Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance II

The Italian third line between Flitsch and Tolmein ran along one of these ridges, called Krasji. One of the crags was occupied by an antiaircraft battery under Lieutenant Carlo Emilio Gadda, 5th Regiment of Alpini. No more eccentric character fought on the front. Later in life, he became modern Italy’s most original writer of fiction, the author of labyrinthine (and virtually untranslatable) novels that manage to be confessional and evasive, playful and melancholy, learned and rawly emotional all at once. His work weaves rich patterns of neurotic digression; the narrative escapes from a compelling, intolerable memory or emotion by fastening onto some unrelated motif which meanders helplessly back toward the source of pain, obliging the next brilliant deviation.

Born in Milan in 1893, Gadda broke off his studies in engineering to volunteer in 1915. He was an unhappy son of the repressed middle class, one of many in his generation for whom the war meant escape from claustrophobic homes, protective mothers, dull prospects and the general powerlessness of young men in a world ruled by grey beards and wing-collars. Idealistic, upright and naïve, distracted ‘to the point of cretinism’ as he said of himself, Gadda kept his real views on the war hidden from fellow officers and his men. For he was privately scathing about incompetent commanders, politicians and ‘that stuttering idiot of a King’. Nor was he sentimental about the other ranks; their low cunning (furberia) and lack of discipline would, he feared, lead the country to fail its first great test since unification. Yet he loved the comradeship and heroism of war, and dreaded returning to the muddles of civilian life. By October 1917, he had seen action in the Alps and on the Carso.1 He was perching on a crag above the Isonzo in October 1917 because he wanted to be there; he had let another officer take the spell of leave to which he was entitled.

Looking north, towards the enemy, Gadda would have seen the Italian first line on the opposite ridge, roughly two kilometres away. The second line was a thousand metres below, on the valley floor. On the map, it all looked convincing enough. In fact, the lines were extremely vulnerable. Word came down the wire from sector HQ at 02:00 on 23 October that enemy artillery fire would commence at once, beginning with gas shells. It did not happen; the sector stayed quiet all day, which Gadda and his 30 men – who had only recently arrived on their crag – spent in strengthening positions along the eastern ridge, leading to Krn. The weather had been bad for days, and that night the temperature dropped below zero.

They are awoken at 02:00 on the 24th by the ‘very violent’ bombardment of Flitsch, four or five kilometres north. Dawn breaks in thick fog and sleet, and is followed by enemy fire of pinpoint accuracy. Gadda realises that the Austrians want to break the telephone wire linking the batteries along the ridge. They soon succeed. The fog partly disperses, though it still shrouds the first and second lines. The men peer into it. No sounds reach them. Gadda interprets the eerie silence as proof that the Genoa Brigade, in front of them, is putting up a poor show. He worries about hitting his own forward lines if he opens fire in the fog. Several nerve-straining hours later, they hear machine guns further along their ridge towards Flitsch and glimpse men a few hundred metres away: either the Italians retreating or the Austrians giving chase.

Around 15:00, the small-arms fire is drowned out by massive detonations from the Isonzo valley, at their backs. This fills the men with dread. (The Italians are blowing up the munitions dumps and bridge at Caporetto before withdrawing.) Then silence settles again. (They do not know it, but their divisional commander has just ordered all the troops in their sector to fall back. Too late! The only bridges over the Isonzo have been blown or captured.) That night, the men lie down beside their machine guns, expecting the enemy to storm the ridge at every moment.

Further south, around Tolmein, zero hour on the 24th loosed an attack with several prongs. The main thrust was directed against high ground west of the Isonzo. Two German divisions and an Austrian division radiated out of the bridgehead and over the river, striking up the steep flanks and spurs that lead to the high ridges. Again the initial bombardment was highly effective, smashing the Italian cordon around the bridgehead. By nightfall, despite stiff resistance at some points, the attackers had captured the summits that Krafft identified as keys to Italian control.

North of Tolmein and east of the Isonzo, an Austrian division overran the fragile lines below the summit of Mount Mrzli, which the Italians had tried so hard to capture since 1915. With Badoglio’s artillery standing silent, the Italians were rolled back towards the valley bottom, where six German battalions advanced on both sides of the river, meeting little resistance. By noon, the rain had turned to sleet and the Germans occupied Kamno, a hamlet halfway to Caporetto.

