Italian Front (World War I)
|Part of World War I|
From left to right: Ortles, autumn 1917; Fort Verena, June 1915; Mount Paterno, 1915; Carso, 1917; Toblach, 1915.
|Commanders and leaders|
Jean César Graziani
William G. Everson
C. von Hötzendorf|
A. von Straussenburg
Otto von Below
1917 – 3 divisions
1918 – 2 divisions
1918 – 5 regiments
1918 – 3 regiments
1918 – 1 regiment
1917 – 5 divisions
|Casualties and losses|
(700 died indirectly)
|589,000 Italian civilians died of war-related causes|
The Italian Front or Alpine Front (Italian: Fronte alpino; in German: Gebirgskrieg, "Mountain war") was a series of battles at the border between Austria-Hungary and Italy, fought between 1915 and 1918 in World War I. Following the secret promises made by the Allies in the Treaty of London, Italy entered the war in order to annex the Austrian Littoral and northern Dalmatia, and the territories of present-day Trentino and South Tyrol. Although Italy had hoped to gain the territories with a surprise offensive, the front soon bogged down into trench warfare, similar to the Western Front fought in France, but at high altitudes and with very cold winters. Fighting along the front displaced much of the civilian population, of which several thousand died from malnutrition and illness in Italian and Austrian refugee camps. The Allied victory at Vittorio Veneto, the disintegration of Austria-Hungary and the Italian capture of Trento, Bolzano and Trieste ended the military operations.
- 1 History
- 1.1 Pre-war period
- 1.2 Campaigns of 1915–1916
- 1.3 Tunnel warfare in the mountains
- 1.4 1917: Germany arrives on the front
- 1.5 1918: The war ends
- 1.6 Casualties
- 1.7 Occupation of northern Dalmatia and Tyrol
- 2 Italian Army Order of Battle as of 24 May 1915
- 2.1 First Army
- 2.2 Second Army
- 2.3 Third Army
- 2.4 Fourth Army
- 2.5 Carnia Zone
- 2.6 High Command Troops
- 3 Notes
- 4 Sources
While being a member of the Triple Alliance which consisted of Italy and the Triple Entente with Austria-Hungary and Germany, Italy did not declare war in August 1914, arguing that the Alliance was defensive in nature and therefore Austria-Hungary's aggression did not obligate Italy to take part. Moreover, Austria-Hungary omitted to consult Italy before sending the ultimatum to Serbia and refused to discuss compensation due according to the art. 7 of the Triple Alliance. Italy had a longstanding rivalry with Austria-Hungary, dating back to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, which granted several regions on the Italian peninsula to the Austrian Empire.
More importantly, a radical nationalist political movement, called Unredeemed Italy (Italia irredenta), founded in the 1880s, started claiming the Italian-inhabited territories of Austria-Hungary, especially in the Austrian Littoral and in the County of Tyrol. By the 1910s, the expansionist ideas of this movement were taken up by a significant part of the Italian political elite. The annexation of those Austrian territories that were inhabited by Italians became the main Italian war goal, assuming a similar function to the issue of Alsace-Lorraine for the French. However, of around 1.5 million people living in those areas, 45% were Italian speakers, while the rest were Slovenes, Germans and Croats. In northern Dalmatia, which was also among the Italian war aims, the Italian-speaking population was only around 5%.
In the early stages of the war, Allied diplomats secretly courted Italy, attempting to secure Italian participation on the Allied side. Set up between the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, the Italian Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino and the French Foreign Minister Jules Cambon, Italy's entry was finally engineered by the Treaty of London of 26 April 1915, in which Italy renounced her obligations to the Triple Alliance.
On February 16, 1915, despite concurrent negotiations with Austria, a courier was dispatched in great secrecy to London with the suggestion that Italy was open to a good offer from the Entente. [ ...] The final choice was aided by the arrival of news in March of Russian victories in the Carpathians. Salandra began to think that victory for the Entente was in sight, and was so anxious not to arrive too late for a share in the profits that he instructed his envoy in London to drop some demands and reach agreement quickly. [...] The Treaty of London was concluded on April 26 binding Italy to fight within one month. [...] Not until May 4 did Salandra denounce the Triple Alliance in a private note to its signatories.
