Eugene of Savoy at the Battle of Belgrade by Johann Gottfried Auerbach.

Date: 15 June-22 August 1717 Location: modern Yugoslavia

There is no doubt that the blood which is going to flow on both sides will fall like a curse upon you, your children and your children’s children until the last judgment. GRAND VIZIER SILAHDAR ALI PASHA TO EUGENE OF SAVOY, APRIL 1716

Habsburg-Ottoman relations remained relatively calm following the peace treaty of Karlowitz (1699). Both empires waged wars on other fronts. The War of the Spanish Succession and the Hungarian insurrection of Ferenc Rakoczi II tied up Vienna’s resources. The Ottomans were fighting successful wars against the Russiansand the Venetians. Prince Eugene of Savoy, Imperial Field Marshal and President of the Viennese Aulic War Council, watched Sultan Ahmed Ill’s recent conquests in the Morea (Peloponnese) and Crete with great suspicion. On Eugene’s suggestion, the Habsburgs formed a defensive alliance with Venice in 1716, leading to Istanbul’s declaration of war against Vienna.

The war of 1716-17

The 1716 campaign resulted in major Habsburg victories. The Imperial army, 70,000 strong and commanded by Eugene, met the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Damad Ali Pasha, the victor of the Morea campaign, at Petervarad (Peterwardein ), northwest of Belgrade on the right bank of the Danube. Without Tartar and Wallachian auxiliaries, even the paper strength of the regular Ottoman forces was hardly more than 70,000: 41,000 janissaries and 30,000 sipahis (Turkish cavalry). The battle of Petervarad (5 August 1716) ended with the defeat of the Ottoman troops with some 6,000 dead, including the Grand Vizier. Despite severe Imperial losses of 4,500 dead and wounded, Eugene decided to besiege Ternesvar, the centre of an Ottoman province since 1552 and a strong Ottoman fortress guarded by 12,000 men. Ternesvar’s defenders resisted the siege for 43 days, but eventually gave up the fortress on 16 October. During the winter, Eugene made preparations for next year’s campaign, the main objective being to recapture Belgrade, the strongest Ottoman military base that controlled the main invasion route against Habsburg Hungary.

The battle of Belgrade

On 15 June 1717, using pontoon bridges, the Imperial army under Prince Eugene crossed the Danube at Pancsova (Parceva), east of Belgrade. By 18 June Belgrade was surrounded and the Imperialists were busy building their protective entrenchments against the fortress (countervalation) and the approaching relief army (circumvallation). Eugene’s army had a paper strength of 100,000 men, over 100 field guns and a strong siege artillery train. Defended by the Danube from the north and the Sava from the west, Belgrade was guarded by 30,000 men and 600 cannons under San Mustafa Pasha. When the Ottoman relief army under Grand Vizier Haci Halil Pasha arrived on 27 July, Belgrade had been seriously destroyed by the Habsburg bombardment.

The paper strength of the Ottoman forces was well above 100,000 men. However, contemporaries noticed that regular troops composed only ‘a small proportion of their whole body. The rest… are a mob… ignorant of all discipline, and are neither armed nor trained sufficiently well to make a stand against a regular force.’ Knowing the weakness of his forces, the Grand Vizier chose not to engage Eugene’s army in an open battle. Instead, he kept up a deadly artillery fire on the Imperialists from his elevated position to the east of the city, against which the circumvallation gave little protection. The Imperialists were caught between the defenders’ and the Ottoman field army’s artillery fire. Eugene had to act quickly if he was to save his army, which was suffering not only from enemy fire but also from dysentery.

Hoping that the besieged would not be able to fight for some days after the large explosion on 14 August, Eugene decided to attack the Ottoman army on 16 August. While he left 10,000 men in the trenches facing the fortress, Eugene unleashed his remaining forces in the early morning when the thick fog cleared that had concealed the Imperialists’ movements. Thanks to the courageous Bavarians and at the expense of over 5,000 dead, the Imperialists destroyed the Ottoman army, capturing all 150 pieces of the Ottoman artillery and the Grand Vizier’s camp. The Ottomans, who lost perhaps as many as 10,000 men, retreated towards Niş. A day after the battle the defenders of Belgrade, who – blinded by Windy weather conditions – had remained passive during the battle, surrendered. On 22 August, Eugene and his men moved into the city.

The Austrians won through the boldness of his assault and the superb discipline of their infantry, which advanced with colors flying and drums beating despite Ottoman artillery fire. Holding their fire until they were but a short distance from the Ottoman lines, the Austrians launched a bayonet charge that broke up the Janissaries and produced victory. Ottoman casualties were estimated at 20,000 men, while the Austrians suffered only 2,000 casualties. Five days later, on August 21, Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians.

As their main army retreated south, their other force abandoned the siege of Corfu, releasing pressure on the Venetians. Realizing it was now too late to attack Belgrade, Eugene turned northeast to besiege Timisoara, capital of the Banat and last Turkish enclave north of the Danube. Though an attempt to storm the place on Charles’s birthday (1 October) failed, the garrison surrendered two weeks later after a relief force disintegrated en route through desertion. By the end of the year, the imperialists had overrun most of Wallachia west of the river Olt (Aluta)-the so-called Olteria or Little Wallachia.

Though a successful campaign, it was now obvious that the Austrians had seriously underestimated Ottoman strength, but it was decided to continue the war the following year to consolidate the gains. The arrival of Bavarian and other reinforcements brought Eugene’s army up to 100,000, strong enough to attempt the siege of Belgrade, and, assisted by the Danube Flotilla, the city was completely cut off and subjected to a regular siege. However, Eugene was running out of supplies as an Ottoman relief force approached in August. A lucky shot detonated the city’s largest magazine on the 14th, killing 3,000 of the defenders. Realizing that a sortie was now unlikely, Eugene sallied forth from his trenches with 60,000 men to surprise the Turks in the early morning mist. Fortified by drink and keeping close together, the imperialists poured devastating musketry into the disordered Turkish ranks, routing them and sealing the garrison’s fate. With the fall of Belgrade on 18 August, the Turkish position in Northern Serbia collapsed and the Habsburg frontier advanced south of the Danube to reach the fullest extent achieved during the Great Turkish War.

Charles had no intention of going any further. The Austrians were already beginning to doubt the wisdom of pushing deeper into the Balkan wastelands, and it was clear the Turks desired peace. This was very welcome given that Rakoczi had just arrived in Edirne, raising the spectre of renewed trouble in Hungary. Meanwhile the Turks were suspected of trying to reach a rapprochement with the tsar, and Spain had launched its attempt to recover its lost Italian possessions. Following long negotiations with Anglo-Dutch mediation, peace was concluded at Passarowitz (Pozarevac) on 27 July 1717, confirming Austria’s recent gains. It was not a moment too soon. Austrian units were already departing for Italy, while five days later, the emperor concluded the Quadruple Alliance with France, Britain and the Dutch, thus committing himself to the war with Spain.

The short successful war considerably extended Habsburg territory, indicating that Austria was now a major European power and raising the emperor’s prestige in the Reich. Prince Eugene was a genuine folk hero, and even other generals became household names.

The Battle of Belgrade was a watershed. After the Battle of Belgrade they were firmly on the defensive, no longer expanding in Europe but merely seeking to retain conquered territory.

The Habsburg -Ottoman war of 1716-17 was the briefest of the military conflicts between the two empires. With the conquest of Belgrade and the Ternesvar region, Prince Eugene of Savoy crowned his career as the most successful military leader of his time. The following peace treaty of Passarowitz (1718) restored the ‘natural’ Danube borderline between the two empires.

