Military history


Free from the Alps to the Adriatic

Until Italy’s eastern frontiers are all her own,

it is certain that her national independence

will not be complete. Thus, further wars will

be inevitable


The Third War of Italian Independence, 1866

It is a summer evening in 1866. A coach sweeps along the highway from Cormons to Udine, splashing through streams, not slowing in the quiet hamlets. The postilion sways drunkenly in his saddle, but he has found excellent horses and the coach makes good time. The passenger has urgent news for his king and country. For he is an Italian general who arrived only two days before. Against the odds, he leaves with head high.

The date is 12 August. The Habsburg empire has just agreed that Italy should get the province of Venetia, including Venice. It is the latest twist in a summer of extraordinary reversals. Thanks to General Petitti, the project to unify Italy looks in better shape today than anyone had expected 24 hours earlier. But it is still fragile, still incomplete.

Austria was not the only foreign power with a territorial stake in the Risorgimento. France coveted the Alpine portion of Savoy, near Geneva, and the coast at Nice. Europe’s other great powers – Britain, Russia and Prussia – took a remoter interest, aiming to contain wider disruption and stop each other benefiting by the process too much. Emergent Italy’s dispute with France was settled in January 1859, when they closed the last open territorial issue: France got Nice and Savoy in exchange for a military alliance to drive Austria out of the Italian lands. A few months later, in April, Austria provided a casus belli and lost to the allied forces at Magenta and Solferino. The French and Italian emperors had reasons of their own to negotiate peace before Austria was forced to its knees: Napoleon III was alarmed by his casualties and had one eye on averting Prussian intervention, while Franz Josef was shocked by his army’s poor fighting form. So Piedmont gained Lombardy but not Venetia. This outcome was sealed by a treaty that pledged the Kingdom of Piedmont- Sardinia (i.e. Italy) to ‘peace and perpetual friendship’ with Austria.

The language deceived no one. The Austrians were obsessed by Italian unification. Although Lombardy and Venetia were a long way from the Germanic, Magyar and Slavic heartlands of their empire, they believed these provinces were crucial to its stature. More than anything else, Austrian hostility was the anvil on which Italy was hammered into existence.1 The treaty opened half a century of duplicitous relations. The ink was hardly dry on the treaty when Camille Cavour, Piedmont’s brilliant prime minister, said privately that he was ready to fight for Venetia.

The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed the next year, threatening the ‘Concert of Europe’ that had endured more or less since 1815. The other European powers recognised the new arrival, reducing Austria’s allies to two, both second-rate: Spain and the Pope. Cavour assured radicals in parliament that Rome and Venice would be annexed in the not too distant future. He also promised Garibaldi that Venice would be plucked from Austria when the time was right. The challenge of annexing the south Tyrol, Istria and Ticino (the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland), not to mention the island of Malta (a standard claim, however far-fetched), would pass to future generations. When one of his provincial governors said that the port of Trieste and the coast of Dalmatia were Italian objectives, Cavour denied it. The governor was taken aside and warned that loose talk would alienate the great powers. A few weeks before his death in June 1861, Cavour told parliament there could be no lasting peace with Austria until Italy got Venetia. Privately, he predicted that this would probably happen the following year.

Austria’s leaders were no more inclined than Italy’s to accept the 1859 border as permanent. Convinced that Italy would always destabilise the empire’s south-western corner, Franz Josef’s generals dreamed of reconquering Lombardy and garrisoned Venetia with 100,000 men. The shock of Magenta and Solferino wore off; old illusions of military competence returned. The Austrians knew they enjoyed Prussian backing, due to concern over pan-German use of Trieste and the Adriatic seaways.

Egged on by followers of Garibaldi and Mazzini, successive governments vowed to drive the Austrians out of Venetia. In 1864, King Victor Emanuel II announced that Venetia and Papal Rome would be gained for Italy. The army and navy were built up, but Italy was still weak. More than once, the government secretly offered to buy Venice with cash. Vienna was not interested. Count Rechberg, the Austrian foreign minister, wrote privately that Italian nationalism would destroy the ‘monstrosity’ called Italy if the empire waited patiently.

