Italian Front 1917

The Italian Intervention of 1915 in the Great War saw the country engaged along its 3,000 kilometre alpine border with the Hapsburg Empire at altitudes of betwen 1,000 and 3,000 metres above sea level. Little wonder that Kipling was despatched as an Allied propagandist to write a paen to the Alpini, the Italian mountain infantry, published in English and Italian as `The War in the Mountains / La guerra nelle montagne.'

The Austro-Hungarians received the Italians along prepared lines of defence, which held throughout the conflict. The Nationalist slogan of `Trento & Trieste' was the epitome of the strategic insanity of Italian war aims, since it involved dividing Italian forces along norwesterly and easterly axes. Intending to adopt a defensive posture in the north and attack across the Isonzo, the Italians were drawn into untenable marginal advances in the norwesterly Trentino sector in 1915. The Austrian Spring Offensive of 1916, the Punitive or `Stafexpedition' nearly broke through to the rail heads of Schio and Thiene, threatening the lines of communication between the Italian Army and the country.The Italian line held at Mount Pasubio, where the overcommitted Hapsburg forces first faltered.

Italian advances along the eastern frontier of the Isonzo Valley, including the 1916 capture of Gorizia, the gateway to Istria, were pyrrhic: Italian women sang `Gorizia, may you be cursed for every heart you have broken'. The Hapsburg state was able to exploit Slav nationalism by deploying Balkan troops in defence of the approaches to their homelands in view of Italian expansionist ambitions to seize the Dalmation coast. The prioritisation of the eastern front had been in view of hopes of exciting subversive nationalism among the subject peoples of the Hapsburg Empire. There were even hopes of a military conjunction in Hungary, but the tactics of Cadorna were too unimaginative and voluntaristic to secure a breakthrough.

The rout at Caporetto in 1917 took its name from another railhead, which fell to a pincer movement launched from the adjacent alpine vales of Plezzo and Tolmino in the upper Isonzo Valley in Autumn 1917. Austrian and German units followed up by capturing the district centre of Cividale, an objective they had targetted but never expected to achieve, leading to the fall of the regional Friulan capital of Udine as the Italian eastern front was outflanked and driven back in confusion, first to the line of the Tagliamento, and then, when no feasible defence could be mustered there, along the line of the Piave north east of Venice. Caporetto remains a byword for disaster in modern Italian. The root cause of the defeat was command failure and the demoralisation of the troops after years of senseless assault tactics. The eventual opportunistic Italian victory on the eve of the Armistice at Vittorio Veneto, well within prewar Italian borders, was over an Empire whose armed forces were weakened by blockade and attrition, and whose head of state was desperately suing for peace. The war of Sacred Egoism forced on the country by the Interventionist party cost the nation 600,000 dead, 21,000 of them reserve officers, the flower of the intelligentsia, and many thousands wounded in body and soul.

Map from Nelson Gay ed `Italy's Great War & Her National Aspirations' Alfieri & Lacroix Milan 1917