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|Battle of Caporetto|
|Part of the Italian front (World War I)|
Battle of Caporetto and Italian retreat
|Commanders and leaders|
Otto von Below|
Arthur Arz von Straußenburg
|353,000 soldiers, 2518 artillery pieces ||257,400 soldiers, 1342 artillery pieces |
|Casualties and losses|
3,152 artillery pieces
3,000 machine guns
The battle was fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Central Powers and took place from 24th of October to 19th of November 1917, near the town of Kobarid (now in north-western Slovenia, then part of the Austrian Littoral), also was near the river Isonzo. The battle was named after the Italian name of the town (also known as Karfreit in German).
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.
The rest of the Italian Army retreated 150 kilometres (93 mi) to the Piave River, its effective strength declined from 1,800,000 troops down to 1,000,000 and the government of Paolo Boselli collapsed.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1917, the Italians had launched numerous offensives on the Austro-Hungarian Lines in the Isonzo Sector, with the 11th Battle of the Isonzo being the most successful in pushing back the Austro-Hungarians. After the Italian success in the 11th Battle of the Isonzo, Emperor Karl knew a breakthrough was going to happen at any moment, as both the Austro-Hungarians and Italians were exhausted, and running out of men to sustain the war. So, he wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II and requested that German forces be deployed to Italy.
In August 1917 Paul von Hindenburg and Arthur Arz von Straußenburg decided to send troops from the Eastern Front to the Isonzo Sector. Erich Ludendorff was opposed to this but was overruled. Later, in September three experts from the Imperial General Staff, led by the chemist Otto Hahn, went to the Isonzo front to find a site suitable for a gas attack. They proposed attacking the quiet Caporetto sector, where a good road ran west through a mountain valley to the Venetian Plain. The Germans also sent Lieutenant General Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen, an expert in mountain warfare to reconnoitre the ground.
The Austro-Hungarian Army Group Boroević, commanded by Svetozar Boroević, was prepared for the offensive. In addition, a new 14th Army was formed with nine Austrian and six to eight German divisions, which were commanded by the German Otto von Below. The German divisions were Ludendorff's general reserve. Lieutenant Colonel Georg Wetzell, Ludendorff's strategic adviser, advised Ludendorff to use the German divisions to attack a weakpoint in the Italian line. The Italians inadvertently helped by providing weather information over their radio.
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.
The buildup of German and Austro-Hungarian military forces in the region was noticed by Italian air reconnaissance.
Foul weather, as well as lack of readiness in some of the Austro-Hungarian divisions and in particular of their artillery, delayed the attack for two days but on 24 October there was no wind and the front was misted over. At 02:00, in the northern area of the battle (near Bovec/Plezzo) 894 metal tubes similar to Livens Projectors (Gaswurfminen), dug into a reverse slope, were triggered electrically to simultaneously fire canisters containing 600 ml (21 imp fl oz; 20 US fl oz) of chlorine-arsenic agent and diphosgene, smothering the Italian trenches in a dense cloud of poison gas. Knowing that their gas masks could protect them only for two hours or less, the defenders fled, though 500–600 were still killed. Other parts of the valley were bombed with gas from common grenades. Then the front was quiet until 06:00, when all the Italian wire and trenches to be attacked were bombarded by mortars.
At 06:41, 2,200 guns opened fire, many targeting the valley road along which reserves were advancing to plug the gap. At 08:00 two large mines were detonated under strong points on the heights bordering the valley and the infantry attacked. Soon they penetrated the almost undefended Italian fortifications in the valley, breaching the defensive line of the Italian Second Army between the IV and XXVII Corps. To protect the attackers' flanks, Alpine Troops infiltrated the strong points and batteries along the crests of the adjoining ridges, Matajur and Kolovrat, laying out their telephone lines as they advanced to maintain contact with their artillery. Specially-trained and equipped stormtrooper units led attacks, making use of the new German model 08/15 Maxim light machine gun, light trench mortars, mountain guns, flamethrowers and hand grenades.
The attackers in the valley marched almost unopposed along the excellent road toward Italy, some advanced 25 kilometres (16 mi) on the first day. The Italian army beat back the attackers on either side of the sector where the central column attacked, but von Below's successful central penetration threw the entire Italian army into disarray. Forces had to be moved along the Italian front in an attempt to stem von Below's breakout, but this only weakened other points along the line and invited further attacks. At this point, the entire Italian position was threatened.
