30/6/1917 Cadorna denounced in the Italian parliament

With minimal progress on the Isonzo and the recent failure of the offensive on the Asiago plateau it is hard for anyone to say that the war is going very well for Italy. The Italian government has allowed parliament to let off steam in a closed session debate on the war’s conduct. Criticism of the government and the army is relatively muted until today, when Fortunato Marazzi takes the floor. This liberal politician has previously served on the Isonzo as a divisional commander. Now he eviscerates Cadorna, the army’s chief of staff, and the government that has left him in place. He denounces a succession of mistakes made by the military and the failure of the politicians to hold Cadorna to account. He is particularly critical of Cadorna’s failure to concentrate artillery and continued reliance on broad front offensives.

Marazzi’s speech impresses many of his fellow parliamentarians, including his political opponents. However Cadorna can only removed by unseating Boselli, the prime minister, and the politicians fear chaos if the government were to fall now. The parliament ends up voting confidence once more in Boselli’s government, meaning that Cadorna is safe in his job for the moment.

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Fortunato Marazzi (Wikipedia)

29/6/1917 Defeated Italians withdraw to their start lines on the Asiago plateau

Italian troops had made gains on the Asiago plateau but a determined Austro-Hungarian counter-attack has recaptured the summit of Mount Ortigara. Now the Italians are being pressed all along the sector. Mambretti, the local commander, recognises that the position of his men is untenable. He orders a withdrawal back to the positions they held at the start of the offensive.

The Italians have taken some 25,000 casualties since the start of the battle and have gained no territory. Austro-Hungarian losses are not insignificant but much lower, perhaps around 9,000.

Cadorna succeeds in hiding the scale of the defeat from both the press and his political masters in the government. He accepts no blame for the failure of the offensive, instead railing against the lack of offensive spirt on the part of the infantry.

With Italian arms baulked on the Asiago plateau, Cadorna now turns his attention back to the Isonzo, where preparations are already under way for another offensive, the eleventh. After being battered by the ten previous assaults, the Austro-Hungarians here must surely be in a desperate state. Cadorna hopes that the next Battle of the Isonzo will be the one that sees his men smash through the enemy lines and begin their march to Trieste.

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Italian prisoners under escort (Die Tiroler Kaiserjägerbund)

10/6/1917 Italy launches a new offensive on the Asiago plateau

Italy’s main effort against Austria-Hungary has been on the Isonzo. However, Cadorna has been planning for some time to hit the enemy on the Asiago plateau further to the west. Here the Austro-Hungarians are still entrenched in the strong positions here they retreated to after the failure of their Punishment Expedition last year. Defending a line of hills, their position is anchored by Mount Ortigara, an inhospitable pile of rock. Dislodging the Austro-Hungarians from here will not be easy, but Cadorna hopes that massed firepower and weight of numbers will do the trick.
The Italian assault here was to take place at the end of the month, but the start date was brought forward after the Austro-Hungarian counter-attack on the Isonzo. But this means that the infantry are having to attack in the middle of a summer storm. Low cloud cover has prevented Italian artillery from accurately targeting the enemy wire, but the Austro-Hungarian gunners still have a clear view of the ground across which the Italians will have to advance.

When the infantry go forward they find themselves stuck in a sea of mud. Progress is minimal and many find themselves trapped in front of the Austro-Hungarian wire, unable to advance or retreat. As can be imagined, casualties are horrendous.

Cadorna meets with Mambretti, the local commander. At this stage he is used to failure so the debacle appears not to overly trouble Cadorna. He and Mambretti agree that for now the assaults will halt, but when the weather improves the struggle for Mount Ortigara will resume.

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Italian mountain troops before the battle (Wikipedia: Battle of Mount Ortigara)

Italian troops attack! (MetroPostcard.com: Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The Kingdom of Italy  pt1)

Explosion! (MetroPostcard.com: Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The Kingdom of Italy  pt1)

4/6/1917 Tenth Isonzo ends with an Austro-Hungarian surprise

Italian troops have been attacking on the Isonzo. This tenth offensive has made some progress at heavy cost but the Austro-Hungarians have been able to contain the Italian advance. The battle appeared to be winding down, but it turns out the Austro-Hungarians have a surprise in store for the Italians. At the height of the battle, when an Italian breakthrough appeared to be a real possibility, the Germans permitted the Austro-Hungarians to transfer two divisions from the Eastern Front to the Isonzo. Now they use these to stage a counter-attack on the Italians.