On 23 May, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary.
Campaigns of 1915–1916
During the Italo-Turkish War in Libya (1911–1912), the Italian military suffered equipment and munition shortages not yet repaired before Italian entry into the Great War. At the opening of the campaign, Austro-Hungarian troops occupied and fortified high ground of the Julian Alps and Karst Plateau, but the Italians initially outnumbered their opponents three-to-one.
Battles of Isonzo in 1915
At the beginning of the First Battle of the Isonzo on 23 June 1915, Italian forces outnumbered the Austrians three-to-one but failed to penetrate the strong Austro-Hungarian defensive lines in the highlands of northwestern Gorizia and Gradisca. Because the Austrian forces occupied higher ground, Italians conducted difficult offensives while climbing. The Italian forces therefore failed to drive much beyond the river, and the battle ended on 7 July 1915.
Despite a professional officer corps, severely under-equipped Italian units lacked morale. Also many troops deeply disliked the newly appointed Italian commander, general Luigi Cadorna. Moreover, preexisting equipment and munition shortages slowed progress and frustrated all expectations for a "Napoleonic style" breakout. Like most contemporaneous militaries, the Italian army primarily used horses for transport but struggled and sometimes failed to supply the troops sufficiently in the tough terrain.
Two weeks later on 18 July 1915, the Italians attempted another frontal assault against the Austro-Hungarian trench lines with more artillery in Second Battle of the Isonzo, and despite initial success, the forces of Austria-Hungary beat back this bloody offensive, which concluded in stalemate and exhaustion of weaponry on 3 August 1915.
The Italians recuperated, rearmed with 1200 heavy guns, and then on 18 October 1915 launched Third Battle of the Isonzo, another attack. Forces of Austria-Hungary again repulsed this Italian offensive, which concluded on 4 November without resulting gains.
The Italians again launched another offensive on 10 November, the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo. Both sides suffered more casualties, but the Austro-Hungarian forces repulsed this Italian offensive too, and the battle ended on 2 December for exhaustion of armaments, but occasional skirmishing persisted.
After the winter lull, the Italians launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 9 March 1916, and captured the strategic Mount Sabatino. But Austria-Hungary repulsed all other attacks, and the battle concluded on 16 March in poor weather for trench warfare.
The Asiago offensive
Following Italy's stalemate, the Austrian forces began planning a counteroffensive (Battle of Asiago) in Trentino and directed over the plateau of Altopiano di Asiago, with the aim to break through to the Po River plain and thus cutting off the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Italian Armies in the North East of the country. The offensive began on 15 May 1916 with 15 divisions, and resulted in initial gains, but then the Italians counterattacked and pushed the Austro-Hungarians back to the Tyrol.
Later battles for the Isonzo
Later in 1916, four more battles along the Isonzo river erupted. The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, launched by the Italians in August, resulted in a success greater than the previous attacks. The offensive gained nothing of strategic value but did take Gorizia, which boosted Italian spirits. The Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth battles of the Isonzo (14 September – 4 November) managed to accomplish little except to wear down the already exhausted armies of both nations.
The frequency of offensives for which the Italian soldiers partook between May 1915 and August 1917, one every three months, was higher than demanded by the armies on the Western Front. Italian discipline was also harsher, with punishments for infractions of duty of a severity not known in the German, French, and British armies.
Shellfire in the rocky terrain caused 70% more casualties per rounds expended than on the soft ground in Belgium and France. By the autumn of 1917 the Italian army had suffered most of the deaths it was to incur during the war, yet the end of the war seemed to still be an eternity away. This was not the same line of thought for the Austrians. On 25 August, the Emperor Charles wrote to the Kaiser the following: "The experience we have acquired in the eleventh battle has led me to believe that we should fare far worse in the twelfth. My commanders and brave troops have decided that such an unfortunate situation might be anticipated by an offensive. We have not the necessary means as regards troops."
