June 1917

The Battle of Mount Ortigara

By Alessandro Chebat

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.

L’offensiva Kerensky

Di Wojciech Łysek

Orlando Figes la cita come la "tragedia della nazione": il Generale Aleksiej Brusilow rivolgendosi ai soldati nel giugno 1917 disse, durante una visita al fronte, che i tedeschi avevano distrutto "uno dei beni più grandi del popolo francese, gli splendidi vigneti".  Un soldato infuriato rispose che "per tre anni la nazione aveva sparso sangue" e "se il generale voleva combattere per lo champagne, lo lasciava andare a spargere il suo di sangue".

Il governo del principe Gregory Lvov, esercitando il potere dopo la rivoluzione di febbraio, decise di riprendere l'offensiva contro gli imperi centrali. Nonostante fosse un sostenitore della pace senza “annessioni e indennità” questa azione era considerata necessaria per cacciare le truppe nemiche dal suolo russo. La maggior parte dei comandanti convenne che non era possibile avviare l'azione prima del giugno 1917. Fin dalla Conferenza di Chantilly del dicembre 1915, la Russia era sotto pressione da parte degli alleati, che insistevano per una nuova offensiva sul fronte orientale. Il 1917 doveva essere l'anno della vittoria finale. L'offensiva estiva doveva essere un attacco preventivo per poi lasciare l'iniziativa agli imperi centrali, tale idea era dovuta alla convinzione prevalente nei ranghi russi per cui gli effetti di una difesa senza successo erano molto più pericolosa di un attacco fallito.

Secondo il piano operativo del generale Vasily Alexeyev del febbraio 1917 il colpo più importante si sarebbe dovuto assestare sul fronte sud-occidentale: rompendo la linea del fronte in Galizia a Lwow e nella zona di Dobrohovych. Sugli altri fronti (occidentale, settentrionale e rumeno) si sarebbe dovuto agire per distrarre il nemico. La Germania apprese della concentrazione di soldati e fece affluire a est numerose divisioni e sei cannoni pesanti dal fronte francese.

Il socialista Aleksander Kiereński (ex ministro della giustizia) assunse il ruolo di ministro della Guerra e della Marina il 18 maggio 1917, insieme al generale Brusilow (comandante supremo dell'esercito russo) dal 4 giugno cominciarono a organizzare l'offensiva. Kiereński andò personalmente al fronte, dove si esibì in discorsi infuocati. Ovunque venne accolto come un eroe, attraverso l'adulazione si diffuse la falsa convinzione che i soldati erano disposti a combattere. Nel frattempo agli incontri partecipavano soprattutto gli ufficiali – l'inteligencja in divisa. Più scettici e seri, con essi in privato fece riferimento alla continuazione della guerra.

Dopo un bombardamento d’artiglieria il 29 giugno, l'esercito russo si precipitò all'attacco sul fronte in Galizia il primo luglio. All'attacco parteciparono la VII, VIII e l'XI armata russa, le quali ammontavano ad un totale di 61 divisioni di fanteria e 10 di cavalleria. I russi contavano di avere il doppio di unità rispetto a quelle schierate dagli austriaci e dalla Germania, che potevano contare solo su 26 divisioni di fanteria e 2 a cavallo.

