Ossuaria at Caporetto


John Farina

An American Student of the Great War
Living in Milan, Italy

The Signifigance of Caporetto

The Battle of Caporetto, which began on October 24, 1917, is the most famous and most misunderstood battle of the Italian front. At Caporetto, the Italian Army suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the entire First World War. Italian casualties totaled 40,000 dead and wounded, over 280,000 prisoners and 3,150 artillery pieces captured[1]. The Italian army was reduced in size by one half, from 65 infantry divisions to 33 and the Italian province of Friuli was abandoned to the enemy along with much of the Veneto Province. Today, more than eighty years after the event, Italians still say "It was a Caporetto." to mean "It was a complete disaster".

How Caporetto is Remembered
Endless Lines of Italian Prisoners

What happened to the Italian Army was misunderstood from the beginning, starting with the Italian General Staff. The subsequent decades of political extremism in Italy have served to further complicate the issue. However, a detailed study of the battle shows that the Italian defeat at Caporetto was not caused by troops that surrendered without a fight as part of a "Soldier's Strike" as the Italian Supreme Commander General Luigi Cadorna said and has too often been repeated. It was not caused by subversive (read communist) elements in the Italian Army as the Fascist regime would later sustain. Nor was the supposed "soldier's strike at Caporetto" a type of victory for the proletariat as Italian communists would maintain even later. The Italian defeat as Caporetto was nothing more than a straightforward military defeat, with purely military causes and purely military effects. In particular, the collapse of the Italian 2nd Army at Caporetto demonstrates that the Italian Officer Corps had been out-thought by their German and Austrian-Hungarian counterparts long before the Italian troops were out-fought on the battlefield. The Italian officer corps was guilty of a type of intellectual laziness that left the Army unprepared for the innovative tactics employed by the combined Austrian - Hungarian and German offensive at Caporetto.

By the spring of 1917, the Italian Army had gained control of both sides of the Isonzo river from the Plezzo basin, where the river exits the Julian Alps to the Adriatic Sea. Only a small 7-kilometer long bridgehead running across a bend in the Isonzo River near the town of Tolmino remained in Austrian - Hungarian hands. The Austrian - Hungarian positions all along the front were getting increasingly difficult to hold. Austrian forces were stretched to the limit and the Italian Army was growing more and more powerful as time wore on.

The Italian Army was no longer the small, poorly equipped force it had been at the start of the conflict. The Army had made impressive progress both in size and quality of armament and by the spring of 1917, it rivaled the forces deployed by her French and British allies on the Western Front. The Italian Army had doubled from one million to two million men under arms since Italy's entry into the war in mid-1915. Artillery, which numbered only 2,000 antiquated small-caliber pieces in 1915, now numbered over 7,000 (mostly medium caliber) with another 2,000 mortars. The number of heavy machine guns rose from a woefully inadequate 600 at the start of the war to 7,000 and the troops were also equipped with another 5,000 submachine guns. The number of aircraft under command of the Italian Army rose from just 30 in 1915 to over 500 by mid-1917.

The 10th Battle of the Isonzo brought the Italian Army to within 2.2 km of the southern Austrian - Hungarian stronghold of Mt. Hermada (also known as Mt. Ermada), where the Austrian line met the Adriatic. Mt. Hermada was a highly sensitive strategic position for the Austrian - Hungarian Empire. At an elevation of 323 meters above sea level, it dominated the Carso range. The loss of Mt. Hermada would mean losing the city of Treste, and perhaps leave the door open for an Italian drive on Lubiana. Worse yet, the loss of Mt. Hermada would require Austrian-Hungarian forces to anchor the southern flank of their line at a point further to the east, lengthening the line considerably. The Austrian - Hungarian Army barely had sufficient troops to man the line as it was and any lengthening of the line would have been unfeasible.

Therefore, holding Mt. Hermada became an imperative. An Austrian - Hungarian counterattack in early June 1917 achieved satisfying results, especially considering Austria's numerical and material inferiority. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1917 the Austrian - Hungarian General Staff realized that they needed to gain breathing room all along the Isonzo front and around Mt. Hermada in particular[2]. The Austrian - Hungarian tactic of withdrawing in the face of Italian offensives while inflicting as many casualties as possible had run aground because, with Italian troops so close to Mt. Hermada, there was no more room left for maneuver. The Austrian - Hungarian Army quite literally had its back against a wall.

Italian Position on Monte Nero East of Caporetto

Therefore, the Austrians requested help from Germany to launch an offensive to relieve the pressure. On August 1, 1917 the Austrian General August Von Cramon, a staff officer, informed the German High Command that German help was required on the Isonzo front[3]. Things would get worse for the Austrian - Hungarians before help arrived. The 11th Battle of the Isonzo was about to begin.

