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The Alpini, River Isonzo and The Italian Front World War One

The Alpini, River Isonzo and The Italian Front World War One

The war for the Italians was a very different experience than the war on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Tied in to the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy was very much in a position to take either the side of the Central Powers, or the side of the Allies, when war broke out in 1914. The Triple Alliance was an agreement between Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary that was formed in 1882 and was in place, and had been renewed periodically, right until Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915. Germany and Austria had a history of being closely allied and Italy had sought their support after losing North African ambitions to France in the late 1800’s. The treaty provided that Germany and Austria-Hungary were to defend Italy, and that Italy would assist Germany, should either be attacked by France. In the event of war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, Italy was to remain neutral. In 1902, a separate agreement, between Italy and France, stated that each country would remain neutral in the event on an attack on the other.

In 1914 the Italian government refused to commit troops to war alongside Austria-Hungary. The treaty was defensive in motive and Italy’s military was very under prepared for war. During the Italian-Turkish war, in Libya 1911-1912, the Italians suffered equipment and munitions shortages that had not yet been replenished. It has been estimated that when war broke out there were only 600 guns in the entire country. In a vulnerable position, Austria-Hungary was now a hostile neighbour and Italy had no choice but to break the Triple Alliance and enter the war, against Austria-Hungary, and on the side of the Allies, on 23rd May 1915.

Although Austria-Hungary had sent the majority of it’s troops to fight along the Eastern Front against Russia, it had also steadily occupied the strategically important peaks and ridges in the high ground of the Julian Alps and the Karst Plateau, overlooking the north-eastern region of the Italian lines. All but 20 miles of the 400 mile border with Austria lay in the Italian Alps. The Isonzo River formed a natural boundary between the mountains and Austria-Hungary and the plains of northern Italy. Between June 1915 and August October 1918 there were 12 battles of the Isonzo River, and 5 other major battles of note in the surrounding area, fought in this mountainous terrain. Battles took place in the north-eastern portion of Italy, from the Trentino on the left, along the Carnic and Julian Alps, then down the line of the River Isonzo to the Gulf of Trieste, a shallow bay of the Adriatic Sea.

Trentino, to the north of Italy, in the valley of the Isonzo River, was an Italian-speaking border region making up the southern most part of Tyrol, a western state in the alps, making up part of the Austrian-Hungary Empire. The fighting immediately turned the town in to a war zone, with entrenched fighting on both sides. When Italy declared war on Austria, much of the civilian population of the Trentino region was displaced in to refugee camps - the high altitude and cold winters, alongside food shortages, meant thousands died from malnutrition and illness. Following the war, Trentino was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.

Mountain war-fare was a speciality of the area, with 80% of the Italian Front in the Alps and Dolomites. The high altitude, rocky slopes, avalanches, snow and ice, made the living conditions incredibly challenging, let alone facing battle. The harsh weather conditions meant there were minimal road connections and building huts, forts and barracks were a necessity for protection against the severe weather. Specialist soldiers, The Alpini, were an elite section of the Italian Army who built bridges across mountain ravines and used high explosives to create a network of tunnels and caves, for protection as well as storage. Established in 1872, the Alpini are the oldest active mountain infantry in the world. Snow was a constant struggle through winter, with four months of the year spent in sub-zero conditions. Cold and frost bite were a real danger, especially for the wounded. Battles were a matter of days, rather than weeks and months as on the Western Front, as troops struggled in deep snow, dragging heavy equipment up and down steep mountain ravines. Units would quickly become separated as explosive shells caused dangerous landslides and falling stones, often killing and wounding thousands of soldiers at the same time, on both sides. The inhospitable regions of the Alps and Dolomites led to a secluded and lonely war.

During the first year of fighting, Austria-Hungary, already struggling on the Eastern Front, was mostly content to take a defensive position and resist the Italian offensives. A war of extremes, Italy was bitterly divided. A poor country, with a weak economy before the war, meant approximately 500,000 Italians refused conscription. Italy was heavily dependent on Britain and France for economic aid and munitions, and at home a lack of men, and horses, to work the farmland led to crop failures and a food crisis that eventually led to half a million people dying from starvation. The lack of support for the war led to civilian disorder. 1 million workers in arms and munitions factories faced military discipline and approximately 300,000 soldiers eventually deserted. By the end of 1915, Italy had lost 60,000 men, a quarter of the Italian Army at that time. Many felt that the war was frittering men away, with no real advantage.

During the early months of 1916, the Austrians steadily prepared to strike back at the Italians and sent 400,000 men to Trentino. The Italians had made little advance along the 400-mile mountainous front surrounding Trentino during the previous six months of fighting. By May 1916 the Italians were in retreat along the entire Trentino front and the war was being bought to Italian soil. In ten days, the enemy captured 24,000 troops. In June, a counter-attack by the Italians led to them recapturing the towns of Arsiero and Asiago and this counter-offensive continued until the fighting was again pushed back in to the mountainous regions around Trentino.

After Italy entered the war, the Isonzo River saw almost constant battles throughout the following two and half years, each one merging in to the next. At the time of the war, the river was located just inside Austria’s border. The river itself caused difficulties as it was prone to flooding and there were record rainfalls during 1914 - 1918. The movement around this area was very difficult as the Italians needed to first cross the river, under the view of the Austro-Hungarian troops in defensive positions in the ridges and peaks overlooking the river. It has been estimated that half the entire Italian war casualties were at the Isonzo - estimates at about 300,000 troops. The situation greatly worsened when Russia had left the war in 1917 allowing Germany and Austria-Hungary to relocate troops to the area.

One of the largest, and considered the twelfth battle, was at Caporetto, 60 miles north of Trieste, in October and November 1917. The Austria-Hungary Army had been reinforced by German troops and Caporetto was chosen because it was in a mountain valley, with good access through to the Venetian Plain. It was a vicious offensive, poison gas and shells immediately throwing the Italian Army into disarray. By mid-November 11,000 Italian troops were dead with 250,000 taken prisoner. Many surrendered voluntarily. It has been described as one of the worst military defeats of the war. The enemy was now nearing Italian territories and with this threat came a desperate need for the Italian military to step up its defences. The Italians managed to repel a much smaller Austria-Hungarian attack in mid-1918 and the Italians had one final success when they managed to break through the Austrian defences at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. A combined Italian force totalled 57 divisions, including 3 British, 2 French and 1 American. This Italian victory caused 36,000 Italian casualties but destroyed the Austria-Hungary Army, 300,000 prisoners of war were taken. It was an incredible defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire considering the previous three years of fighting. It was the final action on the Italian Front and contributed to the end of the First World War less than two weeks later.

The end of the war left 650,000 dead, 947,000 wounded and 600,000 prisoners of war for the Italian Army. 1024 British, 450 French and 3 American soldiers also lost their lives on the Italian/Alpine Front. Of these, 60,000 froze to death, 60,000 more would perish in avalanches, including 10,000 troops killed in a two-day period in December 1916 that became known as the “white-death”. In total Austria-Hungary saw 1.2 million killed, 3.6 million wounded and 2.2 million prisoners of war - a third of these were lost on the Italian Front.

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