45: Life and Death on the Isonzo Pt. 2


With the planning and preparations out the way, the Italians begin their attacks on the Isonzo.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 45 and the second in our chronicle of the events on the Italian front in 1915. This week I would like to highlight the show’s Facebook page, I started a new series of posts on some of the sources used by the show that I will be posting to Facebook on a weekly basis. It goes up every Friday and it is a great time to discuss some of the best books out there to learn about the war. Last week we discussed a lot of setup information with how Italy got into the war, the leadership of Luigi Cadorna, and a description of the area in which they would be fighting. This episode we will start by discussing the overall plan for the Italians followed by looking at the first skirmishes in the area which occurred before all of the Italian troops came into the area. We will close the show with the First Battle of the Isonzo.

Before we talk about the Italians lets take one last look at the Austrian preparations in the area before the attacks began. The Austrians weren’t idle as the Italians began massing troops for the attack and the first decision, as we discussed last week, was to withdraw from the flatlands and to the higher ground behind. They also began to evacuate the villages and farms along the Isonzo river. This was more to make sure there wasn’t anything in the way of the defensive preparations and to prevent refugees from getting in the way and clogging roads vital to keeping the army going. They were able to evacuate the majority of the population at the points where the battle would be occuring but they crucially would not evacuate the village of Gorizia. They suggested that civilians evacuate the town but they did not force anybody to leave. This had happy effects early in the fighting, with it still being a functioning city with facilities like bars and restaurants, but it would later have some very sad effects that we won’t talk about until nexxt week. While the Austrians were moving civilians out they were moving more an dmore troops in. Right up until the beginning of the battle the Austrians were bringing in men and this included 5 divisions moved in from the Serbian front and 3 divisions brought in from the Carpathians. Their commanded General Boroevic wouldn’t arrive until the opening skirmishes had already started and his belief in absolute defense would be at its best right at the beginning when every foot was both not defended as well or attacked as strongly as would happen later in the war. In a bit of an interesting fact, when the fighting started the Italians believed that there were far more Austrians than there actually were, believing there to be 100,000 men when there were only 25,000. Later in May, right before the first attacks there were then more Austrians than the Italians believed with 200,000 Austrians manning the line. The Italian advantage would be strong though, being 4 to 1 along most of the front from the beginning of the attacks through the year.

The overall plan for the Italians was to advance against the Austrian positions around Trieste, the Austrians would chose to make the battle in the area around the Isonzo river. The primary targets were the towns of Trieste, which we don’t talk much about, and the town of Gorizia which will be central to all of the fighting on the Italian front during the war. It was necessary for a few other things to happen before the Italians could advance directly on their two primary objectives. On the northern flank they had to make some progress in pushing the Austrians out of the mountains and high passes. This was critical beccause it would prevent the Austrians from being able threaten the flank of any attack further to the south. Cadorna planned to have the 2nd Army complete these tasks before the primary attack was launched. There would in fact be several attacks in the north before the full forces were unleashed all of which we will discuss here in just a moment. Another area that would be attacked would be the Mrzli Range, the objective of the Italian 2nd Army. Capturing all of this area was important, but the most important was the southern end of the range which would be the one of direct threat to other attacks. In theory the second army would push through these mountainous areas and meet up on the other side with the Third army which would advance through Trieste and then turn north to meet them. Cadorna believed that these smaller early attacks would clear the way for his great offensive and make it nice and easy. In Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign author John MacDonald would summarize the Italian strategy as “Throughout the Isonzo campaign the Italian strategy could be summed up as ‘attack and advance’, whatever the situation” and it would playout in that way. In 1915 the only time we will discuss the Italians defending is from an Austrian counter attack to try and retake gains from an attack. Before we can get to those major attacks we have to talk about the first set of small attacks which would begin early in June 1915 with 7 divisions. They weren’t supposed to be massively successful, just enough to capture some jumping off points.