Unification could only proceed in linkage with stronger states whose interests coincided with Italy’s. Prussia’s sharpening rivalry with Austria held promise. All three states made token efforts to avoid war, but talks came to nothing. Victor Emanuel was ready to ally with Austria in exchange for Venetia and the south Tyrol, but the Austrians would not pay this price, and anyway were confident of defeating Prussia unaided. Bismarck, on the other hand, was interested; he had a better chance of knocking Austria off its pedestal as the senior Germanic power if Italy attacked in the south. In April 1866, Italy secretly pledged to open a second front in Venetia and South Tyrol as soon as Prussia declared war, in exchange for Bismarck’s support over Venetia (though not the Tyrol). Austrian agents discovered the plan immediately. The Emperor ordered his generals to be ready for war against Prussia in the north and Italy in the south. The Austrians aimed to carry the fighting down the peninsula, exorcising what Metternich had called the ‘phantom of Italian unity’, replacing the kingdom with a federation or loose confederation of statelets. This scenario rattled Napoleon III, who saw France’s interest as staying out of the war while preventing anything too dramatic happening to Italy or Austria. He wanted Italy to have Venetia, fulfilling France’s commitment to unification while also diverting the Italian appetite for Rome. And he wanted the two Germanic powers to keep each other weak. Practically, this meant helping Austria to become a stronger counterbalance to Prussian power.

The opinion around Europe was that Austria could beat Prussia and Italy combined. Even so, a two-front war should always be avoided, and in early May the Austrians offered to trade Venetia for Italian neutrality. The Italians said they could not break their pledge to Prussia. In truth, they wanted to take Venetia and South Tyrol by arms. Nino Bixio, a hero of Garibaldi’s campaigns, told parliament that he would rather 100,000 Italians died for Venice than accept it without fighting. The King agreed. The idea that national greatness required Italy to fight for something that might be obtained by diplomacy would prove disastrously durable. Year-on-year cuts in military spending since 1862 did not worry the pro-war faction. The mobilisation in May has been called ‘a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare, which pointed anew to the difficulty of building a single new state from the wreckage of a half- dozen old ones in as many years’. The King and his prime minister, General La Marmora, waited several weeks before inviting Garibaldi out of retirement to muster a force against the Tyrol. The Liberator left at once for the north-east. Suspicious of volunteers and Garibaldi’s popularity, the army laid not so subtle traps, giving the old hero what he called ‘the usual defective rifles’. He had no artillery and many volunteers had to wear their own clothes. Austrian agents reported gleefully that Garibaldi’s 20,000 volunteers were teenagers with no fighting experience. Historians put the number at 10,000.

With their confidence waning, the Austrians formalised their offer to cede Venetia peacefully, and were again rebuffed. In desperation, they promised that, even if they won, they would not change Italy’s borders. The King and his generals were not listening. In an abrupt switch, the Austrians tried to involve Napoleon. On 12 June, they offered to let him mediate the transfer of Venetia to Italy in exchange for French neutrality. Napoleon was non-committal.

No one wanted to fire the first shot. Bismarck prevailed on the King of Prussia to mobilise on 15 June. With 350,000 men under arms, Prussia invaded Hanover and Saxony, crossed the Austrian frontier, occupied most of Bohemia and attacked Silesia. To Bismarck’s lasting irritation, Victor Emanuel waited four days before declaring war on Austria ‘for the honour of Italy and the rights of the nation’. Damning Italy’s ‘treachery and arrogance’, Field Marshal Albrecht vowed not to let the King ‘plant his standard on the Brenner Pass and the Carso’. With Austria’s main force fighting the Prussians, Italy began its third war of independence with 200,000 men and 370 guns against 75,000 men and 168 guns. These numbers were misleading; La Marmora admitted that only half his troops could properly be called soldiers at all. Cadets with less than two months’ training were sent to front-line companies. Desertion rates were high. Few of the divisional generals had any combat experience. An idea of the army’s readiness can be gleaned from the fact that many officers flatly refused to believe their king would lead them into war in high summer. Even in camp, senior officers dressed like dandies in linen suits and silk cravats – a scandalised Prussian envoy called them ‘voluptuous neckties’.

