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)

24/10/1917 Caporetto: Austria and Germany strike back against Italy #1917Live

The previous 11 battles on the Isonzo have all seen the Italians attack the Austro-Hungarians, making minimal gains and suffering terrible casualties. The last battle however shook the Austro-Hungarians badly, with the Italians coming close to achieving a breakthrough. Fearing that the next battle will see their men collapse, the Austro-Hungarians have decided to strike back. They have reinforced their men on the upper Isonzo with soldiers taken from the Eastern Front and the Germans have supplied troops to spearhead the assault: seven of the 17 divisions committed being from Austro-Hungary’s ally. The offensive is also being commanded by a German general, Otto von Below.

While the Italians suspect that an enemy counter-offensive is possible, they think it unlikely before the spring. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians are careful to conceal their preparations as much as possible, deploying aircraft to prevent the Italian air force from observing their men moving forward. So when the artillery opens fire in the small hours of this morning the Italians are stunned by the scale of the bombardment, not realising the enemy has so many guns in the sector.

The Austro-Hungarians had retained a bridgehead over the Isonzo at Tolmein. It is from here that they and the Germans now strike. The attack uses novel infiltration tactics, avoiding frontal assaults on enemy positions and instead moving forward through weak points, bypassing resistance and leaving Italian hold-outs to be isolated and mopped up by follow-up troops.

Italian morale has been sapped by the scale of losses in previous battles and the brutal discipline of their officers. Now the Italian troops collapse in the face of the enemy onslaught with men abandoning their positions and streaming to the rear or surrendering en masse. Many soldiers throw away their rifles to avoid being pressed into some kind of pointless last stand. By the afternoon the Italians have lost Caporetto, known to German-speakers as Karfeit and to Slavs as Kobarid, with 2,000 Italians surrendering here alone.

By the evening the Italian forces on the upper Isonzo are in a state of rout. The enemy has taken some 20,000 prisoners. Meanwhile at his headquarters at Udine Cadorna only gradually becomes aware of the scale of the disaster. He orders a withdrawal from the Bainsizza plateau, captured in the last battle, and starts considering a retreat from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento river.

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German assault troops (Battlefield: Caporetto, rhe battle that changed Italy)

Otto von Below (La Grande Guerra 1914-1918: Novant’anni fa la Battaglia di Caporetto, Ottobre 1917;
Un’occasione per riflettere)

map (La Grande Guerra 1914-1918: Novant’anni fa la Battaglia di Caporetto, Ottobre 1917;
Un’occasione per riflettere)

19/9/1917 As Eleventh Isonzo draws to a close, Austria plans to strike back #1917Live

After initial gains the eleventh Italian assault on the Isonzo has turned into another slogging match. The Austro-Hungarian decision to retreat to the eastern edge of the Bainsizza plateau has paid off: the Italian advance has been contained. After a series of massed attacks fail to break through Italy’s Cadorna orders his men to halt and assume a defensive posture. The battle is now over.

Italian losses have been great: they have taken some 166,000 casualties, with 25,000 losses in a series of fruitless attempts to take the mountain of San Gabriele. Two thirds of the units involved in the battle are now at half strength or less. Cadorna trumpets the battle as a victory on the basis of the early gains achieved, but a few more victories like this will break the Italian army.

The situation on the other side of the hill is not so good either. At 140,000, Austro-Hungarian casualties are also very high. Their army on the Isonzo is smaller than the Italians so the proportionate losses are greater.

Boroevic, the Austro-Hungarian commander, Boroevic fears that the next Italian offensive will cause the collapse of his line. However Emperor Karl has promised him that the next battle will be a counter-offensive against the Italians. Now he prepares to approach the Germans, to ask them to supply more troops for the Eastern Front that will allow him to send more Austro-Hungarians from there to the Isonzo.

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Italian position on the Carso (Storia e Memoria di Bologna: 11 Battaglia dell’Isonzo (History and Memory of Bologna: 11th Battle of the Isonzo))

28/8/1917 11th Isonzo: the Italian advance contained #1917Live

The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo has seen the Italians make unexpected gains near Gorizia on the Bainsizza plateau. Rather than leave his men to be annihilated, Austria-Hungary’s Boroevic has withdrawn them to more readily defensible positions on the edge of the plateau.

The withdrawal appears to work. When the Italians reach the plateau’s edge they are unable to make further gains against the Austro-Hungarians. Unfortunately for them, the Italian reserves are concentrated further to the south and cannot be deployed to the plateau quickly enough, leaving the exhausted troops who made the first attacks unable to bludgeon through on their own. With the Italian assault running out steam, it begins to look like it will not after all be eleventh time luck for Italy’s Cadorna.

Cadorna can at least console himself with the suppression of anti-war rioting in Turin. The army has restored order there, killing dozens and injuring hundreds.

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Austro-Hungarian defensive position on the Bainsizza (Roads to the Great War: What Happened on the Bainsizza Plateau in 1917?)

24/8/1917 11th Isonzo: Austria-Hungary retreats

Italian attacks have made little progress in their attacks on the Carso plateau, on the southern end of the Isonzo line. Now the Italians scale back their efforts here to concentrate on the Bainsizza plateau to the north, where the they have made considerable gains. This however allows the Austro-Hungarians to begin transferring men from the Carso to aid their hard-pressed comrades to the north.

Following a conference between Boroevic, their commander, and Emperor Karl, Austro-Hungarian troops on the Bainsizza today withdraw to the eastern edge of the plateau. Fearing annihilation if they remain in place, the Austro-Hungarians hope that they will be able to contain the Italians from their new lines.

The Italians are used to the Austro-Hungarians holding positions to the last man. The Austro-Hungarian withdrawal happens before dawn, in silence and great secrecy. Failing to realise what is happening, the Italians then shell the now empty Austro-Hungarian positions.

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Fanciful image of Austro-Hungarian troops repelling an Italian attack today (Worldwar1.com, The St. Mihiel Trip-Wire: October 2013)