47: Life and Death on the Isonzo Pt .4


The Italians race against the clock to break through the Austrian defenses as winter descends on the battlefield.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 47. This week I would like to ask everybody who listens and enjoys the show to consider leaving a review for the podcast on iTunes. Reviews greatly influence the iTunes ranking and increase the shows exposure and in general, makes you an awesome person, so be an awesome person and leave a review. This week I was contacted by another teacher who has used the podcast in the classroom and recommended it to their students. I never knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish with this show, but having it given to a younger generation to learn about the events of the war is probably one of the highest compliments I could possibly receive. This is our fourth and final episode on the Italian front. We will be talking about the third and fourth battles of the Isonzo today, and we will be jumping right into the action after covering most of the build up to the third battle at the end of the last episode. If you like the comfort of visiting the same places many times while travelling, this episode should be right up your alley as we won’t be introducing a single new location or battlefield this week. The same old story at the same old places.

The preparations for the third battle began at noon on October 18th when 1,300 guns opened up on the Austrian positions to prepare for the Italian attack. The day was chilly, a harbinger of things to come in a few months, when the guns opened up in what would be the largest bombardment yet seen on the Italian front and it would continue for almost 3 days. All of the artillery from the Second and Third armies were firing for all of the 70 hours of the barrage, and of course they did some damage, they almost couldn’t not do damage. The initial casualties were high for the Austrians but they became less and less as time went on and the Austrians were able to get as protected as possible. They put their newly built fortifications to good use and they quickly abandoned any trenches that were destroyed during the bombardment. Even though some positions were destroyed most of the guns that were firing were 75mm and wouldn’t have the effect that larger guns would have. This is the same situation we have been discussing since the war started. The smaller guns just didn’t have the explosive power to greatly effect any deep fortifications. At 10AM on October 21st the shelling finally stopped and for 2 hours there was silence along the battlefield. During that time the Austrians moved back into position to await the attack and when the Italians got out of their trenches they found that there was no shortage of Austrians guns waiting for them, they were met with withering fire from machine guns and artillery. The Italian attack continued all day but, at most, gained 100 paces along the front. The problem was that the Austrian machine guns were simply still firing, and that alone was enough to hamper the attack. On The Carso the third army wasn’t faring any better than anybody else. When the battle started they had launched major attacks against San Michele that had gained some ground, but as usual this had been lost in counter attacks. The loses on both sides were heavy in the attacks on San Michele but the Italians always experienced the worst of it. On the 22nd another attack was launched against San Michele and all across the Carso, a short bombardment preceded what was an Italian attack that had negative gains. During this attack they found themselves pushed off of Hill 118. If you remember, Hill 118 was the only notable gain for the Italians after the Second Battle so its loss was hard felt. On the 23rd more attacks were launched, this time with fresh reinforcments from Cadorna. The fighting continued all day and all night, but the defenders of San Michele held and the rest of the Austrian line followed suit. All of these attacks on the Carso followed the exact same template that the Italians simply couldn’t break out of. The Italians would charge up the hill and maybe make some progress. As soon as they got there they found the second Austrian line manned by reinforcements that were able to halt the attacks. Then the Austrians would prepare for a counter attack and the Italians would find themselves pushed off of any gains that they had taken. This same template describes almost every single one of the Italian attacks. I could probably just stay it ten times preceded by a date and location to describe this entire battle. A fine example of this, other than on San Michele, was an attack on Sie Busi, a position on the Carso to the south of San Michele. For three days the Italians attacked with no success, but on the third day they were able, finally, and with the last of their strength to take the Austrian positions. When the night came the Austrians counter attacked and took the position back. Could anything be as disheartening for the troops as spending so much to take a position only to then lose it in the first counter attack. Cadorna was not very happy with how the first set of attacks had went and therefore ordered a renewed effort against San Michele. This would be proceeded by a huge bombardment with the atttack finally beginning on October 24th. At 3PM 2 divisions went up San Michele, charging over the piles of dead bodies of previous attacks but after 6 hours of hand to hand fighting they had to retreat from the mountain once again. The one thing that was happening that was a problem for the Austrians, even though they were holding back the Italians, was that they were unable to bring up much in the way of supplies and replacements. This meant that as time went by the strenght of the Austrians defending the front was getting less and less, slowly whittled away and unable to be bolstered. They wouldn’t last forever unless something changed. The Italians, out of exhaustion, chose this moment to take a bit of a breather in their attacks on the Carso and they would wait a few days for the attacks at Gorizia to start before beginning their renewed attack. On the 28th they were finally ready to renew their effort and this time two entire Italian corps were committed to the attack. These corps were not even close to full strength but even with the men that they were missing they still amounted to a man for every 2.5 feet of front, so extremely dense, lots of man weight in the attack. I’m not sure man weight is a term in common usage, but I think it is what I will start calling the measurement of the number of men per foot of front. Even with all of this man weight, nothing was gained. Now, most of this episode, and most of the last episodes has been focused on the failures of the Italians to achieve anything with their attacks so let me just take a moment to praise the defenders in these situations. They had been fighting, almost continously, for days, 6 or 7 days on some parts of the front. During that time they had been constantly bombarded, surrounded by corpses that were beginning to decompose, they were in trenches that were full of wounded that couldn’t be evacuated, they had run out of food and water days ago and yet they hung on. They were attacked again and again, called upon to counter attack again and again, and still they held on. Cadorna would observe around this time that “The time has arrived to pick the fruits of the pressure exerted on the enemy and now to decide to begin the decisive phase of the offensive.” And he wasn’t wrong, and yet, the Austrians hung on. It is crazy that all the way through the end of October, and through the Italians attacks of the first few days of November the Austrians hung on. Reminds in a lot of ways of the French that we will spend so much time discussing at Verdun. When the Italian attacks were over they were proven to be fruitless and the Italian troops on the Carso were now just as tired as the Austrians they had been attacking with nothing to show for it.

