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

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Roads Classic: Navigating the Italian Front

One area that has been neglected so far in the Centennial commemorations is the Italian Front of the Great War.  I am hoping that will pick up soon, and I'll be doing as much as I can to correct that in our publications. However, since I've given a number of talks on the fighting there and led tours there, I know there is quite a bit of confusion about the location and character of the geography in its various sectors. Here is a little primer so you can understand which areas are being discussed when you see articles or TV programs on the war on the Italian Front. The are five sectors, five kinds of battlefields, to be mindful of. Since the terrain was different in each, the character of the fighting there was different as well.

Here Is Your Editor and Guide Atop the Italian Bastion of Monte Grappa (Sector 5) with the Dolomite Alps in the Distance (Sector 3A)
This key map locates the different sectors show on the subsequent slides. The S-shaped front was about 400 miles long from the spring of 1915 until the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917.

Here are slides showing the features and terrain of the five sectors.

This area is also known as the Lower Isonzo.  It was the main location of Isonzo Battles #1–11 and the site of the greatest casualties on the Italian Front.  The Carso Plateau, the city of Gorizia,  and a second rocky plateau, the Bainsezza, were the main obstacles to the Italian advance on Trieste.

The Upper Isonzo, on the edge of the Julian Alps was the location of the most famous battle on the Italian Front and one of the most lopsided military engagements of the 20th century.

The mountaintop warfare in the High Alps was the most dramatic element of the war in Italy. It featured mine warfare on mountains, incredible engineering feats, and some unique ways to die not seen on the Western Front  – Avalanches, Freezing, Starving, and Falling off Cliffs. The Adamello-Presanella Alps in the west were strategically less important and less active than the Dolomite Alps to the East.

This lovely transition zone between the Lower Tyrol/Trentino and the Venetian Plain was the site of Austria-Hungary's forgotten, but important, 1916 offensive and the desperate fighting post-Caporetto. The war opened in 1915 on the north edge in the Fortress Zone marking the prewar borders between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. 

After the Battle of Caporetto, the German and Austrian pursuit drove the Italians far south, from the Adriatic to the Asiago Plateau. However, the Italians with Allied reinforcements were able to hold onto a strong (and shorter) defensive line. The marker above shows where Ernest Hemingway was wounded.  Please remember, though — Ernest Hemingway was NOT at Caporetto.


  1. I am going to post something about that front as part of our work on commemorating WWI in an EU project.

    As part of our work we started the website More about this later when I have more time