The King refused to clarify the command structure, rivalries among senior generals were not resolved, and communications were bad. Victor Emanuel tried to impose an incompetent chief of staff; when this proved impossible, he gave the position to La Marmora, already prime minister and foreign minister, but denied him full authority. The King and La Marmora took up their command only three days before Italy declared war. While there was no real battle plan, the idea was for a three-pronged attack. La Marmora would lead 12 divisions (some 120,000 men) across the River Mincio – marking the border with Venetia – towards the fortresses of the so-called Quadrilateral (Mantua, Peschiera, Verona and Legnano). His most talented general, Cialdini, was a hundred kilometres to the east, poised to lead eight divisions across the River Po, outflanking the Quadrilateral. Garibaldi would lead his volunteers into the Tyrol, where the Austrians had 16,000 men.

While La Marmora crossed the Mincio, Garibaldi led his volunteers up the western side of Lake Garda. Albrecht astonished the Italians by taking the offensive in the centre. La Marmora had made no defensive plans. The armies clashed at Custoza on 24 June. It was a messy collision along a ridge of rolling hills. La Marmora – leading only five and a half divisions – did not know the Austrians’ location or strength. Many soldiers had not eaten for two days. Disoriented and demoralised, whole units surrendered at a jog, abandoning the wounded. The King tried in vain to rally his men, who doffed their hats as they ran away from the Polish Lancers, ignoring his appeals. Dispersal and collapse of morale were the problem, not casualties, for only 725 Italians died at Custoza: far fewer than the Austrian losses.

The King, La Marmora and Cialdini formed a bizarre trio, acting ‘as though they could not order one another to do things; they just “requested” or “urgently begged” for action’. The situation could have been retrieved if Cialdini had crossed the Po, but he pulled back. The two parts of the army hardly co-ordinated with each other, let alone with the naval operations or Garibaldi. Panicking, the King and La Marmora retreated 50 kilometres and ordered Garibaldi to fall back. The great basin of the River Po was there for the taking, but Albrecht’s priority was to strengthen the front against Prussia. Some 60,000 men were transferred to Bohemia. By failing to exploit their victory, the Austrians let Italy profit from a war that it had already lost.

While Victor Emanuel and his generals tried to grasp what had gone wrong and wrestled over the post of chief of staff (honourably vacated by La Marmora), the Austrian commander in the north asked permission to seek an armistice. Vienna refused, and looked how to bring more reinforcements from Italy. When the Prussians won a clinching victory at Sadowa on 3 July, the road to Vienna lay open. Austria reacted by pulling its remaining forces out of Italy, and Bismarck told Victor Emanuel to attack at once. The price of refusal, he made clear, might include an unfavourable territorial settlement.

Napoleon III feared that Austria would not emerge strong enough to counterbalance Bismarck’s Germany. On 4 July he urged Victor Emanuel to end the war. Picking up Austria’s offer from 12 June, he promised that the Italians would get Venetia as a gift from France, but not the south Tyrol or Trieste. The Austrians welcomed this chance to hang the albatross of Venetia around Napoleon’s neck.

For a king bent on a glorious campaign to unify his country, every outcome proffered humiliation. Failure to obey Bismarck could lead to a settlement that reflected all too faithfully his performance on the battlefield. If he obeyed Bismarck and attacked, he risked losing Napoleon’s favour. At best, Italy would receive Venetia without conquering it – an ‘intolerable’ outcome, in La Marmora’s judgement. As a sop to Bismarck, Cialdini launched a limited operation across the Po on 5 July, and Garibaldi’s volunteers were let off the leash.

Unexpectedly, the cabinet asserted itself: Italy should prosecute the war with maximum force, creating facts on the ground to shape the settlement that Bismarck would soon impose. As well as Venetia and the south Tyrol, the army should make a grab for Istria. For without Istria, the new prime minister, Baron Ricasoli, said, ‘We shall always have Austria as master of the Adriatic. It is right to profit from this occasion – not so much rare as unique – to undo every interference by Austria in the Adriatic.’ Ricasoli told Cialdini that they must fight the Austrians in Venetia or be accused of bad faith; then they would be in no position to demand the south Tyrol. Admiral Persano, commanding the navy, was instructed absurdly to put to sea, sink the Austrian fleet and occupy Istria within a week. For the Austrians might be forced to make peace any day now; whenever this happened, the Italians would have to stop. They could not count on getting any territory that they had not conquered.

