Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Caporetto: The battle that changed Italy

The dawn of October 24th, 1917, started with huge explosion sounds. A bombardment by the Austro-Hungarian artillery in the Caporetto area (Kobarid in Slovenian) starts the 12th Battle of Isonzo. The attack, lead by German special troops -"Sturmtruppen"- , quickly breaks the front and threatens to isolate the 3rd Italian Army defending it, forcing the enemy to withdraw in total disarray. The fleeing troops are overwhelmed with panic and they cannot hold a proper resistance anymore. Only at the Piave River, 100 km away from the place where the offensive started, and the last defense line before Venice, the front is finally established after the Germans and Austro-Hungarians have stretched their supply lines for too long. In only 15 days, German and Austro-Hungarian armies achieve one of the greatest victories in the war, causing more than 30,000 casualties to the Italians, and making 275,000 prisoners.

During the battle, a young German captain, Erwin Rommel, stands out when leading a 250 men company to the Mount Matajur, capturing more than 9,000 prisoners and thus receiving the greatest German medal, Pour le Mérite.

A demoralized army

The day before the battle, the Italian soldiers formed a tired, demoralized army. Since May 1915, Italy had launched up to eleven offensives at the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovenian), with minimal territorial gains at a terrible cost (around half of the 600,000 Italians fallen in combat during the Great War died at the Isonzo). The area is particularly easy to defend, because of its high cliffs and passes behind a wide water flow which usually floods.

Despite all that, the Italian High Command chose this place to launch their attacks, mainly because it offered the best chances for territorial expansion. The great losses, together with the harsh discipline imposed by the officers, the long duration of this endless war, and the unpopularity of an offensive war, made an antiwar national feeling arise in the country.

A victorious army

The Russian Revolution in February 1917, and the decision of the Russian provisional Government to continue the war with a catastrophic offensive during the summer eventually brought down the Russian army's ability to continue fighting. After that, mutinies, mass desertions and surrendering of whole units with no resistance become normal. In this context, Germany and Austria-Hungary decide moving a large amount of units to the Italian front for the great offensive.

Besides, Germans came from the Eastern front with new efficient combat techniques, called infiltration tactics. Conceived by general Oskar von Hutier to break the stalemate caused by the trench war, they pursued surprise and quickness in the attack. They started with brief, intense bombings, followed by an attack lead by "sturmtruppen", supported by aircraft, with the aim of trespassing and disorganizing the rearguard, suppressing artillery support and communication lines. Then, the bulk of the infantry forces would clean the remaining pockets of resistance. These tactics had been successfully tested in September ending the siege of Riga, but they were used in large scale for the first time in Caporetto.

After their success, they were further used in the Western front, where the Germans almost reached the total victory at the Ludendorff Offensive. These tactics eventually settled the base of the German doctrine developed during the inter-war period, resulting in the principles of the Blitzkrieg, the tactics that kept Nazi Germany undefeated during the first half of the Second World War.

Italy reacts

The first consequences of the battle of Caporetto in Italy were the replacement of field marshal Luiggi Cadorna by Armando Diaz as the army chief commander, and also the formation of a new Government, somehow unavoidable after the continues quarrels between the defenders of neutrality and those for intervention.

However, the most influent change during the following years was the transformation of public opinion about the war. Before that, the army had fought in foreign territory with the aim of obtaining territorial acquisitions. Caporetto, on the contrary, was almost completely fought inside Italian land, switching the war objective to a matter of patriotic defense. This fact, together with the extent of the Italian defeat were skilfully exploited by some public figures, such as nationalist poet Gabrielle d'Annunzio, precursor of ideals and techniques in Italian fascism, and specially Benito Mussolini, then editor in chief of Il Popolo d'Italia. They called for patriotic feelings, discipline and fight against invaders and managed to rise the spirits of more than half a million new recruits, who contributed with the necessary strength to hold Austro-Hungarian attacks at the Piave and save Italy from occupation.

One year later, taking advantage of the high visibility and leadership he had managed to reach, Mussolini founded the Fascist movement, starting the darkest stage of Italian modern History.

4 comments:

Hope said...

This won't have effect in fact, that's exactly what I believe.

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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