About World War 1: Brief Overview of the Italian Front
Map of the Italian Froont
The fighting along the Italian Front during World War One has never garnered the attention paid to the Western Front-- or even the Eastern Front. Perhaps it was seen as a sideshow-- but it was not a sideshow to the millions of Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops who were killed or wounded there. Or maybe it was thought to have a minor impact on the war as a whole. Italy's war aims were to wrest contested territory from Austria-Hungary, especially Dalmatia on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. This self-serving goal (though who's to say that war in general is not self-serving) tied down millions of Austro-Hungarian troops which could have bolstered the Central Powers' fight against the Russians on the Eastern Front. If the Russian Army had collapsed earlier than it did in 1917, the outcome on the Western Front, and hence the war, could have been very different.
Supply Line in the Alps
The front stretched about 400 miles from Switzerland in the west to the Adriatic Sea in the east-- mostly in the Alps along the two countries' shared border in northeastern Italy. Austria-Hungary managed to occupy and fortify favorable positions high in the Alps, intending to fight a mostly defensive war. The conditions along this front were brutal and among the worst anywhere in the war. In addition to the vicious Alpine winters, with frostbite and avalanches to contend with (an estimated 40,000 died in avalanches-- about 10,000 on December 13, 1916 alone), the solid mountain rock magnified the deadly effect of artillery as shrapnel and rock tore through soldiers much more effectively than, say, in the soft mud of Flanders.
The Italians generally assumed the role of aggressor, with most of the fighting occurring around the Isonzo River along the eastern part of the front, which, ending at the Adriatic Sea, basically ran north-south. During the war, twelve battles alone were fought along the Isonzo River, with the Italians initiating eleven of them.
Giant Italian Howitzer
Italy stayed out of the war that started when Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia on July 28, 1914. Although a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, its membership was half-hearted, especially because it had long had designs on Austro-Hungarian territory along its borders. When its partners declared war, Italy insisted the alliance was only defensive in nature and therefore it was not obligated to be dragged into the conflict. As a result, during the opening months of the war, the Triple Entente (France, Britain and Russia), tried to coax the Italians to join them instead. Had the Italians thrown in with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Allies would have been hard-pressed to defend the additional 200 or so miles of front on the French-Italian border south of Switzerland.
Areas of Fighting Along the Italian Front
Italy signed the Treaty of London on April 26. 1915, which promised the Italians territories that were currently part of Austria-Hungary. In return, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary (but not Germany) on May 23.
Italy went on the offensive, but, despite initially outnumbering the Austrians three-to-one, didn't achieve their goals. Neither Germany or Austria-Hungary were surprised by Italy's turn-about and the Austrians were dug in on the high ground along nearly the entire front.
The only practical area of the front for the Italians to attack was to the east across the Isonzo River into Austro-Hungarian territory, but even here the Austrians held the high ground. The Italians launched four offensives across the Isonzo starting in June and ending in December, all repulsed by the Austrians.
12 Battles Were Fought in this Terrain
In March, the Italians launched the Fifth Battle of Isonzo, which quickly failed.
In May, the Austrians launched their first offensive further west. Known as the Battle of Asiago, the aim was to sweep down onto the northern Italian plains. The Austrians also didn't get very far.
The Italians declared war on Germany on August 27, 1916.
Before the end of the year, the Italians tried four more times to break through along the Isonzo. All failed.
1917: Tenth Battle of Isonzo
1917: Twelfth Battle of Isonzo
In May and August, the exhausted Italians launched the Tenth and Eleventh Battles of the Isonzo. The Austrians also were near breaking and the Italians managed to capture some ground, but were unable to break through.
At this point, the Austrians asked for German help. Having decisively repulsed the Russians, the Germans sent six divisions and prepared for what would be the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (also called the Battle of Caporetto after the Italian town of that name-- now called Kobarid and part of Slovenia). On October 24, the Austrians and Germans attacked and pushed the Italians back 15 miles on the first day. By the time it was over in November, they had pushed the Italians back nearly 100 miles in one of the most spectacular advances of the war. The Italians suffered some 300,000 casualties, mostly taken prisoner, and lost all of their artillery. Unfortunately for the attackers, they outstripped their supply capability and thus the offensive ended 20 miles short of Venice in November.
A Teenage Ernest Hemingway on the Italian Front
Alarmed by the Italian situation, the British and French sent ten divisions as well as coal and steel for Italy's war industries. Some American volunteers also went to the Italian Front-- including a very young Ernest Hemingway, who was severely wounded performing his duties as an ambulance driver.
In the spring, the Germans pulled out most of their troops to prepare for their Spring Offensive on the Western Front, which, ironically would suffer the same fate as the Battle of Caporetto: stunning successes which resulted in logistic nightmares and exhausted troops.
In June, the Austrians launched the Battle of the Piave River, hoping to take Venice and finish off the Italians. It was badly planned and the demoralized Austro-Hungarian troops were stopped by the Italians.
In October, 1918, after rebuilding their forces-- much slower than the Allies had hoped for-- the Italians finally launched their own offensive across the Piave River, called the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. This time, the demoralized and weakened Austro-Hungarian's could not stop them. The Austrian line began to disintegrate, which soon reverberated through the Empire, leading to the overthrow of the ruling Habsburgs. On November 3, the Italians captured 300,000 prisoners and Austria-Hungary asked for an armistice and peace terms.
Since the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed, Austria and Hungary had to sign the armistice as separate countries. On November 4, the fighting was over. Austria-Hungary had lost 400,000 dead and 1,200,000 wounded on the Italian Front. Italy had lost 650,000 dead and 950,000 wounded.
As payment for joining the Allies (and being on the winning side), Italy received only some of the territories promised. Once the details of the London Treaty were publicized, the British and French argued that Italy's contribution to the outcome of the war was limited and therefore many of the promised lands did not materialize. Italians would remember this the next time they had to decide which side to join. That wouldn't work out as well as they hoped for either.
© 2012 David Hunt