Around midday, between Kamno and Caporetto, the Germans clashed with a platoon of the 14th Regiment, 4th Bersaglieri Brigade. One of the Italians involved in that firefight, Delfino Borroni, is the last Italian veteran of the Twelfth Battle, still alive at this time of writing. His regiment reached Cividale on the 22nd and marched through the rainy night to the second line. They got to Livek, overlooking the Isonzo, very early on the 24th. Wet and hungry, the men found a store of chestnuts in one of the buildings and roasted them over a fire. Corporal Borroni (b. 1898) gorged himself, and had to run outside at the double. As he crouched in the bushes, trousers round his knees, the commanding officer called his platoon to fall in. ‘Fix bayonets, boys, we’re going down!’ They crept towards the valley bottom in the darkness and waited for several hours, wondering what was going on. Eventually the Germans loom out of the mist. In Borroni’s memory, they are a grey swarm, a cloud. With the advantage of surprise, the Italians take them all prisoner: a detachment of some 80 men. The next German unit arrives at noon with machine guns and forces the Italians back up the hill to Livek.

At 12:15, as Borroni and his men are ducking the machine-gun fire near Caporetto, Cadorna is still asking how many guns the Second Army can spare for the Third Army, to parry the expected thrust on the Carso.

The enemy reaches the edge of Caporetto at 13:55. A few Italian officers try to stem the flood of troops retreating through the town. Those with rifles are pulled out of the crowd; the rest are allowed to go on their way, so as not to clog up the streets. When the men see this, they start throwing away their rifles. They look as if they hate the war more than the enemy. At 15:30, the retreating Italians blow the bridge over the Isonzo. Caporetto is captured half an hour later, along with 2,000 Italian prisoners. When German bugles sound in the main square, the Slovene citizens pour onto the street ‘to welcome their German liberators’     

The right flank of the force that attacked westwards out of Tolmein at 08:00 was formed by the Alpine Corps, a specialist mountain unit of division size, comprising Bavarian regiments and the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. The WMB included nine companies, staffed and equipped to operate autonomously.

During this tumultuous day, the Supreme Command receives essential information after hours of delay or not at all. By late morning, word reaches Udine through Capello’s headquarters that the enemy has attacked out of Tolmein. During the afternoon, dribs of news indicate that the Isonzo valley has been occupied and the hills west of Tolmein are falling like dominoes. Along the front, telephone lines go dead or are answered by guttural voices. Staff officers are in denial, and corps commanders start to trade blame. Capello orders his reserves to the front, unaware that any fresh forces will arrive too late to make a difference. (The speed of the enemy advance is still unimaginable.) Several divisions collapse. In some places, the reserves push their way to the line against a current of abusive comrades. Almost nothing of this is known at the Supreme Command, where Cadorna telegraphs all Second Army units: ‘The great enemy offensive has begun.’ The Supreme Command puts its trust in the heroic spirit of all commanders, officers and men, who will know how to ‘win or die’. But the Second Army officers do not know how to win, and the men do not want to die.

In Rome, parliament debates a Socialist motion for an official inquiry into alleged secret foreign funding of pro-war newspapers in 1914 and 1915. In the words of a Socialist deputy, ‘The country has the right to know if the hands of those who are responsible for the war, who incited it and urged it on, are filthy not with blood, but with money.’ In the late afternoon, the minister of war, General Giardino, takes the floor. The chamber is packed. Instead of defending the interventionist press, however, Giardino argues against an unrelated proposal to demobilise some of the older draft classes. After reading out parts of Cadorna’s bulletin about enemy preparations for an attack, he warns that this is not the time to reduce strength. The enemy is poised to exploit dissension. ‘Let them attack,’ he perorates, ‘we are not afraid.’ The deputies thunder approval. (The next day, Corriere della Sera reports that the delirium in parliament was like the heady days of May 1915.) Back at his ministry, Giardino finds an urgent telegram from Udine: the enemy are attacking Caporetto, they have taken thousands of prisoners and huge quantities of weapons.

Around 18:00, Gatti sees Cadorna ‘serene and smiling’ amid the tumult at the Supreme Command, still half-convinced the real attack will follow on the Carso. He reviews the daily bulletin, which claims that the enemy has concentrated his forces on the front for an attack which ‘finds us strong and well prepared’ – a phrase that makes Gatti wince. The Italian guns are responding with ‘violent salvoes’.

Cadorna does not know that the batteries have been silent all day. By 22:00, the scales are falling from his eyes. The Italians have been forced back to Saga and Kolovrat. Maybe 20,000 men have been captured. It is unlikely that the line can be held. He orders Capello to prepare the withdrawal of all forces on the Bainsizza plateau. Then he retires to take a strategic decision: should the Second Army retreat? Instead of assessing the situation on its merits, he lets hope persuade him that all may not be lost. He defines three new defensive lines, west of the Isonzo. On paper they look viable; in reality, even a highly disciplined army would be challenged to build secure positions while retreating through mountains. In a separate order, he instructs Capello and the Duke of Aosta to strengthen the defences on the River Tagliamento.

