120: Italian Front 1917 Pt. 5


Part 5 of our Italian front episodes sees us finally arrive in 1917. It is time for the Italians do to what the Italians had been done, 10th time’s a charm?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 120. Thanks this week goes out to Peter and Stephen for becoming supporters of this podcast on Patreon where they now gain access to special Patreon only episodes much like the one shared on this very feed last week, I hope everybody enjoyed it, and you can find more information at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. Welcome to 1917 as we have finally arrived and we are going to jump right into the action. Today we will be discussions the 10th and the 11th, and last, battles of the Isonzo. These would be the only two Italian attacks during 1917 and they would set the stage for what we will discuss during the next two episodes, the battle of Caporetto. Much like on the Western Front, on the Italian front the battles of 1917 would be on a new, much larger, and much more costly scale. On both sides of the line the armies would be bigger, better, and more prepared for the fighting than ever before. This would set them up for what would be the last year of large battles on the Italian front. The fighting would continue into 1918, but 1917 would be the climax, it would be the year that the fate of the armies on the Isonzo were decided. So lets jump in.

The preparations for 1917 had a good side and a bad side for the Italians, we will start first with the good side. First, they simply had more men at the front than they had at any previous point in the war. The number of battalions in the army as a while increased from 700 to 860 bringing total numbers up to 2 million. Much of this increase could then be focused on the Isonzo where the number of troops almost doubled. This was made possible due to a concerted effort to improve the defenses along other areas of the front like on the Asiago plateau, which allowed more troops to be moved east. There was also a lot of effort put into the positions around Gorizia and on the newly acquired areas on the Carso, this would allow Cadorna to more fully utilized troops for an attack since less would be needed in the rest of the line. This large increase was accomplished by calling up both older and younger classes of recruits, with this expansion the drafts now included all those ages 18 to 44. This was also a large increase in the number of artillery guns available at the front. Both of these items were of course very good news for the Italians, especially after they had lost so many men in 1916. So now lets move onto the bad news, most of which revolved around the state of mind of men at the front and the civilians back home. At the front the men, aware of what was about to start, hit a new low point in morale. 1916 had been rough, and the gains had not exactly been impressive, all the men had to look forward to was another year of the same. Back on the home front there were protests by the men drafted into the army, with some becoming belligerent and threatening army officers. This unruliness was coupled with the waning of public support for the war. The people on the Italian home front were suffering from both war exhausted, caused by things such as rapid inflation, a stagnation of wages, and all of the men missing at the front, and then also from the German U-Boat campaign. Many of Germany’s highest scoring U-Boat commanders during the war called the Mediterranean their home. There submarines would be the most effective here because the British would always focus their anti-submarine efforts on the Atlantic and their home waters, which left precious few ships available to patrol the seas around Italy. The U-Boats left many items quite scarce on Italian tables, like butter and sugar. This brought the war home in a way that in no way helped public morale. While Cadorna was aware of these issues, he was confident that they would not be a serious problem. He believed that his next attack would finally be the one to shift the war in the Italian favor, and to do this he had an ambitious plan of attack. Instead of just launching one effort in one area of the front, which had been the trend in 1915 Cadorna was reverting back to his idea of a massive strike against the front which he had favored in 1915. The only difference this time would be that instead of one massive attack it would be a series of attacks one after another to keep the Austrians off guard. The first attack would begin on the Carso, which is an area that the Austrians would expect. Then a few days later the focus would shift to the north, to the area around Gorizia and to the north of it, where Capello’s troops would attack. Then after another few days, and hopefully after the Austrians had committed their reserves to stop this attack, the guns would once again be moved south for another attack on the Carso. Cadorna was sure that this would work, and if Boroevic did not take the bait and move his reserves north to Gorizia then the Italians would simply capture a bunch of territory there, which was an acceptable outcome in and of itself. Capello wanted to be even bolder than these plans, he wanted to also attack north between Plava and Tolmein, which would mean crossing the river to the north of Tolmein which would threaten Monte Santo and the Bainsizza Plateau.

On the Austrian side, 1916 had been a rough year, and not just on the Italian front. The Empire had taken 1.7 million casualties during 1916, and these were simply irreplaceable. In the short term they could increase the number of troops on the Isonzo by robbing from other fronts, but there would be no way for them to keep up with the growth that the Italians were creating. The men that were moved onto the front would bring Boroevic’s numbers up to about 200,000, which was more than he had ever had, but it would still be far less than what faced him. They were guaranteed to be outnumbered at least two to one for any attack, and probably far more. However, they had been able to greatly increase the number of heavy artillery pieces that were on the front, with the number almost doubling over the course of the winter, which was a welcome change. These guns would be critical to helping to stem the Italian tide, during the 10th battle alone the Austrian artillery would fire over 2 million shells. This was a drastic, and very much required, increase over the previous battles. Once again Boroevic also had a reasonably good idea of what the Italians were planning to do due to the large number of Italian deserters that had come over to the Austrian lines in the weeks leading up to the attack.

