46: Life and Death on the Isonzo Pt. 3


The first attacks failed, but the Italians would try again.Learn more about your ad choices.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 46. This week I would like to thank Ryan for his donation this week. I would also like to thank everybody that is sharing and liking my posts to Facebook. Every like is basically a shot of joy for me. This week marks our third episode on the Italian front and we will talk about the Second Battle of the Isonzo for almost the entire episode before looking at a bit of the lead up to the third battle. The Italians had begun their attacks with huge amounts of hope and optimism. This optimism was on all levels of the Italian army from the commanders all the way down to the front line troops. Now, after the failures of First Isonzo this hope turned into grim determination on the part of the troops, and a thought process bordering on dillusional for the Italian commanders.

At the beginning of July there was a meeting of allied commanders in France, every country of the alliance was represented including Italy, represented by Cadorna. The goal of the meeting was to try and coordinate some operations to help out the Russians. If you remember the timeline this is right at the moment when the Germans and Austrians are really starting to put the screws down on the Russians in Poland and as such they needed all the help that they could get. The conference concluded with Cadorna travelling back to Italy, ready to launch more attacks, confident that these would be the ones to succeed. While Cadorna was spoiling for another fight the troops he was commanding were far less so. The space between the first and second battle was just 111 days and during that time the Italians units had been frantically absorbing reinforcements to make good on their previous losses and also spending every free moment improving their positions in any way they could. The one thing is shortest supply was rest. Cadorna pinpointed July 18th is the day on which he would launch his second attack and the plan that he would use was very similar to the the plan used for the first attack. One of the big changes for the second attack was for Cadorna to demand a more vigorous attack from the commanders and troops on the front line which I am sure was very comforting to the units that had lost so many men in the first attack. They had OBVIOUSLY been lazy, cowardly, and feeble for the first attacks so they better really pick it up this time. Now, there was a change made for this attack and that was a change in focus. The first battle had been focused on Gorizia but the second battle would have the Austrian positions on the Carso and on the slopes of Mt. San Michele as their primary focus. Cadorna realized after the first attack that Mt. San Michele and the northern side of the Carso were an impediment to any further attacks against Gorizia and it was because of this that the Thirrd Army would focus most of its strength on an attack against the two objectives. There would still be fighitng further to the north of course, the second army would attack against Mrzli Ridge, Hill 383, and Mt. Sabotino but they would be a sideshow for this attack. Cadorna always tried to attack on a wide front which, much like for the French in the west, rarely accomplished anything except pile up casualties during the secondary attacks. The Italians had 18 divisions and 900 guns ready for the attack and the Austrians had just 9 divisions and 431 guns, so still a very solid 2 to 1 advantage for the Italians. For their part the Austrians knew what was coming and were improving their trenches as best as they could during the break. When they weren’t trying to break their way through the rocky ground they spent as much time as possible resting and I am sure it was one of those situations where the number 2 item on the men’s wishlist, after going back home, was to somehow develop the ability to bottle sleep so that it could be consumed later, which it would be sorely needed.