By now, some 14 infantry regiments and many battalions of alpini and bersaglieri have succumbed. As one of the staff officers milling around the Supreme Command, picking up snippets of news each more appalling than the last, Gatti cannot believe what he hears. ‘Monstrous,’ he writes helplessly in his diary, ‘inconceivable’. Surely he will wake tomorrow and find it is all a dream.

The skies cleared overnight, as wind thinned the fog and low cloud. Very few telephone lines were still working. Cadorna took solace in writing to his family: ‘If things go badly now, how they’ll pounce on me. What a wonderful country this is! Let God’s will be done.’ At 07:00, he ordered a withdrawal from Mount Korada, south of Tolmein. This was a strategic position, protecting the Bainsizza line and blocking enemy access to Friuli. He still hesitated to order a general retreat to the Tagliamento; he knew how fragile the rear defences were, and feared that the Third and Fourth Armies, and the Carnia Corps, might be cut off. At 08:30 he took Gatti aside. This might look like the Austrian attack in Trentino in spring 1916, he said, but it was much more serious. ‘Napoleon himself could not do anything in these conditions.’ He blamed the soldiers. ‘My personal influence cannot reach two million men,’ he protested. ‘Not even Napoleon could do that, in his Russian campaign.’  

In the north, the Krauss Corps pressed westwards to the pass of Uccea and south to join up with the Germans at Caporetto. Italian forces east of the Isonzo were trapped, whether they knew it or not. The night passed quietly for Lieutenant Gadda and his gunners on their crag, except for occasional explosions and flares in the valley behind them. Lacking information and orders, Gadda did not know what to think or do. Yesterday’s bombardment of their ridge was heavy, but he had survived much worse on the Carso. Their munitions were almost exhausted, so they could not expect to resist for long. Or might they use the fog to trick the Austrians into thinking the ridge was strongly defended? Gadda and his men could not know it, but they were victims of a perfect application of the Riga tactics. Isolated and confused, they could be left to surrender in their own time while the enemy pressed ahead.

Around 03:00 on the 25th, a messenger brings orders to retreat across the Isonzo. Caporetto has fallen: it is in enemy hands. Gadda leads his men down the mountain an hour later, carrying all their equipment, in complete darkness. ‘My heart was broken,’ he wrote later. Italian positions on the surrounding ridges are in flames. They pass groups of men from the Genoa Brigade with no officers, and hundreds of mules abandoned or killed in yesterday’s shelling. They reach the river around 11:00 and see Italian troops, unarmed, on the far side of the river, apparently heading for Caporetto. Can it still be in Italian hands after all, or has it been recaptured? His unit of 30 has grown to a thousand or so. Enemy troops are converging towards them, they have to cross the river which runs through a steep gorge, and is in spate, five or six metres wide and very fast, barring the way. Their dream of pushing Italy’s frontier beyond ‘this cursed Isonzo’ returns to mock them.

Ranging along the bank, they find a rickety bridge of planks lashed together with telephone wire, swaying over the torrent with a metal cable as railing. It would take all day to file across. He moves upstream, hoping the enemy has not broken through further north, towards Flitsch. Soldiers coming the other way tell him the next bridge upstream has been dropped. He cannot bear to believe them, and harangues them for spreading defeatist rumours. Then he sees the blown bridge and leads his men back to the plank bridge, their only hope.

There are troops in black uniforms on the far side of the river, moving up from Caporetto. His heart leaps: ‘Look! Reinforcements!’ Then he hears machine-gun and rifle fire, and realises the appalling truth: the Germans are on both sides of the river. Some soldiers try to cross the plank bridge and are targeted by machine guns concealed across the valley. The Italians throw their rifles away and cross the planks to surrender, obeying German officers who direct the movement of men with whistles, like football referees. The heap of rifles, machine guns, cartridge clips and ammunition belts at the water’s edge rises higher. Even if they hid until nightfall, Gadda’s unit would not be able to cross ‘the terrible, insuperable Isonzo’. It would be pointless to hold out, childish even. With a heavy heart, he orders his men to put their guns beyond use. They walk the plank one by one.