This was fighting talk, but the King hesitated to offend Napoleon. Only on 14 July did the cabinet get his approval to try to clinch military control over Venetia and even drive Austria away from the northern Adriatic altogether. Seven corps would occupy Venetia. Five of these (around 150,000 men) would form an expeditionary force under General Cialdini and march the 200 kilometres to the River Isonzo, beating back any Austrian resistance as they went. After swinging south to take Trieste, they would – other things being equal – cross the Alps and march on Vienna. It was a madcap scheme or dream. If the fiasco of Custoza could not be undone, it could apparently be ignored.

Overly prudent and badly supplied, the expeditionary force made slow progress. Cialdini knew they were living on borrowed time; on 19 July he instructed V Corps to make all speed to Trieste, with cavalry support. A division under General Medici would double back north- westwards to help Garibaldi. The next day, Prussia and Austria agreed a five-day truce and started negotiating a settlement. When the Prussians accepted that the Habsburg empire would remain intact except for Venetia, the Austrians believed Trieste and south Tyrol were secure. The Italians were not informed of the truce beforehand, let alone of the negotiations. That same day, equally unknown to Cialdini, the Italian fleet was thrashed ‘by an Austrian squadron half its size’, near the Dalmatian island of Lissa (now Vis).

The Austrians kept transferring men northwards, hoping to bolster their negotiating position with Prussia. On the 21st, they moved their Italian headquarters eastwards across the River Isonzo to Gorizia. Meanwhile, under General Raffaele Cadorna (father of Luigi), the 30,000 men of V Corps made impressive progress across the plain. They reached the River Tagliamento on the morning of the 23rd to find the bridges had been dropped. Despite stifling heat and poor provisions, the men were in good fettle.2 Cialdini told Cadorna to send a division across the Isonzo to occupy Gorizia, then push ahead to Trieste. Once there, he should camp outside the city, taking in enough troops to preserve order and take control of the port without antagonising the citizens or disturbing business. He should break communications with the imperial hinterland, sequestrate Austrian government property, and stop the banks moving money out of the city.

None of this was to be. The Italians learned that the enemy still had some 30,000 troops on the Isonzo, 2,500 more at Palmanova, west of the river, and at least 10,000 more in Trieste. This was a far greater number than La Marmora (reinstated as chief of staff) had anticipated. Late on the 23rd, as his men threw pontoons over the Tagliamento, Cadorna was ordered to advance only as far as the village of San Giorgio di Nogaro, west of the Isonzo, and wait. The Austrians evacuated Udine that evening; further east again, the last Austrian brigade in Gorizia entrained for Vienna.

Braced by victory at sea, Austria sent half its garrison in Trieste to head off Cadorna’s men. This force reached Monfalcone on 24 July. That day, Cadorna’s V Corps almost reached Cervignano while Prussia and Austria cemented their truce into a formal armistice. La Marmora reacted cautiously, ordering Cialdini to suspend all operations for eight days. Cialdini replied astutely that he needed 24 hours – until early on the 26th – to execute this order, because he had no telegraph access to Cadorna and Medici. Meanwhile he sent word to Cadorna that La Marmora was contemplating ‘ruinous’ terms for a truce, so he (Cadorna) should make a dash for the Isonzo before he received official notice of the Austro-Prussian armistice. Cialdini would try to delay forwarding this notice until Cadorna had reached the Isonzo. The government helped by proposing unacceptable conditions for an armistice with Austria, demanding the south Tyrol as well as Venetia.

Cadorna decided to cross the Isonzo and cut the rail line from Trieste to Gorizia. Before he could start, he received orders to occupy several villages on the west bank of the river and wait for reinforcements that should arrive within 24 hours. One of these villages was Versa, on the far side of a bridge over a tributary of the Isonzo. The rivers were swollen by rain. When Cadorna’s cavalry tried to take the bridge, the Austrians burned it and fell back to the village. Two thousand Italians waded across and took Versa from an Austrian regiment of 3,000 men at a cost of seven dead and 29 wounded. The Austrians (who lost 30 dead and 51 wounded) fell back towards the Isonzo. A dozen kilometres to the north, joyful crowds welcomed the Italian 14th Division as it marched into Udine. Meanwhile, the government in Rome buckled under Bismarck’s pressure. As V Corps prepared to advance to the Isonzo, La Marmora was told that Austria and Italy had agreed a truce. Formal notice reached Cadorna late the same day. He had already run out of reserves, provisions and boots; now he ran out of time.