On August 17, 1917, the Italians launched the 11th Battle of the Isonzo, a massive offensive along 80 kms of front from Mt. Nero to Monfalcone using 1,246,000 men organized into 51 divisions supported by 3,747 artillery pieces and 1,882 mortars. The 11th Battle of the Isonzo marks a high point for Italian military capabilities -- never before and never again would Italy field such a large and powerful Army. By the middle of 1917, the Italian Army had the capacity to launch offensives equal in size, if not larger, than their British and French allies. The Italian forces totaled 15,625 men per kilometer of front and outnumbered the Austrian - Hungarians by a ratio of 5 to 2. In comparison, Austrian - Hungarian troops numbered 560,000 along the Monte Nero - Monfalcone line and were supported by only 1,526 artillery pieces[4].

At the 11th Battle of the Isonzo, the Italian Army managed to break through the Austrian - Hungarian lines in the middle Isonzo sector and made large gains into the Bainsizza Plateau. Lack of practicable roads and sources of water prevented the Italians from capitalizing on their gains. However, at the end of the battle, the Italian Army was in possession of a deep salient from which they could threaten Austrian - Hungarian positions of the Tolmino bridgehead to the north or the Carso range to the south. Italian losses were, as always, quite heavy: 46,000 dead, 120,000 wounded and 16,000 prisoners[5].

Austrian losses were lighter in comparison, but more heavily felt. The Austrian - Hungarian Army admitted to 85,000 casualties during the 11th Battle of the Isonzo which lasted from August 17th to September 6th and it is probable that the Army lost over 100,000 (including 31,000 prisoners) in August and September. From mid-May to the end of September 1917 it is estimated that the Austrian - Hungarian Army lost between 230,000 to 240,000 men to battle on the Italian front and perhaps up to another half a million to disease. Austrian material losses were also heavy. The Italians captured or damaged 705 artillery pieces in the 11th Battle of the Isonzo, equal to 50% of the pre-battle total[6]. Unlike their Italian opponents, Austrian - Hungarian industry could not replace such losses. Reserves were insufficient and the Austrian - Hungarian High Command realized that they would not be able to withstand another major Italian offensive. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire risked losing the war to Italy in a matter of months.

Faced with the possibility of losing their strongest ally, the Germans agreed to help, albeit reluctantly. With Russia in political chaos and heading for civil war, the German Army could afford to lend a few divisions to her alley for a short time. During the first week of September 1917, the mixed XIV German - Austrian Army was constituted under command of the German General Von Below comprising seven German divisions and eight Austrian - Hungarian divisions. It was agreed that the German units would be returned in time for the planned spring 1918 offensive in France. In practical terms this meant that they could be used on the Italian front until mid-December 1917.

The original objective of the XIV Army was to reach the Korada - Cividale line, thereby forcing the Italians to retreat along the Isonzo River and abandon their positions in the Carso region further south. However, in late September 1917, Gen. Von Below decided to increase the scope of the offensive and final plans aimed to push the Italian forces behind the Tagliamento River[7].

The German - Austrian attack at Caporetto was a classic pincer movement. One arm of the pincer (the 1st Austrian - Hungarian Corps) was to attack from the Plezzo basin down the Isonzo River valley to the town of Caporetto. The other pincer arm comprised of the 3rd, 51st and 15th Corps was to attack from the Tolmino bridgehead up the Isonzo River valley and over Mt. Nero to Caporetto. The town of Caporetto (present day Kobarid) was located just behind the Italian third and last line of defense. Once they had taken Caporetto, they would be able to advance unopposed toward the upper Taglimento River, outflanking the Italian left and force the Italians to withdraw along the entire front to avoid being encircled.

Caporetto: Namesake of the Battle
Not the Main Breakthrough Point, However

On the operational level, the German - Austrian objectives were the following:

From the Plezzo basin, troops were to advance along the roads paralleling the Isonzo in the direction of the town of Saga and then continue the advance to Caporetto, take Monte Stol -south of Saga -- and then breakout into the Veneto plain toward the Tagliamento River. From the Tolmino bridgehead, troops were to advance to Caporetto before turning south to assault Monte Matajur. Once Monte Matajur had been taken, troops were to attack down Val Natisone to take the city of Cividale. Other troops jumping off from the Tolmino bridgehead were to complete a frontal assault against the Mt. Jeza massif, take Monte Kolovrat and then advance down the Jurio valley in an attempt to encircle Italian units on the Biansizza plateau east of the Isonzo River[8]. While the German-Austrian plan was certainly ambitious by First World War standards the objective was tactical, not strategic. The Central Powers were not trying to knock Italy out of the war but simply give the Austrian - Hungarian Army enough breathing room to keep her in the war until the 1918 spring offensive on the Western front[9].

German and Austrian troops and material destined for the offensive began arriving on the Italian front in September. The number of German and Austrian artillery pieces on the Isonzo front rose from 1,800 at the end of September to 3,300 and 650 mortars by the eve of the battle. The XIV Army alone had 1,600 artillery pieces and 300 mortars by October 24, 1917, the date of the battle. Despite this build-up, the Italians still held an overall advantage in artillery at the start of the battle with 3,700 artillery pieces and 1,700 mortars in support of the 2nd and 3rd Italian Armies. However, the German and Austrian - Hungarian forces concentrated their artillery in order to achieve local superiority where they wanted to breakthrough the Italian lines[10].