Tunnel warfare in the mountains
From 1915, the high peaks of the Dolomites range were an area of fierce mountain warfare. In order to protect their soldiers from enemy fire and the hostile alpine environment, both Austro-Hungarian and Italian military engineers constructed fighting tunnels which offered a degree of cover and allowed better logistics support. Working at high altitudes in the hard carbonate rock of the Dolomites, often in exposed areas near mountain peaks and even in glacial ice, required extreme skill of both Austro-Hungarian and Italian miners.
Beginning on the 13th, later referred to as White Friday, December 1916 would see 10,000 soldiers on both sides killed by avalanches in the Dolomites. Numerous avalanches were caused by the Italians and Austro-Hungarians purposefully firing artillery shells on the mountainside, while others were naturally caused.
In addition to building underground shelters and covered supply routes for their soldiers like the Italian Strada delle 52 Gallerie, both sides also attempted to break the stalemate of trench warfare by tunneling under no man's land and placing explosive charges beneath the enemy's positions. Between 1 January 1916 and 13 March 1918, Austro-Hungarian and Italian units fired a total of 34 mines in this theatre of the war. Focal points of the underground fighting were Pasubio with 10 mines, Lagazuoi with 5, Col di Lana/Monte Sief also with 5, and Marmolada with 4 mines. The explosive charges ranged from 110 kilograms (240 lb) to 50,000 kilograms (110,000 lb) of blasting gelatin. In April 1916, the Italians detonated explosives under the peaks of Col Di Lana, killing numerous Austro-Hungarians.
1917: Germany arrives on the front
Following the minuscule gains of the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo, the Italians directed a two-pronged attack against the Austrian lines north and east of Gorizia. The Austrians checked the advance east, but Italian forces under Luigi Capello managed to break the Austrian lines and capture the Banjšice Plateau. Characteristic of nearly every other theater of the war, the Italians found themselves on the verge of victory but could not secure it because their supply lines could not keep up with the front-line troops and they were forced to withdraw. However, the Italians had nearly destroyed the Austro-Hungarian army on the front, forcing them to call in German help for the much anticipated Caporetto Offensive.
The Austrians received desperately needed reinforcements after the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo from German Army soldiers rushed in after the Russian offensive ordered by Kerensky of July 1917 failed. The Germans introduced infiltration tactics to the Austrian front and helped work on a new offensive. Meanwhile, mutinies and plummeting morale crippled the Italian Army from within. The soldiers lived in poor conditions and engaged in attack after attack that often yielded minimal or no military gain.
On 24 October 1917 the Austrians and Germans launched the Battle of Caporetto (Italian name for Kobarid). Chlorine-arsenic agent and diphosgene gas shells were fired as part of a huge artillery barrage, followed by infantry using infiltration tactics, bypassing enemy strong points and attacking on the Italian rear. At the end of the first day, the Italians had retreated 19 kilometres (12 miles) to the Tagliamento River.
When the Austrian offensive routed the Italians, the new Italian chief of staff, Armando Diaz ordered to stop their retreat and defend the fortified defenses around the Monte Grappa summit between the Roncone and the Tomatico mountains; although numerically inferior (51,000 against 120,00) the Italian Army managed to defeat the Austro-Hungarian and German armies in the First Battle of Monte Grappa.
1918: The war ends
Second Battle of the Piave River (June 1918)
Advancing deep and fast, the Austrians outran their supply lines, which forced them to stop and regroup. The Italians, pushed back to defensive lines near Venice on the Piave River, had suffered 600,000 casualties to this point in the war. Because of these losses, the Italian Government called to arms the so-called 99 Boys (Ragazzi del '99); the new class of conscripts born in 1899 who were turning 18 in 1917. In November 1917, British and French troops started to bolster the front line. Far more decisive than Allied troops was Franco-British (and US) help providing strategic materials (steel, coal and crops - provided by the British but imported from Argentina - etc.), which Italy always lacked sorely. In the spring of 1918, Germany pulled out its troops for use in its upcoming Spring Offensive on the Western Front. As a result of the Spring Offensive, Britain and France also pulled half of their divisions back to the Western Front.