The prisoners are marched to Caporetto. The Germans treat them correctly; there is no brutality. A drunken Italian soldier drops his bottle of wine at the edge of the village, staining the dust crimson. Gadda and a fellow officer manage to steal some shirts and a uniform from abandoned houses. Later, he will wish he had stuffed his pockets with biscuit from an abandoned wagon. The Germans are setting up offices, using captured Italian staff cars as well as their own to move along the valley. Groups of soldiers wander around, German and Italian, some of them drunk. Dead men and mules litter the streets. It is a fine warm afternoon. Two whores stop them and ask for introductions to the German officers. Gadda’s gallant comrade asks the girls what plans they have now. ‘Italians or Germans,’ they say, ‘it is all the same to us!’ Their carefree answer mortifies Gadda, who realises that the day’s evil has not yet been drained.

Soon he is on his way to prison camp in Austria, ‘marching from midnight to 8 a. m.: horror, extremely sleepy and exhausted … The end of hope, annihilation of interior life. Extreme anguish for the fatherland.’ Capture is, above all, shameful. Over the next year, as he slowly starves, disgrace feeds on him. Reflecting endlessly on the defeat, he blames it on the Italian generals and their lack of foresight. Yet Gadda feels that prison is a justified punishment; the army has not risen to meet history’s challenge. Marches, battles and retreats haunt his sleep. He imagines family and friends reproaching him: ‘You let them get past … ’

During the morning of the 25th, an image of disaster emerged from the information reaching the Supreme Command: breakthroughs all along the front; morale collapsing; thousands of men making their way to the rear. The first towns west of the mountains were already threatened. Defence on the hoof was not working. Cadorna’s best if not only chance of avoiding catastrophe was to pull back the Second Army to a line far enough west to regroup before the enemy reached them. Capello advised a general retreat to the River Torre or the Tagliamento. When Cadorna disagreed, Capello took himself off to hospital in Padua. Next morning, he offered to return; Cadorna declined: he had enough on his plate without an ailing and probably sulking Capello. Where the two men saw eye to eye was in blaming many regiments for not doing their duty. Late in the afternoon, Cadorna wrote to his son: 

The men are not fighting. That’s the situation, and plainly a disaster is imminent … Do not worry about me, my conscience is wholly clean … I am very calm indeed and too proud to be affected by anything that anybody can say. I shall go and live somewhere far away and not ask anything of anyone.

By the end of the second day, the Central Powers controlled the Isonzo north of Tolmein. Mount Stol and the Kolovrat–Matajur ridge were on the point of falling. In the south, Badoglio had apparently abandoned his divisions after, or even before, they disintegrated, putting the middle Isonzo in jeopardy. The Duke of Aosta continued to prepare a retreat, moving his heavy batteries westward.

Still Cadorna procrastinated. He painted an encouraging view in the daily bulletin, claiming falsely that Saga had not fallen and that the enemy had made headway further south because Italian interdiction fire had been negated by fog. Then he telegraphed the government: ‘Losses are very heavy. Around ten regiments have surrendered without fighting. A disaster is looming, I shall resist to the last.’ Before this grim message reached Rome, the government lost a vote of confidence by 314 to 96 votes. The Socialists and anti-war Liberals had brought Boselli down. Cadorna predicted correctly that the new prime minister would be his main enemy in the cabinet, Vittorio Orlando.

Meanwhile soldiers streamed westwards, throwing away their rifles and chanting ‘The war’s over! We’re going home! Up with the Pope! Up with Russia!’ Around midnight Cadorna, Porro and the King were in a car together, returning to Udine from the front, when thousands of troops enveloped them, singing the ‘Internationale’ as they passed. Cadorna turned to his deputy: ‘Why doesn’t someone shoot them?’ Porro shrugged.

The fine weather, the enemy advance, the Italian rout, and Cadorna’s hesitancy all persisted throughout the 26th. Survivors of the Second Army were in full retreat; vast numbers of men funnelled through the few roads leading westwards, throwing away their weapons, burning whatever could not be carried, blowing up bridges and looting as they went: ‘infantry, alpini, gunners, endlessly’, as one of them remembered. ‘They move on, move on, not saying a word, with only one idea in their head: to reach the lowland, to get away from the nightmare.’ The hillsides below the roads were littered with wagons that had tumbled off the roads; ‘The horses lay still, alive or dead, hooves in the air.’

Civilians joined the stampede; the roads were clogged with carts, often drawn by oxen, piled high with chattels. The British volunteer ambulance unit watched the ‘long dejected stream’ pass along the road to Udine all day: ‘soldiers, guns, endless Red Cross ambulances, women and children, carts with household goods, and always more guns and more soldiers – all going towards the rear’. A British Red Cross volunteer saw how ‘the panic blast ran through the blocked columns – “They’re coming!”’ The command made no apparent effort to control the movement or clear the roads for guns and troops.

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