The Italians knew that the enemy was preparing an offensive and knew that German troops were likely to be involved. They knew that the offensive would probably be launched in the fall of 1917. They even knew that the combined German - Austrian force would probably attack on the upper Isonzo where Italian defenses were thinner than in the Carso region. What the Italians did not know, however, was the size of the enemy force. In fact, the Italian intelligence services underestimated the size of the offensive and the Italian High Command expected the enemy to launch an offensive only slightly larger that the type of counter-attacks mounted by Austrian forces following the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo[11]. As late as the first week of October 1917, Italian Army intelligence judged an enemy offensive launched from the Tolmino bridgehead unlikely and believed the Austrian - Hungarian Army would most probably attempt to regain territory on the Bainsizza plateau. Localized offensives were expected along the rest of the front and German participation was forecast as "very limited"[12]. The failure of Italian intelligence to discover the true size of the offensive was to have dire consequences for Italian troops during the Battle of Caporetto because, based on their flawed intelligence, the Italian 2nd Army failed to adopt an adequate defensive deployment.

A German Column Moves Towards Tolmino

The Deployment of the Italian 2nd Army

In anticipation of an enemy offensive, Gen. Cadorna ordered his subordinates to adopt a defensive deployment on September 18, 1917. The order was repeated on October 10th. However, Cadorna's orders were not detailed and his officers were given wide latitude on how to interpret and organize their defense. Such ambiguity allowed Gen. Luigi Capello, Commander of the Italian 2nd Army to retain a deployment that was really more offensive than defensive. Gen. Cadorna did not check up on his subordinates to see whether his order had been executed.

The defensive line established by Gen. Capello lacked depth. The first, second and third lines of defense were very close together and artillery was placed dangerously close to the front lines. The bulk of the Italian units were placed along the first line of defense leaving only a few scattered units on the second and third lines. Large stretches of the second and third lines were left completely unmanned. Furthermore, the reserves were simple infantry brigades without their own artillery or other support services. While these units could easily be inserted into an Italian offensive in progress, they could not engage the enemy on their own. In essence, the Italian 2nd Army was deployed in such a way that, once the enemy had passed the first line of defense, there was little left to stop them from driving straight through to the Italian rear, destroying the Italian artillery and interrupting command and control. The most glaring example of the thinness of the deployment was found on the highly important road running along the right bank of the Isonzo river from the Tolmino bridgehead to Caporetto. The first line of defense along the road was held by two companies from the 208th regiment stationed at the town of Volzana, the second line, some 7 kms further back was manned by one platoon from the 147th regiment deployed at the town of Osteria. Then, from Osteria back to Caporetto, there was nobody[13].

It is not that no one noticed the deployment was highly risky. Many Italian officers of the 2nd Army were greatly worried about the deployment, especially the weakness in the Plezzo sector. Gen. Alberto Cavaciocchi, Commander of the Italian 4th Corps, argued at staff meetings prior to the Battle of Caporetto that if the enemy were to breakthrough at Plezzo, they could drive all the way to the City of Udine without meeting any Italian troops. He requested reinforcements to be deployed at the Saga Narrows, which were duly promised by Gen. Cadorna -- for November[14]. Gen. Pietro Badoglio, Commander of the Italian 27th Corps deployed opposite Tolmino worried about the Italian position on Mt. Jeza, where all three lines of defense were so close to each other that they nearly touched. With a modest advance of only 2 kilometers, in the Mt. Jeza area, the enemy could breakthrough all three Italian lines[15]. Gen. Badoglio argued that a breakthrough at Mt. Jeza would allow the enemy to advance up the Isonzo to Caporetto and cut off all the Italian troops stationed east of the Isonzo[16].

Despite the objections raised by his corps commanders, Gen. Capello was convinced that the best tactic to employ in the face of a German - Austrian offensive would be to mount an immediate counterattack. Such a counterattack would require the type of deployment he had adopted. Therefore he deliberately failed to execute Gen. Cadorna's orders to add depth to the 2nd Army's deployment. Since Gen. Capello did not think the German - Austrian offensive would be very strong or be able to penetrate the Italian front lines, he thought the risks were worth taking and he kept his troops and artillery forward deployed, ready to counterattack the enemy.

To further complicate matters, Gen. Capello was sick off and on for weeks prior to the battle. A substitute, Gen. Luca Montuori filled in for him on those days on which he was too ill to command. During this period orders flew back and forth between Gen. Cadorna at the High Command and the 2nd Army Headquarters, commanded alternately by Gen. Cappella or Gen. Montuori, with each side misinterpreting the other, sometimes intentionally. Confusion reigned in the 2nd Army in the weeks running up to the Battle of Caporetto.