After the declaration of war the Italians slowly inched forward toward the front. They were very cautious because they weren’t for sure where the Austrians were. They reached the Isonzo river on May the 26th and once they reached the river they ran into their first problem. A shortage of proper bridging equipment meant that they couldn’t cross it right away and this problem wasn’t helped by the fact that the Austrians had flooded as much of the eastern river bottom as they could. Because of this, and the importance of the mountains, that the firsts skirmishes of the campaign were launched to the north as the Italian mountain troops engaged the Austrian defenders. The IV Corps of the Italian second army were the primary attackers in this region and during the first days of June they attacked against Mt. Krn and the Mrzli ridge. The Italians attacked again and again up the steep mountainsides gaining nothing but lengthy lists of casualties. They suffered heavy casualties day after day and by June the 4th they had run out of ammunition and had gained only a few hundred yards. They took a bit of a break to rearm and then on June the 16th they made another attempt, but this one would be very different. Six battalions of the Alpini scaled Mt. Krn at night to launch a surprise attack against the defenders. I can’t imagine trying to climb a mountain at night, but that is what they did. The Alpini charged the Austrian lines and overwhelmed the surprised defenders. At 5AM Mt. Krn, all 7,410 feet of it was firmly in Italian hands. This was a huge success for the Italians and they knew it. The leader of the assault group would receive the Gold Medal for Bravery, the highest Italian military commendation, it would however be given posthumously. 32 silver and 79 bronze medals for bravery would also be given to the troops in the attack. So much of Italy’s successes on the Isonzo front would be fleeting, lost in counter attacks soon after they were gained, but Mt. Krn would prove to be different. Taken during the early skirmishes, before the first real offensive, it would be kept in Italians hands for almost the entire duration of the war. Further to the south the Italian attacks were proving to be far less successful. The first effort was made around the village of Plava and a hill called Hill 383. This hill was the first major obstacle for the Italians and they really needed it to be captured so that the full offensive wouldn’t have to be hampered by it. It would soon take on another name to replace the rather bland Hill 383, the hill of death. The hill controlled the path to advance against the positions around Gorizia and while everyone knew of its importance when the first attacks came the Austrian defenders found themselves outnumbered 6 to 1. Throughout the entire day of June 11th the Italian attackers came forward and at 9:30PM their final attack, and largest, was launched. Yelling Avanti Savoia the Italians jumped out of their trenches and charged but the surviving Austrian machine guns caused havoc among the advancing troops. After an entire day of fighting the Italian troops were exhausted and couldn’t even make it to the Austrian lines on this last attempt. On June 12th there was not rest, 7 more times the Italians tried to take the Austrian lines and each time the waves got just a little closer, like the waves advancing up a beach, but they could never get close enough. The fighting died down for a few days until more troops were brought in and the attacks began anew on June 16th, with fresh troops manning the lines on both sides. While the Italians had never been able to fully capture the Austrian lines they had pushed the two sets of trenches very close together which made it difficult for the defenders who had to somehow whittle down the numbers faster and faster as the lines got closer and closer together. During the attacks on the 16th the Italians were able to, finally, reach the Austrian lines and push the defenders out in hand to hand combat. This was a great triumph that the Italians had been attacking for weeks to achieve, but unfortunately it would be short lived. The very next day on Jun 17th, early in the morning, the Austrian troops counter attacked and surprised the sleeping Italians. The Italians were pushed off of all of the gains that they had made. This would be the end of the preliminary attacks and the next time the Italians would be attacking it would be as part of the wider offensive. The official Italian history of the war calls these opening skirmishes “the first holocaust” and that is pretty accurate. The Italian history also says that there were 11,000 casualties from the attacks but most histories think that it is higher than this number. On the other side the Austrians suffered somewhere around 5,000. All of this fighting and dying and what would come to be known as the First Battle of the Isonzo hadn’t even started yet.

