Military history


Another Second of Life

The Italians were using up an awful amount

of men. I did not see how it could go on. Even

if they took all the Bainsizza and Monte San

Gabriele there were plenty of mountains

beyond for the Austrians. I had seen them.


The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo

A diffused fear of revolution had been felt since the early spring of 1917. The governing class worried that news of events in Russia might set light to discontent over living conditions and the endless war. In June, the government yielded to pressure in parliament for a debate on the conduct of the war. Disappointed by the Tenth Battle and frustrated by Boselli’s feeble leadership, Sonnino’s clam-like silence and Cadorna’s unaccountability, and in some cases suspicious of Orlando’s ambitions, many deputies were spoiling to have their say. Now they could have it, albeit – this being the government’s condition – in closed session.

The debate filled the last week of June. On the final day, a general took the floor. This was Fortunato Marazzi, a pro-war Liberal deputy who had served as a divisional commander (without much distinction, as we saw in chapter 11). In a marathon speech, he enumerated many of the blunders that Cadorna and both wartime governments had committed since 1915. Why had Italy learned nothing from the first campaigns on the Western Front? Why was the artillery dispersed along the front instead of massed on the Isonzo? Why had the government not held the Supreme Command responsible for its decisions? Why did the Supreme Command persist with the ‘simultaneous general attack’ despite disastrous results? The questions rolled pitilessly on. Deputies were unused to such candour; according to one, no admirer of Marazzi, the indictment ‘grievously impressed’ them. Yet it made no difference to the outcome. The government survived a vote of confidence, Orlando and Sonnino basked in unexpected approval, and Boselli reaffirmed his trust in Cadorna. In truth, the chamber had little choice. With Sonnino and Bissolati, his most influential ministers, publicly committed to resigning if Cadorna went, Boselli was safe for the moment.

As usual, Cadorna paid no attention to grumbling deputies. He had been looking ahead to the Eleventh Battle even before the Tenth petered to a halt, in early June. Next time, he would commit as many men and guns as possible on the Isonzo. As he no longer feared an Austrian breakout from the Trentino, he brought 12 divisions from the Alpine front, leaving a minimal presence. He would throw 51 divisions at the line between Tolmein and the sea: a vast force, distributed along a front of 60 kilometres. Estimating that three months would be needed to stockpile two million medium and heavy shells – sufficient to ensure the batteries would not run short – he planned to attack in August.

The focal area would be the Bainsizza plateau, between Gorizia and Tolmein. Since the Tenth Battle, these thinly populated highlands had formed the Austrian front line on the middle Isonzo. Cadorna believed an element of surprise could be preserved here, which was impossible further south. He also assessed that the Austrian defences on the plateau were relatively light. This was correct: the Bainsizza had never been fortified or strongly garrisoned. Watching the build-up in July, Boroević decided not to bolster the Bainsizza at the price of diverting resources from elsewhere. If the Italians broke through, their impetus would dissipate like waves on sand; the terrain was its own defence. The Italians were aware of these factors but took no account of how they might affect their plans. Having taken the Bainsizza, they proposed to swing south and cut off Monte Santo and San Gabriele, the high hills that the Austrians still held behind Gorizia. But if the force on the Bainsizza became stuck there, for whatever reason, the Second Army units facing Monte Santo and San Gabriele would be in the familiar position of attacking up steep gradients, against solid defences, without flanking support.

Once again, Cadorna let General Capello – now commanding the Second Army – add a new element to the plan without caring how this affected the whole design. For Capello decided that the Second Army, once the Bainsizza had been secured, should wheel northwards toward Tolmein, the only point on the front where Austria still held both banks of the Isonzo. Even with their enlarged forces, however, the Italians could not expect to reduce the Tolmein bridgehead and the hills behind Gorizia while also attacking Mount Hermada, on the southern edge of the Carso.

By early August, Cadorna had more than half a million men ranged along the front, maintaining but not exceeding the 10:4 advantage in manpower that he had enjoyed since 1915. What was new was a crushing superiority in firepower. The factories were working flat out to supply the front with guns and munitions, while Austrian heavy industry had ground almost to a halt. The Italians had 3,750 guns on the Isonzo, including a handful of British and French batteries, and 1,900 mortars, against the Austrians’ 430 heavy guns and 1,250 field guns. For the first time, the Italians could match the power of offensives on the Western Front.

The bombardment got under way in the first week of August. By the middle of the month, it was in full swing. The gunners had learned how to register on their targets, and the effect along the 12-kilometre Bainsizza front was devastating. Italian pilots controlled the sky, and their raids added to the Austrian sense that there was no protection to be had. From Tolmein to the sea, the Habsburg lines and rear positions were shrouded in smoke and fire, roaring day and night with shellbursts. Hermada was pounded from floating batteries, fixed on rafts near the mouth of the Isonzo.

