Italian First Offensives 1915 Part I

Yellowed prints of the 1866 border show simple guardhouses beside stone bridges. Farmers pose, squinting, by the barrier poles alongside their carts and livestock, while children play at the roadside under listless flags. Few traces of that frontier can be seen today. On the outskirts of Cormons, a guardhouse has been adapted into a loggia for a private home, sheltering an expensive car. Deep in its stony bed, the River Judrio trickles past the end of the garden. Traffic whines along the SS356 highway, a hundred metres away, beyond a monument marking where the first shots were fired in Italy’s last war of independence. The inscription says that on the night of 23/24 May, Italian customs officers opened fire to stop Austrian reservists from burning the wooden bridge over the Judrio. A few hours later, the first Italian casualty was brought back across the bridge on a farmer’s cart.

The 23rd was a Sunday, and parish priests along the border warned their congregations that war was coming. Hostilities officially com menced at midnight. Assuming supreme command, the King over came his diffidence and spoke to the people – something he rarely did. The solemn hour of national claims had struck, he cried, standing on the balcony of the Quirinale palace and waving a flag. The enemy were battle-hardened and worthy; favoured by the terrain and by careful preparations, they would fight tenaciously, ‘but your indomitable ardour will certainly overcome them’. It was an oddly subdued performance. Even so, according to press reports, the crowd was delirious. With this ordeal behind him, the King hurried to the front; he did not want to miss a moment of his army’s dash to glory.

The army was not, however, dashing anywhere. Full mobilisation began on 22 May and was scheduled to take 23 days. It took twice as long; the army was not fully deployed until mid-July. The general staff had prepared for war as if it would occur in peacetime conditions. Little allowance was made for systemic stress and breakdown, all the concomitants that Clausewitz called ‘friction’.

When the fighting began, Cadorna had some 400,000 men in the plains of Veneto and Friuli. Yet, these hastily concentrated forces included only two of the army’s 17 regular corps – fewer than 80,000 rifles. On the lower Isonzo, the Third Army was to rush to the river, establish bridgeheads and capture Monfalcone. Gorizia was to be isolated by taking the hills that flanked the city. On the middle and upper Isonzo, the Second Army’s priority was to take the Caporetto basin and then the Krn–Mrzli ridge. The Fourth Army was supposed to pinch the neck of the Trentino salient by occupying a series of towns in the north: first Cortina, deep in the Dolomite mountains, then Toblach (Dobbiaco) and Bruneck (Brunico). The First Army was deployed defensively around the western side of the salient.

Cadorna should have had the benefit of co-ordinated operations by Russia and Serbia, but the Serbs were in no condition to attack and anyway resented Italian ambitions in the Balkans, while the Russians were paralysed after heavy losses in May and early June. The Italians were on their own, and the long build-up deprived them of surprise. Also, Austrian agents in the border areas had been feeding them disinformation, so they were expecting ambushes and sabotage on the roads to the east.

There was another reason for the Third Army’s snail’s pace. As it rolled into action, Cadorna replaced its commander, General Zuccari, because he had delayed his arrival at the front or possibly to settle a score. The timing was astonishing; Zuccari’s successor, the Duke of Aosta, took up his command on 27 May, exactly when the Third Army should have been smashing the enemy lines. The Italians crept to the Isonzo instead of racing there. The cavalry were ordered to take the bridges above Monfalcone on the morning of the 24th. But their commander, expecting tough resistance, wanted to keep contact with the supporting infantry, so the Austrians had time to blow the bridges that afternoon. Cadorna blamed the men’s lack of ‘offensive spirit’, rather than poor preparation, sheer inexperience, or the enemy’s skill at spreading false reports.

The Habsburg secret services scored real successes in April and early May 1915. Italian intelligence reported that the enemy had eight or ten divisions on the Italian border – around 100,000 infantry. In fact, the Isonzo frontier was guarded in mid-May by only two divisions – some 25,000 rifles, supported by around 100 artillery pieces. Intelligence from the Alpine regions was no better. Crucially, Cadorna was unaware that in the Tyrol and the Dolomites the Austrians had withdrawn to a defensive line some way behind the state border, leaving large tracts of territory near Lake Garda and north of Asiago practically undefended.

The Habsburg commander in the Tyrol reported on 20 May:

We are on the eve of an enemy invasion. We have erected a weak line of combat on the border, but we have only 21 reserve battalions and seven and a half batteries along a front of some 400 kilometres. All our proper troops are on the Eastern Front [meaning Galicia]. Only the Trent zone is a bit better fortified and sufficiently garrisoned … I don’t know what will happen if the Italians attack vigorously, everywhere.

The reservists were mostly labourers who had been building the defences and were then put in uniform, given a rifle and basic training.