Galicia 1914 Part I

The German VIII Army in East Prussia had won, at least partly because sense had been imposed on it. The army was small enough to be controlled. The invasion-routes, the lines of retreat, and the possible areas of riposte had been clearly marked-out; there was a railway-system that allowed transport at least of François’s corps; and in any case there were seven other armies in the west to pick up the pieces if things went wrong. The Austro-Hungarian army in Galicia did not have these advantages. The theatre of operations was the sprawling, flat land of southern Poland, with neither railway-lines nor roads prominent—hundreds of featureless miles, dominated either by dust or by mud. Neither Russians nor Austrians had their plans made for them.

On the Austrian side, men felt—characteristically—that something must be done, but they did not perceive quite what might be done. They knew that Austria-Hungary must do something to take the load from Germany’s shoulders when war broke out. The Austro-Hungarian General Staff agreed that, in the event of two-front war, Germany’s most sensible course would be to concentrate against France in the first round; consequently, Austria-Hungary would have to undertake a large part of the work in the east, until German troops could come from France. There were plans for an offensive against Russia, in which the German VIII Army might co-operate. Two factors spoke for this offensive: first, the exposed nature of the Russian position in Poland, which jutted out between the two Central Powers, and where large numbers of Russian troops might be surrounded, and second, the calculation that Russian mobilisation would be slow, slow enough, in the first period, to offset any numerical inferiority of the Central Powers in the longer term. Formally, the Austro-Hungarian plan before 1914 was therefore for a full-scale offensive against Russia; formally, too, there was an undertaking on the Germans’ part that VIII Army would, if possible, contribute a parallel offensive from East Prussia. The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, dreamt of expelling the Russians from Poland, and was confident enough, when war broke out, to appoint an Austro-Hungarian governor of Warsaw.

But in Vienna there was always a large gap—perhaps larger than anywhere else—between ideals and reality. The Austro-Hungary army was not strong enough for the rôle cast for it by Conrad. It had steadily declined in relative weight. In the 1880s, Austro-Hungarian planners had supposed that their thirty-two infantry divisions would have to encounter twenty-nine Russian ones. The proportions then changed, and by 1914 the Austro-Hungarians could foresee that about fifty Russian divisions would be mustered against their own forty. The Habsburg Monarchy could not stand the strain of an arms-race; more and more, it became a system of institutionalised escapism, and the chief benefit that it conferred on its subjects was to exempt them from reality. Universal military liability was never seriously asserted: the Hungarians would not give money for it, the military authorities themselves shrank from its consequences, and the people very often expressed their view of it by the simplest method—running away, as Hitler did. Formally, universal conscription was introduced in1868, but money and will were so far lacking that only about one in five of the liable young men ever reached the colours, the rest being exempted under one heading or other, even sometimes by lot-drawing. Even that fifth frequently did not have to serve the full three years prescribed by law, for many were ‘sent on permanent leave’ after two years. The army became so limited in size that many units were amalgamated—resulting in the curious, though not unique, twist that the Austro-Hungarian field army of 1914 contained fewer infantry battalions than the army that had been defeated in 1866, despite a population-increase, since then, of nearly twenty millions. After 1906, there were attempts at reform. But they simply broke into the never-never world of Habsburg politics: Hungarian obstruction, threats of abdication, followed more prosaically by jugglings of half-percentages and promises of petty payments to nationalist blackmailers, until a few coppers rattled through the machine to reward the soldiers for trying. As war approached, the Austro-Hungarian army was less and less capable of sustaining it.

The chief problem was that Austria-Hungary, too, would have to face a two-front war, with means even less adequate than Germany’s. Her forty-eight infantry divisions must take on not only the fifty that Russia could send against them, but also the eleven infantry divisions of the Serbian army. The Serbian problem was difficult to deal with. If Austria-Hungary tried to defeat Serbia in the first period of the war, she would have to assemble some twenty divisions, to be occupied no doubt for a month. This would leave less than thirty for the Russian front—not enough to take advantage even of the very first period of the war, when Russian mobilisation had not yet told to its full extent. It might be better to leave a minimal defensive force against Serbia, and concentrate the rest against Russia, and this, formally, was the Austro-Hungarian plan for war: seven divisions against Serbia, the rest for Russia. In the early period of war, these latter would have superiority—enough at any rate to hold the Russians off while Germany defeated the French. Moltke approved of these plans, and promised support from East Prussia.

These plans took account of everything, except the facts. War was not at all likely to begin with a joint Russo-Serbian declaration of war. On the contrary, it was much more likely that Austria-Hungary would first go to war with Serbia, and that Russia would intervene only later on Serbia’s side. If it came to an Austro-Serbian war, then a substantial part of the Austro-Hungarian army would have to go south—about twenty divisions were foreseen—while the rest of the army was not mobilised. If Russia then came into the war, the rest of the army would indeed be mobilised, but, with less than thirty divisions, it would not suffice for the great offensive that Conrad had promised Moltke. Troops would have to be brought back from Serbia. But two things counted against this: first, the relative poverty of the railway-links between south and north-east, second the inadvisability of suspending a campaign against Serbia in the middle. Before 1914, men did not make up their minds as to how this case—which Conrad none the less described to Moltke as ‘the most difficult, but also the most probable’—might be dealt with. Formally, there was an undertaking that all would be subordinated to the offensive against Russia, but within the General Staff there were serious misgivings. It might look, at the least, peculiar for a Great Power to begin a European war with an extra-tour in the Balkans; but maybe the discrepancy between Austrian means and Austrian pretensions left little choice. Certainly, by the spring of 1914, Conrad was clearly a prey to doubt. Despite his protestations to the Germans, his staff was busied with means by which the forces against Serbia could be strengthened at the expense of those against Russia; and in March, Conrad sketched a deployment-plan for the troops in Galicia that could only mean almost complete abandonment of any schemes for offensive action there. Instead of drawing the troops up in the north-eastern part of Galicia, close to the border with Russia, he suggested unloading them far to the south, on the rivers San and Dniester. This occurred in response to alarms (well-founded) as to the speed of Russian mobilisation and the size of the Russian forces. But characteristically Conrad shrank from formal alteration of the plan, such that the great offensive against Russia was still its main object. Before 1914, the Austro-Hungarian General Staff had thus, in effect, failed to decide which of the two fronts would be treated as more important. This was to happen as circumstances dictated.

Guaranteeing this flexibility on the ground was difficult, for the railway-technicians had to work out ways by which parts of the army could be treated separately, once mobilisation began. The greater part of the army (‘A-Staffel’) would obviously have to be reserved for the Russian front, whether or no war broke out with Russia, and a lesser part, Minimalgruppe Balkan, would have to be reserved for Serbia, whether for offensive or defensive purposes. The third part of the army (the twelve divisions of ‘B-Staffel’) would be directed against Serbia or Russia as circumstances dictated. If Serbia alone went to war, it would go south; if Russia and Serbia jointly intervened, it would probably go north-east, but even for this case Conrad seems to have wanted flexibility. The railway-planners were told to work out a method by which the mobilisation of these various groups could proceed separately. They found an obvious one: the troops of ‘A-Staffel’ should be sent first to Galicia, those of ‘B-Staffel’ only afterwards, so that people would have a chance to make up their minds what was to be done with them. The result was a serious delay in the mobilisation-programme against Russia. Although good railways stood at the disposal of the troops of ‘B-Staffel’, they would not, even at the best of times, be able to reach Galicia until the period between the 21st and 25th days of mobilisation, whereas the others would be there a week before. Still, this method seemed to make it possible for ‘B-Staffel’ to make an independent movement, if this appeared to be necessary, without disrupting the mobilisation against Russia or Serbia; and the railway-planners were pleased with their performance. ‘B-Staffel’ could either go south against Serbia, or be pulled out of a Serbian campaign, or be sent direct to Galicia, and the necessary flexibility had thus been attained.