Unfortunately for the 2nd Army, the German - Austrian forces were far larger than Gen. Capello and Italian intelligence expected and they would employ innovative offensive tactics that the Italian Army was not prepared to counter. Gen. Cadorna, Gen. Capello and the rest of the Italian officer corps never thought that the Germans and Austrians would attack any differently than the Italian did. They were wrong.

Offensive Tactics of the German Army

There was a wide difference between both offensive and defensive tactics employed by the Central Powers and those of the Allies. The Allies, including the Italians tended to attack with long artillery bombardments followed by the infantry assault. This tactic was inefficient because it placed the same, or roughly the same amount of pressure all along the enemy's front and it was difficult for the Italians to punch through the Austrian - Hungarian lines. Italian offensives were usually characterized by small territorial gains made at the expense of large losses in men, material and morale[17]. Despite the heavy losses they suffered throughout the war, the Italian Officer Corps never reviewed its offensive doctrine or attempted to develop better ways of attacking. The Italian Army and the other Allies simply relied on ever-growing amounts of men and material. It was, in the words of the Italian historian Mario Silverstri, the substitution of thought with brute force [18].

The Germans put more thought into their tactics. By mid-1917, the German Army had adopted a new offensive doctrine based on the following points[19]:

  1. Surprise
  2. Massive gas and artillery attacks on enemy artillery and command and control centers
  3. Use of the tactic of infiltration

1. Surprise

The preparations for the Battle of Caporetto were made in the utmost secrecy. Artillery was moved forward by hand, often at night and no registration or sighting-in fire was done because this would tell the Italians that an offensive was in the works. Instead, German artillery batteries used a complex system of mathematical calculations to acquire their targets[20]. Furthermore, the German artillery bombardment was short but very intense and infantry began advancing while the barrage was still in course[21].

2. Use of poison gas and attacks on Command and Control

The Germans also made wide use of poison gas against enemy infantry and targeted command and control centers with artillery.

3. Infiltration

Infantry did not attack in waves, but rather in agile columns that allowed the Germans to achieve local numerical superiority at those places were they wanted to achieve a breakthrough. Once past the first line trenches, the columns continued to drive into the enemy rear without stopping to secure their flanks. Enemy units were then surrounded and lines of communications were cut off.

The Austrian Army used some of these tactics to launch stinging counter-attacks on Italian troops after the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo. Therefore, the Italian Army should have had some idea of what they would be up against in the German - Austrian offensive. However, the Italian officer corps failed to take note of enemy's innovative offensive tactics and the Italian Army was left unprepared to face what was really only a medium-sized offensive at Caporetto.

Italian Army Defensive Doctrine

If the Italian Army's offensive doctrine was lacking, its defensive doctrine was practically non-existent. The Italian Army taught its soldiers to defend every inch of ground no mater how insignificant the position or difficult to defend the ground might have been. Where Italian soldiers were deployed; there they stayed, no matter what. The Italian Army's doctrine did not evolve throughout the war. Italian officers never considered what would happen if the enemy managed to breach Italian defenses. As a result, the Italian Army was unprepared for the infiltration tactics used by the enemy at Caporetto. Italian forces were not trained to maneuver themselves out of trouble nor were they trained how to react to being surrounded. Part of the problem can be attributed to the fact that up until October 1917, the Italian Army had spent almost the entire war on the offensive. Nevertheless, someone in the Italian officer corps should have noticed the effectiveness of the Austrian counterattacks mounted after the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo and should have developed a new defensive doctrine to counter the enemy, but no one did.

Italian & German Troops on the Eve of Battle

The German and Austrian Armies on the other hand, used the so-called elastic defense which called for ceding ground to the enemy while inflicting heavy casualties on him. The Austrians employed variations of the elastic defense throughout the spring and summer of 1917 and the Italian officers should have taken note of its effectiveness and perhaps incorporated a degree of elasticity into Italian defensive tactics. They did not and the ridged "not one step back" defensive doctrine would lead the Italian 2nd Army to ruin at Caporetto. On the eve of the battle, the Italian Army held a paper-thin deployment against an enemy whose tactics were specifically developed to punch holes in even the deepest defensive systems. The stage for disaster was set.

The Battle

The Battle of Caporetto began at 2:00 a.m. on October 24, 1917 with an artillery bombardment. Italian trenches were destroyed by the German-Austrian Army's brief, but very intense, artillery barrage and the survivors of the artillery attack were quickly surrounded and overrun by the fast-moving Austro - German columns. The Austro - German infantry assault was greatly helped by the dense fog that provided them with cover until they were almost on top of the Italian trenches. Poison gas was used widely, and especially concentrated in the Plezzo basin. The XIV Austro-German Army reached their objectives with surprising speed. It took about two days for the immediate objectives to be reached.