Even with the failure of the first phase of his attack, the assault on San Michele, Cadorna was determined to continue forward with the planned second phase, the direct drive on Gorizia by assaulting Mt. Sabotino, Oslavia, and Podgora. There were 3 divisions earmarked for this attack against the three objectives. And the first attack would be against Mt. Sabotino which would be bombarded by the largest collection of heavy guns and mortars on the front. Even with this assemblage of artillery strength the Italian attacks were thrown back even though they attacked for three days. For three days they attacks all along the front, Sabotino, Oslavia, and Podgora and they gained nothing. After a 24 hour break the Grenadiers were called in to help in the attack against Sabotino. The Grenadiers were the senior most unit in the Italian army, with all of the prestige and expectations that this laid upon them. When they attacked they didn’t even reach the first line of the defenses. On the 29th they all attacked again, but by this point they were all starting to wear down in a very big way and they just weren’t as effective. Cadorna continued to believe that his army was close to breaking the Austrians and that one more push would be all that it would take. On October 31st more attacks would be launched, this time all along the line From Sabotino in the north all the way down to Mt. San Michele. On our well worn battlefield of Hill 383 five days of attacks would follow with very little progress anywhere. At Gorizia the final tally of gains would be two small hills that, in reality, meant nothing. What the last few days of the third battle lacked in gains they made up for in violence and ferocity, no matter how futile. But it was in these last few days that the weather began to really effect the action on the front line. Rain and snow during the first week of November made the battlefield almost completely impassable. The battle pretty much had to stop for a bit when this weather was combined with the state of the troops. The Italians had suffered around 70,000 casualties and the Austrians around 42,000. Since the battle wasn’t very long this meant that the Italians had lost about 4,000 soldiers per day during the fighting, which is a pretty crazy number given the size of the armies involved. For these sacrifices they had gained precisely two hills west of Podgora on the way to Gorizia, to which they were now 100 meters closer, but at this pace there wouldn’t be a single Italian man alive to see the capture of the city. While it was clear to everyone, and to us looking back, that the Italians hadn’t won the battle, the Austrian commanders were becoming very concerned. Boroevic and Conrad would communicate to each other after the Third battle that they were becoming very concerned about whether or not the Austrian defenders would be able to withstand another attack. And they wouldn’t have long to wait to find out if they were right.

The fourth battle of the Isonzo would begin just 9 days after the third battle had ended, sometimes they are just treated as one long battle, with the actions in November just being considered a continuation of the Third battle. Cadorna was, for his part, 100% convinced that the quick follow up was necessary to finally take the Austrians out and put the Italians over the edge. In his view it seemed certain that the Austrians were now weakened to the point of complete and total collapse. Because of this belief, and the quick turn around between battles the plan for the Italians would remain much the same. The troops would also be mostly the same, with only a one week break there just wasn’t enough time to rotate in new troops. All that the units could do was bring in replacements as quickly as possible, but these new men lacked the battlefield experience of the men that they were now replacing. The fourth battle would begin on November 10th, and by this time the Alpine winter had begun to truly arrived on the battlefield. In the north, high in the mountains a combination of icy rain and heavy snow made any form of fighting impossible. This part of the front was basically shut down by this point as the men waited for spring and tried not to freeze to death. At the lower levels of elevation the rains turned the trenches into a sea of mud that made it difficult for the men to do anything. As november wore on the temperature all along the front would continue to drop and snow would reach even the lowest of altitudes by November 16th. Not only did this effect the fighting strength of the men directly, by simply making it harder for them to fight, it also drastically altered what it was like to live at the front. In the White War Mark Thompson would say “As the rations were cold by the time they reached the men, and short as well, the mud-soaked infantry could not ‘restore their strength with hot abundant rations’. Some units went more than two days without food. They were not so much men as ‘walking shapes of mud. It is not the will to advance that’s lacking…what they lack is the physical strength.” The problems with the weather were compounded by the massive cholera epidemic that ravaged its way through both sides of the line. This epidemic would reach its peak right in mid-November, at the height of the fighting of the fourth battle. Finally, once again, the Austrians were not surprised by the Italian attack and much like before they would be more than ready when the Italian attack began.