The Italian 2nd Army commander Luigi Capello was bedridden with fever. Recognizing that his forces were ill-prepared for this attack and were being routed, Capello requested permission to withdraw to the Tagliamento River. Cadorna, who believed the Italian force could regroup and hold out, denied the request. Finally, on 30 October 1917, Cadorna ordered the majority of the Italian force to retreat to the other side of the Tagliamento. It took the Italians four full days to cross the river, and by this time the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were on their heels, ambushing the defenders whenever they could. These ambushes would become known as the Battle of Pozzuolo. Eventually, the retreating Italian soldiers were able to break through the Austro-German encirclement and retreat to the Tagliamento. Then, on 2 November, after an attack by Captain Emil Redl's 4th Battalion of the 4th Bosnian Infantry Regiment, the 55th Infantry Division (Austria-Hungary) established a bridgehead across the Tagliamento River. About this time, however, the rapid success of the attack caught up with them. The German and Austro-Hungarian supply lines were stretched to the breaking point and unable to launch another attack to isolate a part of the Italian army against the Adriatic. Cadorna was able to retreat further and by 10 November had established a position on the Piave River and Monte Grappa.
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". 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. 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." John R. Schindler wrote "By any standard, Twelfth Isonzo [Caporetto] and its aftermath represented an unprecedented catastrophe for Italian arms." 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. At Rapallo, a Supreme War Council was created to improve Allied military co-operation and develop a common strategy. 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.
In addition, he was detested by his troops as being too harsh. 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, 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.
Italian losses were enormous: 13,000 were killed, 30,000 wounded and 265,000–275,000 were taken prisoner. Morale was so low among the Italian troops, mainly due to Cadorna's harsh disciplinary regime, that most of these surrendered willingly. 3,152 artillery pieces, 3,000 machine guns and 1,712 mortars were lost, along with a vast amount of stores and equipment.[a] In contrast, the Austro-Hungarians and Germans sustained between 20,000 and 70,000 casualties.[b]
The last push of Austro-Hungarian and German forces was met and defeated by Italian forces at the First Battle of Monte Grappa: they had advanced more than 100 km (62 mi) in the direction of Venice, but they were not able to cross the Piave River. Up to this point the Italians had been left to fight on their own but, after the Battle of Caporetto, Britain and France sent reinforcements to the Italians. They were reinforced by six French infantry divisions and five British infantry divisions as well as sizeable air contingents. However, these troops played no role in stemming the advancing Germans and Austro-Hungarians, because they were deployed on the Mincio River, some 97 kilometres (60 mi) behind the Piave, as the British and French strategists did not believe the Piave line could be held.
The Piave served as a natural barrier where the Italians could establish a new defensive line, which was held during the subsequent Battle of the Piave River and later served as springboard for the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, where the Austro-Hungarian army was finally defeated after eleven days of resistance. On November 5, Allied officials came together at Rapallo to form the Supreme War Council.
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.
After the battle, the term "Caporetto" gained a particular resonance in Italy. It is used to denote a terrible defeat – the failed General Strike of 1922 by the socialists was referred to by Mussolini as the "Caporetto of Italian Socialism". Many years after the war, Caporetto was still being used to destroy the credibility of the liberal state.
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.
Today, a museum in the town of Kobarid is dedicated to the Isonzo Battles in general, and the Caporetto Battle in particular.
- An additional 350,000 troops were temporarily separated from units before rejoining them, mostly at the Piave line.
- By 10 November Italian losses were 10,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, and 265,000 prisoners (about 350,000 stragglers from the Second Army did manage to reach the Piave line). The army had also lost 3,152 artillery pieces of a pre-offensive total of 6,918. An additional 1,712 heavy trench mortars and 3,000 machine guns had been captured or abandoned in the retreat, along with vast amounts of other military equipment, especially as the rapid withdrawal had prevented the removal of heavy weapons and equipment across the Isonzo River. In contrast, the attackers had sustained about 70,000 casualties.Tucker, Spencer C.; Roberts, Priscilla Mary (2005). World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. United States: ABC-CLIO. p. 431. ISBN 1851098798. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- Caporetto Silvestri 2006, p. 117 ISBN 978-8817107112
- "Quella massa di profughi che lasciò il Nordest, dopo Caporetto – Il Piccolo". 13 June 2006.
- Seth, Ronald (1965). Caporetto: The Scapegoat Battle. Macdonald. p. 147
- Gooch 2014, pp. 245–246.
- Falls, Cyril (1966). Caporetto 1917. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 25.
- Hahn, Otto (1970). My life. Herder and Herder. p. 127.
