June 1915

The first offensives on Isonzo

By Alessandro Chebat

"The initial months of the war on the Italian front concluded in bloody and unnecessary frontal attacks. The conflict on the Isonzo front also assumed the characteristics of trench warfare, made more difficult by the mountainous terrain. For the soldiers, reaching Gorizia became both a dream and a nightmare."

The Isonzo valley was the front of intense Italian efforts to open a breach between the Austro-Hungarian defences. The line of combat stretched from Mount Tolmino as far as the sea. Mount Tolmino, firmly controlled by the Austro-Hungarians, barred the river’s flow from the mountains to the Italians. The enemies were pitched on opposite sides of two high embankments between which the Isonzo River flowed. The Italians only managed to cross it at Plava, preserving the control of a small bridgehead, whereas the Imperial-Royal army securely held the two sides of the river as far as the gates of Gorizia. Beyond Isonzo opened a series of plateaus and low mountains, such as Bainsizza, Sabotino and Calvario. At the command of the Austro-Hungarian troops was General Svetozar Borojević von Bojna, who withdrew his troops on the military border to occupy more defensible positions. It was against this front that the first four Italian offensives were launched between June 23rd and December 2nd, 1915. 

In accordance with the directives of Cadorna, in the initial stages the military operations were conducted with the same methods, despite the lack of results. The attacks were preceded by intense fire from 75 mm artillery, insufficient to neutralise the enemy defences. The latter, although improvised and far from well-equipped, were well placed in dominant positions, and defended by skilled men. After the bombardment, the troops turned their assault to restricted areas, and then broadened their attack on a wider front. The power of the Italian artillery was insufficient to destroy the barbed-wire fences, and removing them with wire cutters did nothing but increase losses. By placing gelatine explosive tubes through loopholes in barbed wire, the attacks were channelled in front of the machine guns.

At the end of the first four battles, Cadorna had lost approximately 183 thousand men, Gorizia and Trieste remained Austrian and, despite the losses and the valour of the troops, no significant objective was reached. The only "positive" element in the logic of the war of attrition were the approximately 124 thousand of dead, wounded and missing inflicted to the Austro-Hungarians forces. These losses, although lower than the Italians, were high and hardly replaceable, as the Imperial Royal Army was chronically a short of reserves while the Regio Esercito had a decisive numerical superiority.

The first six months of the war concluded with the "exhaustion" of the Italian troops and the substantial failure of all attacks, despite their net numerical superiority. There were many reasons for their lack of success. Mobilisation of the Royal Army was slow and chaotic. This compromised a rapid advance that would have exploited the Austro-Hungarian army’s difficulties in Serbia and Galicia. Following Cadorna, when they decided to attack, they found themselves facing an opponent even lower in number, but with an increased availability of men and means. The Russians were pulling back under the blows of Mackensen’s troops, whereas the Serbs had exhausted any offensive ability. From the initial ratio of three to one in favour of the Italian troops between May and June, the ratio moved to two to one between October and November.

Must be taken into account also the Italians' lack of military training and weapons. Along with a poor Medium and Heavy Artillery (little more than 300 pieces in total) and chronic ammunition shortages, there was the weak firepower of the troops, which did not have enough machine guns. The Imperial Royal Army had made the most of its experience of the early months of the war, providing its troops with automatic weapons and an artillery that, although not numerous, was adequate and well managed.

The "methodical attack" of Cadorna, which consisted in repeated, increasingly wide attacks to find the "flaws" in the opponents’ front lines, imposed high losses, only partly compensated by the greater availability of men. In contrast, General Borojević von Bojna focused his efforts on restricted areas and sectorial counterattacks, well-conducted and supported by the artillery, which often retook positions harshly conquered by the Italian troops.

Also the geographical characteristics, complicated the Italian war scenario. While the Isonzo Front was characterised by rivers and vast plateaus occupied by the opponents, the Trentino front was wedged dangerously behind the Italian main armies. This required a strong garrison in this area and the removal of men and means from the Isontino Front. These were scattered over a wide front, the extension of which was further multiplied by mountainous morphology 

In Italy, as in France, the hopes of a brief conflict quickly disappeared, giving way to a long and bloody war of attrition. In December 1915, despite the valour and spirit of sacrifice demonstrated by the soldiers, the Royal Italian Army was in a dangerous crisis, with its troops huddled together and terrifyingly depleted. The Austro-Hungarian commanders did not immediately notice this situation, and did not as yet have the strength to lead large offensive actions against the Italians. Major operations stagnated until August 1916 when, after repelling the Strafexpedition in Trentino, the influx of new recruits and the strengthening of army materials enabled the Gorizia offensive to be resumed more effectively.


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