged, if the enemy broke through, the defenders must not panic but stay in their place while reserves moved up to contain and reverse the breach, an finally prisoners should be taken whenever possible, to gain information. Boroevic’s steadfast belief in not giving a single foot of ground to the enemy would have severe consequences for both sides once the fighting began. In his book Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War John R. Schindler would give these two bits on Boroevic’s method of defense “The essencce of Boroevic’s scheme “better a wiped-out battalion than a regiment shattered in a counterattack” was simple and deadly. It meant that units were to be kept in forward positions, without relief, until overwhelmed. " and " A survivor later recalled “a frightful, mathematically precise system, a mill that had to grind economically so as not to languish idle. But woe to the battalion caught between the stones.”” In the months after arriving at the front but before the Italians attacked the entire line was frantically fortified to meet the expected attack. Most of the defenses were completed in the norther and central parts of the line but as the line moved further south the defenses became less and less impressive. The Austrians also moved as many machine guns and pieces of artillery into place as they could. Over the first year they had learned an important lesson, at the cost of 2 million men, that it was these tools and not the raw determination of troops that won battles. The movement and work at the front didn’t stop until the first attacks were launched and during the period of time between when war was declared until the time of the first large attacks the number of defenders had more than doubled. The Austrians wouldn’t be defending right at the border though. They instead chose to make their stand on the first set of high ground that could be more easily defended.

The frontier on which the Austrian troops planned to make their stand put the Italians at a very distinct disadvantage. The territory around the Isonzo river stretched from Mt. Rombon in the north in the Julian Alps to the Adriatic sea 60 miles to the south. This stretch of land, this 60 miles, would be the location of almost all of the action between the Italian and Austrian troops. For the purposes of detailing the fighting, and this is pretty typical for all of the historical accounts of the acction, we will break the region into three distinct areas. In the north was the Julian Alps, the highest mountains in Europe, these mountains would prove to be far more formidable for the troops fighting in them than the Carpathians that we have already spent so much time in already. The tallest mountain of the range was Mt. Krn at 7410 feet but they averaged around 3,500 feet all of which were giant walls of grey limestone. So these aren’t just little hills, or even big hills, these are legit mountains in every sense of the word. The terrain would have sorely tested even the best mountaineers and even though the Italians did have some very good mountain troops, the Alpini that were recruited from the mountainous regions of Italy, they would find it difficult. The two brigades of Alpini that the Italians had at the beginning of the war were well trained, with top of the line equipment even their own mountain artillery to bring to bear against their enemies. Even these troops, maybe the perfect troops for the operation found it difficult to make any successful attacks across the sparsely covered mountains where the only cover was often the damp clinging mists. In the central region there were several plateaus, each having its own vertical walls and tops with rocky outcroppings. Just to the south of these plateaus was the Carso which we will spend a very large amount of time on over the coming episodes. I will just let Mark Thompson from his book The White War describe The Carso “The Carso figures in this story as a landscape, a battlefield, practically a character in its own right. It is a triangle of highland with vertices near the hill of San Michele in the north, Trieste in the south, and somewhere around the town of Vipava - deep inside Slovenia - in the east. To the south and east, it merges into the limestone ranges that reach into Slovenia and Croatia, and ultimately stretch all the way along the eastern Adriatic coast to Montenegro. In the north, it is bounded by the valley of the River Vipacco. It is from the west, however, that the Carso shows its most impressive aspect, at first like a bar of cloud on the horizon, then surging from the ground.” The Carso would prove to be an enormous natural fortress upon which the Italian armies would break. It wasn’t just the height of the Carso that was a problem either, but it was also crisscrossed by underground rivers, caves, and caverns which would be used in the defense. These features also drained the area of almost all of its water which meant that there was very little vegetation. The bleak rocky landscape that was left was almost impossible to dig trenches on, pneumatic drills had to be brought in as the only answer when trying to cut through the hard surface. In the early days it was all the troops could do to build a shallow trench and pile rocks in front of it. On the Carso shell bursts would also cause thousands of razor sharp rock splinters to shoot everywhere. A huge number of the casualties early in the war were due to head trauma from this flying shrapnel afterall, these were the days before steel helmets were the norm. The bleak terrain also caused more problems for both sides, there weren’t any rails or raods that led up to the front line and for the most part they were having to traverse mountains to bring material to the front. This meant that it was up to mule trains to traverse the area every night, the only time that they wouldn’t be destroyed by artillery, to try and keep the armies fed and fighting. It was in this environment, completely unsuited to any military action, that the two armies would fight for almost 3 years.

Next week we will begin by discussing what the armies planned to do in the area to both attack and defend before we jump head first into what will be the first, of 11, battles of the Isonzo. Yes, 11 battles named after the same river, so I will give you one guess as to how the first 10 went…