Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Italy's Most Successful Advance on the Isonzo (A Roads Classic)

Today with my tour group, I'm starting a visit to the battlefields around Gorizia described here. In the grim campaign of attrition that were the 11 battles fought along the Isonzo River, the Sixth Battle of the Iszono was the greatest accomplishment of the Italian Army. MH


If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. . . then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.
            Sun Tsu—The Art of War 

Action on the Rocky, Barren Carso Plateau

When Italy entered the Great War in 1915, it hoped to tilt the balance of force against the Central Powers, ending the war quickly and allowing them to gain some long sought after territorial gains on the cheap. By the start of 1916, however, Italy found it was engaged in a protracted total war, placing undreamed-of social and economic strains on the nation. Italy's government and military had to justify this burden with some successes on the battlefield. Their new allies had also started placing demands on them to continue on the offensive to alleviate pressures on their fronts. Austria-Hungary, likewise, had mobilized its entire empire to support its war effort and needed to keep popular support. Also, to inhibit the disintegration threatened by the growth of ethnocentric nationalism, Austria-Hungary could not afford to surrender any territory. On the Isonzo, all of this meant that in 1916 Italy needed to continue attacking and Austria-Hungary needed to continue defending. The war of attrition would continue growing with both sides blind to the inevitable consequences. 

Fifth Battle of the Isonzo
9–17 March 1916

In February of 1916, on the Western Front the German Army launched a tremendous assault on the city of Verdun and its surrounding fortress zone in northeast France. At a conference at Chantilly, France Marshal Joffre requested that Italy and Russia take the offensive on their respective fronts to reduce pressure on the French forces. Cadorna ordered a broad, but half-hearted, offensive nearly immediately. 

Probes were made at Tolmino, Gorizia, and the Carso. In most cases they were more demonstrations than full assaults. These died out after about a week because of bad weather and some bracing counterattacks staged by the Austrians, most notably at Santa Maria near Tolmino. The Italian Army also still needed more guns and artillery shells. The Allies committed to sending Italy heavy artillery pieces, but further offensives were delayed until the new weapons and sufficient shells could be assembled. 

Meanwhile, in the Trentino, the Austrians were marshaling their own forces for an assault. If they could mount a successful attack down off of the mountains, cross the Asiago Plateau, then occupy the Venetian Plain, they could cut off all the Italian forces in the Carnic and Julian Alps and along the Isonzo. This major operation, called the Battle of Asiago by most and the Straffe [Punishment] Expedition by some began on 15 May 1916.

At first the Austrian attack in the Trentino looked dramatically successful. Comando Supremo delayed further its plans for offensive operations and moved troops to reduce the threat to their rear. The deployment from the Isonzo to the Asiago Plateau was done fairly quickly since the Italian forces were traveling over shorter, interior lines. By early June the Austrian offensive was grinding to a halt. The Italian situation was further helped by the Russian response to their call for pressure on the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front. The subsequent series of actions known as the Brusilov Offensive were so successful that Austrian Supreme Commander Conrad von Hötzendorf was forced to give up his Trentino Offensive and move troops to distant Galicia. Italy responded in turn by mounting a counteroffensive which ultimately regained part of the Asiago Plateau. 

Back on the Isonzo Front, Austro-Hungarian Fiftthe Army Commander General Borojevic had decided to strengthen some local positions, while the Italian Third Army was directed to mount attacks to discourage the Austrians shifting more men to the Trentino. Italian operations at Monfalcone were fairly low-scale, but the concurrent Austrian attack on the Carso marked a turning point for the Great War on the Italian Front. In their assaults on the Italian IX Corps at Mte San Michele and San Martino they introduced gases of the asphyxiant type leading to some quick local successes with heavy losses casualties among their opponents. The Italian killed, wounded, and gassed totaled 4,600 men in just a few days. 

Gorizia Castle Looking North
The Approaches to Gorizia Are Guarded by Mountains to Both the North and West

As the Italian counteroffensive on the Trentino slowed, the focus of Comando Supremo shifted back to the Isonzo. Now, they decided, the time was at hand to capture strategic Gorizia. Again, they used their shorter interior lines to shift troops, this time back to the Isonzo sector. In August they would be ready to mount what would turn out to be the most successful of their 11 Isonzo Offensives. 

Sixth Battle of the Isonzo 
4–17 August 1916

The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo is also known as the Battle of Gorizia, after Italy's sole objective for the operation. For once, by practicing the principle of mass or concentration and limiting the initial battlefield to an eight-mile-wide front, General Cadorna was able to align ten of his divisions against only two of his enemy's. This was made possible by the secrecy surrounding the preparations and his speed in switching back units from the Asiago sector.

The Isonzo, Where the Italian Army Crossed in Force

The battle began with what was intended to be a diversionary artillery barrage and an infantry feint by units of two corps against Monfalcone to the south. The fighting got out of control, though, resulting in over five days of tough combat. The diversion failed to draw any Austrian units around Gorizia south. 

The main advance began two days later from the towns of Oslavia and Padgora and featured the capture of Mte Sabatino and Mte Padgora despite strong resistance and heavy counterattacks. On 8 August, units of the 12th Italian Division were the first to enter Gorizia. The next day the Isonzo was crossed in force and the city secured. On the southern perimeter, the front broadened, growing to a width of 15 miles. The fierce fighting characteristic of the Carso was once again renewed. Mte San Michele and Mte Sei Busi were finally seized, but at tremendous loss of life. The Italian advance on the Carso continued several miles to the dry river bed of the Vallone.

Typical Brutal Terrain on the Carso Plateau, Just South of Gorizia

General Cadorna turned a bit cautious and Borojevic brought up reinforcements who dug in at strong locations, and the operation ended fairly quickly. The advance of three miles depth over the 15-mile front with the capture of several strategic targets was the first major offensive success by the Italian Army during the Great War. Italian morale temporarily soared and on 29 August the government finally declared war on Germany. For their gains, the Italian Army had suffered 50,000 killed and wounded; on the defense, Austria-Hungary lost 42,000. Planning was initiated by Comando Supremo to expand the Gorizia bridgehead as soon as sufficient ordnance could be collected.


  1. indeed an excellent report
    "mio nonno's" war.... 3x years in the combat engineers
    he said "death is a joke" & toasted "il caduti"
    every time he drank, every day