The plan for the First Battle of Isonzo will involve a lot of names that we have already talked about. Cadorna didn’t have all of his men ready for the first skirmishes but now he would, and he thought that it would make all of the difference. For what would become known as the first battle of the Isonzo the Italians would have 200,000 men, and they would outnumber their defenders by around 2 to 1. On June 21st the orders were given for the first attack, although the offensive wouldn’t start until June the 20th. The battle would have the unseized objectives of the earlier attacks added onto its objectives but it would also have some new ones as well. The main effort would be in the Gorizia sector against the hills and villages protecting the town. While Hill 383 was being attacked again these hills would be just as critical to the ongoing advance. There were a few early attacks planned against Hill 383 to try once again to take it before the primary attack, but the Italian commanders were aware that this may not occur and if Hill 383 was still in Austrian hands on the 30th maximum effort would be put into taking it on that day. The Third army to the south would attack between the Carso and Monfalcone. Mt. San Michele would be important during the first battle, and there would be many attacks against it, however it would not take on the critical important that it would in the second, third, and fourth battles of the Isonzo. Attacks against the four locations that I just outlined, Hill 383, Gorizia, the Carso, and Mt. San Michele will dominate every episode on the Italian front for pretty much the rest of the war, so get used to hearing their names. For my part, I’m just happy that they all have names that are so easy to say. Before the attack would begin though, there would be a massive week long artillery barrage that would hopefully soften up the Austrian defenses for the infantry to attack. The infantry that would then attack would not have been out of place in the early Western Front battles. They carried with them very few machine guns, no hand grenades, they didn’t have any trench mortars backing them up and when they did move forward they would be in densely packed groups of men just waiting to be hit by machine guns. On June 23rd the artillery barrage began nice and early in the morning. The Italians heavily shelled the Austrian positions, or at least in the vague direction of the Austrian positions. There wasn’t a huge emphasis put into bombarding specific targets in the defensive line. Part of this was simply the fact that the Italians didn’t know exactly where these targets were are part of it was because the Italians thought the shear weight of the artillery fire would be enough. The Austrian positions were hit a lot by the bombardment but the level of destruction of the defenses was pretty low. On June 24th the barrage was heavier all along the front than the day before and it started hitting one very specific target, the monastery on Mt. Santo. The basilica in the monastery was a Slovene national treasure and it held a portrait of the Virgin Mary that was important enough that people made pilgrimages to the monastery just to see it. When the shells started hitting the monastery the monks had to quickly evacuate, they were fortunately able to grab the portrait as well. By the end of the 24th the monastery was in ruins, which is sad given its age and cultural significance. For five more days the bombardment continued along the front but the Austrian infantry were usually safe in their positions although it did cause a critical lack of sleep and a shortage of food and supplies since it was difficult to bring them up to the front lines. When discussing long bombardments, which we will do a lot over the coming years, the lack of sleep and exhaustion factor of the defenders is an important aspect to keep in mind. During these long heavy bombardments it was sometimes difficult to get new troops up to the front lines to replace those under shellfire, and after a few days of being kept awake the soldier’s abilities began to naturally degrade.

