Italian First Offensives 1915 Part II

Looking from the western rim of the Isonzo valley, across to Mount Mrzli. The Italians clawed their way up this 1,200-metre face, but could not take the summit. Colonel De Rossi’s view in May 1915 was from a lower elevation.

The fight for the Rocca on 9 June was fierce but short. The Austrians pulled back across a valley to a hill called Cosich. At 112 metres, Cosich stands only 30 metres higher than the Rocca, but it was naturally apt for defensive operations. A smug Viennese journalist dubbed it the ‘Hotel Cosich’. The Austrians were not budged from it until August 1916.

Stuparich found Monfalcone deserted, ‘almost spectral’. The shop¬ fronts were shuttered. He did not know it, but the Austrians had ordered a complete evacuation on 24 May, and only 3,000 determined Italians stayed behind, sheltering in cellars from the shelling. Then a shutter went up, a head peered out. Rumours spread that a sweet shop had opened, but what the soldiers wanted was liquor. They ransacked the houses for ‘souvenirs’, stealing pictures, furniture, cutlery, even clothes. For days afterwards, troops wandered around kitted in women’s blouses, until these too were infested with lice.

That evening, Giani walks up to the Rocca. The air is fragrant with pine resin. At dawn the next day, the Austrian artillery on Cosich is silhouetted by the slanting light. The Grenadiers feel unaccountably sad; even the officers seem discouraged. A rumour deepens their gloom: other platoons in the battalion may have taken heavy casualties from Italian artillery. This is soon confirmed; a hundred men have been killed by friendly fire. (The battery commanders did not learn to co-ordinate their fire with infantry advances until the following summer.) This raises the losses around Monfalcone to nearly 300. Giani reports that the terrible accident brings the advance to a halt. He feels the sinews snapping in his breast. He wants to weep but cannot, and has no appetite for supper. Only yesterday Trieste seemed so close, as if they could reach it in one bound. Now it seems so far away.

A few days later, the pinewoods around the Rocca catch fire from the Austrian guns. After the blaze, the ground is carpeted with ash that swirls up and coats the soldiers’ faces. Then the rain starts again, and the ground is churned to soaking mud. By mid-June, Monfalcone is in ruins.

On the day the Italians took Monfalcone, the Second Army made its first attack on the little hill of Podgora, to the west of Gorizia. The troops had crossed the river below San Michele with relative ease, but made no headway on Podgora. There was an equally futile attempt on Mount Sabotino, north of Gorizia. By 11 June, Cadorna realised what he was up against. Gorizia was, he admitted, a proper trenched camp buttressed by mighty hills: Sabotino and Podgora west of the Isonzo, Monte Santo and San Gabriele to the east, and then San Michele to the south. These hills were the town’s outlying ramparts, rising abruptly some 600 metres from the valley.

Also on 9 June, the Italians clashed for the first time with the Austrians on the lower Isonzo. It happened at Sagrado, a little town south-west of Gorizia. Before dawn, a battalion of the Pisa Brigade crossed a pontoon that had been thrown across the river where a sandy islet in midstream made the work easier. (The islet is still visible today.) The artillery hammered the enemy forward positions beyond the river. The major blew his whistle, the Italians – unaware how vulnerable they now were – jumped up to yell ‘Savoy!’, the name of the royal family, and ran forward from their improvised bridgehead. Suddenly the Austrian positions erupted with devastating fire. The pontoon was destroyed and the battalion pinned down without supplies or support. The Italians fell back to the river, and used bayonets when their ammunition ran out. As the Austrians closed in, they threw some newfangled weapons that the Italians had never seen – hand-grenades. The Italians waded back to the little island – the water was only a metre and a half deep – and burrowed into the sand as best they could. At nightfall, the handful of survivors floundered back to the western shore, leaving behind some 500 dead.