When war began there was a great muddle on the Austro-Hungarian side; and it was not much cleared up by the explanations that were offered, which were, first, that there had been no muddle at all and then that it was the Germans’ fault. On 25th July the Serbians rejected the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, and Austria-Hungary mobilised half of her army, declaring war on 28th. The seven corps of ‘B-Staffel’ and the Balkan group were to move south; a further one was also mobilised, although it was part of the Galician group, and the railway-planners were told to send it to the Balkans, although Conrad told everyone that it had been mobilised only as protection against Italy, or perhaps revolt in Bohemia. According to Conrad, the bulk of this force was due to be turned against Russia if she intervened. But he could hardly divert troops from the Serbian theatre merely because Russia threatened to intervene; and, according to him, it was not until the very end of the month that Russia’s intention of intervening became clear. Late in the evening of 31st July, accordingly, Conrad tried—by his own account—to turn the bulk of his southern forces against Russia. But he was told by his chief railway-expert, Straub, that this could not be done. So many troop-transports had already left for the Serbian theatre that to turn them about would cause chaos, in the middle of mobilisation against Russia. There was nothing for it but to have these troops (by now, more or less identical with II Army) continue their journey to Serbia. They could de-train there, and be transported back to the north-east, for their Russian campaign, once the lines there had been cleared, i.e. after completion of the mobilisation of the rest of the army against Russia. Conrad had, in other words, lost his chance to send ‘B-Staffel’ direct to Galicia because the Germans had failed to extract ‘clarity’ about the attitude of Russia before these troops had begun their journey south.

Conrad goes on to state that, even with this Balkan trip, the troops of II Army arrived hardly a moment later in Galicia than they would have done had they gone there directly; indeed, this was the railway-experts’ reason for allowing the Army to make its peregrinations in the first place. This was, odd as it may appear, true enough. According to the mobilisation-programme, the troops of ‘B-Staffel’ were supposed to follow those of ‘A-Staffel’ to Galicia. These latter were mobilised only in response to Russian mobilisation, on 31st July, and, if the railway-programme were adhered to, they were due to arrive in Galicia between the 15th and 20th days, the ‘B-Staffel’ troops only in the course of the next four or five days. The ‘B-Staffel’ troops would therefore have to wait in any event before going to Galicia, and it was, from the railwaymen’s viewpoint, more or Jess unimportant whether they spent their waiting-time in barracks or in trains and tents on the Serbian border. Had it not been for activities on the part of the local Balkan commander, Potiorek, most of ‘B-Staffel’ would in fact have arrived in Galicia on schedule, though only because that schedule was in any case preposterously long.

However, Conrad’s own explanation was a dangerously misleading one, for it did not reveal the real causes of the initial disaster that Austria-Hungary met. There was, in the first place, something unreal in Conrad’s constant asseveration that he did not know what Russia’s attitude would be, at least until 31st July. On the contrary, Russia made her attitude plain enough from the beginning. Even before the ultimatum had been presented, she warned that she could not be indifferent to the fate of Serbia. On 25th July, the Council of Ministers instructed the war minister to proceed with ‘the period preparatory to war’, and over the next few days a stream of reports from consuls and businessmen reached Vienna to the effect that substantial troop-movements were taking place within Russia. On 28th July the Russians announced that they would mobilise partially against Austria-Hungary; there was talk of general mobilisation a day later; and on 29th July Conrad himself drafted a document, for presentation to the Emperor Franz Joseph, to the effect that European war was imminent. He himself says in his memoirs that ‘31st July brought clarity’ to Russia’s attitude—not, in other words, 31st July, on which day Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian general mobilisation was formally an announced to the world. Russia’s attitude was really quite clear all along, and Krobatin, the Austro-Hungarian war minister, announced as much when he remarked to the Council of Ministers later on that ‘no-one was ever really under any illusion as to the likelihood of Russian intervention’. Whether Conrad thought it likely or not, he behaved at least fool-hardily in arranging for the transport of ‘B-Staffel’ against Serbia until 31st July.

The documents make plain what Conrad and his apologists concealed: that Conrad had in effect decided to pursue his war with Serbia despite the obviousness of Russian intervention; and this had much more to do with the initial disaster than any difficulties with the railways. The diary of his chief railway-expert, Straub, makes plain what happened. On 30th July, Conrad told him that, with Russian intervention round the corner, he would have to mobilise the rest of the army, ‘A-Staffel’, to go to Galicia. According to the plan, ‘B-Staffel’ should also go to Galicia to meet Russian intervention. But Conrad said he wanted it to go on to Serbia, and asked Straub if he could arrange for simultaneous movement of ‘A-Staffel’ to Galicia and of ‘B-Staffel’ to Serbia. Straub said that this would be extraordinarily difficult, for ‘none of the prepared variants covered this new case’. Success could not be guaranteed, but he would do his best. However, to enable him to do his best, he would have to have a few days’ grace before the mobilisation of ‘A-Staffel’ began. Mobilisation against Russia was proclaimed on 31st July. But, to give Straub his few days’ grace, ‘the first day of mobilisation’ was named as 4th August. What this meant in practice was that not a man would have to report to the colours before 5th August, since the first day of mobilisation was given to the men to arrange their own affairs.4 A grotesque situation resulted. Many men were full of patriotic zeal, and reported at once to their units, instead of waiting until 5th August. They were told to go away again—not the last dampener to patriotic emotion that Austrian soldiers were to receive. Meanwhile, Straub used his few days’ grace to develop a new programme, permitting separate despatch of ‘A-Staffel’ and ‘B-Staffel’. Conrad held to this programme although news built up throughout 30th and 31st July of an impending European war, and he did not learn until late in the evening of 31st July that, independent of his will, technical railway factors had now intervened to make any further change impossible. While still in the belief that the programme could be changed, and while knowing all of the factors that could make change desirable (Russian and German mobilisation having been proclaimed at noon) Conrad persisted in sending orders to the units of ‘B-Staffel that their mobilisation was to go on as it had been begun, and added for the benefit of II Army Command in Budapest that ‘for all troops mobilised before 28th July the instructions of the war ministry and the General Staff will, despite the intervention of Russia, remain in force’. In other words, the despatch of II Army against Serbia had nothing very much to do with railway-necessities; indeed, the railwaymen had protested against it. It was Conrad’s own strategy that dictated its course.

In the early evening of 31st July Conrad seems to have had second thoughts. On the face of things, it was absurd for Austria-Hungary to begin European war by launching half of her army against an insignificant Balkan state. Moltke, when he heard of the plan, protested energetically. A series of messages came from Berlin—Moltke, several times; Bethmann Hollweg; Jagow; and finally the German Kaiser himself, in a telegram to Franz Joseph, saying ‘in this gigantic struggle it is vital for Austria not to split her forces by going against Serbia’. Within the Monarchy, there were also alarms. Tisza, the powerful Prime Minister of Hungary, had been told on 28th July by his representative in Vienna what Conrad’s plan was: to ignore Russia and strike down Serbia ‘with rapid blows’. He saw through the technical obfuscation with which Conrad decked out his plan, and protested that, if too few troops were placed against Russia, there could be a defeat that would attract a Romanian declaration of war. He tried to persuade Conrad to send another two corps against Russia. These pressures brought Conrad round. After receiving the text of the Kaiser’s telegram, he telephoned Straub, summoned him back to the office, and asked him how he would react, ‘if the prevailing Balkan mobilisation were to be transformed into a Russian one’, in other words, if ‘B-Staffel’ were to go after all to Galicia.