The only piece of the fourth battle that we will be going into in great detail is the fighting around Gorizia. And in this area the bombardment began at 8AM on November the 10th and it would last for 4 hours. The Italian attack wouldn’t immediately follow this bombardment but would instead wait until around the middle of the afternoon before the infantry got out of their trenches and attacked. When they did attack very little was gained along most of the front but one big milestone was reached. On November the 10th the Italians managed to capture the village of Oslavia. They had been trying since the very beginning to capture the village, that had been fortified by the Austrians at the beginning of hostilities. Now that they could finally claim that it was theirs what was left of it could barely be described as a village, months of shelling had turned the area into a ground up pile of rubble with almost no resemblance to the village before the war. On November the 12th and 13th the Italians would briefly lose the village to Austrian attacks but both times they would recapture Oslavia with night attacks. After the second recapture of the village both sides took a few days of a break before Cadorna sent in more troops to reinforce and continue the attack. On the 18th, the day on which attacks resumed something new would happen on the front, something which had been specifically avoided up to this point. On November 18th the Italians shelled the city of Gorizia. During the first months of the battle the Italians had studiously avoided shelling the city to both avoid civilian casualties as well as to maintain some sort of moral high ground in their attacks. Since the very beginning they had trumpeted to anybody who would listen that they were attacking to liberate the Italian citizens of Gorizia from their Austrian occupiers. After the 18th they couldn’t make this claim anymore because for three hours shell after shell was dropped on the city, 3,000 in total. What is weird is that this served no real purpose in terms of moving the battle forward. Gorizia wasn’t the type of city to play a big role in the Austrian defense, about the only purpose it played was to give the Austrian officers a place to go when they had leave. Of the decision to shell the city little is said in either the official histories or Cadorna’s personal memoirs. After this bombardment there were more attacks, none of which accomplished much. On November the 20th 3 Italian divisions went over to the attack just north of Mt. Sabotino. 3 divisions on a very small front, there were 200 men for every 60 feet which gives them a man weight of 1 man for every .3 feet of front. They were able to capture Hill 188 but lost it later and over the next 4 days attacks were launched all along the front. On November 29th the Italians made some headway new Gorizia, finally, they launched an attack at noon on the 29th and, as tired as they were they were able to capture the fire line of Austrian trenches. Then to the Italians’ great surprise, there wasn’t an Austrian counter attack. The Austrian troops were simply too exhausted to launch an attack to take back their trenches, so the Italians got to hang onto them, and they would stay there for the rest of the year. During this time there were also attacks on the Carso and at Mrzli, but none of any real consequence. Fighting would continue all along the front until December 4th when it would all come to an end, mostly due to weather. The Battle would add another 50,000 Italians and 30,000 Austrians to the casualty lists. Even with their losses, thanks to their superior positions and their defenses the exhausted Austrians had once again stopped the massively numerically superior Italians. The official Italian history would chalk a large portion of the reason for the defeat up to the barbed wire which the Italians couldn’t find a way to properly destroy.

We are now at the end of our 1915 Italian excursion. The fighting since May had cost the Italians 280,000 casualties and it had cost the Austrians 200,000 to stop them. Cadorna had vast manpower reserves to call on in 1916, the Austrians were not so lucky unfortunately, although other events would happen to free up some troops. Even with all of the problems the Austrians were having on other fronts on the Italian front they were able to mostly stabilize the line and during 1916 they would be stronger and more prepared than ever for the Italian attacks. For the Italians their grand opening offensive had been stopped, decisively, and now it was time to take a few months to lick their wounds and get ready for the next year of fighting. I am of the belief that had the Italians declared war and attacked earlier they probably would have made some real progress on the Isonzo. With another month before the winter weather they could have launched another attack with some more troops. The Austrians were at their very last bit of strength during the fourth battle, a fifth battle may have put them over the edge. This is all hindsight though, and I can feel myself falling into the same trap that the generals on all fronts fell into during the war. It was always the next attack, just one more effort, that would do it. And with that aside, we are leaving the Italian front for the year, we will be back in 1916 to catch back up but next week we will take our history to the high seas as we follow a great chase that began in Asia and would run all the way to the South American coast. Thank you for listening, and have a great week.