Cadorna’s opposite number, General Maroičić, called on the Italians to withdraw to the positions they had held when La Marmora was informed of the Austro-Prussian ceasefire. The final demarcation, he added, should be the provincial border between Venetia and the adjacent Austrian province, called the Küstenland, zigzagging between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento. Cadorna stood his ground at Versa, awaiting word from Cialdini, who duly proposed the Isonzo as the new border. Austrian troops were pouring back to the south, but Bismarck had already decided that the Italians should get Venetia and a sliver of Friuli, stopping well short of the Isonzo and the Alps. Apart from punishing them for botching their campaign, he wanted to prop up Austria as a bulwark against Italy and to keep Trieste safe for Germanic trade.

On 3 August, Austria rejected Italy’s demand. The Ministry of War’s position was clear: if Venetia had to be lost, then Austria ‘must obtain an optimal redefinition of the southern limits of Tyrol. Whenever possible, we must insist on having the dominant positions.’ Whenever the Italians on the plain looked up at the horizon, they must see Habsburg soldiers. La Marmora wanted to accept Bismarck’s settlement but the King and Cialdini disagreed, not least because Garibaldi’s volunteers and Medici’s regulars were gaining ground in the Tyrol. On 21 July, Garibaldi had engaged the Austrians at Bezzecca, where two valleys meet near the northern tip of Lake Garda. Each side lost around 500 men, but the Italians held the village and prepared to push on to the city of Trento, 50 kilometres away. News of this success rallied the government. With Padua, Vicenza and Treviso secured and Venice surrounded, the government was tempted to defy French pressure, Prussian disapproval, and the Austrian build-up on the Isonzo. But dubious sources in Trieste reported that Austria now had 200,000 troops on the Isonzo – twice as many as La Marmora had thought. Albrecht gave notice that he was ready to sweep all the Italian forces out of South Tyrol and Friuli.

The Italians decided they could get no further without Prussian and French support. Early on 9 August, La Marmora ordered Garibaldi to evacuate the Tyrol and Cialdini to pull back behind the ‘old Venetian border’ within 48 hours. Garibaldi, still at Bezzecca, was astonished: he had not been defeated and the enemy was in retreat! After pacing around his headquarters, he scrawled two words on La Marmora’s telegram: ‘Si annuisce’ – ‘It is agreed.’ But how could he agree with an order that stole victory from his volunteers? He scored through his reply and wrote ‘Obbedisco!’ – ‘I obey!’ It was a gesture to inspire future generations. Legend has it that he turned to his companions: ‘Whether there will be peace or war, it is up to you, young men, to liberate Italy from the foreigner, as long as a single one remains.’ Garibaldi always insisted that he could have taken Trento with ease.

Cialdini said he could comply at once, but he feared the Austrians had their eye on the whole of Friuli and Venetia up to the River Tagliamento. La Marmora disagreed and trustingly drew most of his forces (including V Corps) behind the Tagliamento. It soon appeared that Cialdini was right. The outlook was grim for the Italians, who were outnumbered at their forward positions. When negotiations opened at Cormons on the 10th, Albrecht was adamant: the Tagliamento must be the border, and he had 140,000 men on the Isonzo to back him up. La Marmora’s negotiator, General Petitti, stood firm, but when he contacted the King and his government from Udine that evening, seeking guidance, they equivocated, leaving the mortified general alone with the responsibility. ‘It is my misfortune’, he wrote that night, ‘that this will be called the Petitti Armistice.’ In the morning he made his dutiful way back to Cormons. A few days earlier, the Italians had dreamed of taking Trieste; now they risked not getting all of Venetia, never mind Friuli and the Isonzo.