Straub was aghast. He had been told the day before to improvise a plan, despite his own protests, by which precisely this was not to happen. The orders had been sent out; any countermanding of them would swamp the telegraph-lines, and in any case the troops had begun to move against Serbia—by the late evening of 31st July, 132 troop-trains. To stop this movement now, Straub said, would mean ‘a mess… chaos on the railway-lines for which I can take no responsibility’. There was no way of improvising yet again movement, direct, of the transported parts of II Army to Galicia, as some officers suggested. Of course, the trains that had left could simply be directed back to their depots. But this was not done for revealing reasons—‘We feared moral, political and disciplinary damage; the men’s confidence in their leaders professional competence would have suffered’. Indeed it would, if troop-trains that had left, Prague, Leitmeritz, Budapest a few days before, to flowers and bands, steamed back again in the middle of mobilisation. The satirical journals of Prague and Budapest would have had a field-day; the old saying, ‘L’Autriche est toujours en retard d’une armée, d’une année et d’une idée’ being once more triumphantly borne out. But in any case, as Straub and his assistants pointed out, even if this were done it would not advance by a minute the time of II Army’s arrival in Galicia. The mobilisation-schedules had been so arranged that the corps of II Army would, as ‘echelon B’, take the railways to Galicia only after all the other corps had gone to the Russian front. Even if the trains were now taken back, these troops would simply have to kick their heels in the depots of Prague and Budapest. It would simplify the railwaymen’s problem, they said, if these heels were kicked on the Danube instead. On 1st August Conrad therefore decreed that II Army, with a few omissions, should go first to the Balkans, wait there for ten days, and start back to Galicia when ‘A-Staffel’ had already finished its deployment to the north-east—i.e. around 18th August. As a consolation, the corps might be used ‘for demonstrative purposes’ in the south against the Serbians, over the river. Embarrassment was such that the Balkan commander, Potiorek, was told nothing of all this until 6th August. With justice, he recorded: ‘How the supreme command could arrive at such a radical change in its decisions is a mystery to me. It reveals much as to the functioning of the machine.’

Galicia 1914 Part II

Conrad hints, in his memoirs—and other writers have gone further—that the railway-technicians behaved incompetently. This was unfair: the railway-technicians had simply behaved according to a plan that Conrad had prescribed for them. II Army did, in fact arrive in Galicia on schedule—about the 24th day of mobilisation—although with a few exceptions that had nothing to do with the technicians. On the other hand, the technicians failed in so far as they did not respond to the crisis with any imagination. A more rapid despatch of II Army could, probably, have been attained. But the technicians behaved with incurable routine-mindedness, impenetrable smugness. They exaggerated the difficulties of their task—made out, for instance, that they had over 11,000 transports to cater for, where the true figure for the Russian front was less than 2,000, the technicians having increased it by including return of empty trains from Galicia and small-scale suburban movements in Lwów, Cracow and elsewhere. In the same way, they demanded great reserves of rolling-stock which were never used—suspending the country’s commercial life for three or four weeks just the same. They acted according to out-of-date ideas of what the railways could do. No military train had more than fifty carriages, the lines’ capacity being supposedly capable of only this. In practice, the great Nordbahn from Vienna to the north and Cracow usually took a hundred-waggon trains. The military failed to use with any intensity the line between Budapest and Przemyśl, supposing it to be a poor, mountain railway, not a double-tracked line capable of taking quite fast and heavy trains on most sections. On the contrary, the technicians behaved as if the railways of the Monarchy were primitive affairs, mismanaged by civilians who needed a dose of military efficiency. They behaved with a crazy caution that ruled out improvisation. In order to preserve ‘a uniform pattern’ in the movement of mobilisation-trains, all of these were told to go at ‘maximum parallel graphic’—meaning the maximum speed of the slowest train on the worst line, with only minor variations. The average speed of Austro-Hungarian mobilisation-trains was therefore less than that of a bicycle. Moreover, troop-trains were arbitrarily halted for six hours every day for ‘feeding-pauses’, despite their having field-kitchens with them in the trains. Since stations with the necessary equipment did not regularly occur on the lines, this meant that troops would travel for hours without being fed, then to be given two square meals, more or less in succession, in the middle of the night. Journeys lasted for an astonishing time. III Army command, for instance, left Bratislava at 6 a.m. on 5th August, and arrived in Sambor at the same hour on 10th August—a performance of which a healthy walker would have been capable. IV Army Command took forty hours travelling between Vienna and the San—three times as long as usual. Yet all this was maintained with a contempt for civilians and a stupefying assertion of the superior virtues of the military. The railway-technicians often talked of their great clockwork; but it was a machine that owed something to the cuckoo.

Just the same, the blame for difficulties in mobilisation lies mainly with Conrad. He had sanctioned the original plan, by which the corps of II Army were scheduled to arrive in Galicia only by the 24th day of mobilisation. It was he, also, who sanctioned the change of plan, by which these corps were told to go south. The most important effect of this was not the delay in going north again; it was rather that, to let the movement to the south go on, the first day of the general mobilisation, of the rest of the army corps, against Russia, had been postponed to 4th August. This meant that the 24th day of mobilisation, on which the corps of II Army were supposed to arrive in Galicia, would not be until 28th August—indeed, before 11th August there seems to have been astonishingly little movement at all on the lines to Galicia. The main forces for Galicia would not be able to collect before the 15th–19th days of mobilisation—now, between 19th and 23rd August. IV Army, for instance, had collected fifty-seven battalions and thirty-nine batteries on 13th August, and its full force—120 battalions and sixty-three batteries—only by 23rd August. This was a peculiar method of exploiting the supposedly slow mobilisation of the Russian army. Besides, the troops of II Army were not able, after all, to leave entirely as scheduled. The Balkan commander, Potiorek, had decided to attack Serbia, and began—with Conrad’s support—in mid-August. The offensive came across difficult country in the western part of Serbia; the Austrians were inexperienced, out-numbered; the Serbians knew the country well and had a row of victories behind them. The Austrians advanced confidently, regarding the Serbs much as the British regarded the Turks later on, as upstart monkeys who needed to be taught a lesson in western warfare. Putnik, the Serbian commander, behaved sensibly—letting the Austrians advance some way until they were beset by supply problems, then attacking their flank, and driving them back to the border. Potiorek turned to II Army, the divisions of which were strung out along the rivers to the north. Conrad gave him one of its corps—8.—and allowed a second—4.—to be dragged into the Balkan action. In this way, only two of II Army’s corps left as intended for Galicia, beginning on 18th August; one corps did not go at all; and the other, 4., left only beginning on 24th August, ran into difficulties on the Hungarian railways, and reached Galicia only in the first week of September.

Only two of II Army’s corps arrived, even by 28th August, in Galicia. But there were further delays in the assembly of the other three armies. Conrad had decreed that their troops should be unloaded at stations on the San and Dniester—clearly intending á purely defensive action, while the other armies defeated Serbia. On 31st July, he returned to his old plan, of attacking from Galicia. But the unloading-points could not, now, be altered. The original unloading-points for IV Army had been Lwów, Gliniany and other stations quite close to the Russian border. They had been altered to become Jaroslau, Przemyśl, and stations on the river San. The army’s forces had been supposed to reach these advanced unloading-points between the 12th and 18th days of mobilisation. Instead, these days found them far to the rear. 2. Corps’s three divisions, for instance, arrived on 12th, 16th, and 20th August at Jaroslau on the San, not at Zolkiew, near Lwów; 6. Corps unloaded two divisions at Przemyśl, not Lwów, on 17th August, and another on 20th August. In the same way, the corps of III Army were unloaded at Stryj and Sambor, on the Dniester—even in some cases at Chyrów, far in the rear, and Varannó, on the Hungarian side of the Carpathians. Since Conrad had now returned to his scheme of an attack from Galicia, these troops were set to march forward, up to a hundred miles that they could quite easily have covered by rail. Far from taking advantage of Russian unreadiness, the Austrians fought the opening battles some way inside their own territory; and the full-scale engagements in Galicia did not even begin until long after decisive events were under way on the French and East Prussian fronts.