The artillery fire would begin on May 12th, and it would be of greater intensity than ever before. The Italians were able to use more than 3,000 artillery pieces to throw an impressive number of shells at the Austrian lines and then after 2 days of bombardment the attacks would begin. The first would fall on Hill 383 to the north of Gorizia, and it would occur at noon on the 14th. Here 3 divisions of Italians would attack against a loan battalion, making it something absurd like a 15 to 1 advantage. Even at such a huge disadvantage the Austrians were still able to put up a fight and to inflict far more casualties than they suffered. Hill 383 had been able to hold out against almost 2 years of Italian attacks, and even here at the end it was still able to live up to its bloody reputation. However, at some point the sheer weight of numbers simply became too much and the Austrians were pushed off the hill, with very few defenders left to tell the tale. To the south another Italian attack went forward with a brigade crossing the Isonzo. I should probably remind everybody here that the Isonzo in this area was not very deep or very fast, so fording across was completely possible. Here the fighting was once again fierce, with better than half of the Italians becoming casualties even though they had a large numerical advantage. For these two attacks, which had gained some ground, Capello had lost around 5,500 men. With this read of the front in so much danger Boroevic was forced to pull several divisions out of the line on the Carso and send them north. These would not arrive in time to assist in the early days of the attack because Boroevic initially believed that the attacks here were just diversions. However, he quickly changed hims mind and started moving troops to the north, but they would not arrive until the 18th. Cadorna, ever the optimist, was not expecting the level of casualties that were currently happening, he believed that the artillery he had arrayed and the manpower he possessed would combine for a quick and easy victory. Even though things were not going perfectly he was still ready to stop Capello’s attacks to get ready to move guns south. Now that he was in the thick of it though, Capello did not like this plan, he wanted to keep going. However, to do this he would need to keep the guns that he had, but he told Cadorna that if he could keep the guns then he could capture Mt. Vodice and Mt. Santo. Both of these would have been hefty prizes, if they could be captured that is, so Cadorna was convinced to let him keep the guns for a little bit longer. With all of the information we have now we know that this was not the correct course of action. Boroevic had just reduced the number of troops he had on the Carso and rushed them north, this was the perfect time to shift everything to the south. However, Capello and Cadorna did not know this, and Capello was pretty good at talking his commander over to his side. With this decision made Capello continued his attacks, with more gains made, albeit at a high price. On the 18th the attacks on Mt. Vodice began, with several Italian divisions assaulting up the mountain. The last 250 meters of the assault were the hardest, being over completely open ground. The entire area was also enfiladed by Austrian machine guns, but on the good side there were not much in the way of defenses, with no wire and very few intact trenches. If either of those had been present they may have made the difference, but as it was the Italians were able to capture the summit. This would be the limit to their advance though as remnants of various Austrian units were able to keep them from going any further. The attack on Mt. Santo would begin on the 20th and here the situation was much the same as on Vodice, there was a massive artillery barrage followed by a large number of Italian troops throwing themselves up the slows against a much smaller number of Austrians. However, the difference here would be the fact that the attack would be less successful and while they were able to barely overrun the summit they were then thrown back by a counter attack. With Austrian reinforcements now arriving from the south, and his own troops exhausted, Capello called a halt to the attack. Overall the attacks here had been successful if you measure success by territory captured, but the casualties to gain that territory were immense. However, the attacks by Capello had achieved another of his goals, he had caused Boroevic to move many of his troops to the north, which should set him up for the attack by the Italians to the south on the Carso. We now move south to see how that attack went.

It would not be until the 23rd that the southern artillery would begin to fire. The goal of this attack was to continue to widen and deepen the salient created by the attacks during the 9th battle, and for most of the day of the 23rd the artillery would continue to fire towards this goal. The artillery would fire about 100,000 shells every hour for every hour between 6Am and 4PM, a million shells all told. If you can imagine, these shells were falling on solid rock and concrete, which just amplified their sound and impact. Almost no matter where you were along the Austrian front one was hitting reasonably close every minute or so. On the 24th the attack went forward, then they would again the next day. Over the course of these attacks they were able to slowly but surely beat back the Austrians. It was a very slow process though, and it took attack after attack to grind out the capture of 3 lines of trenches which was a depth of about 2 kilometers. By the second day these attacks had cost 25,000 men, and the attacks would continue for another 2 weeks until the 5th of June. The advances would be over on the 26th though, and it the intensity of the fighting slowly waned until June the 4th at which point Boroevic began shifting troops south to meet this attack. Once they arrived he would then use these same reinforcements to launch an attach which would regain must of the ground that had been lost in earlier attacks. Over the course of all of this fighting on the Carso the Italians lost over 50,000 men and the Austrians over 30,000.