Looking keenly about as he travelled through the disputed territory, Petitti felt suddenly sure the Austrians did not really care about the portion of Venetia that Albrecht seemed bent on retaining. Fired with this conviction, he induced the Austrians to relent. By the end of 12 August, the old provincial border of Venetia was agreed as the new state border. Petitti was entitled to feel proud as his coach rolled back to Udine. The agreement was ratified the following October. The prewar border of south Tyrol was maintained, nullifying Garibaldi’s efforts. While this fell short of ‘optimal redefinition’, it was wholly to the Austrians’ advantage.

Austria refused to negotiate the cession of Venetia with Italy; it had to be handled as a dynastic transaction between Franz Josef and Napoleon III, ignoring any idea that popular will was involved. (Where would the empire be if popular will or consent became requirements of sovereignty?) This was a finesse; in brute fact, Austria had been forced to accept that Italy was more than ‘a geographical expression’ (Metternich’s put-down, still bitterly remembered); it was a nation-state, and here to stay. Austrian Venetia became the Italian Veneto on 19 October 1866, a few days after France received the province from Austria. Although he wanted a grand procession in the Piazza San Marco, the French envoy took advice that the crowds might jeer, so the ceremony was moved to a hotel. After making his speech to an Austrian official and a three-man Venetian committee, the Frenchman read out a letter from Napoleon III to Victor Emanuel, claiming credit for an act of democratic midwifery. ‘Your Majesty knows that I accepted the offer of Venetia in order to preserve it from devastation and prevent a useless spilling of blood. My purpose has always been to give it to itself so that Italy might be free from the Alps to the Adriatic …’

The crowd outside San Marco cheered and waved flags while the ships of the Austrian merchant navy moved through the Lagoon for the last time, laden with troops heading across the sea to Trieste, Austria’s last great guarantee of Adriatic power. The following day, the last Austrian governor of the Serenissima made his way to the waterfront. A large crowd applauded as he boarded a destroyer and was borne away. The Italian flag was hoisted in the piazza and troop-laden barges made their way up the Grand Canal, accompanied by frenzied cries of ‘Viva l’Italia!’ and ‘Viva l’unità d’Italia!’ The French consul reported that no word of thanks to Italy’s benefactor could be heard. A plebiscite in the Veneto showed 647,246 citizens in favour of union with the Kingdom of Italy, and only 69 against. The way was clear for Victor Emanuel to enter the city by royal gondola. Again, French diplomats were accorded no special recognition. The Italians were cutting the umbilical cord with Paris; gratitude, let alone deference, could no longer be expected.

The King’s triumphal tour took him to Udine, capital of Friuli, festooned with flags for the occasion. Amid the colourful buzz a group of black-clad men stood in silence, holding up gloomy banners with the caption ‘Italy has been made but not completed’. They were irredentists from Trento, Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia, reminding the carefree crowds that the nation still had unfinished business with the Austrians, and would not be allowed to forget it.

Source Notes

APPENDIX Free from the Alps to the Adriatic

1Until Italy’s eastern frontiers’: Marušič, 140.

2 wrote privately that Italian nationalism: Elrod, 152.

3a bureaucratic and logistical’: Wawro, 87.

4for the honour of Italy’: Wawro. Other quotations in this paragraph are from Wawro, 95 and 27.

5 ignoring his appeals: Wawro, 110.

6as though they could not order one another’: Mack Smith [1971], 315.

7by an Austrian squadron half its size’: Wawro, 279.

8must obtain an optimal redefinition’: Wawro, 281.

9Whether there will be peace or war’: Zaniboni Ferino.

1 The struggle with Austria is fossilised in the Italian national anthem, which was formally adopted as recently as 2005, after a century and a half! The references to Legnano, Ferruccio and Balilla are more than obscure. As for ‘the Austrian eagle’ that had ‘already  lost its plumes’, it was stuffed in a glass case ninety years ago. Full English and Italian text is available at

2 Bread had to be brought from as far as Ferrara, south of the River Po, and went mouldy before it reached the men, who were more troubled by the shortage of tobacco.

1 Prime Minister Antonio Salandra near the front in May 1916, a month before he was forced to resign.

2 Baron Sidney Sonnino: ‘never was a foreign minister more stubborn and unintelligent, or more honest and sincere’.

3 Captain Gabriele D’Annunzio, talking the talk near Vicenza, 1918.

4 Benito Mussolini, arrested at an interventionist rally in 1915. Perhaps this was in Rome, in April, when Curzio Malaparte saw Mussolini bellowing as the police dragged him away: ‘thin, pale, jaws set hard, his neck straining with effort’.