The army’s deployment did not offer much promise of success. Supply-lines functioned inefficiently: the station-master at Podborze in Austrian Silesia broke down, reversed all his signals, held up eight troop trains for several hours, and shot himself in the subsequent investigation. Austro-Hungarian infantry tended to fire at Austro-Hungarian aircraft, such that IV Army had to issue an order, several times repeated, that no aircraft should be fired on—three Austro-Hungarian planes having been already shot down by the army. Staff-work was not efficient, the telephones at times close to breakdown from the volume of talk, de-coding of important messages, even in army headquarters, sometimes taking fifteen hours. There were actions on the frontier, to which commanders reacted with exaggeration—expecting their men to die a hero’s death for the sake of some customs-post or other. In this first period, the major activity was an Austro-Hungarian cavalry raid—ten divisions, drawn up in a semi-circle, riding off into the unknown. There were engagements, of a romantic, old-fashioned sort: the largest of them on 20th August at Jaroslawice, where two cavalry divisions wheeled around and sabred each other, the commanders having tacitly agreed to behave as if the twentieth century had not happened. This went on until a Russian infantry unit arrived to spoil the performance. In any case, the Austrians could not ride far, because they had insisted on using a saddle that only well-prepared horses could use. It was designed to give the rider a fine seat on parade, but, with the requisitioned horses, turned out to rub the skin from their backs in hot weather. Many Austrian cavalrymen arrived back on foot, leading their mounts. In any case, the supplying of these horses soon broke down. ‘By the third week of August, almost half of the horses were out of action, and the other half very nearly so’. The main effect of these cavalry battles was to draw in infantry units that would best have been spared for more serious business.

From the beginning, the Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia were bedevilled, not only by delays, but also by a fundamental uncertainty as to what they were meant to achieve. They were supposed to attack. But attack from the semi-circle of Galicia was difficult—if Conrad attacked on the western side, his eastern flank would be increasingly bared; yet if the attack went to the east, it would run into all manner of difficulties. Railways were few; roads, on the Russian side, few; the Germans far away; the attackers maybe exposed to some Russian stroke against their communications to the west. In July 1914, Conrad opted for the western attack. His I and IV Armies, drawn up east of Cracow and on the San, were not too far from the Russian border, concentrated before the other armies, and could move north against a flank with German troops not too distant. This was a good enough plan. Conrad did not, however, allot enough force for it. In the first place, because of subtractions to the Balkan front, thirty-seven, and not forty, infantry divisions would now assemble in Galicia; and some of these would arrive only late—four only by 28th August, two others only by 4th September, at that, at stations some way behind the front line. Up to 28th August, Conrad had, in effect, only thirty-one infantry divisions in the area, although Landsturm formations could, despite their weakness, at least swell the numbers involved. Moreover, the concentration was not great enough for Conrad’s purposes. I Army, in the west, had three army corps; IV Army, to its right, had three, to which a fourth was attached from the Balkans—these two to form the attacking force, going north. The eastern side was protected by III Army, marching forward to Lwów, and the nucleus of II Army, collecting on the Dniester (at Stanislav). Together, they had, at the outset, four corps, to which two were to come from the Balkans. Conrad later made out, again, that technical, railway-factors had determined this, since the corps could only be delivered to the front in this way. But there was not much in this explanation. The deployment reflected Conrad’s irresolution, not ‘railway-necessities’. The difficulty was that, as the Austro-Hungarian attack developed to the north, its eastern flank would be increasingly bared. Coverage for that flank would be essential for the attack to succeed. Yet troops were not sufficient to achieve both coverage for the flank and sufficient strength for the front of attack. Conrad compromised—gave troops that were not sufficient for coverage, but that also weakened too far the front of attack. Having gone this far, Conrad found that III and II Armies, on the defensive, eastern side, had four army corps, with another due to come in. To leave them far to the rear was thought to be impossible. They too must march forward to engage the Russians. On 18th August these corps were marched forward to Lwów and towns to the south-east of it: taking, inevitably, up to eight days in covering seventy miles or so. Conrad told them to wage ‘an active defensive’—they could not do nothing, but quite what they were to do remained imprecise. Brudermann, commanding III Army, was full of fight. He would advance boldly against the Russians in eastern Galicia. Conrad let him do so, subsequently blaming him for disobedience. Indeed, he later made out that intelligence-services had failed to reveal the true strength of Russian forces in this area. There was, again, nothing substantial in this explanation—the intelligence-maps of IV Army showed, on 10th August, six Russian corps (7. to 12. inclusive) at Kazatin, Zhmerinka and Dubno; on 13th August the maps showed, rightly, 21. Corps as well; and by 14th August the Austrian high command was already reporting to its liaison officer with the Germans in East Prussia a commendably accurate picture of Russian deployment—at Dubno, the Russian 11. Corps; over the eastern Galician border, ‘certainly’ 7.8. and 12. Corps and ‘probably’ 9.10. and 21. The only corps missed out was 24. which arrived from Bessarabia only some time later. In this way, Austro-Hungarian intelligence itself showed that the four corps of Brudermann’s group would be taking on seven Russian corps, a force double their size. Moreover, instead of waiting—as the German VIII Army did in East Prussia—Brudermann’s group was advancing into the path of these Russian forces, many of the divisions already exhausted by various peregrinations before they even joined battle.

This had been allowed by Conrad for the sake of his attack to the north. His I and I V Armies were ready before III, and advanced towards the border from 19th August. Confidence seems to have been astonishingly high. A governor-general of Warsaw—Count Collard—was appointed; IV Army command issued instructions for severe treatment of the Russian population, excepting Jews; a warning was even issued to the troops that cholera had broken out ‘in distant parts of Russia’, and troops must therefore do without alcohol, which would weaken resistance to the disease. The German VIII Army was also asked to co-operate, by launching an attack on the northern flank of the Polish salient over the Narev—an attack that, in Prittwitz’s circumstances, could only be lunatic, but regarded by Conrad—or so he later alleged—as an indispensable part of his plan.

At least for the attack on I and IV Armies, Conrad was running into roughly equal forces, such that tactical factors might give him some chance of success. In practice, Russian miscalculations gave him a rather better chance in this than perhaps he deserved. The Russians performed almost in reverse what Conrad had done—running head-on into his attack on the northern side, failing at the outset to use their superiority on the eastern side. No one man had dominated planning on the Russian side as Conrad had dominated it on the Austrian. The armies in Galicia adopted in essence two plans—one by Alexeyev, for a stroke against the Austrian railways leading to Cracow, and one by the General Staff, under Danilov, for an attack along the Carpathians from the eastern border of Galicia. These plans had been originally based on a supposition, at the time correct, that the Austro-Hungarian armies would be concentrated in north-eastern and eastern Galicia. Alexeyev’s attack would cut their communications; Danilov’s would bind them in eastern Galicia, and prevent them from disturbing operations against the Germans. In practice, Danilov, once in Stavka, had decided to give backing to Alexeyev’s scheme as well as his own, because it would cover the concentration of the new IX Army being assembled around Warsaw. These two, almost irreconcilable, schemes were adopted and dressed up, in orders issued by Stavka, as a plan for ‘double envelopment’ of the Austro-Hungarian army. In practice, the risk was not as great as it might have been, because mobilisation went faster than planned. Conrad later claims to have been surprised by this; but he had been warned, in spring 1914, that it might occur. By the plan of 1912, the Russian army was supposed to have, against the Austrians, thirty-six and a half divisions by the 25th day of mobilisation, forty and a half by the 30th, forty-two and a half by the 35th and forty-six and a half by the 40th.13 In 1914, thirty-five infantry and twelve and a half cavalry divisions were ready by the 18th day of mobilisation (the Austrians at that time had less than thirty) including both III and VIII Armies, on the eastern border of Galicia. By the 25th day, five more divisions had arrived; by the 30th another five, and six cavalry divisions—making in all forty-five infantry divisions. As well, IX Army was diverted late in August from Warsaw to the Austro-Hungarian front, such that by the 30th day of mobilisation, the Russian armies operating on the Austrian front contained fifty-three and a half infantry divisions and eighteen cavalry divisions; the Austrians presenting by then thirty-seven infantry divisions and some Landsturm brigades, with two German Landwehr divisions, and ten cavalry divisions. If there was to be a competition in blundering, the Russians could therefore afford it much more easily than the Austrians—the more so as each of their divisions was stronger than an Austro-Hungarian division, generally by twelve guns, or twenty-five per cent.