The Austrians now began debating how to finish the war in Italy. The Austro-Hungarian generals disagreed on how to administer the final offensive. Archduke Joseph August of Austria decided for a two-pronged offensive, where it would prove impossible for the two forces to communicate in the mountains.
The Second Battle of the Piave River began with a diversionary attack near the Tonale Pass named Lawine, which the Italians repulsed after two days of fighting. Austrian deserters betrayed the objectives of the upcoming offensive, which allowed the Italians to move two armies directly in the path of the Austrian prongs. The other prong, led by general Svetozar Boroević von Bojna initially experienced success until aircraft bombed their supply lines and Italian reinforcements arrived.
The decisive Battle of Vittorio Veneto (October–November 1918)
To the disappointment of Italy's allies, no counter-offensive followed the Battle of Piave. The Italian Army had suffered huge losses in the battle, and considered an offensive dangerous. General Armando Diaz waited for more reinforcements to arrive from the Western Front. By the end of October 1918, Austro-Hungary was falling apart. Czechoslovakia, Croatia, and Slovenia proclaimed their independence and troops started deserting, disobeying orders and retreating. Many Czechoslovak troops, in fact, started working for the Allied Cause, and in September 1918, five Czechoslovak Regiments were formed in the Italian Army.
By October 1918, Italy finally had enough soldiers to mount an offensive. The attack targeted Vittorio Veneto, across the Piave. The Italian Army broke through a gap near Sacile and poured in reinforcements that crushed the Austrian defensive line. On 3 November, 300,000 Austrian soldiers surrendered.
On 3 November, the military leaders of the already disintegrated Austria-Hungary sent a flag of truce to the Italian commander to ask again for an armistice and terms of peace. The terms were arranged by telegraph with the Allied authorities in Paris, communicated to the Austrian commander, and were accepted. The Armistice with Austria was signed in the Villa Giusti, near Padua, on 3 November, and took effect at three o'clock in the afternoon of 4 November. Austria and Hungary signed separate armistices following the overthrow of the Habsburg Monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Cumulative casualties of the numerous battles of the Isonzo were enormous. Half of the entire Italian war casualty total – some 300,000 of 600,000 – were suffered along the Soča (Isonzo). Austro-Hungarian losses, while by no means as numerous were nevertheless high at around 400,000 (of an overall total of around 1.2 million casualties).
Despite Italian casualties outnumbering Austro-Hungarian ones by roughly 1.5 to 1, and Austria-Hungary's population outnumbering Italy's by 1.5 to 1, the Italians had a major advantage in having to fight on only one major front, whereas Austria-Hungary also had to fight Serbia, Russia, and Romania over the course of the war. Italy also had a considerably faster population growth rate than Austria-Hungary did at the beginning of the war, giving it an additional demographic advantage.
Occupation of northern Dalmatia and Tyrol
By the end of hostilities in November 1918, the Italian military had seized control of the entire portion of Dalmatia that had been guaranteed to Italy by the London Pact. From 5–6 November 1918, Italian forces were reported to have reached Lissa, Lagosta, Sebenico, and other localities on the Dalmatian coast. In 1918, Admiral Enrico Millo declared himself Italy's Governor of Dalmatia. After 4 November the Italian military occupied also Innsbruck and all Tyrol by 20-22000 soldiers of the III Corps of the First Army.