Zero hour was 05:30 on the 19th. The infantry attacked along the whole front. On the Carso, the Third Army dented the Austrian lines in three places. The biggest advance was at the hamlet of Selo, long since pulverised, several kilometres inland. The Hermada massif was still impregnable. A push up the Vipacco valley, between the Carso and Gorizia, gained some ground before Habsburg counter-attacks forced the Italians back to their starting point.

So far, so familiar. Above Gorizia, however, something novel was happening; the Second Army had stormed across the Isonzo and made dramatic progress on the Bainsizza, where Boroević’s skeleton force was overwhelmed. Capello was exultant: ‘They do not know what a torrent of men I am unleashing.’ Four corps were poised to exploit the opening. He realised the troops might soon run short of rations, water and even munitions; however, they were ordered to press ahead regardless. For several days the Italians made dream-like progress across the Bainsizza, rolling forward for two, three, four, five kilometres, smashing 45 Austrian battalions as they went, capturing dozens of guns and 11,000 prisoners. Italy had seen nothing like this. Was it too good to be true? Colonel Gatti, already worried that the whole offensive was unnecessary, was perplexed. Why did the Austrians not bring up their reserves? If they weren’t here, where were they? Could it be that they had none? What else were they planning …?

The Italians did not know that the Emperor Karl had visited Boroević’s headquarters in Postojna, half way to Ljubljana, on 22 August. It was, they agreed, a moment of crisis. Long-range fire blocked their supply routes to the front; the troops were running short of munitions. The Bainsizza was untenable, and Karl prevailed on his general to fall back. Only the sovereign could have wrung this compromise from ‘the lion of the Isonzo’. Under imperial pressure, Boroević utilised the elastic defence, or defence in depth. It was risky; a tactical withdrawal from the Bainsizza would lengthen the front around an Italian salient and boost enemy morale. On the other hand, given the Austrians’ excellent defensive record, it should be possible to block the enemy when they reached the eastern limit of the plateau. As an extra inducement to flexibility, the Emperor reportedly pledged that the next operation on the Isonzo would be an Austrian offensive out of the Tolmein bridgehead. This promise revitalised Boroevic´ and his staff; for the prospect of endless defence, with no chance of turning the tables, had a peculiar effect even on the hardiest soldiers. It was like watching their own death draw closer day by day. The stimulus to resist, in this condition, might at any moment flip into its opposite: a doomed fatalism, with a collapse of will. Karl’s army on the Isonzo was poised on a razor’s edge; the discussion at Postojna shows that he realised this. Before dawn on the 24th, the 12 Austrian regiments on the Bainsizza silently pulled back to the eastern edge of the plateau, with their guns. Secrecy was maintained, and a few hours later the weary Austrians had the satisfaction of seeing the Italian artillery hammer their empty positions.

From then on, the Italians fulfilled Boroević’s hopes to the letter. Capello’s divisions washed across the plateau, and subsided there. The Supreme Command had not prepared for such progress. The strategic reserves were centred on the front, ready to move wherever an opportunity arose. This was mistaken, as a breakthrough was much less likely south of Gorizia than north of it. As a result, the Second Army could not exploit the Austrian withdrawal. With the artillery toiling along rough tracks far behind, the infantry’s scope for manoeuvre was limited. Instead of reinforcing his forward units, Capello launched several half-baked sorties towards Tolmein, which the Austrians swatted back. The flanking movement to the south, towards Monte Santo and San Gabriele, never transpired: the Austrians’ cordon around the plateau contained it.

The pull-back also affected the defence behind Gorizia. Capello’s assault on Monte Santo had groped upwards into the blaze of shellfire crowning the hill. Since the Italians captured it in May, only to lose it again, the Marian shrine on the summit had been razed. The imminent Italian occupation of the Bainsizza would expose another of Monte Santo’s flanks, rendering it indefensible. Accordingly, the last Habsburg defenders quietly pulled back from their foxholes in the rubble, down the eastern flank of the mountain, and across the narrow pass to Mount San Gabriele. The nearest Italian regiment was only 40 metres from the ruins; when its colonel realised what had happened, he led his men to the summit. Monte Santo was Italian, once and for all.1

The 24th was a great day, and word of the army’s achievements flashed to Rome. Ambassador Rodd telegraphed Lloyd George that the offensive might end in ‘a complete smashing of the Austrian army’. The Prime Minister was jubilant; Cadorna’s breakthrough (for such it seemed) confirmed his earlier hunch about the Italians. On the 26th, he re-launched his scheme to help them ‘convert the Austrian retreat into a rout’, as he put it. Again, General Robertson and the top brass dug in. By the time London and Paris agreed how many guns to send Cadorna, the Italians had stalled.