Overall for all of the fighting of the 10th battle the Italians suffered around 159,000 casualties and the Austrians about 80,000. This included around 25,000 prisoners for both sides, a worrying trend that would continue for both armies. Even though they had suffered a large number of casualties, and had lost some territory, Mark Thompson does a good job of discussing why the defense during the 10th battle was impressive “A greatly outnumbered and completely multiethnic Habsburg force - comprising Dalmatians, Ruthenes, German Austrians, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs and Poles - had repulsed the biggest Italian attack yet mounted. Austrian artillery fire was still accurate and effective against regiments that still advanced slowly over difficult terrain, in compact masses. The Austrians, by contrast, used highly mobile assault forces, which proved their worth during counter-attacks.”

Another bit of unrelated fighting would happen during the fighting on the Carso. Cadorna had been wanting to hit back at the Austrians on the Asiago basically since they launched their attack in 1916 and he chose this moment to make it happen. The date for the attack was set for June the 20th and to execute the attack a brand new army was created totally about 300,000 men. However intense fog would prevent the artillery from properly cutting the wire and when the infantry went forward, in a torrential downpour no less, it was a disaster. The wire wasn’t cut, the rain turned the area into a muddy quagmire, and the defenders were completely ready for the attack. Over the course of the action the Italians would take another 25,000 casualties to gain, precisely nothing. The military would have to call in favors with the Italian press to downplay the number of casualties suffered during all of these attacks, and they would also take the step of withholding the true numbers from the civilian government. Even with these failures though, it did not stop them from wanting to launch more attacks, and Cadorna was already trying to figure out when he would start his next attempt, the 11th Battle.

After the 10th battle the Italian civilian government began to ratchet up the scrutiny on Cadorna. Even though he tried to keep the worst of the failures from the government enough information filtered back to them that they were growing concerned. It was still not reaching the point where these concerns and negative discussions resulted in actual action though. Cadorna was still mostly unassailable and he pretty much just ignored the political moves as much as possible. In his mind he was frustrated with the politicians due to the fact that they were not taking the steps that he believed to be necessary to maintain discipline and obedience on the home front. This did not occupy too much of his time though, because the most imporant item in front of him was to play his next set of attacks. His goal was to launch another attack in August, since it would take that long to stockpile the resources he believed to be necessary. This would include around 2 million artillery shells and would include a new tactic as well. The fittest and best recruits had been selected and put into the 1st Assault Battalion. These men were then given intense and specialized training and they were given better of everything, weapons, food, and pay. They would be used in the attack as assault troops, and they would be called the Arditi, or the Daring Ones. This would be the debut of assault and infiltration tactics on the Italian front, although they had been used by other armies before, and would be used by other armies more effectively later.

For the next attack these assault troops would be joined by the largest set of Italian artillery so far. There would be 3750 total guns, against just 1600 on the Austrian side. This would, for the first time, bring the Italian artillery roughly up to Western Front standards, in terms of density. The main effort would be on the Bainsizza plateau to the north of Gorizia. Capello would command the 2nd army which would attack onto the Bainsizza. This would require more of the river to be crossed as well as an attack against the Austrian positions near the river. The hope was that they could capture all of the plateau and then Capello would be able to swing his attack to the north to attack Tolmein from the south. By capturing the plateau it was also hoped that this would unlock attacks on both Mt. Santo and Mt. San Gabriele. However, if the attacks on the Bainsizza were not successful then it would be pretty much impossible to attack those two objectives. Withouth the benefit of having Italians on the flanks of the mountains the positions would just bee too strong. The Italians were going to do everything to make sure that they were able to take them though and they put in their work to map out almost every single Austrian position on the plateau to help make it happen.

Facing these well prepared, well-armed, and large Italian attacks would be just a single Austro-Hungarian divsiion. It was not even a high class divsiion but was instead one that had recently moved in from the Eastern Front. While on that front they had been heavily hit by the Russians, and before that they had been hard hit by the Serbs in 1915. It had not been a good war for this Czech division, and their luck was going to be just as bad against the Italians.

