A million casualties wasted on the Italian Front— and who remembers?
Italy declared war on the Hapsburg Empire in May 1915, hoping to recapture the “lost” territories of Trieste and Tyrol. The resulting conflict in the rugged Dolomite mountains and the hills north of Trieste killed some 700,000 Italian and 350,000 Austro-Hungarian troops in some of the most bitter fighting of World War I. Unit rebellions on both sides met with harsh reprisals, and the chaos inflicted on the Italian army and society by the northern campaign helped spur the rise of Italian fascism.
The dozen Battles of the Isonzo were fought between June 1915 and November 1917 along the Isonzo River in modern-day Slovenia. The following account traces the third and fourth battles, waged from October to December 1915.
Italian army Chief of Staff General Luigi Cadorna was in no hurry to start a third offensive. Aware that his resources lagged behind the nation’s ambitions, he needed more heavy artillery and munitions if his breakthrough strategy was to succeed. He scraped together medium and heavy guns from far and near, including some naval batteries, and pushed the government to boost domestic production. Cadorna estimated that Italy’s arms manufacturers would need the best part of a year to produce the quantity of heavy artillery he wanted. He had no doubts about the ultimate outcome and urged the government to prepare for a long haul to victory. He had to put up with a string of high-profile visitors from Rome, warning that the nation needed a resounding victory by the end of the year. If they could not have Trieste, what about Gorizia, the only other city in the “unredeemed lands” around the Adriatic? Other pressure came from the Allies. In October, when Britain and France wanted Italy to relieve the pressure on Serbia and the Western Front, the onus on Cadorna to attack became irresistible.
Senior officers drafted memoranda on tactics. These discussions centered on the reasons why Italy’s offensives had failed. The theory of attack was clear; the preliminary bombardment had to be heavy enough to wreck the enemy’s forward positions but not so long that reinforcements could be brought up to the attack zone. The “methodical advance,” introduced over the summer, was meant to deter the Austrians from building up their strength at strategic points. Diversionary assaults were timed to prevent the enemy transferring forces to block the main thrust. When the infantry attacked, artillery fire should be lengthened to strike the enemy rear, to block counterattacks from the second defensive line. The attacking infantry line should be spaced out, with the soldiers a meter apart, except where they poured through breaches in the barbed wire made the night before by the wire-cutting teams and widened by the artillery. These teams comprised four or five men with a pair of cutters, some sacks, half a dozen hand grenades and metal cylinders packed with gelignite. The cylinders were about 2 meters in length, with a fuse poking out like a candle’s wick. If they were thrust deep under the wire, they could blast a hole of 3 to 5 meters in the wire.
In practice, matters had gone very differently. The Italians could not knock out the enemy batteries if they did not know their locations; aerial reconnaissance was not yet developed, and even the observers perched at the top of church towers could not see over the brow of the Carso. Coordination between the attacking infantry and the supporting batteries was often poor, as was the communication between observers and gunners. The fire was not accurate enough to pinpoint the enemy reserves as they moved up to counterattack. Rigid fire tables prevented gunners from reacting flexibly to evolving situations. Shells were in short supply, and many guns had been damaged by overuse. At the end of August 1915, the Supreme Command set a daily ceiling on use of artillery. This helped preserve the guns at the cost of sparing the enemy. New approach roads were constructed, so heavy artillery could be brought closer to the front. Artillery fire was reduced when the infantry attacked, rather than switched off abruptly.
No reliable way had been found to breach barbed-wire entanglements. Heavy artillery could do it but could rarely be spared for this task. Even when the gelignite cylinders exploded (the fuses easily became damp and refused to ignite), gaps were so narrow they formed deadly bottlenecks when the Italians tried to crowd through—a gift to enemy machine gunners. Unless enough cylinders were used, the explosions failed to break the wire. Even then, the Austrians usually had time to patch over the gaps before dawn.