It was an astonishing blunder. Why was the operation launched with no secure bridgehead on the far side of the river? Why were the obvious risks not anticipated and planned for? These questions were not asked, even though the first massacre on the Isonzo had happened a week before, some 80 kilometres away, on the middle reach of the river, between the towns of Tolmein (now Tolmin) and Karfreit, better known as Caporetto. The Italians had advanced more rapidly on this sector. As elsewhere, they expected stiff resistance but met with almost none. On one of the hilltops above Caporetto, they found nothing but a defiant message scrawled in faulty Italian and stuffed into a bottle. The message ended, ‘Thus misfortune will come to our powerful enemies the Italians. Long live Austria! Long live the Emperor!’

By the morning of the 24th the Second Army controlled the western ridges above the valley. What did they see? Except for the weaving line of the Isonzo, the area between Flitsch (now Bovec) in the north and Gorizia in the south – where the river issues onto the plain – was a vast jumble, with no paths on the tops and very little surface water. Picture hills like the highest ranges in Wales or Scotland – around Snowdon, the Ben Nevis massif or the Cuillins of Skye, but with limestone instead of slate, granite or gabbro. The tops are often jagged, though sometimes they undulate like the Pennines. The hills rise a thousand metres and more from narrow valleys. Sheer cliffs drop to remote corries. The hills are linked by ridges that rise and fall, merge and separate like giant waves in a choppy sea. Only the Isonzo valley widens into basins where hamlets or little towns huddle the river, and farmers use every scrap of soil for crops or grazing. A rough road runs beside the river. Tracks lead up to a few higher hamlets with summer pastures. Scrubby undergrowth covers the lower slopes. For the most part, the landscape is a stony wilderness.

The Italians entered the hamlet of Livek, above Caporetto, a few hours after it had been abandoned by the Habsburg military police, who left their shiny new barracks in such a rush that the cooking pots were full of sauerkraut. As in the other ‘liberated’ villages north of Gorizia, the local people were Slovenes. The only one who spoke Italian was a woman called Katerina Medves. When she offered coffee to an ailing infantryman, he would not touch it before she drank some herself.

By the end of the day, several villages had been occupied on the eastern bank of the river, at the foot of the mountains. By the 24th, only a few Austrian reservists were left in Caporetto, which was taken the next morning. (A Slovene child, seeing the Bersaglieri approaching by bicycle and fascinated by the plumes on their hats, cried out ‘Daddy, daddy, look at all the ladies coming here on bikes!’) The Italians made their way carefully to the old stone bridge over the Isonzo, which presses through a canyon a few metres wide. Inevitably, the bridge had been blown. Scanning the hillside across the river, they saw several Austrians gazing at them from the undergrowth. Why didn’t they open fire? Then they realised these enemies were straw dummies in uniform. The first prisoners of war were taken the following morning.

At this point, inexplicably, the regiments in the Isonzo valley were ordered to sit tight by the corps commander, General di Robilant, based more than 20 kilometres away in Cividale. Up in Livek, the 12th Bersaglieri milled around for four days, gazing into the valley below and at the Mrzli ridge that rose 1,000 metres on the far side of the river. When their commander, Colonel De Rossi, asked Katerina Medves about nearby Austrian positions, she shrugged: there were none. Scanning the motionless landscape with binoculars, he could not be sure she was lying.

De Rossi was baffled by the orders from Cividale, and with reason. The prime objective in this sector was to capture the peaks of Krn and Mrzli and the lofty connecting ridges, in order to outflank the town of Tolmein. If the Italians took Tolmein, they would control the crucial railhead at Santa Lucia; then they could throttle the Habsburg defences all the way from Gorizia to Tarvis. In frustration, De Rossi ordered his sappers to throw a footbridge over the Isonzo on the 27th. When he sent his men across the bridge to prepare positions under Mrzli, on the 30th, he was ordered to pull back to Livek. Other units, he was told, were active on Mrzli.

General di Robilant had unaccountably ordered a reserve division in Cividale to lead the attack on Mrzli ridge. The 26 battalions of Alpini4 and Bersaglieri stood by and watched as the reservists crept up the flanks of the Krn and Mrzli massifs. The Italians did not realise that Mrzli was unoccupied. Sitting in Tolmein and desperately short of men, the Austrians had expected the Italians to swarm over the valley and onto Mrzli. When they realised this was not happening, they sent units of a mountain brigade onto the ridge. Later that day, the 28th, the Italians finally tried to take Mount Mrzli, and found themselves fighting one of the strongest units in the Habsburg army: the 4th Bosnian Regiment. They could get no further than a ridge at 1,186 metres on the north-west shoulder of the mountain, still 200 metres below the summit. Ferocious fire made it impossible to secure this ridge, and they fell back.