I successi iniziali ricordarono l'offensiva di Brusilov nell'estate del 1916. L'VIII divisione, comandata dal generale Lawra Korniłowa riuscì a fare breccia tra le linee austriache mentre le altre due divisioni erano impegnate verso Lwow. L'attacco continuò per due giorni. Il giornale patriottico già inneggiava al “trionfo della libertà”, ma solo l'VIII armata avanzando da Stanisławowa era riuscita a prendere Halicz e Kalush. I rinforzi tedeschi impedirono la rottura delle difese nella zona di Dobrohovych, gli attacchi successivi russi non andarono ebbero successo anche a causa del rifiuto da parte di alcune unità di obbedire agli ordini. Dopo dieci giorni l'offensiva si arrestò. I migliori risultati furono colti dai soldati cecoslovacchi. I reggimenti cechi vennero iscritti nelle liste eroiche per la loro partecipazioni alla battaglia di Zborow del 2 Luglio 1917. Il successo iniziale provocò grande entusiasmo tra i soldati russi, ma quando i tedeschi diedero sostegno agli austriaci l'offensiva russa si arenò, in parte anche a causa degli errori dell'esercito russo. Le unità erano state mandate al fronte senza mitragliatrici e i soldati inesperti erano stati equipaggiati con bombe a mano, da cui ne uscirono continui incidenti e infortuni. Ma la ragione principale del fallimento fu la riluttanza dei soldati a combattere. Essi avanzavo pochi chilometri per poi rifiutarsi di proseguire oltre l’offensiva. Molti soldati preferirono puntare le armi contro i propri comandanti. Negozi saccheggiati, donne violentate ed ebrei uccisi. Il ritiro si trasformò così in un caos. L'attacco in direzione di Lwow si bloccò quando nella città di Koniuchy l'esercito andò nel magazzino dell'alcool. Ci vollero tre giorni per recuperare i soldati dalla sbornia, così che i soldati tedeschi li costrinsero alla ritirata. A partire dal 19 luglio 1917 iniziò la controffensiva lungo il fronte della Galizia. Attaccarono Ternopil e riconquistarono Chernivtsi Stanisławów. Sul settore settentrionale del fronte le truppe tedesche, nel mese di settembre, occuparono Riga, la maggior parte della Lettonia, l'isola Moon e Dago Oesel (sede di un’importante base della flotta russa).

Le cause del fallimento dovrebbero essere ricercate anche nell'eccessivo ottimismo dei leader russi. Le perdite russe non furono di 6.000 uomini – come previsto – ma di 130.000 tra morti e feriti. Il numero dei disertori molto probabilmente superò la cifra ufficiale di 170.000 soldati. L'esercito russo non fu più capace di intraprendere un'azione offensiva. Il 18 luglio il generale Brusilow venne sostituito dal generale Korniłow. L'offensiva di Kerenskji nel mese di luglio 1917, conosciuta anche come l'offensiva d'estate o della Galizia, spinse i soldati verso la rivoluzione e i bolscevichi – i quali sostenevano un’uscita immediata dalla guerra. Anche in termini politici i costi furono alti. Le notizie sulle perdite causarono uno nuovo scoppio di proteste a Pietrogrado (le cosiddette giornate di luglio, 16-17 luglio 1917). Di conseguenza, dopo l'elezione a primo ministro il 21 luglio di Kerenski, questi iniziò a considerare una soluzione diplomatica e non militare della guerra. Tuttavia l’effetto più evidente dell'offensiva del luglio 1917 fu l’inizio di una crisi politica che si avrebbe portato alla presa del potere da parte dei bolscevichi.

Bibliografia:

Andrzej Andrusiewicz, Romanowowie. Imperia i familia, Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2014.

Ludwik Bazylow, Paweł Wieczorkiewicz, Historia Rosji, tłum. Irena Scharoch, Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 2005.

Andrzej Chwalba, Samobójstwo Europy. Wielka Wojna 1914-1918, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2014.

Orlando Figes, La tragedia di un popolo. La rivoluzione russa 1891-1924, Milano, Mondadori, 2016

The Kerensky Offensive

By Wojciech Łysek

Orlando Figes referred to it as the "nation's tragedy": in June 1917, General Aleksiej Brusilow, addressing the soldiers during a visit to the front, said that the Germans had destroyed "one of the greatest assets of the French people, the beautiful vineyards." An angry soldier replied that "for three years the nation had scattered blood" and "if the general wanted to fight for champagne, let him go and shed his blood."

The government of Prince Gregory Lvov, that come to power after the February Revolution, decided to resume the offensive against the Central Empires. Although he was a supporter of peace without "annexations and compensations", this action was deemed necessary to drive out the enemy troops from Russian soil. Most of the commanders agreed that it was not possible to launch the action before June 1917. Since the December 1915 Chantilly Conference, Russia was under pressure from the Allies, insisting on a new offensive on the Eastern Front. 1917 was considered the year of the final victory. The summer offensive had to be a preventive attack designed to leave then the initiative to the Central Empires. This idea was due to the prevailing conviction in the Russian ranks that the effects of an unsuccessful defence were much more dangerous than a failed attack.