Plezzo: The Northern Breakthrough Point
Looking From the Italian Position

The assault through the Plezzo basin was proceeded by a massive gas attack on the night of 23-24 October. Italian gas masks were ineffective against the mix of fosgen and difenilcloroarsin used by the Germans and the entire Italian 87th regiment deployed in defense of the Plezzo basin was killed in the attack[22]. At dawn, the 1st Austrian - Hungarian Corps attacked down the Isonzo valley from Plezzo, encountering only sporadic and poorly coordinated resistance until they reached the Saga Narrows.

Tolmino: Key Breakthrough Point
Germans on the Left Side of the River Started Out Already Behind the Italian Line on the Right!

The decisive attack was launched from the Tolmino bridgehead against the Italian XXVII Corps. Italian defenses were far stronger at Tolmino than at Plezzo, but still inadequate. Few of the 27th Corps's artillery batteries managed to open fire before being overrun. Italian command and control were successfully targeted by Austrian - German artillery and Italian 2nd Army's headquarters was left unable to effectively issue orders or receive news from the front. Throughout the battle, the Italian artillery performed miserably either because the batteries were overrun or because they never received orders to open fire. The Italian infantry was left with little or no artillery support throughout the battle.

The Italian 19th division (deployed directly opposite Tolmino) was overrun in a few hours by the German 12th Silesian division, allowing the Germans to take the all-important position of Mt. Jeza (where all three Italian lines of defense nearly ran together) and advance west along the Kolovrat ridge.

Austro-German troops also advanced along the Isonzo valley from Tolmino using roads paralleling the Isonzo valley. By 16:00 hrs, they were already in Caporetto and by the evening of the 24th, they had joined up with the Austrian - Hungarian 1st Corps at Saga, behind the Italian second line.

An Artist's Misconception of the Fighting

The Italians made a long series of mistakes throughout Oct 24th and 25th. Many of the bridges over the Isonzo were not blown while the bridge at Caporetto was blown too early, condemning the Italian 43rd and 46th Divisions to capture [23]. Important positions such as the Saga Narrows and Mt. Stol were abandoned prematurely, while others were stubbornly defended even in the face of certain defeat. Futile counterattacks were made against great odds and on unfavorable terrain such as the ill-fated counterattack of the Firenze Brigade. The counterattack was supposed to have been launched against lightly held German positions on Mt. Piatto. By mistake, the Firenze Brigade attacked a strong presence on Mt. Podlabuk and the Brigade was destroyed [24]. Another unsuccessful Italian counterattack was made against Mt. Stol just hours after it had been abandoned. Gen. Badoglio, commander of the XXVII Corps frequently moved from place to place during the battle making it almost impossible for messengers to find him. Several times his headquarters broadcasted orders in the clear. Each time the enemy quickly intercepted his messages and bombarded his headquarters was by artillery fire, forcing him to move to a new position.

With command and control destroyed and the Italian artillery silent, the Italian infantry was no match for the Austrian - German divisions. While Italian opposition was often fierce, it was poorly organized and usually taken by surprise. By the afternoon of October 24th, Italian troops began streaming down from the heights along the Isonzo in disorder. Italian military police, the Carabinieri, sent soldiers who still had their weapons back to fight but allowed unarmed personnel from the combat support branches to retreat. On seeing this many armed soldiers ditched their weapons so they wouldn't be sent back to fight what was clearly a lost battle. A message carrier, Attilio Frescura described what he saw at the bridge across the Isonzo at Caporetto.

At one end of the bridge a Lt. Col. was screaming that they to advance across the bridge. At the other end a Captain, with pistol in hand, was ordering everyone "Back! Back!". Wagons had been dumped in the river in an attempt to clear the bridge. In the meantime, engineers started planting explosives and preparing to blow the bridge before the eyes of thousands of soldiers from the 46th division that were trying to escape across it. Frescura delivered his message to Lt. Col. Trezzani who:

"... ordered me and several others to stop the wave of runaways that was flooding the area and sweeping everyone away with them. We blocked them on the roads and stopped those that had their weapons. Those that had no weapons were allowed to continue to not jam things up. But then many of the armed soldiers saw what we were doing and threw away their rifles..."

"...the battle had moved to the roads, but the battle was lost. I found an officer from my unit. He yelled at me:

Go or they'll get us!

I asked:

But what about the others?

Go! Go! Everyone go! Run!

We hopped on the running board of our staff car in which I saw some of the officers of my unit. All around the car was a cowardly mass of humanity grabbing onto the car screaming wildly "Go! Go!"

Even our honor - gone"

Rare Combat Image from the Battle

Lt. Cesco Tomaselli, described what it was like when he and his men realized they had been cut off on the eastern side of the Isonzo on evening of the 24th:

"Night fell, one of those cloudy and gloomy nights in which even the air tastes like misfortune. When it stopped snowing and the sky cleared, the defenders of Kozliak and Pleka (Italian-held positions on Mt. Nero) realized only then that they were the only defenders on Mt. Nero. Behind them, everything was ablaze. Down in the basin, Dreczenca was burning, throwing off sparks and clouds of reddish smoke; the reflection of the flames lit up the sides of the mountain. On the hills on the other side of the Isonzo, on Kolovrat, at Luico, towards Mt. Matajur, rockets flashed, followed by the brief bursts of machinegun fire.