Even local successes had exposed crippling defects. When the Italians did manage to break into an enemy line, after heroic efforts, they seemed at a loss. Their resolve and coherence disintegrated with the first burst of gunfire, flurry of grenades or bayonet charge by counterattacking forces. The Austrians found they could stampede the Italians back to their own lines quite easily. Cadorna was oblivious to such omens about training and morale. On October 9, he suspended all leave except for convalescence, a crushing blow to soldiers who had been in the line since June.
Then there were the problems of defense. The Italians still lacked rockdrills and explosives to deepen the trenches, so—like the Austrians—they piled up stones into parapets and piled sandbags on the stones. The Austrians could aim almost at will; as a rule, their observers high up on the hills had sight of the front lines and the rear. And Italian losses were increased by sheer carelessness, born of inexperience and also ideology. Many officers disdained to organize their defenses properly because they thought the Austrians did not deserve the compliment. Only tragic experience would expunge this prejudice.
In short, the Austrians were masters of the front. By day their lines were generally quiet, though sharpshooters were quick to fire on Italians who forgot to stay under their parapets. Their artillery was well back, out of Italian view. By night they kept up intermittent fire while their searchlights played over the Italian lines, interrupting the drilling, digging and provisioning. By October most sectors on the lower Isonzo front had three main lines, zigzagging in textbook style and linked by communication lines. These defenses were deep enough to absorb local breakthroughs, like an airbag in a car crash. During Italian bombardments, the first line was almost empty except for observers. The forward troops waited in deep dugouts behind the trenches, often 6 or 8 meters deep, swarming with vermin. As soon as the fire lengthened toward the communication lines, the infantry clambered ladders and poured out of these dugouts, quickly joined by units from the second line. They usually reached the front in time to repulse the Italians. Inured to hardship and ferocious discipline, they were skilled and savage at hand-to-hand fighting—the essence of counterattack—with bayonets, spiked clubs, daggers and knuckledusters.
Bulgaria came off the fence in September and joined the Central Powers. From mid-October 1915, assailed by Austria from the north and west and Bulgaria from the southeast, Serbia was fighting for its life. Meanwhile the Allied offensives in France were at a standstill. The Allies called on Italy to take some of the heat.
Cadorna believed he had enough artillery and shells for another attack. Trieste had mocked his efforts so far; it was inconceivable that an impressive breakthrough would be achieved in that direction by the end of the year. Gorizia was another matter. It was worth very little strategically, but it lay only one or two kilometers beyond the Italian lines. If he could outflank the city by taking Plava and Tolmein to the north and Mount San Michele to the south, the fanatical resistance of General Erwin Zeidler’s Dalmatian and Hungarian forces in the bridgehead could, Cadorna supposed, soon be reduced. Gorizia and its 15,000 citizens would drop into his hand.
Under General Pietro Frugoni, the Second Army prepared to attack Tolmein and Plava, as well as the hills of Podgora and Sabotino. Meanwhile the Duke of Aosta’s Third Army would attack Mount San Michele once again and try to drive forward elsewhere on the Carso plateau. Austrian intelligence, helped by talkative Italian deserters, was well informed about these plans.
The offensive started on October 18, a chilly autumn day, with more than 1,300 Italian guns shelling along a 50-kilometer front, from Mount Krn to the sea. The bombardment was more intense than anything the Austrians had seen on this front. Yet, as before, the brunt of it was fired by 75mm artillery, too light to harm trenches or wire. When the Italians moved out of their trenches on the 21st, they expected large gains.
The Austrians, however, were more than ready. Enough machine guns always survived to check the Italians —even when they advanced in armor of steel plates, as they did in some places. Very little was achieved on the northern Isonzo. The Italians had briefly recaptured the “Big Trench” on Mount Mrzli at the end of September, only to lose it to the usual ferocious counterattack. They hauled artillery onto Krn to pound the summit of Mrzli and its rear lines from the north, while the infantry drove up from the south and west. Assisted in this way, the Italians’ Salerno Brigade took the Big Trench on October 21. Success was clinched with bayonets. Losses on both sides were very high. Hundreds of mud-plastered prisoners, including Bosnians with their sky-blue fezzes, were led down to the valley. The front lines were so close that working parties, collecting the dead or bringing up supplies, sometimes found themselves on the wrong side. At dawn on the 24th, the Italians made their first real grab for the elusive summit of Mrzli. They were driven back once, then twice. These failures were mitigated by advances elsewhere on the mountain, pushing the Austrians back toward the summit on either side of the Big Trench. But there was no breakthrough.