While researching this episode I found a few good accounts of the fighting during the second battle and while they were given by troops fighting near the Mrzli ridge in the north they apply to the front as a whole so I thought I might showcase them at the beginning so that you can keep them in mind as we move through the fighting. The first if from Captain Abel who was one of the defenders “There is no escaping the heat. Tongues swell, coated with thick saliva. Fingers swell and dangle clumsily from sticky hands. Eyes inflamed, skin like parchment. The blinding light beats everywhere, penetrating our eyelids. Our flasks are empty, sucked dry by early morning.” The heat is something I haven’t spent much time discussing on this front, but it was a serious problem for the troops and could continue to be for all of the summer months of fighting. The second quote is from an Italian officer who was part of an attack up a mountain to try and reach the top and the Austrian trenches. IN this quote he discusses what happened to the men who actually managed to reach the wire. “They reach the wire through a hail of bullets, overtaking the wire-cutters who go down like ninepins. In desperation, the captain’s party tries to tear out the pegs that pin the stands of wire to the ground. It cannot be done. They try to hack through the wire with little hatchets, but the wire is too thick. Others have caught up by now, and men are dying all around.” The only way that the officer survived was by finding cover and waiting for nightfall so that they could retreat. These type of experiences were had by both sides all along the front. So while we talk about the days and days of fighting that follow remember the fact that they were suffering from the thirst and heat of high summer on the mountains where there wasn’t a bit of shade to be found to shade themselves from the sun. We begin our actual discussion of the battle in the north on the Mrzli where the Austrians were actually able to make quick progress during the opening attacks, even capturing the Austrian front line. This trench, nicknamed Big Trench, was a very well built series of defenses that were difficult to take and should have been easy to defend. After they were captured the Italian troops, or what was left of them were determined to hold it against all counter attacks but the Austrians had other plans. Instead of focusing on the front line the Austrian artillery instead created a curtain of steel behind the front that kept the weary Italians from receiving any reinforcements or supplies. And this meant that the troops that were left did they very best, but they were eventually pushed out by the Austrians in vicious hand to hand combat. It would be a very long time before they were able to make it back to that trench.

As I mentioned earlier the primary focus of the attack was in the south and here, on the Carso, the artillery opened fire at 4AM on July 18th. Almost all of the guns available to the third army were focused on Mt. San Michele and the surrounding area. This time the guns weren’t just firing erratically as they did in the first battle, instead, using information they had gained during the first attack, they were able to pinpoint and focus their fire on Austrian strongpoints. Unlike during the first attacks this bombardment managed to do some serious damage to several key positions. One regimental history on the Austrian side would say “the gigantic, hard-pounding hammering of thousands of shells, which no words on God’s earth can express.” All of this while thousands of rock fragments, like a never ending series of grenades, flew everywhere. In front of my right now I have 4 different sources on this battle and all four give a different time for when the infantry went over to the attack on the Carso. One of them says 11AM, two of them say 1PM , and one of them says 2PM so I am not sure exactly which one is correct but one thing is for certain whenever the barrage stopped the Italian troops rose from their trenches and charged in their densely packed formations with bayonets fixed and glistening in front of them. What was left of the Austrian machine guns began tearing gaping holes in their lines but still they came on. Throughout the afternoon and evening of the 18th they charged again and again. Sometimes they would falter in the middle of the lines, sometimes they would reach the Austrian lines and engage in hand to hand combat, but even with all of their bravery and skill the Italians were also thrown back to their starting point by the end of the effort. By the end of the day’s attacks the gains on the Carso were limited. On the 19th they would try again, launching yet more attacks. This time they were able to push the Austrian defenders, who had been defending against the larger Italian forces for over 24 hours, off of Hill 143. After so many hours of defending their hill the Austrian 20th division refused to let it go without a fight and they launched a determined counter attack. Unfortunately for the 20th they ran right into a pre-planned Italian artillery barrage, which had been scheduled to proceed another Italian attack. Caught in the open, completely exposed to the rain of shells, the 20th division was nearly annihilated. They had come into the battle on the 19th with 6,000 men and just 2 days later, after their disastrous attack, they were just 2,000 strong. On July 22nd another attack was launched by the 20th, and this time they came back with just 1,200. The men of the 20th had reached the end of their strength and could not attack any further. All of this action has been happening on the Carso, but now we will look at the attacks that had been going on at the same time against Mt. San Michele, on the far north of The Carso. It was here that the fate of the battle was truly at stake.