There was no vigorous attack. West of the Isonzo, only the Fourth Army under General Nava and the Carnia Corps were deployed to attack, targeting the Puster valley and Villach. With just five divisions, Nava’s force was too dispersed to make much impact. They had only one heavy battery and no other means of breaching wire: no gelignite tubes or even wire-cutters. Small wonder that Nava’s men advanced so slowly in May and June. An Austrian officer posted in the Dolomites wrote on 23 May that, if the Italians knew their business, they would march overnight and reach the Puster valley inside Austria by morning; nothing could have stopped them. But they did not know their business, and the window closed. The Fourth Army occupied Cortina five days after the Austrians evacuated it, then delayed the offensive proper until 3 June, for no clear reason. This gave the Austrians ample time to strengthen their line. Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen, leading the German Alpine Corps on this sector, recalled that the Italians’ initial superiority was so great that they could have broken through at will. ‘We expected them to do just that, and were more and more astonished when they let two weeks and more pass without moving.’ The Italians never got near the Puster valley.

In Carnia, the mountainous hinge of the entire front, the Italian force was, again, too small for its ambitious tasks of breaking through at Tarvis. No artillery was available until 12 June and anyway there were no tracks or roads to bring the batteries close to enemy lines, so it was impossible to attack the well-protected approaches to the passes into Austrian Carinthia.

West of Carnia and the Dolomites, General Brusati, commanding the First Army, was straining at the leash. Although he had only five divisions for a sector of 130 kilometres around Trentino, he was dismayed by Cadorna’s decision not to let him attack.2 So he attacked anyway, achieving no success because he chose the only strongly fortified zone in his sector: the high ground between Trent and the coastal plain. His offensive unfurled as if in slow motion.

With Habsburg troops pouring in from Serbia, the balance was changing every day. By 24 May, the Austrians had 50,000–70,000 men on the Italian front. A further 40 battalions (40,000 men) arrived by the end of the month. By mid-June, there may have been 200,000 Habsburg troops facing the Italians. Nonetheless, Italy had a broad advantage of at least 4:1 in fighting strength for the first month of the war. This disparity was not admitted at the time, or under Fascism. Mussolini would claim that the Italians had faced 221 enemy battalions. The Austrians credited the Italians with 48 divisions (44 infantry, 4 cavalry), instead of 35. Each side overestimated the other’s initial strength, but the overestimation had dire consequences for one side only.

Local people had helped the Austrians to erect barriers across the border roads, using trees, glass, barbed wire, and even farm implements. They also warned the advancing Italians about mines, traps and electrified wire barriers that did not exist. Nosing tentatively forward, skirmishing with Austrian patrols but meeting no fierce resistance, the Italians only reached the Isonzo on the 26th. The brunt of Cadorna’s attack was planned to take place across the river, between Sagrado and Monfalcone, a distance of 12 kilometres, east of the lower Isonzo. The bridges were all blown. Further days were wasted in exploring the riverbanks. Heavy rain had swollen the Isonzo and its tributaries. What with accurate enemy fire and shortages of bridging equipment, it proved impossible to cross the river until the night of 4/5 June. Once they reached the eastern side, the Italians found that the enemy had flooded the low-lying area between the river and the Carso by closing the sluices on a raised canal. The Italians blew up the sluice gates, but too late to save the troops from being bogged down. This bought the Austrians more time to prepare their defences on the Carso ridge.

The rapture and creeping disillusion of early June were chronicled by Giani Stuparich, a volunteer from Trieste. Stuparich enlisted in the 1st Regiment of Sardinian Grenadiers at the end of May and entrained for the front at once. He was a fastidious man and the company in the crowded carriage (‘two Florentines … a Roman … a Sicilian … one from Livorno’) soon became tiresome. A sergeant in the reserves made ‘loudly incomprehensible speeches about humanity, barbarism, sacrifice, duty and many other muddled concepts’. Looking for distraction from the chatter, Stuparich noticed a silent figure in the corner of the carriage. ‘He is not listening or talking, he is the only one rapt in a preoccupation that he cannot account for, but it fevers his expression and stiffens his limbs, paralysing his soul in an intense stupor.’ His mouth hung open, his eyes were fixed and shining. He was a peasant in uniform, perhaps leaving home for the first time in his life, probably fluent only in dialect. The nameless man was still far from the front, but even now he could not grasp what was happening. Wrenched from his family and routine for reasons neither explained nor understood, he was in shock. While the writer saw this and was moved, too much separated them for a friendly word to be uttered.