The Italians were nowhere near taking Tolmein. Hill 383, looming over Plava, remained impregnable. As for Gorizia, there were 30 assaults on Sabotino and Podgora, often in driving rain. The corps commander on this sector was General Luigi Capello, promoted from divisional commander on the Carso, where his ruthlessness justified the nickname he had earned [during the Italian colonial wars] in Libya: “the Butcher.” This reputation commended him to Cadorna, who disliked Capello as too political and, especially, too active as a Freemason. Their on-off partnership defined much of the Italian war for the next two years.
On the Carso, control of San Michele switched from one side to another amid savage fighting over three days. The Italians repeatedly overran the Austrian front line but could not withstand the counterattack. Again and again, they charged at positions that turned out not to have been seriously damaged. Their assaults were stopped short by intact wire.
Between San Michele and Monfalcone, the Carso escarpment rises and falls without any clear summits. The name given to this limestone wilderness is Monte Sei Busi, which translates as Six Holes Mountain. (To someone walking over the surface, the name could as well be Sixty or Six Hundred Holes.) The Italian Siena Brigade’s task in the Third Battle was to take the Austrians’ long, well-fortified front line on Sei Busi. On October 23 the trench was taken after three days of bloody assaults, with all three of the Siena Brigade’s battalions engaged. The rejoicing was short-lived; that night, the counterattack drove the Italians back to their jump-off position. As usual, they had no time to prepare their defense. The next morning, the Austrians called for an hour’s ceasefire to tend the wounded and collect the dead. Soon afterward the Siena Brigade was replaced with a regiment of Bersaglieri and the Sassari Brigade. Together, these fresh forces retook the trench early in November, and kept it. Yet another massive effort had yielded a “success” scarcely visible on the map.
Bad weather lasted throughout the battle, intensifying at the end of the month. By early November the trenches were quagmires of filth, the roads almost impassable. The first snowfalls forced the fighting to stop.
The last days of the battle, November 3 and 4, were extremely violent. Brigade diaries reported fears that some units might crack and desert en masse. The attacks on San Michele were weakening under the internal pressures of exhaustion and hopelessness. The Italians had sustained 67,000 losses along the front. On San Michele, the Catanzaro Brigade alone lost almost 2,800 men and 70 officers between October 17 and 26, nearly half of each category. The Caltanisetta Brigade, deployed alongside the Catanzaro, took even heavier casualties, losing two-thirds of its men and 63 percent of its officers between October 22 and November 3. South of Monfalcone, the Italian 16th Division carried out a frontal attack on Hill 121, the nearest point to Trieste that Cadorna’s army had yet reached. This failed attack alone cost 4,000 Italian casualties. The battle’s only gains were trivial: some ground along the river, south of Plava, and two hills to the west of Podgora, bringing the Italians a hundred meters closer to Gorizia.
The extra artillery and tinkering with infantry tactics had made no decisive difference. One reason was the Italians’ rigorous centralization of command and control. Given the poor communications on the battlefield, this made bad decisions inevitable. An episode involving the Lazio Brigade, recovered by the historian Giorgio Longo, illustrates this with tragic clarity.
The brigade was stationed on the northern slope of San Michele. It is the steepest face of the hill, rising 270 meters from the Isonzo within 900 horizontal meters. The 132nd Infantry Regiment (Lazio Brigade, 29th Division, Third Army) was stationed between regiments of the Perugia and Verona brigades. It faced formidable Austrian defenses, guarded by multiple rows of barbed wire and machine-gun nests, backed by batteries to the east. Flanking movements along the river were barred by a redoubt with outlying trenches that the Italians judged to be impregnable. On October 21, the 132nd Infantry was ordered to take a ridge on the northern slope. Known as Hill 124, this ridge was ringed with barbed wire that had suffered only a few narrow breaches. Efforts to widen the breaches with wire cutters and gelignite tubes had mostly failed. Inevitably, the attackers suffered heavy losses; over 10 days of continuous assaults, the 132nd lost 26 officers and 707 men. The survivors sheltered in muddy holes; their soggy uniforms could not be dried.
