“Our spirits are more shattered than the pile of ruins that we must defend.”
(Fritz Weber – officer of the garrison of Fort Verle)
In August 1915, the Italian forces launched a heavy offensive on the Trentino Front. The Italian artillery constantly bombarded the Austrian fortifications on the Plateau, attempting to destroy them and initiate penetration of the enemy lines.
However, the so-called war of the forts had distant origins and its consequences, negligible at the tactical level, showed the inadequacy of the field armies in the new war they were fighting.
Despite the Alliance that united Italy and Austria from 1898, it was quite clear that neither of the nations trusted the other. In the eyes of strategists on both sides, the area around Trentino represented one of the main weak points. Trentino constituted a narrow stretch of land within Italian borders that could encourage an offensive of the Austrians. This was also a primary objective for a possible Italian offensive that would aim to rely on the safer line of the Brennero borders. In the early 1900s, both countries had begun strengthening the borders by building many forts equipped with artillery and machine guns. On the Austrian side, the main promoter of these projects was General Conrad.
At the outbreak of the war, in May 1915, the Italian forts of Campolongo, Punta Corbin and Campomolon began to bomb the Austrian forts. With the exception of some attempts to attack the Austrian posts, the first substantial phases of the conflict saw a constant exchange of artillery fire. The Italians focussed on dismantling the forts, which was more difficult than expected. The structures located in the area of the plateau were the ones most recently built by the Austrians. Their fortifications were able to offer adequate resistance to the Italian artillery which in the first phases of the war was too small for the task that awaited it.
Nevertheless, these actions demonstrated the vulnerability of the system of fortifications. Although the structures seemed to withstand well, the soldiers were not as confident. One singular event was the nervous breakdown that struck lieutenant Gimpelmann, commander of the troops of Fort Verle at Vezzena. He took advantage of a pause in the bombardments and ordered the abandonment of the post, left in the hands of two officers who, along with about forty men, refused to give in. The commander of the Fort of Luserna, also heavily damaged by the bombardments, raised the white flag, although surrender was impeded by other factors. Italian attempts to destroy the fort on the Pizzo di Levico were also ineffective. This post, located at a height of 1900 metres, offered a privileged vantage point for the Austrian army. The constant attacks of artillery against this position were resolved in most cases with projectiles overshooting the position and falling on the villages of Valsugana, forcing the population to evacuate.
Conrad hoped to use the forts as point of departure for a massive offensive that would break the Italian lines and fan out into the Po Valley, taking the Eastern Italian front from behind and preventing any further defensive attempts of the adversaries. This strategy did not receive support from his superiors, especially the Germans, who considered it essential to concentrate troops on the French or Eastern Front, which was using a good part of the Austro-Hungarian army. In the general view of the conflict, the Italian front was seen as secondary and the fortifications of Trento limited to a purely defensive role. The primary Italian attempt at a generalised offensive over the plateau took place in August 1915, when a heavy bombardment of artillery was directed onto the forts on the Plateau of Vezzena. The infantry attack, conducted with pre-unification methods - that is, with assaults heralded by trumpets, morning stars and single-shot guns - was seen to be a failure. The Austrians were forced to use reinforcements in that sector of the front, but in fact the situation remained unchanged. In the course of that attack and during the later exchanges of artillery that continued until 1916, the Austrian fortifications remained heavily damaged and the fort system was abandoned for the rest of the war, its uselessness thus being demonstrated. The next phase of the mountain war remained unchanged, despite the outcome of the conflict in that sector of the front, which did not move until the end of the war.