October 1917

24 October 1917, the Battle of Caporetto

By Giuliano Casagrande

“Wir kamen vor Friaul, Da hätten wir allesamt voll Maul!”

Translation: We came to Friuli, there we all got a mouthful!

(Song from 1540 by Georg Foster, a Landsknecht poet, the title of which - 'Wir zogen in das Feld' - was revisited as 'Wir zogen nach Friaul' in the title of a 1929 bestseller by Helmut Schittenhelm, which gives an eyewitness account of the Battle of Caporetto.)

 

Intense and prolonged preparatory bombardment, all-out frontal assault, little or no "tactical training": this is the strategy that, with only slight adjustment, had attempted to open the way to Ljubljana and Vienna to the Italians. 

The front, hemmed in by the Alps, high plateaus and the Karst, did not present decisive objectives, rather only continuous new peaks and ridges beyond those that had already been conquered with great losses. The logic of the commanders, confined in this terrain, saw no other solution than to pour more resources, bullets and men into the ponors of the Karst, in the hope that these would be proportional to those of the enemy. The illogic and futility seen in this effort does not take into account that the defeat at Caporetto came, paradoxically, in the shadow of the success achieved when the 11th Battle of the Isonzo ended on 12 September 1917. In fact, the new Austrian Emperor Charles I, who succeeded the deceased Franz Joseph, observed to his German ally that a twelfth Italian push would have swept the southern front. That elementary strategy, terrible and inhuman as in every other war, was finally able to exhaust the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The German General Staff, opposed to ending the contest in Italy for reasons that were first diplomatic, and then strategic and opportunist, decided to intervene only given the danger of seeing its ally collapse. The drawing up of the plan of attack, the assessment of the objectives and the redeployment of men and materials by the Austrians and Germans took place between 29 August and 20 October 1917. The battle, which began on 24 October, saw Cadorna give the order to fall back to the Tagliamento just three days later. This event has left a deep wound upon the collective imagination of Italy, rendering the name of Caporetto synonymous with an irreversible defeat that cannot be explained away. The military rout dragged along with it the refugees fleeing Friuli and the left bank of the Piave and, more importantly, most of the administrators and the ruling class, leaving control of the communities of "civilian Caporetto" to the parish priests. The severity of the debacle demanded a justification, one that came to be identified at various moments as cowardice, the treachery of the soldiers, or the ineptness of the commanders. Immediately interpretations of the event were altered, even changing the verse in the song La Leggenda del Piave from "they talked about betrayal" to the more vague "dark event". 

The desire to view this defeat as being caused by more than purely military reasons endowed Caporetto with a much greater value than other names such as Gorizia or Karst. Only the battles of the Piave and Vittorio Veneto, by sheer force of will, attained equal value: strong points in the comeback to revenge the disgrace suffered. But it is precisely this narrative and contrast of symbols that create inconsistencies. The soldiers that survived Caporetto were the same who struggled fiercely in a series of minor clashes in Cividale, Udine, and later attempted to stop the Austrians and Germans at the Tagliamento. As they fell they continued to fall back and stopped the advance to the Piave, bolstered, though not supported directly, by Anglo-French reinforcements. Moreover, during the rout, there was no "revolt" expressed among the soldiers, but a generic and liberating cry of "Everyone back home!", that was devoid of any revolutionary intent. The troops retreating from Friuli had nothing in common with the Russians, who, only two weeks after Caporetto, would take the Winter Palace in Petrograd. The Italian infantryman also fought that battle, with "resignation", at his position. This is attested to in the thousands of memoirs of Italian officers brought to light by the historian Paolo Gaspari. 

In fact, taking a closer look at the military events, the picture becomes clearer. The Royal Army engaged in its first defensive battle on the Isonzo, the second of the entire war on the Italian front. The memoirs relate just how unprepared it was for this event. The Italian positions were uncertain, everything was pushed forward in view of the offensive that was to be undertaken in the spring of 1918. Not having been forced to defend themselves up until now, the commanders had not bothered to bury telephone cables, and so the connections were cut by the enemy bombardment. Secondly, the strategies employed by the Italian army were surpassed by those adopted by the Germans in terms of infantry deployment, the use of automatic weapons and artillery.

As if this were not enough, Italian units at the front were largely undermanned due to a large number of leaves granted 16 days before the enemy offensive: it was not thought that a large-scale attack could be launched so close to the onset of winter. The Germans also used a tactic unknown to the Italians that involved small squads penetrating the front line and coming up behind the enemy. Erwin Rommel, famous for his role during the Second World War, and a lieutenant at the time, was among these. It was this very same technique that, though depleting the German units themselves, was employed to successfully take about 60 km of territory from the English and French on the Western Front. Caporetto was a defeat that turned into a rout due to organizational defects that can only be seen clearly today and that those at the time failed to ever grasp.

The "necessary tragedy" that arose in 1916 and came to bear in 1917, set in motion a major change in military thinking rather than wartime strategy. In fact, as has already been mentioned, artillery would continue to prepare the advance of the infantry, but there were other things that the command of Diaz, who replaced Cadorna, would lay its hand to. Greater autonomy was given to the chain of command, the propaganda unit "Servizio P" was created to motivate the troops, along with the large-scale dissemination of trench newspapers, and moments of leisure and entertainment for the men. But most importantly, the theatre of war changed. After fighting for nameless peaks and mountain tops, the army was now halting an invasion at the Piave. As for the soldiers, if their self-sacrifice and tenacity went unchanged, their spirit was now one that saw them fighting for those behind them or to re-embrace those had remained beyond the river. Vindicated from betrayal, Italian infantrymen nevertheless remained trapped in the trenches of Caporetto. Their "resignation" to the struggle is there "to ensure that man can be made to put up with anything, every harsh humiliation, beyond his will or conscience, and yet he will be good, patient, resigned: it is enough for the organization to work, that 'technical mistakes' do not hamper the smooth operation (Mario Isnenghi)."

 

Testimony

Getting "out" of the trench: behind the lines and writing from the soldiers

In war, the harsh conditions to which the soldiers were subjected during their time in the trenches made it indispensable that the days of extreme danger and sacrifice were alternated by periods of relative calm. The rear lines were located just a... Read all

Biographies

Luigi Capello

Luigi Capello was born in Intra on 14 April 1859. Cadet at the Military Academy in 1875, second lieutenant of infantry in 1878, he began his military career in the 46th Infantry Regiment. Promoted lieutenant in 1881, he served in the Alpini... Read all