The Austro-Hungarian counter-attack successfully recovers some of the ground lost. More striking though are the losses it inflicts on the Italians. They suffer some 22,000 casualties in the fighting. Of these some 10,000 are taken prisoner, with rumours of entire regiments (including officers) surrendering without firing a shot. The numbers who surrender suggest that a crisis of morale is building in the Italian army.

Cadorna is furious at the success of the Austro-Hungarian counter-attack. He writes to Prime Minister Boselli to denounce the defeatist prattling of the politicians that has led to his soldiers throwing down their arms. He is also furious at the men who surrender and wishes that he could ask Boroevic, his Austro-Hungarian counterpart, to have them flogged.

Thus ends the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo. In its three weeks the Italians have taken some 150,000 casualties, including 36,000 killed. Austro-Hungarian losses are lower, with perhaps 75,000 total casualties but only 7,300 killed.

Now Cadorna begins preparations for the eleventh battle. The Austro-Hungarians surely cannot take much more of this.

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Luigi Cadorna (The Italian Monarchist: Marshal of Italy Luigi Cadorna)

31/5/1917 Discipline and punish: the Italian army deals with failure

A few days ago on the Isonzo D’Annunzio ordered Italian artillery to shell his own men after they had surrendered to the Austro-Hungarians. This willingness to treat their own men brutally is not uncommon in the Italian officer corps. In the last month alone, 54 Italian soldiers have been executed after court martial, while others have been summarily shot for perceived failures in their duty. Italians officers are far more willing to kill their own men than those of any other European army, with executions dwarfing those being applied elsewhere.

The contrast with the French army is instructive: the French are facing widespread unrest across their army with many men refusing to attack or to occupy front line positions. While the French are arresting and in some cases executing perceived ringleaders, their response is far more conciliatory than that of the Italian military authorities to far less serious offences.

Cadorna however would draw a different lesson from the contrast between his and the French army. His officers are applying iron discipline and his men are continuing to fight, while the softer approach of the French officers has led to their army’s mutiny.

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Luigi Cadorna (WW2 Weapons: the World Wars 1914-18 and 1939-45)

26/5/1917 Once again, Italy runs out of steam on the Isonzo

Italian troops are attacking the Austro-Hungarians again on the Isonzo. In this tenth battle, Cadorna has alternated between attacking the Carso Plateau and mountainous positions further north around Gorizia. For the last few days the focus has returned to the Carso. After a bombardment of an intensity not previously seen here, the Italian infantry have made considerable gains, advancing up to two kilometres. The Austro-Hungarians appear to be on the brink of collapse, with many prisoners being taken by the Italians.

But today the tide turns. Boroevic, the Austro-Hungarian commander, has brought men south from the Gorizia sector to reinforce the Carso. The Germans have also permitted the transfer of two Austro-Hungarian divisions from the Eastern Front (where Habsburg units fight under German command). The Italians meanwhile are exhausted after their efforts of the past few days and also running low on artillery ammunition. Their attacks run out of steam and the front begins to stabilise.

The failure of another offensive to smash the Austro-Hungarians may be beginning to demoralise the Italian rank and file. Their commanders too are feeling the cold hand of pessimism on their shoulders. The Duke of Aosta, local commander of the assaults on the Carso, remarks that he fears the war could go on for another ten years. Others note that the men appear increasingly despondent, with some reporting that they wept as they went into battle, knowing that they were going to their deaths. Still, unlike the French, the Italian infantry continue to obey orders to attack. Perhaps one more battle of the Isonzo will be the one that sees them finally win victory over the Austro-Hungarians.

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Guns (Metropostcard.com)

Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Aosta (Wikipedia)

23/5/1917 Unrest in Italy as attacks continue on the Isonzo

The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo continues. Cadorna had lowered the tempo of his men’s attacks on the Carso Plateau to focus on attacks on the more mountainous terrain around Gorizia to the north. Fighting there has become positional, with both sides taking and retaking hilltop positions and suffering heavy casualties while they do so.

Now Cadorna turns his attentions back to the Carso. Italian artillery blasts the Austro-Hungarians with a terrible intensity, though with much of the artillery still deployed around Gorizia the bombardment is not quite as intense as it could be. Still, the hope is that when the infantry attack tomorrow they will have better luck than in their advance at the start of the battle.

On the Italian home front meanwhile the strain is beginning to show. A wave of unrest sweeps across the country, particularly strongly in Milan. The authorities respond harshly, deploying troops to restore order in Milan and to crush leftist trouble-makers there. Some 50 people are killed and 800 arrested.

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Italian position, Mont San Gabriele (Rainer Regiment)