The Ortigara in the soldier's words

Loss of the element of surprise

The Austrians do not know the exact day that of the attack on the Plateau: but they certainly know that there will be an attack.

(Colonel Angelo Gatti, 4 June 1917.)

 

It cannot be ruled out that there may be a surprise attack in Trentino in three or four days' time. The generals who will be in charge have come to witness the recent action at the behest of the Commander. It was an excellent idea. In the event of an attack to the north, I will be leaving.

(The journalist Rino Alessi in a letter sent from Udine to the director of Il Secolo on 28 May 1917.)

 

The bad reputation of General Ettore Mambretti

The weather is nice and warm. Tomorrow M. recommences the operation. Let's hope that he also succeeds in shattering that deplorable legend that surrounds him of being a jinx. It's a stupid thing, but in Italy it compromises one's reputation and prestige. Just think, that when that mine went off prematurely on the eve of the failed operation, they attributed it to his being jinxed.

 

This jinx stigma has been taken to the extreme. The Austrians, after a great preparatory artillery barrage, attacked and took Ortigara from us, despite our strenuous defence. (...) Yesterday I telegraphed Lello (his son Raffaele jr.) and he also says not to start over because, whenever the soldiers see M., they make signs to ward away evil. In Italy, this type of bad luck is unfortunately an extremely strong foe.

 

M.'s reputation grows every day, so that now he cannot appear in any place without soldiers and even commanders making great shows of warding off the jinx. This annoys me greatly, because if I assign him an offensive operation, he will not succeed simply because everyone is persuaded that he cannot. (...) It is certain, for those who believe it, that he has had every type of bad luck: bad weather, the mine explosion the day before the attack that killed almost all the officers in two battalions that were to make the assault, our artillery fire seemingly falling short, etc. It seems that he had already got this reputation in Africa, where he wanted to go to instead of following his destiny.

(Letters from Cadorna to his wife between June and July 1917.)

 

A battle lost at the outset

On the evening of the 10th, the failure of the enterprise could already be seen and the commanders clearly understood how possession of the Ortigara massif could serve excellently, but only and exclusively as a springboard for a further advance towards the preordained objectives.

(General Aldo Cabiati on the failure of the action on the first day of the offensive.)

 

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.

(The Official Austrian Report on the Italian actions on 19 June 1917.)

 

The Alpini and Ortigara

At dawn came the cries of attack, victory, and death in the darkness. An abrupt alarm ,then a blood-stained face that announced it. Outpost 2003 has been overrun, the Austrians are here, the medic telephones and says that they are already near  his cave and he is withdrawing. It is no use to call him back, he is no longer responding. Private Pretto arrives and explains what happened and how he escaped, after already being surrounded. After a night so calm that he felt like he was in a mountain pasture, suddenly from up on the left they were set upon by a Hungarian battalion yelling out "Italian cowards surrender"; down below there was a hail of bombs, furious fighting in the walkways and around our two machine guns until broken up by the bombs; and then Pretto saw Captain Ripamonti wounded and fall on the back of an Alpine trooper who tried to save him, though he, too, was injured. He wanted to help him, but he was caught between two giant Hungarians shouting at him, "On your knees, beg, beg", and all around him were dead and wounded, the position was lost. Then, "I stuck my bayonet into the belly of one soldier, and threw the other one down into the Sugana valley, and here I am."

(Report of an Austrian attack by Alpini Second Lieutenant Paolo Monelli.)

 

After the first moment of surprise, our troops put up dogged defence ... fighting in the breaches became a fierce melee and furious one-on-one combat. The darkness of the night, the rain, the narrowness of the walkways, the bodies of the dead and wounded, the bloody fragments of explosions, all blended together in the tragic onslaught. Nevertheless, the dignity and tenacity of our troops gradually got the better of the obstacles, and the trenches were slowly re-occupied and stably defended. [...] The various assault units employed appeared exceptionally well-trained for these violent attacks [...] behind every wave followed a line of handlers that quickly supplied the assailants and even brought up lit lanterns. Repulsed, the charge resumed and, after a few moments of truce, the desperate fighting would start again on one side or the other.

(Alpini Lieutenant Carlo Milani on the Austrian counterattack of 15 June 1915.)

 

As soon as he poked his head out of the trench, Dr Dogliotti got hit by a shell fragment that tore him apart. The entire slope of Mount Caldiera that we have to descend is raining fire from grenades, but the sniper machine guns waiting along the forced routes seem to be worse and almost always hit their marks. The heap of the dead is shocking. So you take a moment to breathe, and watch your whole life pass by in a moment of regret, there is a sudden feeling of fear that is stifled in terror, and then you plunge into danger. Three or four bullets whistle by you and then, it's over.

(Alpini Second Lieutenant Paolo Monelli on 25 June 1917)

 

The main reason for the failure is to be found in the diminished fighting spirit of part of the troops as a result of subversive propaganda, that same reason which had already produced its sad consequences on the Karst at the beginning of the month... These effects were avoided by several units, mainly the Alpini 52rd Division, which suffered the most losses.

(From Cadorna's memoirs: conclusions about the Battle of Ortigara.)

 

[...] Italian losses thus reached the numbers of a battle on the Isonzo; two-thirds of these were accounted for on a 2-km long front. This detail is important for understanding the pain and the horror of the blood unnecessarily spilled, especially that of the Alpini: these sentiments have always been associated with the name of Ortigara in Italy.

(From the Official Austrian Report)

 

Bibliography

Gianni Pieropan, Storia della Grande Guerra sul fronte italiano 1914-1918, Mursia, Milan, 1988.

Mario Rigoni Stern, Attilio Frescura, 1915-1918: la guerra sugli altipiani: testimonianze di soldati al fronte, Neri Pozza, Milan, 2001.

Leonardo Raito, Nicola Persegati, Nella modernit√† come fantasmi: esperienze, mitologia e memoria della Grande Guerra, Aracne, Rome, 2010.