Italian Army Order of Battle as of 24 May 1915
Lieutenant General Roberto Brusati
Lieutenant General Vittorio Camerana
Lieutenant General Pietro Frugoni
Lieutenant General Enzio Reisoli
source: Lieutenant General Mario Nicolis de Robilant
source: Lieutenant General Luigi Segato
source: Lieutenant General Carlo Ruelle
Lieutenant General Ottavio Ragni
Lieutenant General Pietro Marini
source: Lieutenant General Clemente Lequio
High Command Troops
source: Lieutenant General Domenico Grandi
source: Lieutenant General Paolo Morrone
3rd Cavalry Division
Lieutenant General Carlo Guicciardi di Cervarolo
4th Cavalry Division
source: Lieutenant General Alessandro Malingri di Bagnolo
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- Compiled from information in L’Esercito italiano nella grande guerra, Vol I-bis, pp. 75-104
- Roman numerals indicate battalion numbers; missing numbers were with the Colonial Army
- The other 3 batteries were assigned to XIV Corps.
- 75 mm Krupp cannon (75/27 Model 1906).
- One squadron attached to 1st Army.
- The heavy field artillery batteries were armed with Krupp 149/12 howitzers, which were essentially Krupp 15 cm M. 1913 howitzers.
- 11 June 23rd squadron of mobile militia cavalry; 29 June 21st squadron of mobile militia cavalry: both arrived & attached to V Corps. Attached: 305 mm howitzer battery 5 (arr. 1 June).
- 4 June 4th Group of mobile militia cavalry (Squadrons 7 & 8) arrived and attached to 15th Division.
- Five batteries arrived on 26 May; the other two batteries assigned to XIV Corps.
- Deport 75 mm cannon (75/27 Mod. 1911).
- Under command of the Presidio of the Verona Fortress
- Under command of the Presidio of the Verona Fortress [Lieutenant General Gaetano Gabbo] (together with five batteries of 87 B, 1 battery of 149 G. & 2 batteries of 57)
- Under command of the Presidio of the Verona Fortress.
- 2 June 1st Group of mobile militia cavalry (Squadrons 1 & 2) arrived and attached to 32nd Division.
- 3 June 14th Light Cavalry Regiment of Alessandria arrived and attached to IV Corps. Also on 3 June 2nd Group of mobile militia cavalry (Squadrons 3 & 4) arrived and attached to IV Corps.
- 1st Co in the colonies; replaced with 1st bis Co.
- 4 June 15th Light Cavalry Regiment of Lodi (Squadrons 2-6) arrived and attached to XII Corps. Squadron 1 was in Libya.
- Table on allocation of mountain batteries (L'Esercito italiano nella grande guerra, Vol I-bis, p. 98) lists both 13th Group & 14th Group with the 36th Field Artillery.
- 1st Group was with 23rd Division; 3rd Group was with 24th Division.
- The 149 A cannon was a 149 mm cannon (model 149/35 A) with a steel barrel first manufactured in 1900 to replace the older 149 G (149/23).
- The 149 G cannon was a 149 mm cannon (model 149/23) with a cast iron barrel first manufactured in 1882.
- The 70 mm pack mountain gun (model 70/15) was introduced in 1904. The gun could be broken down into 4 pieces for transport by pack animals.
- Attached for the “first bound forward”: 149 G batteries 1-4.
- On 26 May His Royal Highness assumed command of the 3rd Army, which from 24 to 26 May was held temporarily by General Garioni.
- 28 May the 17th Light Cavalry Regiment of Caserta arrived and was attached to VI Corps. The regiment arrived with 5 squadrons, with 1st bis Squadron replacing 1st Squadron, which was in Libya.
- The other squadron of this regiment was attached to the Carnia Zone command.
- A Krupp 75 mm cannon designed for horse artillery (75/27 mod. 1912).
- The 2nd Group of this regiment (batteries 4 & 5) was assigned to 1st Cavalry Division
- 10 June the 29th Light Cavalry Regiment of Udine arrived and was attached to VII Corps. Also attached: 310 mm howitzer battery 6 (arr. 10 July)
- Detached to 1st Cavalry Division, VI Corps
- One battalion detached to 2nd Cavalry Division
- 1st bis Co replaced 1st Co which was in the colonies.
