Italian Offensive on the Carso and Isonzo Fronts

[The New York Times Current History, July 1917]

During the latter half of May, 1917, General Cadorna's forces on the Isonzo and Carso fronts made one of the most remarkable drives of the year an assault that lasted eighteen days, with all its original fury. The fighting took place amid the peaks and chasms north of Gorizia, and on the volcanic Carso plateau to the south, a region of desolate rocks and caves, where all the water for the soldiers had to be brought by building an aqueduct, bit by bit, as the army advanced. This land of caves and hiding places had been fortified by the Austrians and complicated with broad areas of barbed wire, behind which enormous 10-inch guns and innumerable machine guns swept every path of approach.

The Italians won victories despite these odds. They took heavy guns up mountains hitherto ascended only by Alpine climbers who roped themselves together. They swung bridges from one peak to another. They built trenches, fortifications, roads, tunnels, retaining walls 10,000 feet above sea level; all this in the face of an enemy fighting desperately on the defensive.

When the campaign on the Isonzo closed last November the town of Gorizia and 43,000 Austrians had been captured, and the Italian front, from Plezza on the north, just over the frontier, skirted the Monte Nero heights of the Julian Alps to the bridgehead of Tolmino, (Monte Cucco,) swung along the same range east of Gorizia, passed over the plain south of that city, and, crossing the Vipacco, struck across the northwest corner of the Carso plateau to the sea, two miles from Duino, the Summer home of Prince Hohenlohe, and fourteen miles northwest of Trieste.

This was the situation when the Italians on May 12 began a heavy bombardment of the Austrian positions from Tolmino to the sea, which two days later became concentrated across the Isonzo, five miles north of Gorizia, where the Austrians by their defenses on the Kuk, 611 meters high, and on the Vodice, 524 meters, still kept the Italians on the right bank of the stream. On May 13 there was also a concentration of fire on the Carso front, south from the Italian positions of Volkovniak, 343 meters, and Dosso Faiti, 432 meters, against which the Austrians later made counterattacks.

Then on Monday morning, May 14, the Italian infantry crossed the river in several detachments, deployed on the left bank, and stormed the ascent of Monte Cucco. The following day they advanced east of Gorizia and also on the Carso to the south. On the 16th they captured the wooded heights on the east bank of the Isonzo and took several small villages with more than 3,000 prisoners. The 17th found the Italians fighting their way toward the mountain crests of Vodice and Monte Santo. Heavy British artillery had been added to the Italian armament. Duino was captured that day. Perceval Gibbon, an eyewitness of part of the fighting, wrote:

"The picturesque point is Monte Santo. It is a steep cone, with slopes like the side of a roof, and on the summit straggle white buildings of a monastery long since shot to ruins. A single cypress, black and monumental, stands not far from the shattered walls of the close, clear-cut against the shell-vexed sky. About it a frenzy of shells roars and blazes. Our barrage and theirs mingle in a hell-broth of fire and smoke, through whose tempestuous fog emerges at moments that single statuesque tree, monumentally and tragically faithful to its duty of sentinel over the graves of forgotten saints. But slowly the Italian lines are crawling uphill, paying with their valorous lives for every yard of progress.

If in England anybody doubted Italy's capacity for liberal sacrifice or her intention toward victory at all costs, he is now answered."

By stubborn and sustained assaults on the Carso the Italians on May 23 finally broke through the Austro-Hungarian lines on a front of six miles from Castagnavizza to the sea, taking more than 9,000 prisoners, with the town of Jamiano and the strong heights east of Pietrarossa and Bagni. The next day enlarged this success, and on the 25th the Italians took the heights between Flondar and Medeazza and a strong network of trenches extending from the mouth of the Timavo River to a point east of Jamiano.

On May 27 General Cadorna's forces smashed through the Austro-Hungarian positions between Jamiano and the Gulf of Trieste, passing the Monfalcone-Duino Railway northeast of San Giovanni and establishing themselves within a few hundred yards of Medeazza. North of Plava they carried the heights at the head of the Palliova Valley, thus joining their Monte Cucco lines with those of Hill 363. This day's work brought the Italians within eleven miles of Trieste. The next day these results were consolidated by crossing the Timavo estuary and occupying the village of San Giovanni. In the northern section the Austrians were hunted out of their subterranean chambers and many prisoners added to the total, which, by this time, amounted to about 25,000.

The Austrian losses in killed, wounded, and missing between May 14 and 29 were estimated at 85,000, and included five Generals and forty high officers. A hundred cannon were taken or destroyed. Perceval Gibbon, writing on the 29th, described the scene on the Carso:

"Everywhere there is evidence of the ghastly Austrian losses. There are whole areas of ground over which the fight stamped its way southeast of Jamiano and Hudilog and along the battleground parallel with Castagnavizza Road which are littered with bodies clad in that dull gray which is Austria's fighting color. There, for the first time during this offensive, one sees what was so common on the Somme steel helmets of the enemy lying about, many smashed or drilled by bullets."

Two days later the same correspondent added a curious bit of authenticated history:

"The Italians have just completed examination of two railway tunnels upon the line to Trieste, one 200 yards long, the other slightly less. Both had been turned into shelters for troops and very completely equipped. The roofs are pierced with long ventilating shafts, and water mains have been carried in. There is a mass of arms and ammunition here, and numbers of machine guns.

"It is here that they discovered what was never certainly known upon this front, though frequently rumored, namely, machine gunners chained and padlocked to their guns. I understand they have been officially photographed. Each man has a light steel chain of twisted links, like a dog chain, shackled around one ankle and fastened to the tripod of the gun, and a similar chain padlocked around his waist and linked up to the barrel. These prisoners state that the object is to prevent them leaving the gun in Italian hands when falling back before an attack. Another explanation is suggested by the fact that the chief forces on this southern edge of the Carso consist of Rumanians."

With the beginning of June the Italian offensive abated and the Austro-Hungarians began a series of heavy counterattacks, in which the daring Honveds did some terrific fighting and took many prisoners Vienna claimed 27,000.

The net result of the month's fighting, however, is a considerable gain for the Italian forces.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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