On the evening of October 31 the regiment was ordered to renew its attack the following morning. The commanding officer, Colonel Viola, decided to resist. He reported to the brigade commander, General Schenardi, that attacking in these conditions was impossible: the rain had made the steep slopes too slippery; the paths disappeared under sliding mud; the triple rows of wire were intact; enemy fire turned the assaults into pointless butchery.
Schenardi knew Viola as a courageous commander who would not refuse an order without good reason. Throughout the following day, Schenardi urged him to proceed with the attack. The other man bought time by sending out wire-cutting patrols. That evening, Schenardi put the best face possible on the colonel’s refusal in a report to his divisional commander, General Fortunato Marazzi. The wire had blocked the 132nd Infantry’s progress, and subsequent wire-cutting patrols had been killed by enfilade fire from above. They would send night patrols to try again, but if these failed to widen the breaches, the next day’s attack could only succeed if the Verona Brigade, adjacent to the Lazio, gave timely support. He ended by assuring the general that every effort was being made and every hardship endured to achieve success.
At divisional headquarters in Sdraussina, two kilometers away, Marazzi warned that the men’s “extreme energy” might be undermined by weakness in the officers. Any commander suspected of shortcomings should be replaced. Behind their defenses, the enemy were few and disheartened. “Strike a vigorous blow with every means, and victory shall be ours.” Marazzi was under pressure from the corps commander, General Paolo Morrone, who had been stung by a phone call from the Duke of Aosta himself, in his headquarters at Cervignano some 16 kilometers away, regretting that the previous day’s action had brought “no appreciable result.” On the morning of November 2, Marazzi informed the irate Morrone that “the most energetic orders” had been given “to drive the troops forward with the utmost vigor.” Every man would do his duty to the last, at whatever cost.
General Schenardi ordered the attack to take place at 1300 hours. Colonel Viola protested that the breaches in the wire were still too narrow, due partly to the dampness of fuses in the gelignite tubes. Without support from the Verona Brigade, the 132nd would be massacred again. Once again, zero hour passed without an attack. When Schenardi again raised the matter of the Verona Brigade, General Marazzi snapped back: “Attack at once, never mind the Verona Brigade!” A quarter of an hour later, he followed this order with another: “If Colonel Viola hesitates for an instant, relieve him of his command.”
Viola duly gave orders to advance. As usual, he led from the front. The platoons poured uphill in waves, only to break against the wire, still “nearly intact” according to the brigade diary. Reinforcements arrived, but the enemy fire was overwhelming. Around 1900, the regiment fell back. The following day, Viola prepared to lead his men back up the hill, but torrential rain forced a postponement. The same happened on the 4th. The 29th Division was exempted from the next rotations, so the men of the 132nd stayed at their sodden posts. By November 10, the regiment was stunned by exhaustion, in terrible condition. That evening the steady downpour became a cloudburst, flooding the trenches and turning the paths into foaming streams. Two days later the 132nd was granted a week’s leave. Colonel Viola died on November 22, leading his men in yet another attack against Hill 124.
The Third Battle was suspended on the evening of November 4, but Cadorna was unreasonably convinced that Austrian Fifth Army commander General Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna’s troops teetered on the edge of collapse. Knowing that 24 fresh battalions were due to arrive within a week or two, he felt sure Gorizia could still be taken.
After a week’s pause, the Fourth Battle was launched with a short bombardment. The infantry did their best to charge up the open slopes of Mrzli, Podgora, Sabotino and San Michele, swept by machine-gun fire. The rain pelted down, the temperature sank, and then—on November 16—heavy snow fell. There would not be a proper thaw until spring 1917, when corpses were revealed after a year and a half.