Also on June 24th there were more attempts against Hill 383, 8 of them in total, over the next three days more attacks were launched against the hill, with no success. Every time the Italians would charge the hill they would be thrown back by the Austrians, a few times they even managed to get into the trenches and fight hand to hand with the defenders to no avail. This is how it got the name of the Hill of Death. After the main attack started on the 30th attacks against the hill would continue for the duration of the first battle. On June the 30th the main efforts of the 2nd and 3rd armies would be launched and in the north it meant that the Italians were once again trying to capture the Austrian positions on Mrzli Ridge. For two days before the attack there was rain in on the ridge and this meant that the normal steep dirt and rock slopes turned into a muddy slippery mess and just compounded the fact that the Italians were trying to attack up the hill against strong opposition. With all of these difficulties the Italian attacks on the ridge made little progress. The most ferocious fighting of the battle took place near Gorizia in a line of fighting that ran from Mt. Sabotino in the north through the villages of Oslavia and Podgora and ending on the Carso at Mt. San Michele. The commander of the defense of Gorizia was Major General Erwin Zeidler who made his career as an engineer in the Austro-Hungarian army. When he arrived at the front he had demanded, and got, the resources he needed to drastically strengthen the villages of Oslavia and Podgora, essentially turning them into fortresses. Under his command was the 58th division, made up of primarily Serbs and Croats. Zeidler and the 58th are given a lot of credit for maintaining the defense of Gorizia for the staggering 29 months that they were in the area. During that time the 4.5 mile stretch of line that the 58th defended would become one of the biggest obstacles for the Italians, even though it was often a very close run situation. One of the problems that the Austrians had was the fact that because of how the defensive line was situated it was imperative that they hold onto every single spot in the line, if even one major position fell it might result in the abandonment of the entire line. On the 30th the Italians moved into attack shortly after the artillery fire stopped and what they found was that the bombardment had barely touched anything and the machine gun positions in the villages were full operational. The Italians did a very good job in the attack though and managed to get into the villages of Oslavia and Podgora, but in the house to house fighting that ensued they were driven back. In the days of fighting to follow the Italians were never able to get back into the villages and had to eventually give up the attempt. The biggest reason for the failure in this area was the great work done on the defenses by the 58th division and the lack of damage done by the artillery bombardment.

One area that the Italians did have some success during the first battle was on the Carso, the area that would become so important to later attacks. The Italian 19th and 20th division were able to pus the Austrians back and get a foothold on Mt San Michele. San Michele isn’t a large mountain, just 250 meters at its highest, but with its position it provided the Austrians with a perfect point of observation and a well defended salient into the Italian lines. Positions on San Michele could easily rain down fire and death upon any Italian attacks nearby. If the Italians were not able to capture it any Italian attack in the future would be blunted by its position and influence. On July 1st the Italians tried to take care of the situation by pushing the Austrians off of it, unfortunately the first attacks didn’t go so well. In the White War Renato de Stolfo who was a junior officer at the time of the first battle is quoted as saying “In a whirl of death and glory, within a few moments, the epic Garibaldian style of warfare is crushed and consigned to the shadows of history!” Stolfo is referring to Giuseppe Garibaldi a general during the wars of Italian unification and its style of warfare. Over the next few days the Italians kept attacking San Michele and while in other areas this action generally just led to more casualties here it put more and more pressure on the defenders, too much pressure. On July 4th the Austrian commander reported that the situation was desperate and further Italian attacks were likely to push his troops off the top of the mountain. While further Italian attacks began to make good progress up the mountain they were never able to reach the summit, but the foothold that they did made on San Michele would set them up well for the next series of attacks during the Second battle. On July 5th, even though the men were exhausted, Cadorna ordered all of the attacks to continue and for 2 more days the same order would be given. After making very little progress during these days the offensive was finally called off on July 7th. The official Italian history says that there were 13,500 Italian casualties but most historians thing the number was probably more like 20,000 but I have also seen estimates that put that number even higher. Overall there is very little confidence in the official Italian accounts in the historian community. On the Austrian side the casualties were probably somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. A high portion of the casualties, when compared to other fronts, were wounded and not killed. This seems to be mostly due to those razor sharp rock fragments that we talked about last week that were shot everywhere by explosions. For all of these casualties on the Italian side very little had been gained. In the north and center nothing of great importance was captured and in the south where the line was pushed forward it was hardly enough to justify the effort. Cadorna refused to accept any blame for the failure and continued to believe that his plan was just fine and it was the generals and the men that just didn’t see it through with enough vigour and determination. It is because of this fact that the second battle will bear so many similarities to the first. But that is for the next episode. Next week we will have our third and last episode on the Italian front of the war for this year in which we will look at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th battles of the Isonzo. Thank you for listening and I hope everyone has a wonderful week.