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Battle Of Caporetto

The battle was fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Central Powers and took place from 24 October to 19 November 1917, near the town of Kobarid (now in north-western Slovenia, then part of the Austrian Littoral). The battle was named after the Italian name of the town (also known as Karfreit in German).

battle of caporetto


Austro-Hungarian forces, reinforced by German units, were able to break into the Italian front line and rout the Italian forces opposing them. The battle was a demonstration of the effectiveness of the use of stormtroopers and the infiltration tactics developed in part by Oskar von Hutier. The use of poison gas by the Germans also played a key role in the collapse of the Italian Second Army.[3]

The German and Austro-Hungarian battle plan was to use Otto von Below's German divisions, which would be guided by Konrad Krafft to attack a part of the Julian Alps which was near the northeastern corner of the Venetian salient. Meanwhile, Svetozar's Austro-Hungarian army would attack the eastern end of the salient and a stretch of ground near the Adriatic shore.[7]

Even before the battle, Germany was struggling to feed and supply its armies in the field. Erwin Rommel, who as a junior officer won the Pour le Mérite for his accomplishments in the battle, often bemoaned the demands placed upon his "poorly fed troops".[17] The Allied blockade of the German Empire, which the Kaiserliche Marine had been unable to break, had led to food shortages and widespread malnutrition in Germany and the Central Powers in general. The inadequate provisioning, as well as the grueling night marches preliminary to the Battle of Caporetto, took a toll on the German and Austro-Hungarian forces. Despite these logistical problems, the initial assault was extremely successful. However, as the area controlled by the combined Central Powers forces expanded, an already limited logistical capacity was overstrained. By the time the attack reached the Piave, the soldiers of the Central Powers were running low on supplies and were feeling the effects of exhaustion.[17] As the Italians began to counter the pressure put on them, the German forces lost momentum and were once again caught up in another round of attrition warfare.

Brian R. Sullivan called Caporetto "the greatest defeat in Italian military history."[18] John R. Schindler wrote "By any standard, Twelfth Isonzo [Caporetto] and its aftermath represented an unprecedented catastrophe for Italian arms."[19] The disaster "came as a shock" and "triggered a search for scapegoats," culminating in a 1919 Italian military commission that investigated the causes of the debacle.[20][21][22] At Rapallo, a Supreme War Council was created to improve Allied military co-operation and develop a common strategy.[23] Luigi Cadorna was forced to resign after the defeat, a final straw according to the Prime Minister, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando. Cadorna was known to have maintained poor relations with the other generals on his staff and by the start of the battle, had sacked 217 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders.[24][25]

In addition, he was detested by his troops as being too harsh.[26] Cadorna had been directing the battle some 30 kilometres (19 mi) behind the front and retreated another 100 mi (160 km) to Padua. Cadorna was replaced by Armando Diaz and Pietro Badoglio,[7] who commanded one of the corps easily overwhelmed by the Germans in the early stages of the battle, but escaped from all charges during the commission hearings. Italian propaganda offices were established, promising land and social justice to soldiers. Italy also accepted a more cautious military strategy from this point on. Diaz concentrated his efforts on rebuilding his shattered forces while taking advantage of the national rejuvenation that had been spurred by invasion and defeat.

Opera Nazionale Combattenti, an Italian charitable organisation, was set up in December 1917 in the immediate aftermath of the battle, to provide assistance to veterans of the First World War; it was closed in 1977.[30]

The Battle of Caporetto has been the subject of a number of books. British writer and military historian Cyril Falls's one volume The Battle of Caporetto is an operational and tactical account of the battle as the centerpiece of the larger campaign in northeastern Italy. Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attacks), an interwar memoir and military handbook written by the future German field marshal Erwin Rommel, features the actions of then lieutenant Rommel and units he led during the battle, providing insight into "stormtrooper" tactics. The Swedish author F.J. Nordstedt (pseud. Christian Braw) wrote about the battle in his novel Caporetto. The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. Curzio Malaparte wrote an excoriation of the battle in his first book, Viva Caporetto, published in 1921. It was censored by the state and suppressed; it was finally published in 1980. The battle also features prominently in the novel Questa storia by Alessandro Baricco.

Even so, Italy faced the possibility of a total military collapse. General Cadorna pulled his troops back to the Piave River, some 70 miles (110 kilometers) behind the Isonzo front. There, by November 9, they were able to hold the line against continued Austrian assaults. British and French reinforcements aided the Italians in pushing back sporadic attacks over the next few weeks. The battle came to an end with the snows on December 19.

The Signifigance of CaporettoThe 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 RememberedEndless Lines of Italian PrisonersWhat 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 CaporettoTherefore, 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 BattleNot the Main Breakthrough Point, HoweverOn 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 TolminoThe Deployment of the Italian 2nd ArmyIn 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 unm

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