- "Battle of Caporetto | Facts, History, & Casualties". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 8 September 2020.
- Geoffrey Regan, More Military Blunders, p. 161
- Stearns, Peter; Langer, William (2001). The Encyclopedia of World History (6th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 669. ISBN 0395652375.
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- Dupuy & Dupuy (1970), p. 971
- Die Kriegführung im Sommer und Herbst 1917. Die Ereignisse außerhalb der Westfront bis November 1918. Der Weltkrieg: Militärischen Operationen zu Lande. Vol. XIII (Die digitale landesbibliotek Oberösterreich ed.). Berlin: Mittler. 2012 . OCLC 257129831. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
- Taken from the rest of the army: 300,000 stragglers and 50,000 deserters, overwhelmed by the routed first line but then were back. See also previous footnote and Rommel, Erwin (1995). Infantry Attacks. Greenhill Books. pp. 168–227. ISBN 1853671991.
- Gudmundsson, Bruce (1989). Stormtroop Tactics. Innovation in the German Army, 1914–1918. Praeger. ISBN 0275933288.
- Erwin Rommel - Infantry Attacks p. 191
- Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War By John R. Schindler pp. 259–260
- Macksey, Kenneth (1997). Rommel: Battles and Campaigns. Da Capo Press. pp. 16–21, 224. ISBN 0306807866.
- Sullivan, Brian R. (1994) "Chapter 4. Caporetto: Causes, recovery, and consequences" in: Andreopoulos, George J.; Selesky, Harold E., ed.s, The Aftermath of Defeat: Societies, Armed Forces, and the Challenge of Recovery (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 60.
- Schindler (2001), p. 263
- Tucker (2010), p. 433
- Tucker, Spencer C. (2010). Battles That Changed History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict. United States: ABC-CLIO. p. 430. ISBN 978-1598844290. Retrieved 16 September 2012.
- Cassar (1998), p. 232
- Simkins, Peter; Jukes, Geoffrey; Hickey, Michael (2003). The First World War. Osprey Publishing. pp. 312–313. ISBN 1841767387.
- Townley, Edward (2002). Collier, Martin (ed.). Mussolini and Italy. Heinemann. p. 16. ISBN 0435327259.
- Geoffrey Regan. More Military Blunders, p. 160.
- Morselli, Mario (2001). Caporetto, 1917: Victory Or Defeat?. Routledge. p. 133. ISBN 0714650730.
- Tucker, Spencer C.; Roberts, Priscilla Mary (2005). World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. United States: ABC-CLIO. p. 431. ISBN 1851098798. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- Clodfelter 2017, p. 419.
- "La Grande Guerra: Caporetto - A Fresh Look".
- [s.n.] (2010). Opera nazionale combattenti (in Italian). Dizionario di Storia. Roma: Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana. Accessed December 2017.
- Nolte, Ernst (1969). Three Faces of Fascism: Action Française, Italian fascism, National Socialism. New York: Mentor. p. 274.
- Andreopoulos, George J.; Harold E. Selesky (1994). The Aftermath of Defeat: Societies, Armed Forces, and the Challenge of Recovery. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-1852851668. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
- Cassar, George H. (1998). The Forgotten Front: The British Campaign in Italy 1917–18. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0300058536. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
- Clodfelter, Micheal (2017). Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492–2015 (4th ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 978-0786474707.
- Dupuy, R. E.; Dupuy, T. N. (1970). The Encyclopaedia of Military History: From 3,500 BC to the Present. sbn 356-02998-0 (rev. ed.). London: Jane's.
- Gooch, John (2014). The Italian Army and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521149372.
- Schindler, John R. (2001). Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War. Greenwood. ISBN 978-0275972042.
- Seth, Ronald (1965). Caporetto: The Scapegoat Battle. London: Macdonald. OCLC 1407385.
- Tucker, Spencer (2010). Battles That Changed History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1598844290.
- Connelly, O. (2002). On War and Leadership: The Words of Combat Commanders from Frederick the Great to Norman Schwarzkopf. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03186-X.
- Morselli, M. (2001). Caporetto 1917: Victory or Defeat?. Military History and Policy. London: Frank Cass. ISBN 0-7146-5073-0.
- Reuth, R. G. (2005). Rommel: The End of a Legend. London: Haus Books. ISBN 1-904950-20-5.
- Anna Grillini: Caporetto, Battle of, in: 1914–1918 online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Simon Jones: The Gas Attack at Caporetto, 24th October 1917