“While death is strolling around Gorizia, meadows and trees bloom everywhere with overwhelming exuberance. It’s like being in the dressing room of a prima donna. However, the women, who are back in the kitchen and help to clean, smile embarrassed, “We are just doing our duty”. Sure, they forgot to add “For heaven's sake! Don’t mention the war!” ”
(Alice Schalek, Viennese journalist and writer, war correspondent)
“Oh Gorizia, you're cursed,” says the famous refrain of an anti-war song. Its anonymous author could not have condemned the war more clearly than by cursing one of Irredentism’s objectives. Four major offensives, and a minor one, preceded the sixth battle of the Isonzo, the only battle that led to immediate concrete results: the taking of Gorizia. Soldiers in the trenches, singing that refrain, cursed a symbol more than a city, rejecting a value system that supported the monarchy and the ongoing conflict.
Fear of execution could not suffice to launch an assault against machine guns, however. On 6th August 1916, when the Italian artillery opened fire on the Austrian positions, the infantry launched their attack "with fixed bayonets shouting Savoia", recounts Cecchino Ronconi, an Italian soldier who took part in the offensive, in his diary. He recalls how, when the attack was announced, some wept and others remained silent as if already resigned to their fate. Fatalism and obedience pervaded the minds of the soldiers so they could face such a terrible ordeal, but a sense of duty was not enough. It was in those days that Enrico Toti, in Monfalcone, launched an attack by throwing his crutch against the enemy. A railway worker who lost his leg in an accident at work, he had never given up, travelling long distances by bicycle, even as far as Sudan. When war broke out he wanted to join the rifle regiment despite being exonerated as an invalid. Apart from the private reasons of the hero, the resulting myth exalted by fascism and today’s interpretations, the fact remains that a mutilated man launched an attack against the enemy.
Not only the requirements of propaganda, but the need for victories, a great destiny in a secondary and regional front, meant that every success and sacrifice became legendary and men lived this story intensely, interpreting it to the last gesture. Indeed, until Caporetto, the war was fought by a compact Royal Italian Army, even though the aim was not to defend soldiers’ houses and families but, instead, to pursue rhetorical results. And even if the victory of Gorizia, with 51,000 fallen, wounded and missing on the Italian side, produced this song, as well as doubts in the infantry, the Italian army faced five more battles with the same commitment before giving in at the twelfth. The soldiers, in a new community in the trench, experienced the “collective tragedy” in the spirit of their time, maybe hating Gorizia, but fighting.
The success of the sixth battle, however, was based not on the soldiers’ “moral superiority” as Cadorna would have preferred to believe, but on the experience gained in fifteen months of war and an artillery which was finally adequate (about 1200 guns) which allowed the Royal Army to achieve the success which previously had been impossible. Moreover, after Strafexpedition, the Austro-Hungarians were convinced the Italians could not set up a new offensive in the summer. The meticulous preparations, conducted in secret, together with those abruptly interrupted to respond to the Austrian attack, took 300,000 soldiers to the gates of Gorizia in just one week. The artillery objectives were established carefully and new trenches were built nearer and nearer to the Austro-Hungarian positions. It was the Bombard, a rudimentary weapon compared to the new concept cannons, which finally opened the way for the infantry removing cheval de frise and wire fencing. The Austrians controlled a bridgehead at Gorizia, making the Italian attack doubly difficult: once past the first defenses the infantry would have to cross the Isonzo River. Preparation and surprise were the main factors that allowed the Royal Army to defeat the Austrians. Supported by a vital supply of ammunition, the Italian artillery opened fire on the enemy trenches on 6th August.
When the bombardment ceased the Austrians responded immediately with their guns believing an attack was imminent, but this was not the case. The Italians, by delaying the attack half an hour, made the Austrians waste their spare ammunition. The attacking infantry achieved remarkable results such as the capture of Mount Sabotino, where countless attempts had failed, in just 38 minutes and under the command of Colonel Badoglio. Moreover, the Empire, after Strafexpedition and the Brusilov offensive, had few troops to launch into battle.
The Italian divisions broke through the Austrian bridgehead in several places, finding a fierce, but poorly coordinated, resistance. The Italian troops repulsed the Austro-Hungarian sectoral counterattacks after severe clashes and reciprocal bayonet assaults. In the early hours of 8th August, Field Marshal Boroevic gave the order to retreat to the left bank of the Isonzo. Of the 18,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers who controlled the bridgehead only 5,000 were able to retreat. Almost immediately some Italian contingents forded the river. The attack succeeded because the Austrians had moved their artillery back for fear they would be captured by the Italians. While the Austro-Hungarian command believed that a further breach was imminent in the Gorizia sector, Cadorna planned a pincer attack convinced that the enemy wanted to resist near the city. As in other situations the assumptions of the opposite commands were incorrect, creating a paradoxical situation in which the city was a no man's land before being captured by some Italian contingents. The Italian advance ended on 10th August although operations continued until 16th August. The capture of Gorizia meant the achievement of some concrete goals, but especially represented a moral victory, the first real Italian success. Nevertheless, this success did not turn the tide of the conflict which immediately, again, became a war of attrition.