Thanks to the wire and machine guns, Austrian units that had lost half their men held back Italian advances with three times their own strength. A bit of ground was taken here and there, after huge losses, but nothing decisive. Capello, an intuitive soldier, knew it was impossible to succeed in such conditions, with the men exhausted. He sent a graphic report to General Frugoni, commanding the Second Army. 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.” Even the reserves had spent days in water and mud, hence were not capable of reinvigorating the first-line troops.
Malingering and self-mutilation were serious problems. Malingerers imitated symptoms that doctors found hard to verify. With so many infantrymen presenting tidy wounds to their hands or feet, officers learned to look for telltale scorch marks. Self-mutilation could be punished with summary execution or jail, but the trend was only reversed much later, when the Supreme Command sent all suspects straight to the front line.
Amid the routine slaughter, November 18 marked a turning point: The Italians shelled Gorizia for three hours. This was the start of “total war” on the Isonzo. Until now, both sides had mostly refrained from targeting civilians. Gorizia was known as the Austrian Nice, the city of roses or violets. Blessed by a mild climate in winter, with hills behind and the turquoise Isonzo in front, it flourished under the Habsburgs. Long avenues were lined with handsome villas. The public gardens were exceptionally pretty, the medieval castle on the hill was picturesque. The hospitals and convalescent homes were patronized by wealthy Viennese and Bavarians, who formed a German crust on top of the mixed Italian and Slovene population. After May 1915, fighting quickly reached the city’s edge. Curtains of reeds were hung across the streets to block snipers’ sightlines; otherwise, life continued almost normally. The first wave of refugees brought some 40,000 people through the city, local Italians as well as Slovenes, carrying or dragging whatever they could save from the invaders; many would spend years in internment camps. Although the prewar population of 31,000 soon halved, as citizens fled to safer regions, numbers were kept up by several tens of thousands of Habsburg troops quartered in the city, turning it into a virtual third line. Officers and their wives strolled in the gardens, sat in the cafés, and kept local businesses afloat. Authority passed from the mayor to General Zeidler, who chose not to evacuate the city, perhaps because the Italian attack was a gift to Habsburg propaganda.
Why did Cadorna abandon the moral high ground now, when he knew that Gorizia could not be taken during this battle? His memoirs offer no clue. Perhaps he decided that civilized restraint had become a luxury, or the spectacle of the city’s near-normality so close to the front line harmed his own men’s morale.
The Italians’ Supreme Command ordered a last offensive on Mount Mrzli and around Tolmein for November 23. Senior officers were unconvinced. Many of the men could no longer fit their boots onto their swollen feet, and frostbite was a danger. The mud, too, undermined morale: When their uniforms dried out, they were stiff as boards. The sight of Sicilian peasants shivering in a trench, hands purple and swollen, unequipped for climatic extremes that were as inconceivable to them as the war itself, could sow doubt in any observer’s mind about continuing the assaults in subzero temperatures. But Cadorna was not an observer; he was in Udine, nearly 40 kilometers from Mount Mrzli, surrounded by deferential staff officers.
Even so, on November 26, the Italians pushed the Austrians back to within 20 meters of Mrzli’s summit. Taking advantage of a rising mist, the counterattacking Austrians quickly drove the Italians back to the Big Trench. A separate push to take the southernmost end of the ridge, directly above Tolmein, was also repulsed. Inching up the mountain, the Italians eventually found themselves only 8 meters below the Austrian front line. Pelted with grenades, rocks, barrels, even tins filled with feces, they could get no further. It was rumored that a corps commander shouted at his staff, “Don’t you see I need more dead men, lots more, if we’re to show the top brass that the action against Mrzli cannot succeed?” By the end of 1915, the losses of two brigades that had served on Mrzli from the start —the Modena and Salerno—exceeded 9,000 men.
Operations petered out in the first week of December, when heavy snowfalls obliterated trenches and wire. The Fourth Battle had added 49,000 Italian casualties to the 67,000 from the Third. Austrian losses were 42,000 and 25,000 respectively. Summarizing the reasons for failure, the Italian official history of the war blamed the barbed wire, which was “practically impossible” to destroy. Many months would pass before the Italians found a remotely effective solution.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.