5 General Cadorna visiting British batteries in spring 1917.

6 Looking from the western rim of the Isonzo valley, across to Mount Mrzli. The Italians clawed their way up this 1,200-metre face, but could not take the summit. Colonel De Rossi’s view in May 1915 was from a lower elevation.

7 Austro-Hungarian troops rest while building a trench on the Carso.

8 Looking from the Austro-Hungarian forward positions on Mount San Michele, northwards, across the Italian lines and the River Isonzo to the plains of Friuli. The outskirts of Gorizia are visible in the distance on the right.

9 Trieste and its port in 1919. ‘National deliverance’ has come at last to the city’s ‘huddled browntiled roofs’ (James Joyce). And the quays are empty.

10 A farming family in Friuli, probably posing for an officer who was billeted in their home. Other officers can be seen among the oleanders.

11 Approaching Gorizia, with Podgora hill and Mount Sabotino in the background. The Italians captured them all in August 1916.

12 Looking from the summit of Mount San Michele towards the Italian lines and the River Isonzo. Ungaretti’s regiment was posted in the middle distance when he wrote ‘The Rivers’.

13 The relief. ‘What’s your regiment / brothers?’

14 Looking across the mouth of the Travenanzes valley to the flank of Mount Tofana, held by the Italians, and the Castelletto, a natural fortress 400 metres tall, held by the Austro-Hungarians until late 1916.

15 Carso mud and stone: an Italian second-line camp near Mount Fajti.

16 The so-called ‘road of heroes’, cut into the sheer face of Mount Pasubio, in the Trentino. Italian military engineering was much admired. What one veteran called the exhilaration of extreme situations was easily felt in such surroundings.


1 Italian infantry attack on the Carso, 1917: an experience of ‘extreme resolution’ or ‘supreme helplessness’? (The soldier on the right carries gelignite tubes to blow up enemy wire.)


2 Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). The bronze muscled figure strides forward, ‘a living gun’, safe inside the forcefield of his will.


3 The Italian first line on the southern Carso, near Mount Hermada, in 1917.


4 Emperor Karl studies the Italian positions beyond Mount Hermada, through binoculars, watched by the last Austrian governor of the imperial Adriatic provinces (Baron Fries-Skene, in plumed hat). On the right, General Boroević converses with the Emperor’s aide. The date is 1 June 1917.


5 Italian wounded at the foot of Mount San Gabriele. Private Pardi carried ammunition up the mountain during the Eleventh Battle, when ‘death

was so certain that you almost stopped thinking how to avoid it’.


6 Bosnian prisoners of war. These were the ‘lurid Turks’ of Italian propaganda.


7 Looking north from the Kolovrat ridge across the Isonzo valley towards Mount Krn, ‘Monte Nero’ to the Italians, the highest point on the horizon. Caporetto is just out of sight to the left. This was ‘the mighty mountain world’ that Rommel and his Württemberg troops admired on 26 October 1917, two months after this panorama was photographed by an Italian officer, and only two days after Italian observers on this spot noticed enemy troops moving up the valley towards Caporetto, and assumed they must be prisoners under escort to the rear. Lieutenant Gadda’s battery was on the Krasji ridge, below the ‘O’ of ‘M. NERO’. Corporal Borroni’s platoon clashed with German troops near the river, between Ladra and Caporetto. No wonder that, as Ludendorff remarked, the communications in this sector were ‘as bad as could be imagined’.


8 Italian dead after the German gas attack, Flitsch, 24 October 1917.


9 Third Army units retreating to the River Piave, early November 1917.


10 Italian prisoners of war.


11 Italian cavalry crossing the River Monticano. Here, according to Lord Cavan, commander of British forces in Italy, the enemy ‘offered his last serious resistance’, on 29 October 1918.


12 The Italian army entering Gorizia in triumph, early November 1918.


13 The Big Four in Paris, 1919. From left to right, Lloyd George, Orlando,

Clemenceau and Wilson.


14 The Adriatic Sea, from the edge of the Carso.

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