De Rossi’s men were let off the leash on 1 June. They climbed to the ridge below the summit and charged up the steep slope, led by officers brandishing sabres. Machine guns cut swathes through their ranks, but they got within 50 metres of the enemy. That night was mild and clear, and De Rossi crawled to the forward Italian position. The zinc coating on the barbed wire was silvery in the moonlight, which shone on the Austrian line, a rough wall of stones below the summit. The Italians captured this line in a dawn attack. Instead of finding themselves as masters of the hilltop, however, they were stuck. The final slope up to the summit was packed with barbed wire. Pinned down by Austrian fire, De Rossi decided to explore possible routes down to the river on his left, northwards. But another officer jumped up and, in what De Rossi called a fit of madness, ordered his men to attack. This man, Lieutenant Colonel Negrotto, was in the grip of nationalist fever; his letters home described the war as pitting ‘luminous Latin civilisation’ against ‘the barbarous but disciplined German culture’.

Hit in the spine by machine-gun fire as he tried to stop this suicidal attack, De Rossi was paralysed for life. Further north, where Mrzli converges with the Krn massif in a jumble of knife-like ridges and gullies, the Italians hurled themselves towards the summits with no greater success. As well as using their firearms, the Austrians piled boulders into pyramids and rolled them down the mountainside. By 4 June, the Italians had lost more than 2,500 men on this sector, including nearly a hundred officers. Cadorna’s judgement on the assaults on Mrzli was succinct: ‘heroic but senseless’. The Austrians were so dismayed by the loss of the little ridge at 1,186 metres that officers of the defending battalion were court-martialled. Nevertheless, Austria had got the better of this first engagement on the upper Isonzo.

The Italians had done better further north. Krn itself, which soars like a shark’s fin 2,000 metres above Caporetto, was taken in a daring pre-dawn attack by the 3rd Regiment of Alpini on 16 June, with their boots swaddled in sacks of straw to reduce noise. It was a glorious success, the first of the war, presaging others that never materialised. One of the three casualties provided Italy’s propagandists with a cult hero. Alberto Picco was a young officer from Tuscany, a handsome boy, the centre-forward and first captain of his home town’s team, La Spezia, where the soccer stadium still bears his name. He died in his captain’s arms.

Elsewhere the Italians were fatally diffident. They took the hamlet of Plava, halfway between Gorizia and Tolmein, at the end of May, but only managed to cross the river on 9 June. There were two objectives. One was Mount Kuk (611 metres), a couple of kilometres to the south. Looming in front of them was a smaller hill, which, like most of the nameless hills and peaks along the front, was known by its metric height above sea level: Hill 383.

Kuk was swathed with barbed wire, and the Italians were tricked by Austrian camouflage. The trees seemed to rain grenades, and death blazed from the undergrowth. The 37th Infantry Regiment lost half its men and most of its officers before being pulled back to the river. The survivors were ordered to join an attack on Hill 383, defended by a tough Dalmatian regiment, the 22nd Infantry, whose commander urged the men to defend their ‘Slavic soil’ against the ancestral foe. Decades later, a veteran recalled that the Austrians seemed to know exactly when the Italians would emerge from their positions on 16 June. Given the quality of Habsburg intelligence, they quite likely did possess this information. Even if they did not, the cycle of preparatory bombardment and frontal attack was pathetically predictable.

It was like the end of the world and you would have thought a volcano was erupting. Down below, the Isonzo was boiling. I was wondering how a humble infantryman could come out of this inferno alive. We were going up all the time, under an avalanche of fire; I was praying all the time. There were already big holes in our line …

Despite horrific losses – almost five hundred dead, nearly a thousand wounded – the Italians took the hill. The Austrians hid in dug-outs and tunnels along their second line while the Italians celebrated and then slept. Early next day the counter-attack drove the Italians halfway back to the river. Among the prisoners taken was a lieutenant, a deputy in the Italian parliament, who spoke freely about his army’s desperately bad medical service and worsening morale.