To start with, Russian blundering mattered more. IV Army, to the west, and V Army on its left, were set to advance south against the Austrians’ I and IV Armies, advancing north. Here, there was a rough equality of numbers—three corps each in the Russian IV and the Austrian I, four each in the Russian V and the Austrian IV, roughly 350,000 men on either side. Further east, where the Russian III and VIII Armies were to operate against the Austro-Hungarian III, there was a substantial Russian superiority. For various reasons, this did not tell in the opening round. Russian planners had supposed that the bulk of Austrian troops would be here, not further west. There were strong indications, quite early on, that this was not so, that the main Austro-Hungarian concentration was further west; indeed, on 22nd August Yanushkevitch suggested to Alexeyev that this was the case, that the attack of his IV and V Armies ‘no longer corresponds to circumstances’, and that III and VIII Armies should move forward more quickly. The next day he said ‘the Austrians may have collected troops further west than we have so far supposed’—characteristically adding that he had no proposals to make. But it was one thing for Stavka, even Ivanov and Alexeyev, commanding the army group, to come to recognitions of this kind; it was a different matter altogether for the army commanders on the spot. There were, at the time, only nine Austrian divisions in the path of the twenty-two of the Russian III and VIII Armies; but Ruzski, commanding III Army, behaved with the utmost caution. He acted as if old suppositions held good—that the Austrians would concentrate thirty divisions in eastern Galicia by the 15th day of mobilisation. He kept his four corps bunched together by Beresteczko, announced that VIII Army was not ready for battle, advanced even on Russian territory at a rate of five miles a day, and crossed the border only on 20–21st August. As in East Prussia, staff-work was inadequately done. In Cholm, headquarters of the army group, Ivanov and Alexeyev quarrelled as to who should open telegrams first; two copies of each were prepared, for commander and chief of staff; each then wrote different orders in consequence. In III Army command, matters were strained between Ruzski, a Sukhomlinovite, and his chief of staff Dragomirov, who also quarrelled with the operations-chief, Bonch-Bruyevitch. Not until 26th August did the considerable Russian superiority on this side become effective, even then only because Brudermann advanced into it, and it was less effective, on 26th August, than it could have been.

Galicia 1914 Part III

This subtraction of strength on the eastern side allowed Conrad to hope for victory on the northern one. Here there was, in Conrad’s words, ‘a happy beginning’. The three corps of the Russian IV Army advanced onto Austrian territory. Their cavalry-screen failed to reconnoitre; the army’s passage was obscured by woods, hills, and marshy country; one of its corps, 14., was stretched out over twenty miles. Its two divisions ran, in a tactically disadvantageous way, into five Austrian divisions of I Army, lost liaison with Russian groups further west, and on 23rd August one of the divisions lost half of its strength. Disorderly attempts were made to restore the position, a further division receiving contradictory orders from different corps commands, losing 1,500 men in one regiment, 900 in another. The Austrians took first the eastern flank, then the western flank, of the Russian IV Army, and by 25th August, having lost 6,000 men as prisoners and twenty-eight guns, the army retired to the Kraśnik positions south of Lublin. This gave misplaced confidence to Conrad. More importantly, it caused trouble among the Russian commanders. IV Army commander, Salza, and a corps commander, Geysmans, complained at the behaviour of 14. corps commander, Voyshin-Murdas-Zhilinski, whom Yanushkevitch dismissed. Ivanov intervened to dismiss Salza and Geysmans for daring to complain about Voyshin. General Evert was summoned from Siberia to take over IV Army; Voyshin was given Geysmans’s corps—by no means the last time such phenomena occurred. In the confusions, Ivanov supposed that he would have to fall back a long way, ordering IV Army to protect ‘the sector Drogiczyn—Brest-Litovsk’. He also demanded from Stavka that the new IX Army should be used on the Austro-Hungarian front. Stavka felt there was an emergency, that Austrian cavalry could even ride up to raid the rear of the north-western front; IX Army was therefore diverted against the Austrians—in succession the Guard Corps, 18th Corps, 3rd Caucasus Corps as well as three reserve divisions and more cavalry. These were due to arrive by the end of August. In the meantime, a series of flanking operations pushed the Russians back towards Lublin, and the railheads at which these new troops could arrive. Now, the natural forces of 1914–18 began to tell. The Austrians outran their supply-lines, could not bring in reserves as quickly as the Russians, exhausted themselves in marching, and fought a purely frontal battle. By 1st September, they had fifteen and a half infantry and four cavalry divisions in the area; the Russians, with their new forces, having twenty-six and a half infantry and nine and a half cavalry divisions.

Both sides looked to armies further east—the Russian IV appealing to its neighbour, V (Plehve), with four corps, and the Austrian I appealing in turn to IV (Auffenberg), also with four corps. Plehve was ‘to collect his corps and strike against the flank and rear of the enemy attacking IV Army’. These corps were strung out on a long front, moving south across Russian territory. They were to be diverted towards the south-west, with poor liaison to either side, and a gap of thirty miles to one neighbour, fifty miles to the other. As they moved south-west, they collided with Austro-Hungarian corps moving due north, of a strength the Russians had not been led to expect: 144 battalions and 526 guns on the Russian side, 156 and 470 on the Austro-Hungarian. Neither commander quite appreciated the extent of the flanking manoeuvres being carried out. On 26th August, there was a first collision: a Russian corps, marching south-west, brushed past an Austrian one marching north, and suffered from Austrian artillery; one of its divisions had marched for several days, had only four-fifths of its strength, and 120 rounds per gun. It retired in bewilderment and the left wing of the Austrian IV Army advanced to Zamość, between the two Russian armies, on 27th August. But further east it was the Russians who had the advantage. Their two central corps came up against Austro-Hungarian flanks; on 27th August an Austro-Hungarian cavalry division, acting with more bravura than sense, was broken up and fled to the south. In the night of 27th–28th August, the same fate overtook an isolated infantry division (near Laszczów) which lost almost all of its guns and 4,000 men as prisoners. In the centre, near the town of Komarów, a ‘soldiers’ battle’ developed, frontal attacks being exchanged.

These engagements pinned the two central corps of Plehve’s army. His right-hand group had also been forced back—divided, now, between IV and V Armies, tired and confused to the point of losing the cross-roads at Krasnostaw and allowing the left-hand Austro-Hungarian corps to threaten Plehve’s centre. No doubt the reinforcements due to arrive from IX Army in this area would help; but in the meantime the Russian situation would be difficult. It was further endangered by events on the other flank, to the east. This flank was ‘in the air’—unconnected with III Army, operating some way to the east under Ruzski’s prudent control. It contained one corps, the commander of which had been given control of the two central corps, and spent his time with them; its chief of staff, Stremoukhov, had no plan and no way of communicating it, had he had one. The divisions marched south-west. The Austrian commander recognised this: that if he attacked them in flank, he would be able to surround Plehve’s forces. He asked Conrad for permission to use the left-hand corps of the Austrian III Army, which was then thirty miles away. Conrad knew that safety in the east might depend on this corps’s remaining under III Army command. But Auffenberg’s entreaties swung him the other way: he sanctioned use of this corps, 14., under Archduke Joseph Ferdinand, by Auffenberg. The corps moved towards the Russian left on 28th August, and on the 29th and 30th did well against disorganised Russian divisions—taking a third of their troops prisoner, and sixty guns. This brought the right of Auffenberg’s army far into the rear of the two central corps of Plehve’s—separated only by two days’ march from the left of the army, near Zamość. An encirclement of the Russian V Army seemed possible. But Plehve did not behave as Samsonov had done— advancing into an enemy ring. On the contrary, he gave orders for retreat. In any case the Austrians did not act with Prussian resolution. The two flanking groups did not appreciate what they had achieved, and were tired. The left-hand group, under Archduke Peter Ferdinand, dimly appreciated the strength of Russian reinforcements building up to its left; the right-hand one, under his brother Joseph Ferdinand, noted Cossack divisions in the great spaces to the east. Neither dared move too far forward. On 30th and 31st August first one, then the other, pulled back; and the central corps of Plehve’s army withdrew to the north. This battle—Zamość-Komarów—was an Austrian victory. IV Army took 20,000 prisoners and nearly 100 guns; Plehve’s army had lost forty per cent of its complement. Auffenberg and Soós, his chief of staff, said they had won a great victory; there must now be a pursuit into Russian Poland. For the moment, Ivanov and Alexeyev almost agreed with this.

