Mount Ortigara was the scene of the battle that, according to Cadorna, would mark the Italian comeback in Trentino after having checked the enemy at the Battle of Asiago (Strafexpedition). Despite the abundance of men and means at their disposal, the offensive on Ortigara turned into a bloody disappointment. The hardships suffered by the Italian Alpini gave rise to the legendary status of these mountain troops.
The new location of the front lines following the Strafexpedition had left the Austrians in positions that were easily defended and from which it was possible to launch new offensives against the Italian troops stationed in Carnia and Cadore. The sector that most worried the high command was the line that ran from the Assa River to the eastern end of the Altopiano dei Sette Comuni, stretching across Mounts Rasta, Zebio, Colombara, Forno, Chiesa, Campigoletti and Ortigara.
Thus, according to Generalissimo Cadorna, it was of paramount importance to re-occupy the positions lost the previous year in order to make the front line more secure. The objective of the offensive was Mount Ortigara and the surrounding hills which encircled the Austrian positions on the Asiago plateau, the taking of which would allow the Italian troops to outflank the enemy line from the north.
The taking of the mountain was entrusted to the 6th Army under General Ettore Mambretti, which was equipped with a huge number of artillery: 1,072 cannons and 569 heavy guns, that is, a gun placed every nine metres on mountainous terrain at between 1,000 and 2,000 metres elevation. With about three hundred thousand Italian soldiers deployed, the Battle of Mount Ortigara was set to be the largest high-elevation battle ever fought.
The days leading up to the offensive were not good: the element of surprise was completely lacking, while bad weather conditions and the accidental explosion of a mine that killed many officers of the Catania brigade left little room for optimism. The attack was launched on 10 June 1917, following a large artillery bombardment. Although the artillery support achieved - in numbers and density of fire - the levels on the Western Front, the greater quantity of materials employed was not backed up by quality planning. The artillery fire was inaccurate and left the shelters and entrenchments in the Austrians' caves intact. Equally inefficient was the information service that failed to determine the extent of the enemy's defences, which had been reinforced during the long winter break with numerous machine gun nests. The fierce resistance encountered, the bad weather and the precise Austro-Hungarian artillery fire repulsed all the attacks in the early days of operations, with losses estimated at 6,800 dead, wounded and missing. The fact that in just one day, the Austrian troops used up several tons of light weapon ammunition is enough to give an idea of the intensity of the clash. Only the Italian Alpini managed to make some progress, reaching the north ridge of Mount Ortigara and defending it from the furious Austro-Hungarian counterattack.
On 19 June, a new attack was launched along a 14-kilometre front, supported by several Caproni bombers, with the Alpini once again engaged. They managed to finally take the peak of Mount Ortigara, a bare summit exposed to artillery fire coming from the surrounding mountains. However, this success was not exploited by the Italian commanders, who decided to set up positions on the top of the mountain, which was difficult to defend and even more so to hold. As the Official Austrian Report states, "the tenacity and the desire of the mighty forces under the Italian command to win failed that day, with the sole exception of the 52nd division that fought on the Ortigara; but even in this sector, the Command itself did not know, just as it had not known on 10 June, how to exploit the successes achieved through strong infantry thrusts." Making the Alpini position even worse was the fact that, despite having taken the summit, the Italian offensive had failed in every other sector along the front of the attack.
On 25 June an Austrian counterattack was directed against the top of the mountain and forced the Alpini into a sudden retreat. All attempts to retake the mountain failed, bleeding dry battalions that were already exhausted from weeks of fighting. On 29 June, the last Italian position just below the summit fell. The Battle of Mount Ortigara ended in a clamorous tactical and strategic failure.
Responsibility for the debacle was laid on Mambretti, however the blame extended to the entire high command, who had so passively allocated men and means without having any real control of the operations. On the whole, the Italian commanders lacked the courage to acknowledge the failure of the attack right after 10 June and call it off immediately. General Luca Montuori, a subordinate of Mambretti, said: "We are undertaking this operation because I was ordered to do so. I have no confidence that it will succeed, but this is what they want."
Losses totalled 25,000 for the Italians and 9,000 for the Austrians, the hardest hit were the Alpini, with the 52nd division losing about half of its effective fighting strength. On the whole, the troops fought well, fiercely attacking and assaulting positions that were ultimately incapable of being taken. Nevertheless, Cadorna concluded that the failure had been due to the diminished combativeness of the troops and not the poor battle plans.
The battle of Mount Ortigara has become a sort of foundational legend among the Alpini. The song, Tapum, one of the most beautiful songs of the Great War was written in its honour. Its lyrics describe the violence of the fighting, the huge openings in the Italian lines, the hardship of mountain warfare, and the ruthless logic of the Italian commanders ("Twenty days on Mount Ortigara with no change to dismount" goes the first verse). In September 1920, the first National Muster ('Adunata' in italian) of Alpini was held atop the mountain. Two thousand veterans gathered at the summit, placing there a small column with the inscription: In remembrance.