14/11/1917 Caporetto winds down as Italy manages to hold the enemy at the Piave #1917Live

The German and Austro-Hungarian offensive at Caporetto has smashed the Italians, forcing them to abandon the Isonzo line. They retreated to the Tagliamento but were unable to stop the enemy there. Since then the Italians retreated to the Piave, knowing that if the enemy could not be held here then Venice would fall and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians advance could become unstoppable.

The Germans and Austro-Hungarians however are now finding the going harder. Their stormtroopers are exhausted after the continuous fighting and marching since the offensive’s beginning. Their commanders have failed to plan for the scale of the defeat they have inflicted on the Italians, failing in particular to adequately resource a second attack by Conrad from the Asiago plateau that could have cut off the Italian line of retreat.

With both sides exhausted, the Italians are able to hold the Piave. Italy will be able to stay in the war after all. But the battle has been devastating. The Italians have taken over 300,000 casualties in the battle, with some 294,000 of these captured by the enemy (only 42,000 of the Italian casualties are killed or wounded). Meanwhile another 300,000 troops have been separated from their units and are either trying to make their way home or are wandering aimlessly behind the lines. The Italians have also lost some 3,000 guns, half the army’s complement of artillery pieces. A telling tribute to the rout of its army is the loss by its soldiers of 300,000 rifles. It will be a long time before Italy is able to strike back against the Austro-Hungarians.

Those Italians who surrendered to the enemy may have hoped to quietly sit out the rest of the war. Sadly, for them the nightmare is only beginning. Austria-Hungary struggles to feed its own soldiers and civilians; it has little or no food to spare for this large bag of enemy prisoners. And the Italian government prohibits the transmission of food parcels to those captured by the enemy, who are viewed as little better than traitors. For the unfortunate Italian prisoners, starvation waits.

With the battle winding down, the Germans prepare to withdraw the men and the guns they have lent to the Austro-Hungarians. Soon their stormtroopers will be able to apply their infiltration tactics in France, when Ludendorff launches the battle he hopes will win the war.

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map (Wikipedia: Battle of Caporetto)

Italian prisoners (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: Disaster At Caporetto)

9/11/1917 Caporetto: as the enemy advance falters, Italy sacks Cadorna #1917Live

The Italians have been unable to hold the line of the Tagliamento and are now retreating to the Piave, hoping desperately that the Austro-Hungarians and Germans can be held here. The scale of the defeat they have suffered has stunned them and there is real fear that the Piave line too will fall, at which point the enemy would be able to seize Venice and advance across the north Italian plain.

The scale of their victory has also caught the Germans and Austro-Hungarians by surprise. They were hoping merely to push back the Italians and safeguard Austria-Hungary from further attacks this year, only to realise too late that there was a real prospect of destroying the Italian army and knocking Italy out of the war. As a result their exploitation of the initial victories is not what it might be: Conrad‘s men in the Trentino do not attack with sufficient strength to advance into the Italian rear and the main army’s pursuit runs out of steam as the Italians retreat. Of course the Austro-Hungarians and Germans are advancing beyond their supply lines, making it harder for them to maintain momentum.

The Italians also know that reinforcements are on their way from the British and French. As part of the price of this aid, Cadorna is now dismissed as the supreme Italian commander. He does not go quietly. Despite the personal remonstrations of the King, Cadorna refuses to leave his headquarters until a signed dismissal orders arrives. Today at last it does, and Armando Diaz takes over command of the Italian army.

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The retreat (WorldWar1.com – La Grande Guerra: Caporetto – A Fresh Look)

Luigi Cadorna (Arte nella Grande Guerra: Il generale Luigi Cadorna non merita vie e piazze)

2/11/1917 Caporetto: the unstoppable Teutons cross the Tagliamento #1917Live

The German and Austro-Hungarian assault at Caporetto has shattered the Italians, with Italian surrendering in large numbers or fleeing in disorder. In an attempt to restore order in his army, Cadorna has instinctively reached for his preferred option of harsh discipline, authorising the summary execution of men separated from their officers (i.e. tens of thousands of men). He has also placed General Graziani in charge of restoring discipline to the army. Graziani is a maniac who previously beat a soldier so savagely that the man was crippled.

With the army in headlong flight, Cadorna has had to abandon his headquarters at Udine, which is now in the hands of the enemy. The generalissimo naturally seeks to blame anyone but himself for the disaster and has issued communiques castigating his troops for their failings. Austro-Hungarian aircraft are now dropping these communiques on fleeing Italian troops, to show them what their commander thinks of them.