In response to the increasingly menacing news from the northern sector, Ivanov and Alexeyev spurred on their III and VIII Armies, to advance with all speed from eastern Galicia. They were to move north-west, to the direct help of Plehve. But Ruzski behaved with almost psychotic prudence. His army had crossed the border on 2th–21st August, and moved slowly forward thereafter, expecting that most Austrian troops would be concentrated against it. Indeed, the close concentration and slow advance of these four corps were such that Brudermann felt he had only ‘an isolated corps’ to deal with, advancing ahead of the main Russian force; with Conrad’s encouragement, he marched his troops against it. East and south-east of Lwów, there was, between 26th and 28th August, a first collision, on the river Zlóta Lipa. It was a disaster for the Austrians. With 91 battalions and 300 guns to 192 and 685, they advanced in close order, down hills and across rivers, against the four Russian corps. The break-down of their attacks was followed by Russian counter-attacks, and losses of up to two-thirds in many of Brudermann’s eight divisions. Many of the Austrians fled in panic as far back as Lwów; and III Army could not restore the situation easily, since its left-hand corps, the Archduke’s 14., had already been detached to help IV Army.

A swift follow-up by Ruzski would have helped Plehve at once, and Ivanov ordered him again and again to swing III Army to the north-west. Ruzski would not do this—his right-hand corps delayed, to Plehve inexplicably, and the other three did not much better, since Ruzski had exaggerated the strength of the Austrians who had attacked him, and even managed to congratulate his own commanders on ‘a fine defensive success’. He did not even notice the Austro-Hungarian retreat until 28th August, worried endlessly for his southern flank, and was maybe more concerned to capture Lwów than to help Plehve. Ivanov protested; but as Golovin said, he was like a pianist with a badly-tuned instrument-never knowing quite what sound would result when he touched a chord. Ruzski’s headquarters, as Ivanov and later commanders discovered, had a habit of making everything sound like a dirge. The Austrian III Army was able to withdraw in some order, to the river Gnila Lipa. Here it received reinforcements from the Balkans, while the command of II Army arrived to take over the southern sector of the line. By 30th August the Austrians, here, had increased to fourteen infantry divisions and 828 guns—though still facing a considerable superiority—twenty-two infantry divisions and 1,304 guns. Brudermann had told Conrad that he had had to face greatly superior numbers—at least 400,000 men. But since the Russians did not follow up, Conrad disbelieved him. The commander of II Army was told to attack the Russians; and on 29th–30th August, on the Gnila Lipa, there was a repeat performance of the Zlóta Lipa action—tired Austro-Hungarian troops stumbling forward with inadequate artillery preparation against an enemy nearly double their numbers. There was a further disaster, and this time it reached such dimensions—20,000 men and seventy guns captured—that even Conrad could judge he was facing an immeasurably superior enemy. On the other hand, on 30th August, he believed he had won a great victory on the northern side. He decided that he must let the Russian III and VIII Armies advance, if necessary as far as Lwów, and then turn his IV Army from the north into their open flank.

This decision belongs, as the Austro-Hungarian official historians said, ‘to the most finely-balanced of the world war’. In real terms, it was almost lunatic. IV Army had been exhausted by a fortnight’s marching and heavy fighting. III Army had been badly beaten already. But Conrad was not a man to take such things into account. He had learned that VIII Army in East Prussia had won a great victory; he must emulate the feat, perhaps exploit it for his own ends. III and II Armies would retire west of Lwów to a good line on the river Wereszyca, and when the Russians had followed, IV Army would intervene on their flank, by marching south-east across Rawa Ruska. Orders for this went out on 1st September. Meanwhile, Ruzski advanced towards Lwów, spent two days reconnoitring its empty and ancient forts, and finally made a ceremonial entry on 3rd September. Now, belatedly, he responded to suggestions that he might help V Army; the incessant proddings of Ivanov were reinforced by religious literature from Stavka, which made Ruzski transport one of his corps to his northern flank, and orientate the march of III Army towards the north-west. In this way, he met head-on the Austrian IV Army, marching south-east. These troops were exhausted, and had suffered heavy loss; they could no longer be moved around in Conrad’s fashion like so many coloured pins on a staff-map. After a few tactical successes of no great importance, they became locked west of Lwów in a frontal battle of no issue. By a curious twist, the out-flanking effect sought by Conrad was to some extent achieved further south, by III, and particularly by II Army—now reinforced by 4. Corps from the Balkans. Between 7th and 9th September the Austrians here won some considerable tactical successes, which encouraged Conrad to go on trying up to the last moment.

In the event, he had to retreat. Now, on the eastern side, he had built up at least equality of forces with the Russian III and VIII Armies. But he had done so, inevitably, at the expense of his northern side. His I Army had arrived before Lublin by 1st September, but it had to face a constant inflow of Russian reserves, as IX Army arrived to buttress this front. IV Army alone rose from six and a half to fourteen divisions, facing the Austrians’ thirteen; and the only fresh force on which the Austrians could count was a weak German Landwehr Corps which had just marched 200 miles from Silesia, had only eight machine-guns, one aeroplane, no field-kitchens. The Austrians had now 558 guns, the Russians 900. As new Russian troops arrived, they pressed the Austrians back towards Krasnik, with a series of embarrassments on the flanks. Worse still, the Russian V Army—reported to have been destroyed—recovered quickly enough, and sent two further corps against the Austrian northern side. Against them, the Austrian IV Army had left a single corps, such that, on this northern side, there were twenty-six and a half Russian divisions to fifteen and a half Austrian ones; and the other two corps of the reviving V Army moved into the rear of Auffenberg’s forces attacking III Army at Rawa Ruska. The northern side began to crumble. To defend Auffenberg’s rear, there was only one corps—again, Archduke Joseph Ferdinand’s. It had lost all but 10,000 of its 50,000 men, and was rudely pushed aside by the reviving Russian divisions—one regiment, with Franz Ferdinand’s military secretary at its head, being cut to pieces in a marsh. Further west, I Army’s front also collapsed. At Sukhodoly, an Austrian corps lost two-thirds of its guns and men as it stood up to the attack of three Russian corps. On the left, the Russians attacked along the Vistula, and broke up the Germans’ Landwehrkorps on 8th September, which lost 8,000 men and fell back over the Vistula. By 9th September, the Russians were threatening Conrad’s western communications his line of retreat towards the Germans

Conrad appealed to the Germans for help. He was told that, for the moment, nothing could be done—the Kaiser remarking, ‘You surely can’t ask any more of VIII Army than it has already achieved’. Stubbornly, he urged the troops of III and II Armies into a further attack over the Wereszyca—even, uniquely, turning up himself, with the nominal commander-in-chief, Archduke Friedrich, to watch the armies’ doings. By 11th September, with Russian cavalry raiding even the headquarters of his divisions, Conrad elected to retreat. The retreat itself was extremely disorderly. Nothing had been prepared in anticipation of it—it was thought that preparations for retreat would demoralise the troops still attacking on the eastern side. Consequently, the few roads were taken up with two-way traffic—men and guns moving west, hospital-carts and munitions-carts moving up to the front. A steady downpour went on, turning the roads into marshes. Inside the San fortress of Przemyśl, narrow streets were blocked by military carts, standing axle-to-axle. The only thing that saved Conrad from even greater collapse was the sluggardly Russian advance. Ivanov took the view that ‘the Austrians’ retreat will secure for our army the chance of an essential break in operations’. Rest-days were lavishly distributed. Ruzski ordered fortification of Lwów. Cavalry, unfamiliar with the terrain, caused some panic in the Austro-Hungarian baggage-trains, but was less effective in this than men had hoped. With some speed, Conrad withdrew his stricken armies to the San, then to the rivers east of Cracow—the Dunajec and Biala, which were reached in mid-September. Both armies were exhausted. The Austro-Hungarians had suffered casualties of nearly fifty per cent—400,000, of which the Russians took 100,000, with 300 guns; the Russians had lost 250,000 men, 40,000 as prisoners, with 100 guns. Conrad could now only wait for German help; and the two operations of August-September 1914 now came together in their consequences, if not their course, as Ludendorff himself arrived to discuss matters.

