Fight for Gorizia: The Italian Front and the Isonzo Battles

Following our First World War timeline, we take a trip to the Italian Front to have a brief look over a conflict that was of significant meaning in the war narrative of Italy – despite the actual lack of strategic value and impact it had over the events at the front line. Gorizia itself was not part of the war zone for nearly the first year of the war. Regardless, the region still felt the brutality of the conflict. According to Nello Christiani, the first victim to be known of in Gorizia as a result of the war was the countess Lucy Christalnigg, who seems to have got shot while traveling on her car to a mission for the Red Cross by some Landsturmer guards (10th August 1914). However, as we know, Italy did not actually join the war until 1915. Italy had joined the Allied side with the promise of gaining territory in the area of Slovenia, and with the thought that the war would be relatively quick. But soon they found themselves in an expensive armed conflict that would last longer that they could afford. For the Italian troops positioned in the Isonzo Valley, this would be mean the constant quarreling with the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the frontier territories for three years. General and Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna was the main figure in this operation. His intention was to create a corridor to Vienna, however this proved an arduous task. Italy’s threat to invade the territory up to the capital through Slovenia made the Austria-Hungary Empire redirect some of the troops fighting at the Eastern Front down to the area where the eleven battles of the Isonzo took place. Cardona was also aware that the geography of the region would not aid his cause. The Isonzo Valley is known for flooding problems and, in fact, during the period between 1914 and 1918 a higher amount of rainfall and flooding has been recorded. This made the terrain particularly unsuitable for battle, and a great inconvenience for the troops of either side. Moreover, if the italian troops wanted to continue their advancement into the Austro-Hungarian territory beyond the valley, this meant they would have to either cross the river or debunk the enemies defended positions over the mountains. As you can imagine, all these geographical factors did not help the situation Cadorna and his army had to deal with.

To put things in context: at the beginning of the operation Cadorna had brought together originally an army of around 200.000 men in strength, whilst the Austro-Hungarian Empire counted with roughly 100.000 who had the advantage of the terrain plus the multiple fortresses that had been built for the defense of this frontier. Even with the numbers on their side, the results for Italy were unremarkable. Five battles before Gorizia took place at the Isonzo with practically no impact what so ever in the strategic advancement of the front line:

  • First Battle of the Isonzo – 23 June–7 July 1915
  • Second Battle of the Isonzo – 18 July–3 August 1915
  • Third Battle of the Isonzo – 18 October–3 November 1915
  • Fourth Battle of the Isonzo – 10 November–2 December 1915
  • Fifth Battle of the Isonzo – 9–17 March 1916

The Italian troops were simply unable to get a breakthrough. Then came August and a sixth attack was launched again, reinvigorating the conflict on this front. The sole purpose of this movement was to take over the town of Gorizia. The assault was intended to be a quick operation, starting with some distraction artillery manoeuvres and ultimately successful due to the what in war is called the Principle of Mass or Concentration – the active concentration of the essential forces at the time and positions required to fulfill the mission. For this purpose,  the Italian army deployed a total of 800 bombards plus an extra 400 middle to large-caliber pieces of artillery. However, despite Cadorna’s attempts, the fight got out of hand: the diversion failed to derail the Austro-Hungarian defence, and although further Italian tactics were deployed without issues, the battle lasted for 5 days when it should have not gone for more than 24 or 48 hours. The real turn point and lucky moment for the Italian troops was the fact that their enemy found themselves lacking reserves – or rather the fact that their enemy would happily retreat upon facing some difficulties, whilst the poorly equipped and sustained Italian army had no choice but to push on. Yet on the 8th of August, units of the 12th Italian Division occupied Gorizia, thus making the Austro-Hungarian forces take a step back on the front line. Cardona attempted to make of this a full on strategic advance, however the terrain complications did not allow the Italian artillery to move faster. Thus by the 16th of August 1916, the Field Marshal called off the offensive. Thus, the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo caused the Austro-Hungarian side 37,500, and a larger 51,200 for Cardona’s troops.

Just so you get an idea of how incredibly slow was the conflict on this side of the war, here I leave you a list of the remaining battles after Gorizia:

  • Seventh Battle of the Isonzo – 14–17 September 1916
  • Eighth Battle of the Isonzo – 10–12 October 1916
  • Ninth Battle of the Isonzo – 1–4 November 1916
  • Tenth Battle of the Isonzo – 12 May–8 June 1917
  • Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo – 19 August–12 September 1917
  • Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or Battle of Caporetto- 24 October–7 November, where the Italian army was ultimately defeated by the German offensive.

Overall, and as anticipated earlier on this post, these set of conflicts in the border between Italy and Slovenia really meant nothing for the overarching war effort, and we particularly disappointing from the point of view of Italy. This is highlighted by the fact that, although Gorizia was a marginal victory, for the purpose of political propaganda and morale, in Italy it was exaggerated and glorified by the press, making this a great national achievement. However, the rest of the contemporary international press hardly offers a mention of any of these advancements by the Italian army. This was no more than a slight break in the war of attrition. Nevertheless, this allowed Italy to promote the event as a moment of greatness, with heroes to remember for their valiant effort during Great War.

Nowadays, there is a museum dedicated to the entire conflict in the area, which is a highly recommended visit if you are interested on this subject and if you are visiting the alpine region bordering with Slovenia:


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