Sometimes they second battle of Isonzo is called the Battle of San Michele, that is how important it is to this battle. I won’t be calling it that, since every battle seems to have at least some action on San Michele and it would through off the entire naming scheme of the battles. When the attacks were launched they found some success right at the beginning. By early afternoon on the 19th of July the fighting reached the bottom slopes of the mountain. In Isonzo AUTHOR describes the fighting as “disorganized, more a series of close encounters between small units of attackers and defenders than a coherent struggle.” All that really mattered, regardless of how organized or not the attack was that the Italians were able to reach the summit. At 5:30PM on July 19th they took possession of, and fully secured the top of the mountain. The Austrians found themselves 300 feet below them on the eastern side of the mountain. This was quite the role reversal and now it would be the Austrians attacking uphill against the Italians, something that wouldn’t happen very often during 1915. From the their positions they could now see all the way to Gorizia, and the Austrian defenses in between, and then they could also see the same far to the south across the Carso. It was plain to see the importance of these positions and Cadorna quickly sent in 2 divisions during the night to reinforce the troops at the top. These were the last reserves that Cadorna had available to him at that moment, but the position was worth it. He also began the process of freeing up other units as well, just in case they were needed. On the Austrian side, Boroevic knew that the position had to be retaken, and retaken soon before the reinforcing Italians would arrive, but he had exactly no reserves to send to help, all he could do was hope that the troops on the spot could complete the attack successfully. Every gun the Austrians could find was pointed toward the mountain and at 2AM they began to fire on the mountain, a barrage that lasted just an hour. The troops that were sent in to attack were the men of the 12th Mountain Brigade and as they charged up the hill they could have no idea how many more times they would be in this exact position in the coming week. They reached the Italian lines and fought hand to hand with the Italian defenders. Unfortunately for the Italians the reinforcements that Cadorna had sent had not yet fully arrived and for the briefest of moments the Austrians found themselves with the numerical advantage. For 2 hours the fighting raged at the top of the hill, back and forth and a close run situations. This was to be one of the defining moments of the first year of fighting, not that the troops knew it at the time. If the Italians had been able to hang on, if the 12th mountain had failed, everything could have turned out so differently. As it was, by 5AM the Italians had been pushed off the top and the Austrians were back in control. The Italians were pushed all the way back to their original positions. If the Austrian attackers had been any stronger there is a real possibility it would have turned into a route. Instead, given the weakness of the 12th they were forced to just take the top of the mountain and allow the Italians to retreat back to their lines in good order. After the retreat from the top of the mountain both sides on the Carso and on San Michele would take a brief break from the fighting. It wouldn’t last very long but after 5 days of constant fighting it was welcomed by the men of both sides. On the 24th of July Cadorna found some more troops and renewed the attack on San Michele. Cadorna was still perfectly confident that the next effort would bring his men to victory and 2 divisions were sent up the mountain again, early in the morning of July 25th. At 9:30 they moved up the mountain and were again able to take the top of the hill. The intense bombardment by the Italians had made it impossible for the Austrians to hold on. More Italians reached the top this time, but there were also no reinforcements to send, they were on their own. The only troops that the Austrians had was the 12th Mountain, who were called upon yet again to make the attack. At noon on the 26th they charged up the mountain and again they were able to beat the Italians back in hand to hand combat. The 12th Mountain, true heroes that they were, then held the mountain for two more days as the Italians continued to launch attack after attack. Each attack though lacked just a bit of the ferocity of the attack before it. During this time the Italians were able to capture Hill 118 to the south of San Michele, but this was a small consolation for losing the mountain. By the 29th the heat and lack of supplies were getting to the men on both sides. These problems coupled with the losses meant that neither side was able to continue the attack on a large scale. Smaller actions would continue all the way until August 7th before Cadorna officially called them off, ending the Second Battle of the Isonzo. Both sides had lost a lot of men, both around 50,000. The numbers are, as always, a bit fuzzy but it is possible that it is this battle that is the only one where the Austrians lost more men than the Italians. When you consider how many fewer troops the Austrians had, you realize that by percentage they were extremely weak after the battle ended. Both sides the loses were felt the hardest in the officer corps. Bravely leading their men on attack and counter attacks the officers of both sides made up a very high proportion of the casualties relative to their numbers. Overall the Italians gained very little in terms of real gains from the attacks, mainly just Hill 118. Since the beginning the Italians had now accrued loses equal to 1/20th of their numbers since the start of the war. Fortunately for everybody on both sides, it would be almost 2 months before the next major attack was launched.