The Italians have abandoned the Isonzo line, retreating to the Tagliamento river, hoping to contain the enemy advance there. But today the Austro-Hungarians cross the river on a bridge that the Italians failed to destroy. With the Tagliamento line breached the Italians will have to retreat to the Piave. If this line cannot be held then Venice and perhaps Milan too will fall, at which point it would be hard to see how Italy could remain in the war.

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Austro-Hungarian troops crossing the Tagliamento (Storia e Memoria di Bologna: Tagliamento)

28/10/1917 Caporetto: as Italy reels, Britain and France promise help #1917Live

The German-led offensive at Caporetto has left the Italians reeling. Italian troops are retreating to the Tagliamento river, some in good order but many in a state of rout. German and Austro-Hungarian troops press on, hoping to exploit their success. Today they advance beyond the pre-war frontier, recovering all of the ground lost to the Italians, including Gorizia, which fell to the Italians last year in the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo.

But help may be on its way for the Italians, as the British and French agree to send six divisions to Italy. Given the parlous state of the country and its army, these reinforcements will not be enough to stop the enemy onslaught, but they do at least signal that Italy is not being abandoned.

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Italian prisoners under guard in Gorizia (Trono e Altare: 28 ottobre 1917, liberazione di Gorizia)

Emperor Karl inspects his victorious troops (Trono e Altare: 28 ottobre 1917, liberazione di Gorizia)

27/10/1917 Caporetto: Cadorna orders a withdrawal #1917Live

With the German and Austro-Hungarian assault on the upper Isonzo appearing now to be unstoppable, Italy’s Cadorna bows to the inevitable. He orders the abandonment of the Isonzo line and a withdrawal of the Italian army to the Tagliamento river. In the afternoon he and his staff vacate his headquarters at Udine.

Blaming the men stationed on the upper Isonzo for the rout, Cadorna prioritises the retreat of the men further to the south who have not yet had to face the enemy attacks. They retreat in good in good order, destroying anything that could be of use to the enemy as they go. To the north things are considerably more chaotic.

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Italian prisoners under guard (WorldWar1.Com: Caporetto, a fresh look)

26/10/1917 Caporetto: astonishing progress by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians #1917Live

Austro-Hungarian and German forces continue to press forward on the upper Isonzo. Much of the Italian forces here have collapsed, with men either abandoning their positions and fleeing to the rear or surrendering at first sight of the enemy. Using infiltration tactics, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians are pressing forwards as quickly as possible, leaving pockets of enemy resistance to be picked off later.

The king of the infiltrators is Germany’s Rommel, whose battalion has advanced some 18 kilometres since the battle’s start, seizing the supposedly impregnable position on Mount Matajur. Rommel has captured some 9,000 enemy prisoners, including 150 officers, with two entire brigades surrendering to him without a fight. The second brigade he captures more or less on his own; these Italians are so keen to surrender that they hoist him on their shoulders and shout “Evviva Germania!”. Rommel’s own losses since the battle started are just 6 dead and 30 wounded.

Austria-Hungary’s Conrad, formerly commander in chief but now the local commander in the Trentino to the west, is chomping at the bit, eager to join the offensive and crush the hated Italians. If he is reinforced he would be able to attack and take the Italians in the rear, perhaps achieving a victory of annihilation that will remove Italy from the war. But Austro-Hungary has no men to spare for him and the Germans are wary of supplying more soldiers; with the British and French applying pressure on the Western Front, Ludendorff does not want to further deplete his reserves there.

Neverthless, the Italian situation is desperate. Cadorna begins to prepare for a retreat to the Tagliamento and perhaps to rivers further to the rear.

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German assault troops having a rest (Wikipedia)

Erwin Rommel (Wikipedia)

25/10/1917 Caporetto: Italy reels from the enemy onslaught #1917Live

A German and Austro-Hungarian assault on the upper Isonzo has caught the Italians unawares. Caporetto has fallen and the Italian army is beginning to collapse, with men surrendering or abandoning their positions. In one incident, Erwin Rommel, a young German battalion commander, secures the surrender of an entire Italian brigade despite being outnumbered more than ten to one.

At a senior level the Italian response is confused. Capello, the local commander facing the enemy onslaught, favours a retreat to the Tagliamento or beyond. Cadorna, the commander in chief, is undecided but the Duke of Aosta, commanding troops on the southern Isonzo, is already bringing heavy artillery away from the front.

In Rome news of the disaster has yet to arrive, but by coincidence today the government of Boselli falls, losing a confidence vote thanks to a new combination of socialists and liberals. It looks like the next prime minister will be Vittorio Orlando, the interior minister, who for some time now has favoured the ouster of Cadorna.

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Italian prisoners (The World of the Habsburgs: Pyrrhic Victory and Failure on the Isonzo)