The bombardment would go on for weeks in early August. The fire, while firing from Tolmein to the sea far to the south was most effective right where they needed it to be and the meticulous work that had been done to properly map out so many Austrian positions in front of Bainsizza would pay off. In front of the troops getting ready to attack the Bainsizza almost every single Austrian position was destroyed or at the very least heavily damaged. Other positions along the front were also under constant bombardment day and night. It would reach a crescendo right before the infantry attacked, at 5:30AM on August 19th.

When the Italians attacked they fell upon the Czech 21st Rifle Division. They were mostly just dazed and confused from the weeks of artillery when they were hit with the attack and while they were still able to throw out some fire, at least on some areas of their front that is, in other areas they were not able to put up much resistance. For example on the Italian 60th Division’s front they faced constant fire and resistance all day however on the 47th Division’s front resistance collapsed almost immediately. On this area of the front the Italian engineers were already throwing pontoon bridges across the river in the early morning and were done by mid-day. For once, when these Italian units got rolling they were not quickly stopped. Over the next day they continued forward up to 5 kilometers, pushing all of the Austrian defenders, or at least those that were left alive, in front of them. They captured dozens of artillery pieces and 11,000 prisoners. In what was a complete coincidence, Emperor Karl was visiting the front when this attack was launched and he, along with other members of Borevic’s staff, was a moderating influence on Boroevic and convinced him to fall back instead of sending more troops out to try and hold the line. This went against Boroevic’s normal tendencies, but in my mind was the correct move. So early on the 24th, with the Italians preparing to continue their advance, the Austrians withdrew. By the time that the retreat was over most of the Bainsizza was in Italian hands, as well as Mt. Santo. However, it had saved many troops, and since they had retreated voluntarily without the Italians knowing they were not instantly pressed by the attackers, allowing them to take a breath and prepare for the next attack.

Another focal point for the attack was against San Gabriele, a very important position that if captured would unlock much of the area between Bainsizza and Gorizia. If the Austrians were able to hold onto it then the advances on the Bainsizza would not be able to affect the front on a wider scale because they would be bottled up to the north. Here the Italians arrayed their largest guns, 420 millimeter monstrosities however unlike when this type of gun was used at Liege in 1914 here it did not reduce the defenses on San Gabriele enough. Therefore when the Italians attacked they found that there was simply nothing they could do. Even after the artillery pounded on the Austrian lines for days the defenders were still able to move out of their deep caverns and beat back the Italians. Attempts to continue the attack would continue until September 12th, at which point it was called off.

Everything was going so well for the Italians, and now they were not prepared to capitalize. For once though the problem was not physical, the men were there at the front, the enemy was in disarray, they had just executed their largest retreat of the year, the Italians now had a chance to attack, but now they had problems both of which had to do with mental mistakes by the leadership. The first problem was that the Italian reserves had been positioned too far to the south with the theory being that since the attack was happening all along the front they would be the best position to move anywhere. In reality what this meant is that the only place they could move was the center, everywhere else was too far away. For our current discussion they were just too far away from Bainsizza to quickly reinforce. The second problem was simply hesitation. As the Italians advanced and the Austrians retreated the salient that was being created became deeper and deeper without being necessarily wider. This concerned Capello and Cadorna who now hesitated to continue their advance into this situation. They were just too concerned about their flanks. They may have been less hesitant if there was any sign that the Italian attacks to the south would be successful, but they looked to be complete failures a few days after they began. This hesitancy lasted for two days, during which they debated whether or not to continue the attack. But by the time they made up their minds to continue it wouldn’t matter anymore because it was too late. Two days after they paused the attack they started again, but gains were very scarce.

The 11th battle would be over on September 19th and it had been costly for both sides .The casualties were by far the most of any battle on the Isonzo with 166,000 for the Italians and 140,000 for the Austrians. Along with these numbers were around 6,000 prisoners that had been captured by the Austrians. I point this out because the defenders in World War 1 so rarely captured a significant number of the attackers. As a whole the Italians, while causing a lot of Austrian casualties and capturing more territory had once again failed to accomplish their primary goal. As many men and as much artillery as they had still only resulted in an inconclusive result. However, while the Italians had not achieved their goal they had also caused one very big, very important thing to happen. With so many Austrians casualties it was finally clear to the Germans that they had to do something about the Italian front, if they did nothing then the Austrians would simply bleed to death. Therefore, a plan began to form for what would come to be the first and only combined Austrian and German effort against Italy, it would be a black day for Italy, and it would get its name from a small Italian village in the mountains, Caporetto.