After the second failure of the second battle Cadorna did not plan for his army to sit idle for the rest of the war and he would spend the rest of the summer planning and preparing for his next offensive. He did however realize that he would have to wait at least a little bit. His first concern wasn’t the situation for the men but instead their munitions and equipment. Cadorna wanted more heavy artillery and more shells for the guns he did have. He had guns brought in from coastal fortifications and anywhere else he could find them and also found more machine guns to give to the troops. During this time a few Western front innovations also found their way into Italians hands, trench mortars and grenades first among them. For ammunition, Italy’s manufacturing couldn’t even come close to getting to the numbers that Cadorna wanted, and supplies from other countries weren’t coming in fast enough, because of this reason Cadorna actually planned to wait longer for the third offensive than what would end up happening. There were some outside influences that would end up forcing his hand and moving him to attack soon. The first pressure was directly from Rome, the costly defeats of the first two attacks weighed on the Italian government, they had been promised a quick and easy victory and those had failed, they were now beginning to wonder how long of a slog this was going to be. Prime Minister Salandra, who had been so eager to get Italy into the war, now made several visits from the capital to Cadorna’s headquarters to question the General about when the great victory was going to take place. In October and British and French also came to Cadorna and requested a resumption of the offensive, this time to take pressure off of Serbia. This is right around the time that the Germans and Austrians were starting to bear down on Serbia hard and things were not going well at all for the valiant Serbs, events that we will discuss later this year. Even though Cardorna wouldn’t be able to wait for all of his preparations to complete he would still go into the next battle with a 2 to 1 advantage in artillery, which I guess is as good as you can expect. The Italian soldiers were also using their break well. The front lines were still very dangerous but every day the trenches were made a little bit deeper and the front was just a little safer for the Italians. The first steel helmets began to arrive in September and the troops were also able to come off of the line for a bit. They got new uniforms, new socks, and were able to make some trips to the field brothels, everything a growing boy needs. All of this came to an end when on October 9th Cadorna cancelled all leave on October 9th in preparation for the next attack, but for the time that they had their rest the Italians enjoyed it greatly. On the Austrian side they also were not idle during the break between battles. Boroevic made requests for more troops and more equipment and his requests were met in a lot of ways. He was given 200 more artillery guns and 3 more divisions of troops. 2 of these divisions were considered to be two of the very best in all of the Austro-Hungarian army. All of the men spent the lull improving their entrenchments and fortifications. Every man available, including some Russian prisoners brought in as work gangs, were used to improve the lines. There were of course trenches dug but also caves and grottos were expanded and improved to provide areas for larger groups of troops to shelter. There would be 128,000 Austrians at the front and they would be better prepared than ever to meet the attack. This readiness also included a slight change in tactics. In the earlier battles the Austrians had maintained a strong front line presence to deny the Italians any gains, now they moved most of their men out of the front line to positions that offered more protection from artillery. The front line would be lightly held by observers who would communicate any attack back to the troops waiting behind the front line in well protected dugouts and caves. As soon as the artillery fire slackened these troops moved out of these positions and manned the fire lines. The second and third liens of trenches were similarly equipped with deep dugouts to protect the men in them and this meant that from here on out the Italian bombardments would have less of an effect on the troops subjected to them. For the third battle Cadorna would go back to putting his primary focus on the hills around Gorizia and this time would plan for a two phase battle. The first point of effort would be on the hills around Gorizia and the second phase would take place once again on the Carso and Mt. San Michele. These would be the objectives of the second and third army respectively and Cadorna would have 350,000 men to pursue them. The Austrians would be ready though, finding out about the plans from deserters who brought over detailed information on the Italian plans. Next week we will dive into the third and forth Italian attacks as they try to push the Austrians out before the winter snows force and end to the fighting for the winter.