At Mestre station, outside Venice, the men see wounded soldiers waiting for transport away from the front. ‘There are thousands of them!’ says one of the Tuscans in a trembling voice. (Thanks to censorship, he would have had no idea of the initial casualties.) Smells of blood and iodine seep into the carriage. Like the peasant in the corner, the wounded say nothing. The train moves on towards the front. Marching to the border, the men are nervous, starting at shadows by the roadside. Beyond Cervignano, there are tree trunks across the road. Bersaglieri speed past them on bikes, raising trails of dust. A public fountain slakes their thirst. They sleep on their capes under the stars, and awaken spangled with dew. Ordered to carry heavy cauldrons, Stuparich – a bespectacled, intense, 25-year-old intellectual – notes euphorically that his body alone could not have borne the weight; ‘my strength is sheer willpower’.

They cross the Isonzo on 5 June, ‘a tremendous, foaming azure current cut by pontoons’. His rucksack no longer weighs him down. Near the front, smells of putrefaction emanate from the roadside bushes, but the men are too hopeful to be gloomy. Marching towards Monfalcone on 8 June, they talk excitedly about reaching Trieste within a fortnight. Giani dreams of being one of the first to enter the main square, covered in dust. Next day, he reaches the Carso. The unit is sheltering from Austrian fire in a dyke. They clamber out, and come face to face with a rocky, barren hillside. ‘A chilly gust of wind hits me, a bullet whistles over my head, then another, then more buzz past my ears with a softer, keening sound.’

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.

There is a legend about the origins of the Carso. God sent an archangel to take away the stones that stopped people from growing crops. The devil saw the angel flying high over a land with beautiful woods and streams and meadows, carrying a huge sack. Hoping for treasure, the devil approached the archangel from behind and slashed his sack with a knife. Out poured the stones, covering the beautiful country below. God was sanguine: ‘No harm is done. The people in that country sheltered the devil instead of praising my name. Let this be a lesson to them. Let this be the kingdom of stone, where men labour to survive. Then they will learn not to trust the devil.’ The local people chased the devil away, but too late. The Carso remained a wasteland, as God had ordained.

The Carso only reaches 500 metres in height, like the chalk downs in southern England, but it feels like a world apart. The surface is uneven, pitted with sinkholes where water has drained into the stone. If you stumble, it is easy to break an ankle or cut yourself to the bone. Someone likened the Carso to an immense petrified sponge. It is a hydrologist’s laboratory, a potholer’s playground; fissures in the surface open into grottoes and caverns that lead deep underground. The largest holes, called dolinas, are conical, steep-sided depressions up to 200 or 300 metres across and 50 metres deep. Formed by water erosion and often plugged with fertile red soil, they were oases of cultivation on the arid plateau, where otherwise only goats could forage.

The Carso was almost trackless, and thinly populated – by Slovenes, not Italians, living in hamlets of limestone blocks, roofed with lichened stone. Habsburg forestation projects had created woodland around the fringes, but the plateau proper was almost treeless, for the natural flora was sub-alpine heathland, with thyme, cyclamen, narcissi, and juniper bushes. The fauna, too, was distinctive: boar, deer, lynx, jackals and horned vipers were all found. The climate is harsh. In winter, the Carso is swept by winds, including a cold, dry north-easterly called the bora that can gust at 100 knots. Rain turns the red clay to gluey mud. Summer turns the Carso into a desert; clouds form over the sea and pass overhead without releasing a drop of rain.

Made of rock that reflects the heat, waterless when not flooded, hard to walk over, let alone run, the Carso might have been designed as the last place on earth for trench warfare. Shellbursts were like volcanoes erupting. When heavy shells hit limestone, the fragments of steel casing and stone could maim soldiers a kilometre away. Trenching was extremely difficult without drills, under fire. Mattocks and picks were no use when solid rock lay on or just below the surface, so both sides built low walls of loose stones, knee-high and easily demolished by incoming shells. Disgust for these dry-stone defences is vividly expressed in war memoirs. The novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda, who fought on the Carso, found a memorably painful image when he wrote of the contending generals who ‘scraped their massacred battalions over those hills like matchsticks’.

The day when Giani Stuparich’s unit reached the Carso, 9 June, the Sardinian Grenadiers were involved in capturing Monfalcone. With 10,000 people, Monfalcone was the biggest town between Gorizia and Trieste, and it was booming, thanks to shipbuilding and chemical industries. Its capture gave the Italians their first triumph.

While infantry of the Messina Brigade entered the town directly, the Grenadiers circled around the back. If you drive through Monfalcone today, you glimpse a white monument on a low hilltop behind the main square. This is the Rocca, literally ‘the Rock’, a miniature fortress with a squat limestone tower, 10 metres square, hooped by walls four or five metres high. Fortifications stood here for centuries before the Venetians built this tower some 500 years ago. (The lion of St Mark, its forepaw resting on the Gospel, is still visible on the façade.) It is a superb vantage-point, looking forward over the plains of Friuli and the Gulf of Trieste, and rearward to the Carso. A prehistoric trade route from the Adriatic to the Black Sea passed by this place.