--Lieutenant, if our side is retreating, what are we doing up here?
It was terrifying"

Cadet Giovanni Comisso, telephone operator and message runner in the 50th division described the chaos he found at the town of Nimis, north of Udine on October 25th:

"...on the road I saw a crowd of soldiers and officers all mixed together; unarmed, none of them had their equipment; with a blank look in their eyes. They pushed along and passed me up. I watched them one by one.

"Where are you coming from?" -- Nobody answered me.

I recognized an officer I knew from the Naradelie battery. I said hello and immediately understood something was wrong.

"But were are you coming from?"

"This is all that's left of our division, all the units are lost. We held out until yesterday evening on the Hum - Monte Maggiore line. But what do you expect? We ran out of ammunition. In the end we were fighting with rocks."

"And headquarters? And the General?"

"We haven't heard anything from them." [26]

By the evening of October 25th, the XIV Austro-German Army had taken the high ground along the right bank of the Isonzo (Kolovrat, Mt. Matajur, Mt. Stol) and had broken through all three Italian lines of defense. Austro -German troops now threatened to invade the Veneto plain and encircle the Italian 3rd Army further south in the Carso region. From Saga, the 12th Silesian division was advancing on the upper Tagliamento River valley. The entire Italian 3rd Army and what was left of the 2nd Army were at risk of being encircled.

German Major with Two Prisoners

The order to retreat to the Tagliamento River, was drawn up on October 25th and issued during the night of October 26 - 27. The 2nd and 3rd Armies were to retreat to the so called "Yellow Line" on the Tagliamento and Italian positions in the Carnia and Cadore sectors (held by the Italian IV Army) were to be abandoned. The order effected the vast majority of the Italian Army; 700 out of a total of 850 Italian battalions, or about 1,500,000 men were ordered to retreat [27].

However, it is important to remember that only the 2nd Army was destroyed at Caporetto. Much of the Italian Army retreated intact and in fairly good order. The 300,000 men of the 3rd Army and 230,000 men of the 4th Army had good roads available to them and were able to mount an efficient rearguard action. The 3rd and 4th Armies suffered modest losses (under the circumstances) of approximately 20% of their manpower although almost all of their ammunition and artillery was lost. The 90,000 men stationed on the Carnia front were not so lucky. The enemy captured most of them.

The retreat of the 2nd Army was a chaotic search for open roads and intact bridges. Violent combat erupted here and there between the Italian rearguard and advancing Austro-German troops. Supplies were interrupted and soldiers went for days without food and ammunition. The 2nd Army's withdraw was further complicated by the fact that Gen. Cadorna had written it off as a total loss and gave it last priority when assigning roads and bridges. As a result even more Italian soldiers were taken prisoner than would have otherwise been the case.

The geography and infrastructure of the area greatly helped the Germans and Austrians advance. Once they had taken the hills above the Veneto plain, they occupied a strategic position and were able to make use of good roads to advance.

Italy's losses at Caporetto were heavy


  • 280,000 prisoners
  • 350,000 soldiers temporarily separated from their units
  • 40,000 dead and wounded
  • 3,150 artillery pieces (2/3 of the Army's total)
  • 1,700 mortars
  • 3,000 machine guns
  • 400,000 civilian refugees [28]

On November 1st, the Italian army reached the Tagliamento and began winning their first small limited victories. On the Tagliamento, the Italians got a chance to catch their second wind.

At the same time, Austro-German units began running to a series of problems. They were not prepared for such a success and they became divided on which objectives they should pursue. Some members of the German - Austrian High Command wanted to continue the original plan to march west toward the upper Tagliamento River. Others wanted to change the objectives and advance south along the western side of the Isonzo River to cut off the Italian 3rd Army on the Carso. In the end, they decided to stick to the original plan and the Italian 3rd Army was able to retreat. As bad a Caporetto was for Italy, it could have been much worse.

The XIV Army encountered other problems as they chased the Italian forces west across the Veneto plain. The German and Austrian troops tired, their supply lines lengthened and they had to assign many units to occupy the newly conquered territory -- sapping their strength. Furthermore, they had advanced beyond the range of their own artillery. Deprived of artillery, combat along the Taglimento was mostly Austro-German infantry against Italian infantry. Italian resistance stiffened on the more level playing field but it was not enough [29].

Italian Troops Waiting on the Tagliamento

The Tagliamento is a small river and it is not much of a barrier. The Italians were not able to hold the Yellow Line. On the evening of November 3rd, German units crossed the river and the Italian High Command ordered another retreat further west to the Piave River. The retreat from the Tagliamento to the Piave was far more orderly than the one from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento. Almost all of the Italian losses occurred during the retreat between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento.

