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)

6/11/1917 Rapallo: Allied leaders demand Cadorna’s head #1917Live

Allied leaders are meeting at Rapallo in Italy to discuss the desperate position of the Italian army. Prime Minsters Lloyd George, Painlevé and Orlando are present, together with a raft of other politicians and senior generals from all three countries (and also Smuts of South Africa). A curious absence is Cadorna, Italy’s supreme general.

Caporetto has shattered the Italian army and the country’s leaders are essentially begging their Allies for the help needed to stave off complete defeat. However the British and French have no confidence in the command structure of the Italian army. They attach two conditions to their aid: British and French troops sent to Italy will remain under French command (specifically under Foch, now the French chief of staff) and Cadorna will be removed as Italian commander. The Italians have no choice but to accept these terms. Orlando is no friend of Cadorna and is probably happy to have an excuse to remove him.

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The New Kursaal Hotel, where the Allied leaders met (My Simple Life in Liguria: the Glory Days of Rapallo)

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)

30/10/1917 A new Italian prime minster spells danger for the army’s commander #1917Live

Just as the Germans and Austro-Hungarians launched their offensive at Caporetto the Italian government of Paolo Boselli fell. Now after a short interregnum Vittorio Orlando takes over as prime minister. Orlando is a liberal who has been serving as minister of the interior. He is determined to keep Italy in the war, notwithstanding the currently unfolding military disaster. Unlike his predecessors, however, he is not in awe of Cadorna, the army’s supreme commander. The army’s failures in the face of the enemy offensive has already put Cadorna’s star into the descendant. Faced with a hostile prime minister, it may not be long before the generalissimo is put out to pasture.

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Vittorio Orlando (Wikipedia)

Luigi Cadorna (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

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)

4/10/1917 The Sacchi decree: Italy combats the menace of defeatism #1917Live

Since Italy joined the war in 1915 the army has launched eleven offensives in the Isonzo sector. While gains have been made they have been relatively modest. Trieste remains in Austro-Hungarian hands with no sign of it being about to fall. The gains the Italians have achieved have been paid for in blood: the scale of Italian casualties has shocked the nation.

Since the end of the eleventh battle Cadorna, the Italian commander, has ordered his men to adopt a defensive posture. He plans no further attacks until the spring but fears that the Austro-Hungarians might launch some kind of counter-attack, perhaps on the Carso plateau near the coast.

The bloodletting has had a terrible effect on the army’s morale. The soldiers are gripped by war weariness and have had enough of the enemy’s attentions and the brutal discipline of Cadorna’s officers. Disorders have been reported, but nothing on the scale of the French mutinies. However the numbers of deserters are now enormous. Many soldiers decline to return from leave while young men are going on the run to avoid the draft; there may be as many as 200,000 of these renegades.

Cadorna blames the crisis in morale on defeatism and anti-war agitation by socialists and other malcontents. Some in the government are growing tired of Cadorna’s posing, with Orlando, the interior minister arguing that the army’s morale problems stem from Cadorna’s prodigious spending of his men’s lives. But for now the government is backing the general. To combat the menace of defeatism Sacchi, the justice minister, issues a decree introducing draconian punishments for anyone who undermines the war effort. People can now be thrown in jail for mocking Cadorna or suggesting that the war is not going particularly well.

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A fanciful depiction of an Italian attack. (MetroPostcard Guide to the Italian Front during World War One on postcards)

Ettore Sacchi (Wikipedia)

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))