- 1st bis Co replaced 1st Co which was in the colonies; one battalion detached to 2nd Cavalry Division.
- 2 June the 11th Light Cavalry Regiment of Foggia arrived and was attached to this corps.
- the Brigade headquarters and 10th Infantry Regiment detached to 2nd Cavalry Division.
- Detached from the Queen's Brigade.
- Attached: 149 A batteries Nos 8 & 9; 305 mm howitzer batteries Nos 1 (arr. June 1) & 2 (arr. June 2); 280 mm howitzer battery Nos 4 (arr. 6 June), 5 (arr. 3 June), 6 (arr. 3 June) & 7 (arr. 6 June); 210 mm howitzer battery No 2 (arr. 30 May); 210 mortar batteries Nos 7, 8 (both arr. 3 June), 9 (at Belluno 31 May), 10 & 11.
- The other three batteries were assigned to 31st Division.
- Controlled by the High Command. Attached: 149 A batteries Nos 2-6 (still at Stretti); 310 mm howitzer batteries Nos 3 & 4 (both arr. 1 June); 280 mm howitzer batteries Nos 1-3 (on 24 May via RR directed to Stazione for the Carnia ); 210 howitzer battery No 1 (on 24 May at Spillimbergo); 210 mm mortar batteries Nos 1, 2 (May 24 both at Spilimbergo), 3 (29 May at Chiusaforte), 4 (May 24 at Spilimbergo), 5 & 6.
- Comando Supremo, headed by Lieutenant General Count Luigi Cadorna.
- 30 May the 2nd Bersagliari Cyclist Battalion left Rome to join this corps.
- 29 May the 3rd Group of Mobile Militia cavalry (Squadrons Nos 5 & 6) arrived and were attached to 26th Division. 11 June the 9th Group of Mobile Militia cavalry (Squadrons Nos 17 & 18) arrived and were attached to 29th Division.
- 6 June the 18th Light Cavalry Regiment of Piacenza arrived and was attached to X Corps; the regiment arrived with 5 squadrons ( Nos 1, 2, 4, 5& 6) with Squadron No 3 in Libya. 5 June 1st Bersagliari Cyclist Battalion left Naples to join this corps.
- 5 June the Royal Piemonte Cavalry Regiment (-) (Squadrons Nos 3, 4 & 5) joined XIII Corps; the other two squadrons were attached to XIV Corps.
- 3 June the 10th Group of Mobile Militia cavalry (Squadron Nos 19 & 20) arrived and were attached to 25th Division.
- 1 June the 6th Group of Mobile Militia cavalry (Squadron Nos 11 & 12) arrived and were attached to 30th Division.
- 12 June the 8th Group of Mobile Militia cavalry (Squadron Nos 15 & 16) arrived and attached to 31st Division.
- 5 June Squadron Nos 1 & 2 of Royal Piemonte Cavalry Regiment joined XIV Corps; the rest of the regiment joined XIII Corps.
- 30 June the 7th Group of Mobile Militia cavalry (Squadron Nos 13 & 14) arrived and was attached to 28th Division.
- 3 June the 4th Bersagliari Cyclist Battalion left Turin to join this division.
- Squadron No 2 in Libya.
- Under the command of the Piazza di Venezia
- The Trappani Brigade was constituted in Palermo on 14 January 1915 with 3 regiments 143rd, 144th and 149th. In May it was dissolved. On 4 May the 149th Regiment was transferred to Brindisi, where it remained at the disposition of the Navy until, on June 23, it moved into a war zone (Treviso) at the disposition of the High Command. On 6 May the 143rd Regiment (composed of troops from both the 143rd and 144th Regiments) sailed for Libya. The remaining troops of the 143rd and 144th Regiments reformed on the 144th Regiment HQ. On 4 July the 144th Regiment left for Spresiano. On 4 July the brigade reformed with two regiments: 144th (9 companies) and 149th (12 companies).
- Detached to Brundisi; rejoined 4 July
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Italian Front theatre of World War I.|
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