On November 9th, General Armando Diaz, former commander of the Italian XXIII Corps, replaced Gen. Cadorna as Supreme Commander of the Italian Army.

Italian forces completed the deployment on the Piave on November 12th and there, the Battle of Monte Grappa began. It would last until mid-December and end with an Italian victory.

Behavior of the Italian Troops

Much has been said about the behavior of the Italian troops at Caporetto, almost all of it negative. This is both untrue and unfair. To add insult to injury, the first criticism arrived from the head of the Italian Army, Gen. Cadorna himself. On October 29th, while the Army was in full retreat, Gen. Cardona issued his infamous communication on Caporetto. It read:

"Due to the lack of resistance of some units of the 2nd Army, who cowardly retreated without fighting, or ignominiously surrendering to the enemy has allowed the German - Austrian forces to breakthrough our left flank on the Julian front. The valorous efforts of other troops were not able to stop the enemy from penetrating our country's sacred soil.

Our line will fall back according to the established plan. The warehouses and depots of the abandoned territory have been destroyed.

The valor demonstrated by our soldiers in many memorable battles fought and won during two and a half years of war gives confidence to the High Command that the Army, to whom the honor and salvation of the country have been entrusted, will again know how to perform its duty"[30].

Realizing the General's communication could be damaging to the country's moral, the Italian civilian authorities quickly confiscated the newspapers that carried the General's communication. The first line of the communication was subsequently modified to read:

"The violence of the attack and the deficient resistance of some units of the 2nd Army..."

The Italian government could not stop the original communication from being published overseas and the original text was reprinted and broadcast throughout the world. The reputation of millions of Italian soldiers was soiled by their own commander. Worst of all, Gen. Cadorna's communications were disrupted at the time he made his communication and he still had not the slightest idea of what had gone wrong or how his troops had behaved. Gen. Cadorna blamed the troops in order to cover his own errors, the errors of his subordinates and because he simply could not understand how the enemy could have achieved breakthrough so easily. It seemed to him to be the only logical explanation. Gen. Cadorna also wanted to use the defeat to convince the Italian political leaders to crack down on what he considered to be subversives in the Army (mainly communists) whose influence corroded the soldier's fighting spirit. Many Italians believed the General, especially those who shared his view on the need to suppress the subversives.

The Retreat from Caporetto

The Germans and Austrians, however, did not believe the Italians had surrendered without a fight. On October 30th, the German aircraft dropped leaflets on the retreating Italian troops saying:

"Italians! Italians!

General Cadorna's communication of October 28th opened your eyes to the enormous catastrophe that has hit your army. At this moment, so grave for your nation, your General has turned to a strange expedient in order to explain the disaster. He has had the audacity to accuse the Army that has followed his orders to launch useless and disparate attacks many times! This is what you get in return for your valor! You have spilled your blood in many battles. Your enemy does not deny you the respect owed to valorous adversaries. And your General has dishonored you. He insults you to save himself." [31]

No one really knows for sure exactly how the Italian troops fought at Caporetto. The record is too confused and too fractious to put together a clear picture of the battle. What is known is that the defense was highly disorganized, weak in some places and strong in others. Many frontline troops were overrun before they could deploy in defense of the trenches and the reserves were attacked when and where they least expected.

The Italians were simply out-fought by an enemy that employed tactics they did not expect and were forced to defend a poorly organized line without the benefit of effective command and control or artillery support. The ease of the enemy advance, the bridges that were not blown, the abandonment of key positions without combat were due to documented errors on the part of Italian commanders that lost their heads in the "Fog of War". The defeat was not due to troops who would not fight, but primarily to the inadequacy of the Italian Commanders and secondarily to the complete collapse of the command and control the Italian Army [32].

The poor morale of the Italian Army is often mentioned as a rationale for the defeat and it cannot be denied that the abysmally low level of morale contributed to the collapse of the Italian 2nd Army. However, poor morale was common in all First World War armies. While the Italian soldier often had the sensation of being poorly commanded, the Army fought well in both the 10th and the 11th Battles of the Isonzo and fought well just weeks after Caporetto at the Battle of Monte Grappa. The Italian Army never suffered anything like the widespread revolts that plagued the French Army. The morale problem is often overstated. A unit can fight well if used according to plan but collapse completely if attacked in situations that it was not trained to encounter [33]. This is exactly what happened at Caporetto. The Italians were not trained or deployed in a way that allowed them to effectively contain the enemy offensive. When they found themselves surrounded by the enemy and out of contact with headquarters, many soldiers felt they had been let down or even betrayed by their officers.

Laying Blame

If the Italian soldier was not to blame for Caporetto, who was? Most of the responsibility for the Italian defeat at Caporetto lies with Generals Cadorna, Capello and Badoglio.

