Eleven Times Italy and Austria Clash,

Seeking Victory That is Impossible on the Western Front,

Leaving Only Blood and the Dead.

Special to The Great War Project.

(17 September) The battle in the Alps between Italy and Austria-Hungary is often an overlooked front of the Great War, despite leaving hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded.

When Italy entered the war on the Allied side, “her rulers,” writes historian Norman Stone, “had expected an easy trot to Vienna, and had hardly advanced beyond the customs-posts. Subsequent offensives had brought twice as many casualties to the Italians as to the Austrians but had only occasionally brought any kind of gain.”

Battle for the Isonzo River.

Stone continues: “There were eleven separate battles on the north-eastern border – the river Isonzo [now the Soca in Slovenia]. And as the Italians learned about guns, and the Austrians became tired, there were successes of a fairly modest kind.”

“However, …these gains came at an enormous cost – one and a half million Italian casualties as against 600,000 Austrian. In the eleventh battle, the Italians lost 170,000 men, 40,000 of them killed.”

Actually when war broke out in 1914, Italy was initially on the Austria/Germany side. But Italy soon switched sides, eager to take crucial territory away from Austria-Hungary.

“The Germans were not surprised,” writes historian Michael Neiberg, “and they pressured Austria-Hungary to make territorial concessions that might keep Italy on their side.”

“The Austro-Hungarians reacted with fury at what they saw as Italian perfidy,” Neiberg writes, “in the empire’s moment of great need.”

Austrian mountain units at the battle of the Isonzo.

Reports Neiberg, “Italy then followed a policy of pure self-interest, listening to offers from both sides.”

So Italy goes with Britain and France, a fateful decision that will lead to horrible losses. Why? “Because, historian Neiberg reports, “the Italian army was unprepared for war, and belligerence was unpopular with many Italians.”

The Italians concentrate all their strength on the single front at the Isonzo River, whereas the Austrians had other fronts requiring their attention. Over the next two years, Italy would face eleven great battles there by this moment a century ago. Neither side won decisive victories there, but, according to historian Neiberg, despite their horrible losses…

…each battle gave the Italians “just enough results to convince them to keep trying.”

But each side’s major allies believe that victory is close. The Germans are reluctant to send more troops to back up the Austrians. “At the same time,” Neiberg observes, “the British and French proved willing to send men and material to Italy in the hope of getting the breakthrough they could not get on the Western Front.”

Austrian mounted units, battle of the Isonzo.

“The casualties in the tenth and eleventh battles on the Isonzo were enormous. In the tenth, Italy took 150,000 casualties,” twice the figure for Austria. In the eleventh, Italy took 148,000 casualties to Austria-Hungary’s 105,000.”

“Both sides were worn out and demoralized. Despite all the terrible bloodshed, Italy had still not produced the breakthrough it wanted.”

“The Italians looked forward to the winter to rest and refit. The Germans, however, had other ideas.”

The Isonzo Front in winter.

The Germans do not ease up, reports historian Michael Neiberg. They use overwhelming artillery barrages, introduce air squadrons and fire off gas shells, in a theater where gas had not been used. “Italy was caught by surprise, and a mass retreat began.”