The Defeat and Recovery of Italy
( Originally Published 1918 )
NONE of the surprises of the World War brought such sudden and stunning dismay to the Entente Allies as the news of the Italian disaster beginning October 24, 1917, and terminating in mid-November. It is a story in which propaganda was an important factor. It taught the Allies the dangers lying in fraternization between opposing armies.
During the summer of 1917 the second Italian Army was confronted by Austrian regiments composed largely of war-weary Socialists. During that summer skillful German propagandists operating from Spain had sown the seeds of pacificism throughout Italy. This was made easy by the distress then existing particularly in the villages where food was scanty and complaints against the conduct of the war were numerous. The propaganda extended from the civilian population to the army, and its channel was directed mainly toward the Second Army encamped along the Isonzo River.
As a consequence of the pacifists' preachments both by words of mouth and document, the Second Army was ready for the friendly approaches that came from the front lines of the Austrians only a few hundred yards away. Daily communication was established and at night the opposing soldiers fraternized generally. The Russian doctrine that an end of the fighting would come if the soldiers agreed to do no more shooting, spread throughout the Italian trenches.
This was all part of a plan carefully mapped out by the German High Command. When the infection had spread, the fraternizing Austrian troops were withdrawn from the front trenches and German shock troops took their places.
On October 24th these troops attacked in force. The Italians in the front line, mistaking them for the friendly Austrians, waved a greeting. German machine guns and rifles replied with a deadly fire, and the great flanking movement commenced. So well had the Germans played their game the Italians lost more than 250,000 prisoners and 2,300 guns in the first week. The attack began in the Julian Alps and continued along the Isonzo south-westward into the plain of Venice. The Italian positions at Tolmino and Plezzo were captured and the whole Italian force was compelled to retreat along a seventy-mile front from the Carnic Alps to the sea. The most important point gained by the enemy in its early assault was the village of Caporetto on the Upper Isonzo where General Cadorna held a great series of dams which could have drained the Isonzo River dry within twelve hours.
The Italian retreat at places degenerated into a rout and it was not until the Italians, reinforced by French and British, reached the Piave River, that a stand was finally made. The defeat cost Cadorna his command, and he was succeeded by General Armando Diaz, whose brilliant strategy during the remainder of the war marked him as a national hero and one of the outstanding military geniuses of the war.
The order for a general retreat was issued on October 27th. Poison gas shells rained blindness and death upon the retreating Italians and upon the heroic rear-guards. The city of Udine and its environs were emptied of their inhabitants; and Goritzia, which had been wrested after a desperate effort from the Austrians, was retaken on October 28th.
That the entire Italian army escaped the fate that had come to the Russians at the Masurian Lakes was due mainly to the Third Army commanded by the Duke of Aosta. During the long running fight, it faced about from time to time and drove the Germans back in bloody encounters.
By November 10th the Italian forces had come to the hastily prepared entrenchments on the west bank of the Piave River. The Austrians and the Germans dug in on the east bank of the stream from the village of Susegana in the Alpine foothills to the Adriatic Sea.
Here a long-drawn-out battle was fought, resulting in enormous losses to the Germans and Austrians. By this time reinforcements had come up from the French front and every attempt by the enemy to gain ground met a bloody check. The hardest fighting was on the Asiago Plateau. There, although the Italians were greatly outnumbered, the concentration of their artillery in the hills over-looking the great field completely dominated the situation.
A factor that was of the utmost value in checking the Austrians was the system of lagoon defenses running from the lower Piave to the Gulf of Venice.
From November 13th, when the Austrians in crossing the lower Piave in their headlong rush to Venice were suddenly checked by the Italian lagoon defenses, the entire Gulf of Venice, with its endless canals and marshes, with islands disappearing and reappearing with the tide, was the scene of a continuous battle. A correspondent described the fighting as absolutely without precedent. The Teutons were desperately trying to turn the Italian right wing by working their way around the north-ern limits of the Venetian Gulf. The Italians inundated the region and sealed all the en-trances into the gulf by mine fields. The gulf, therefore, was converted into an isolated sea. Over this inland waterway the conflict raged bitterly. The Italians had a "lagoon fleet" ranging from the swiftest of motor boats, armed with machine guns, small cannon, and torpedo tubes, to huge, cumbersome, flat-bottomed British monitors, mounting the biggest guns.
The Italian vessels navigated secret channels dug in the bottom of the shallow lagoons. Only the Italian war pilots knew these courses. Even gondolas straying out of the channels were instantly and hopelessly stranded. Not only this, but as the muddy flats and marshy islands did not permit of artillery emplacements the Italians developed an immense fleet of floating batteries. The guns ranged from three-inch field pieces to great fifteen-inch monsters. Each was camouflaged to represent a tiny island, a garden patch, or a houseboat. Floating on the glasslike surface of the lagoons, the guns fired a few shots and then changed position, making it utterly impossible for the enemy to locate them. The entire auxiliary service of supplying this floating army was adapted to meet the lagoon warfare. Munition dumps were on boats, constantly moved about to prevent the enemy spotting them. Gondolas and motor boats replaced the automobile supply lorries customary in land warfare. Instead of motor ambulances, motor boats carried off the dead and wounded. Hydro-airplanes replaced ordinary fighting aircraft.
Along the northern limit of the Venetian Gulf, where the Austrians, having filtered into the Piave Delta, sought to cross both the Sile and the Piave, the enemy each night hooked up pontoons. At daybreak every morning one end of a huge pontoon structure was anchored to the east bank of the Piave and the other flung out to the strong current, which soon stretched the makeshift bridge across.
The moment this happened, the enemy infantry madly dashed across. Simultaneously the Italian floating batteries opened a terrific fire. Practically every morning the Austrians tried the trick, and every morning they failed, with heavy losses, to effect a crossing. At last they gave up the attempt as hopeless, and the armies remained locked on the Piave for several months.