As supreme commander, Gen. Cardona was responsible for the errors of his generals but his greatest error was his failure to prepare the Army for a defensive battle. On 18 September he issued an order to make a defensive deployment to contain an eventual enemy offensive. On 10 Oct., he repeated the order but always in very general terms. He did not give detailed orders on how to prepare for a defensive battle and did not follow up to see that his orders had been understood and implemented. He did not believe that the enemy could mount anything more that a small localized offensive and therefore did not see the need to hold full divisions in reserve.

Gen. Capello (Commander of the Italian 2nd Army) carries a large degree of responsibility for the Italian defeat. He was so intent on launching an immediate counterattack against the enemy that he deliberately ignored Gen. Cadorna's order to adopt a defensive deployment, failed to hold sufficient reserves and largely underestimated the danger posed by the enemy. His military career effectively ended at Caporetto. (Gen. Capello commanded the V Army for a few months after Caporetto and then worked with Parliament's Investigative Commission until he was dismissed in 1919. He was an early adherent of Fascism but later broke with the party. He was convicted of plotting to kill Mussolini in 1925. He died in 1941.)

Gen. Badoglio (Commander of the Italian XXVII Corps deployed opposite the Tolmino bridgehead) also held his corps in an overly offensive deployment. He had given orders for his artillery to await his order to open fire. In the crucial early hours of the battle the 27th Corps artillery remained largely silent, until they were overrun. To make matters worse, he roamed around the corps rear area during the battle exacerbating an already grave command and control problem. Message runners found it nearly impossible to find him. The Italian Parliament's Investigative Commission spared him much of the blame in their 1919 report because he had in the meantime become the second-in-command to General Diaz who had replaced Gen. Cadorna. The Italian government was unwilling to criticize a man who, until a few months before had been considered a war hero. [34]

Italy Artillery Did Not Fire When Most Needed

Nevertheless, it is difficult to assign all the blame to these three officers alone because at Caporetto the entire command and control system failed and entire Corps collapsed. Such disasters can not be attributed to the errors of only three generals.

Other factors that set the Italian Army up for their defeat at Caporetto were the frequent offensives ordered by their high command, leading to a high rate of casualties and the troops' lack of faith in their commanders. Lack of available reinforcements made matters worse.

In the end, the main reason for the defeat was the Italian Army's inability to think and innovate. The Italian officer Corps can be criticized for being intellectually lazy. They lacked the ability, or desire to develop different offensive or defensive tactics. They also failed to study and evaluate new enemy tactics and take appropriate steps to counter them. The Italian officer corps put all their efforts into building up the Army's material and neglected the men. This was not a problem confined to the Italian Army, the French and British made the same mistakes themselves and the collapse of the British V Army in March 1918 gives proof that intellectual laziness was not confined to the Italian Army in World War One.

Austro-Hungarian Troops Captured on the Piave River
Articles on Post-Caporetto Battles Will Coming To: La Grande Guerra


  1. p. 381, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri , Milano, 2001
  2. p. 18, L'invasione del Grappa, Heinz von Lichem, Alessandro Massignani, Marcello Maltauro, Enrico Acerbi, Gino Rossato Editore, Valdagno (Vicenza), 1993.
  3. p. 27, Caporetto, una battaglia e un enigma, Mario Silvestri, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984
  4. p. 217 - 218, Isonzo, 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  5. p. 281, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  6. p. 281-282, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  7. p. 113, Caporetto, una battaglia e un enigma, Mario Silvestri, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984
  8. p. 125, Caporetto, una battaglia e un enigma, Mario Silvestri, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984
  9. p. 287, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  10. p. 293, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  11. p. 305, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  12. p. 311-313, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  13. p.400, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  14. p.349, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  15. p.376, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  16. p.363, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  17. p. 49 & 109, Caporetto, una battaglia e un enigma, Mario Silvestri, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984
  18. p. 109, Caporetto, una battaglia e un enigma, Mario Silvestri, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984
  19. p. 370-371, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  20. p.370-371, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  21. p. 49, Caporetto, una battaglia e un enigma, Mario Silvestri, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984
  22. p. 388-389, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  23. p. 422, Storia della Grande Guerra sul fronte Italiano, Pieropan, Gianni, Murisa, Milano, 1988
  24. p. 430, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  25. From: Diario di un imboscato, (pp. 386 and 388) Vicenza, Galla 1919. Cited on p. 395: Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  26. p. 392, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  27. p. 380, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  28. p. 381, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  29. p. 440, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  30. p. 458, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  31. p. 460, Isonzo 1917, Mario Silvestri, RCS Libri, Milano, 2001
  32. p. 378, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  33. p. 378, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  34. p. 372, La Grande Guerra 1914-1918, Mario Isnenghi & Giorgio Rochat, CRS Libri, Milano, 2001
  35. p. 374, 403, 404-407, Storia della Grande Guerra sul fronte Italiano, Pieropan, Gianni, Murisa, Milano, 1988

Sources and Thanks: John Farina provided all the material used in this article. Co-Editor Leo Benedetti whose father was captured at Caporetto [See Virgilio's Caporetto Odyssey] provided advice and oversight.

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