At the northern end of the Isonzo front was the little town of Flitsch, overlooking broad meadows a dozen kilometres upstream from a dogleg bend in the river. By early June, the Italians controlled this bend and much of the ridge that runs from here to the Krn massif. Yet, the sector commander did not try to take the town, even though Cadorna’s orders were to do just this as quickly as possible. For Flitsch occupied a strategic position. It is dominated by a hulking mountain called Rombon, reaching up almost 2,000 metres from the valley floor. Whichever side held Rombon would have a stranglehold on Flitsch and control the access to the northern passes. The Austrians needed to make Rombon unconquerable; the Italian pause gave them the chance to make it so.

During the first month of war, Italy lost 11,000–20,000 men. Austrian losses were around 5,000. Cadorna’s army was incapable of successful offensives against competently defended positions. He had failed to instil the ‘offensive spirit’ into his senior officers. Circular orders were no substitute for direct exhortation, in person. To close observers, he gave the impression of being only half engaged. What he did do was start a rolling purge of the officer corps that continued throughout his tenure; by October 1917, Cadorna had dismissed 217 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders. This ungentlemanly harshness shocked the career officers, who became more frightened of being ‘torpedoed’ than of carrying out absurd orders or sacrificing their men’s lives pointlessly. Combined with Cadorna’s intolerance of anything that might smack of insubordination, the sackings discouraged ambitious officers from sharing their thoughts on the course and conduct of the war.

In fairness, his faith in the frontal infantry offensive was no more dogged than Joffre’s or Haig’s. But he was fighting in terrain that exposed the flaws in this doctrine with utter ruthlessness. The poor quality of organisation and equipment was already having an effect. There were disturbing cases in June of conscripts spitting at the national flag. Many soldiers were disappointed by the local civilians’ cool response to their liberators, so unlike the acclaim promised by the newspapers. Instead they were met, for the most part, with shuttered windows and ‘hard Friulan faces’. Some of the soldiers began to wonder if their cause was just, after all. Their heroic idea of war was fading, and, in questions of morale, the volunteers were bellwethers; doubts that assailed them were soon felt more widely.

The opening moves in any military endeavour are likely to be clumsy, especially when the attacking army lacks relevant campaign experience. Armies learn as they go, often more quickly than their own commanders. Translating fresh information into tactical thought is a challenge for any staff headquarters in war. Without free-flowing communication, lessons can hardly be learned. It was clear by early June that the channels in this army were badly clogged. Beyond this, the situation facing Cadorna in late May was worse than he had reasonably expected. Allied efforts to break through at Gallipoli had failed, so the Central Powers did not have to bolster the Turks. The Balkan neutrals, Romania and Bulgaria, had not come off the fence. Italy was alone.

By 10 June, Cadorna recognised that matters were not going to plan. He told his family that the advance faced great difficulties and a trench war was looming – a prospect he detested. Salandra was under pressure from warmongers whose euphoria was beginning to curdle. A note of asperity crept into his communications with Cadorna, who warned that the campaign would take a long time, and advised Salandra to inform the public of the real situation. This advice was not taken.

Meanwhile, as the clashes died down in the second week of June, Cadorna’s army set about hacking trenches and gun emplacements in the limestone, carving mule-tracks in zigzags up the mountains, and draping the valley with telephone wires and cable ways suspended from triangular wooden stanchions that can still be found in the forests that now cover the lower hillsides. Pontoons over the Isonzo were strengthened, swept away by late spring rains, rebuilt. Barracks were built in the rear. Cadorna took over the archbishop’s palace in Udine which he named the ‘Supreme Command’ instead of the traditional ‘General Headquarters’. The commanders of the Second and Third Armies set up their headquarters closer to their sectors. By 21 June, Cadorna was ready to start the war in earnest. With over a million men on the plains of Veneto and Friuli – the greatest force ever assembled in Italy – he issued orders for a general advance towards Trieste and Gorizia. The first battle of the Isonzo was about to begin, but the Austro-Hungarian army was better prepared than anyone had thought possible in May.