For a few days, however, anything seemed possible. Gatti joined in the acclaim for Cadorna: he alone had wanted the battle, and he ‘has held everything together with his iron fist’. By the 28th, with the Bainsizza more like a cul-de-sac than a gateway, doubts were creeping back. Cadorna suspended operations on the plateau. The capture of Monte Santo was a spectacular success with great propaganda benefits, but it did not alter the strategic balance. Loyal as ever to the Supreme Command, General Delmé-Radcliffe blamed the ‘extraordinary difficulty of the ground and the lack of roads’.

The Carso was quiescent. The Third Army had scaled down its operations around the 23rd, releasing Austrian forces for transfer to San Gabriele, which was now the major obstacle between the Bainsizza and the Carso. If the Italians took it, they should quickly reduce the remaining Austrian strongholds north of the Vipacco valley, break through towards Laibach and outflank Hermada. By the same token, if the Austrians held on to it, the advance on the Bainsizza would have little meaning.

After the exhilarating advance over the Bainsizza, the attack on San Gabriele brought a reversion to type. Compact blocks of infantry were sent up mountainsides, into field-gun and machine-gun fire, proving yet again that weight of numbers could not substitute for planning and preparation. One brigade after another assaulted San Gabriele for more than a fortnight. The hilltop caverns were impregnable, even against the 420-millimetre batteries which made San Gabriele look like a volcano, spewing fire and rock. The fire was so intense that the mountain lost 10 metres in altitude during the battle. Teams of Italian arditi – newly formed shock troops – came close to seizing the summit. At one point, Boroevic´ believed it could not be held.

On 19 September, Cadorna halted the battle and ordered all units onto the defensive. The Italians had taken 166,000 casualties, including 40,000 dead, of whom 25,000 died on San Gabriele for trivial gains. Some 400 of the 600 battalions involved in the battle had lost one-half to two-thirds of their strength. Cadorna’s and Capello’s actions in the Eleventh Battle were so careless and self-destructive that historians have struggled to account for them. In truth, the two men acted fully in character. Cadorna’s battle plans always tended to incoherence, his command often slackened fatally in the course of offensives, and he had never been able to control Capello (except by banishing him from the Isonzo). Capello’s disobedience at critical moments was equally familiar.

The Eleventh Battle was a technical victory that felt like defeat. A close bystander who grasped the enormity of this failure without identifying its source (his mind refused to follow the evidence) was Colonel Gatti, the official historian at the Supreme Command. As the corpses piled up on San Gabriele, he wrote despairingly in his diary: ‘I feel something collapsing inside me; I shall not be able to endure this war, none of us will; it is too gigantic, truly limitless, it will crush us all.’ He found solace in the men’s morale, which was holding up well, he thought. Yet he picked up a sense that their stamina was linked to a mysterious expectation that this would be the final battle. They were making a last colossal effort. What will happen, he mused, when they see that this is not the end?

Proportionately, Boroević’s losses – at around 140,000 men – were even heavier, and could not be made good. The next Italian thrust would likely smash the line between Gorizia and the sea. This probability was not lost on Austria’s ally. Ultimately, the strategic significance of the Eleventh Battle is that it forced Germany to pay urgent attention to the Italian front for the first time. The German Supreme Command realised that further loss of ground would lead to the loss of Trieste, which held the key to Austria’s economic independence. ‘Trieste must therefore be saved, with German help if not otherwise.’


One of the men ferrying cartridges up San Gabriele was Private Antonio Pardi of the 247th Infantry: slogging uphill with a crate on his back, clambering over the dead, hunching under continual explosions, dumping his crate by the forward positions and half running, half sliding down again in a panic, grabbing at corpses to keep his balance, arriving at the bottom ‘clotted with filth, blood and mud’. Pardi set down his memories fifty years after the event, ‘not out of love for a just and terrible war’, but so that later generations could know what it had been like. ‘Death was so certain that you almost stopped thinking how to avoid it, yet every passing second was another second of life.’ This obliquely answers Gatti’s question: when the soldiers realised this battle was not the last, they would carry on, living for the next second of life.

Source Notes

TWENTY-THREE Another Second of Life

1grievously impressed’: Martini, 941.

2They do not know what a torrent’: Gatti [1997], 134.

3 the Emperor reportedly pledged that the next operation: Weber, 234.

4has held everything together’: Gatti [1997], 159.

5 Italians had taken 166,000 casualties: De Simone, 128.

6I feel something collapsing inside me’: Gatti [1997], 161.

7 What will happen, he mused, when: Gatti [1997], 159.

8Trieste must therefore be saved’: Hindenburg, 285.

9not out of love for a just and terrible war’: Faldella, 74, 73.

1 The great conductor Arturo Toscanini, who happened to be visiting the front, formed a military band and climbed to the top of Monte Santo the day after its liberation. ‘We played in the Austrians’ faces and sang our national anthems,’ he wrote proudly to his wife. When General Capello awarded him the silver medal for valour at a ceremony in front of a bersaglieri brigade, the maestro was overcome by ‘violent emotion’ and ‘cried like a baby’.

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