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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Isonzo, Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

The Isonzo, Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War

by John R. Schindler
Praeger; 2001

German Troops on the Upper Isonzo, 1917
Because of my fascination with the Great War on the Eastern Front I have often started my reviews with the tattered cliché that the Eastern Front, despite its horrendous casualties and social upheaval, has not received as much attention as it should have. Rest assured that I will never use those words again after reading Isonzo, The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War. Historians have done much worse to the documentation of the Italian- Austro-Hungarian Front than they have to the Eastern Front.

When the book was published in 2001, John Schindler was a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and later progressed to a teaching position at the Navy War College. His most recent work is the Fall of the Double Eagle: The Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary.

For some odd reason this book reminded me of Maurice Ravel's "Boléro," which was inspired by a rather old Spanish dance. The music starts off very slow and very demure with the same notes over and over. Quickly the music, the same notes, gets louder and louder while the tempo increases. By the end, the orchestra is riotous with all instruments playing and the pace more madcap than a runaway freight train.

Schindler's book begins just like the music, low and slow with a description of the area around the Isonzo. It's almost like a travel monologue in which he describes the flow of the Isonzo through an ideal countryside, mentioning its chief cities and the Julian Alps with their majestic peaks and craggy valley. He even talks about the indigenous peoples' ethnic roots, pointing out that there is an Italian minority. Then, the tempo begins to increase, and he explains the nationalistic feelings Italians had toward the regio—Italia Irredenta. It is the last region that Italian nationalists saw as part of their heritage so long denied to them by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it and the Tyrol to the north are the price for Italy's entry into the war on the Allied side.

The Italian government declared war on Austria-Hungary in April 1915. The "Boléro"'s tempo is increasing. The Army is mobilized and led by General Luigi Cadorna. He is a meticulous planner on a level with his counterpart the Austro-Hungarian Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, with whom he shares some traits. Both Conrad and Cadorna took advice from no one, believing that they saw each and every item that would make their plan fail and had compensated for them. Like the field marshal, mountains, rivers, and opposing armies mattered little for Cadorna's advancing the armies. Neither put up with criticism, no matter how small, nor questions about their plans. But above all, both believed that sheer élan on the soldiers' parts was the key to winning the battle and the war.

By mid-1915 Conrad had learned about being so chauvinistic. He had read the reports of high casualties in Galicia and Poland. His reliance on élan had destroyed the Dual-Monarchy's armies and made it dependent on aid from Germany. Cadorna had also read the reports and received in-depth reports from Italian officers who witnessed the carnage on the Western Front. But all the evidence did not change his mind. He laid out the plans, set objectives, and expected his subordinate officers to lead the men to victory or suffer the consequences. After all, Cadorna had four corps in 1915 with over 1000 artillery pieces while his opponent had only two corps with a few hundred cannons. Victory was assured.

The First Battle of the Isonzo kicked off in May 1915. Schindler details the order of battle for both sides and critiques the abilities and disabilities of corps and division commanders. Interestingly, he does not talk about the ethnic diversity of the Austro-Hungarians but rather lauds cooperation between Bosnians, Croats, and Slovenes in the defense of their realm. The music has reached the fastest tempo and is the loudest. This crescendo will continue through ten more battles, all of 1916 and 1917, which have the same results. The Austro-Hungarians gave little ground and destroyed attacking divisions with well-coordinated artillery and machine gun fire. Many times, the Italians didn't even get within 200 yards of the defenders while at other times their sheer number brought about hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches.

By the third battle, Cadorna had not changed his concept of élan but decided that the battles would take on a concept of attrition. The Italians increased their artillery, especially in the heavier calibers, and threw their infantry at the Austrian lines in wave after wave banking on the idea that Conrad, considering that he was losing so many men against the Russians, would run out of resources to continue. Human cost was incalculable. Cadorna routinely lied to the Italian king and parliament about the losses and all the while asked for more men and more cannons. Whole battalions were refilled three and four times.

Italian Forces on the Carso Plateau, Lower Isonzo

Italian soldiers' morale had little time to deteriorate since most were killed off within weeks of arrival. On the Austrian side the casualties were not much less, and there were many times that battlements had to be given up because there were no reserves. Key to the Austrians' high casualties was the Italian artillery, which led off each attack destroying defensive works and men in days-long bombardments. But once the cannons stopped firing, there were always enough personnel to man the devastating machine guns. Finally, the "Boléro" reaches its climax in the twelfth battle, which is better known as Caporetto. The music stops abruptly and the listener feels that the dancers have collapsed on the floor.

As I stated in the beginning, Schindler's book has introduced me to a new facet of the Great War. It is the first volume of a new section of my library, and I hope to add much more.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. It's truly amazing that more groups of soldiers on both sides did not mutiny. The leaders would have deserved it.

  2. Splendid review, Michael Kihntopf . I enjoyed your use of a musical metaphor.

    And I'm a fellow Eastern Front supporter! It could always be worse, though - cf the Macedonian front.

  3. (And here's the start of my review of Schindler's _Double Eagle_: )

  4. Michael and Bryan are both contributors to the Roads to the Great War's Tuesday book reviews, and both do excellent work--as this review illustrates. Thank you!

  5. Thanks so much for the review! I will be going to the Isonzo and Asiago regions this Oct. I know little about them, as all prior trips have been to France & Belgium. I've been trying to get caught up on the "Southern Front" before our trip, and now I must add one more book to the lst!