According to the plan of General Vasily Alexeyev of February 1917, the most important blow would have to hit the southwest front to break the front line in Galicia at Lwow and Dobrohovych. Diversive and distracting actions should have been conducted on the other fronts.  (western, northern, and Romanian) Germany, alarmed by the concentration of soldiers, moved several divisions and six heavy cannons from the French front to the East.

The Socialist Aleksander Kiereński (former Minister of Justice) assumed the role of Minister of War and Navy on 18 May 1917; he began, together with General Brusilow (Supreme Commander of the Russian Army), organizing the offensive on 4 June. Kiereński went personally to the front, where he performed inspiring and passionate speeches. Everywhere, he was welcomed as a hero and the adulation persuaded him that the soldiers  were willing to fight. Meanwhile, the officials - the inteligencja in uniform - attended to this meetings. More skeptical and serious, with them in private he referred to the continuation of the war.

Following an artillery bombing on 29 June, the Russian army rushed to attack on the front in Galicia on 1st July. The Russian Seventh, Eighth and Eleventh Army joined the action with a total of 61 infantry and 10 cavalry divisions. They claimed to have twice of units compared to the Austrians and Germans, who could only deploy 26 infantry and 2 cavalry divisions. Initial successes reminded of Brusilov's offensive in the summer of 1916. The Eighth Division, led by General Lawra Korniłowa, could break through the Austrian lines, while the other two divisions were engaged along the road to Lwow. The attack continued for two days. The patriotic newspaper was already celebrating the "triumph of freedom", but only the 8th Army advancing from Stanisławowa managed to take Halicz and Kalush. German reinforcements prevented the breaking of the defences in the Dobrohovych area, The subsequent Russian attacks were also not successful due to the refusal by some units to obey orders. After ten days the offensive stopped. The best results were achieved by Czechoslovak soldiers. Czech regiments entered in the lists of heroes for their participation in the Zborow Battle of 2 July 1917. The initial success raised great enthusiasm among Russian soldiers, but when the Germans supported the Austrians, the Russian offensive fled, partly because of the Russian army's mistakes. The units were sent to the front without machine guns and inexperienced soldiers were equipped with hand grenades, resulting in continuous accidents and injuries. However, the main reason for the failure was the reluctance of soldiers to fight. They went a few miles away and then refused to continue the offensive. Many soldiers preferred to point their weapons against their commanders: shops were plundered, women raped and Jews killed. The retreat turned into a chaos. The attack in Lwow's direction stopped when the army reached Koniuchy and found the storehouse of alcohol. It took three days to sober up the soldiers , so that the German soldiers forced them to retreat. From 19 July 1917, the Central Powers counter-offensive began along the Galicia's Front. They attacked Ternopil and regained Chernivtsi Stanisławów. On the northern side of the front, the German troops, in  September, occupied Riga, most of Latvia, the Moon Island and Dago Oesel (home of an important base of the Russian fleet). The causes of the failure should also be sought in the over-optimism of Russian leaders. The Russian losses –went beyond the expected 6000 men and amounted to 130,000 dead and wounded. The number of deserters most likely exceeded the official figure of 170,000 soldiers. The Russian army was no longer able to undertake an offensive action. On 18 July, General Korniłow replaced General Brusilow.

Kerenskji's offensive in July 1917, also known as the Summer or Galician offensive, pushed soldiers towards the Revolution and the Bolsheviks - who supported an immediate withdrawal from the war. Also in political terms the costs were high. News of the losses caused a new outbreak of protests in Pietrograd (the so-called July Days, 16-17 July, 1917). Consequently, after the Kerenski’s election to Prime Minister on 21 July, he began to consider a diplomatic and non-military solution to the war. However, the most obvious effect of the July 1917 offensive was the beginning of a political crisis that would have led to the Bolsheviks’ rise to power.

Bibliography:

Andrzej Andrusiewicz, Romanowowie. Imperia i familia, Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2014.

Ludwik Bazylow, Paweł Wieczorkiewicz, Historia Rosji, tłum. Irena Scharoch, Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 2005.

Andrzej Chwalba, Samobójstwo Europy. Wielka Wojna 1914-1918, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2014.

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, Random House, 2017

Testimony

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