‘We Are Heroes After All, Aren’t We?’*

Capture of a French regiment’s eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

Northern Flank: Austerlitz

2 December 1805

While Vandamme’s division dispersed the final remnants of IV Column from the plateau, Saint-Hilaire’s battle for control of the Pratzeberg still raged. At about 11.00am Langeron, still personally involved in the fighting, received word from adjutants despatched from IV Column, advising him with stark simplicity of the collapse of this force. Langeron ordered these messengers to pass on the shocking news to Buxhöwden, who remained inactive about a mile away on the hillock overlooking the Goldbach. Having been away from the rest of his command, fighting in Sokolnitz, for an hour and a half, and with no sign of help coming from Buxhöwden, Langeron realised he must find reinforcements himself. Leaving Kamenski to continue the fight, Langeron galloped off back to Sokolnitz.

At around the same time Weyrother, Kolowrat and Kutuzov approached the Pratzeberg, following the defeat of the other half of IV Column, doing their best to encourage the Austrian troops. Kutuzov, accompanied by a staff officer, Prince Dmitry Volkonsky, then reached Kamenski’s brigade just as it was in danger of being broken by a French attack, but Volkonsky rallied the Phanagoria Regiment by grasping their standard and leading them forward: order was again restored.

As Langeron headed off to find reinforcements, the Austrian battalions recovering from their attack on Thiébault’s line reformed within reach of Kamenski’s brigade. Their brigade commander, Jurczik, anchored his position on a small rise, where he concentrated some of his artillery. Major Mahler brought his battalion of IR49 Kerpen to the rise and drew the battalion of IR58 Beaulieu in to protect the flank. At the same time he moved two guns to a position from where they could enfilade the French line, which brought their fire to a halt for a while. Jurczik applauded his actions shouting, ‘Bravo! Major Mahler!’ Shortly afterwards Jurczik fell to the ground, fatally wounded by a French musket ball. He died two weeks later.

Once the Austrian battalions had recoiled from the French artillery, Thiébault joined his men with the rest of the division and together they attacked Kamenski’s brigade, driving them back and capturing a number of limbered Russian guns as well as retaking their own previously lost guns. Their impetus took them right to the summit of the Pratzeberg, and it was only with some difficulty that the officers managed to control the ardour of their men and halt the line. In fact, the infantry had now left their supporting artillery behind and with no word from Maréchal Soult or imperial headquarters, Saint-Hilaire felt his isolation keenly. Recognising the urgent need to drive the French off the plateau, and aware of their current exposed position, the Allies prepared to make:

‘a general and desperate attack at the point of the bayonet. The Austrian Brigade, with that under General Kamenski, charged the enemy; the Russians shouting, according to their usual custom; but the French received them with steadiness, and a well-supported fire, which made a dreadful carnage in the compact ranks of the Russians.’

But the Russians pressed on. Thiébault, close to the centre of the action, watched as the Russians:

‘charged on all sides, and while desperately disputing the ground, we were forced back. It was only by yielding before the more violent attacks that we maintained any alignment among our troops and saved our guns … Finally after an appalling melee, a melee of more than twenty minutes, we won a pause; by the sharpest fire and carried at the point of the bayonet.’

According to the notes kept by Thiébault, this ‘twenty minute bayonet battle’, claimed the lives of both Colonel Mazas, 14ème Ligne, and Thiébault’s ADC, Richebourg. Thiébault was fortunate to escape injury himself when his horse fell to a Russian shot. But as both sides recovered their breath, Général de division Saint-Hilaire rushed up to his brigade commanders, Thiébault and Morand, saying: ‘This is becoming intolerable, and I propose, gentlemen, that we take up a position to the rear which we can defend.’ Almost before he finished speaking, Colonel Pouzet of the 10ème Légère interrupted: ‘Withdraw us, my General … If we take a step back, we are lost. We have only one means of leaving here with honour, it is to put our heads down and attack all in front of us and, above all, not give our enemy time to count our numbers.’ Pouzet’s stirring words did the trick, and reinvigorated, the French clung tenaciously to the ground they held, repelling all Russian attacks.

While the Russians doggedly continued to attack, the Austrian battalions were being pressed back, despite the best efforts of Weyrother and Kolowrat. Having reformed close to a small rise, supported by their artillery, the battalions reformed and engaged the 36ème in a firefight, halting an enemy advance with volley fire. However, the French recovered and attacked again, driving IR58 Beaulieu back. Mahler attempted a counter-attack with his battalion of IR49 Kerpen and that of IR55 Reuss-Greitz but reported coming under ‘a very severe fire’ that caused many casualties. With his left flank now exposed to attack due to the repulse of IR58, his position was becoming extremely dangerous. However, he managed to keep his men together and prevented them from falling back for a while with the help of his adjutant, Fähnrich Jlljaschek. Moreover, by maintaining volley fire, he was able to remove his wounded safely to the rear.

But elsewhere, the Austrians were gradually being forced back. Mahler started the battle with only 312 men in his battalion and was now reduced to around eighty, through casualties and men lost as prisoners. There was little more his tiny force could achieve and as the battalion of IR55 on his flank began to retreat he ordered his men away down the eastern slopes of the plateau.

The odds were now stacked against Kamenski’s resolute brigade as more French troops approached the Pratzeberg. Released by Vandamme, the 43ème Ligne moved to rejoin Saint-Hilaire’s division and Boyé’s brigade of cavalry (5ème and 8ème Dragons) was also on its way to add their support. The weight of French numbers now began to tell on the Russian line. On his left, the threat of an attack on his open flank by the French dragoons forced Kamenski to wheel back the extreme left-hand battalion of the Ryazan Musketeers. Having soaked up all the preceding Russian attacks, Saint-Hilaire, judging that the time was right, ordered the French line forward, in what turned out to be the decisive charge. This time Kamenski’s men had little left to offer as the French poured forward over ‘ground strewn with the dead’, leaving no wounded Russians in their wake, capturing the Russian battalion artillery and retaking the highpoint of the Pratzeberg. Yet even in this moment of victory on the Pratzeberg the Russians inflicted another notable casualty: Saint-Hilaire was wounded and forced to retire to Puntowitz to have his wound dressed.

Having arrived back at Sokolnitz, Langeron sent for General Maior Olsufiev, who was fighting in the village and informed him of the need to send reinforcements to the plateau. The only troops immediately to hand were the two battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, held in reserve just outside Sokolnitz. With no time to lose, Langeron directed these to the plateau. He then attempted to extract his other battalions from the village but only succeeded in pulling back 8. Jäger and the Vyborg Musketeers. The remaining battalion of Kursk Musketeers and the Permsk Musketeer Regiment, now so completely entangled with III Column and its battle for the village, could not be withdrawn. But even as the two Kursk battalions began their march, unknown to them, they were marching to their destruction.

Kutuzov recognised that any further resistance by Kamenski’s brigade, after two hours fighting, would lead to their total destruction, so he ordered the retreat. Abandoning the plateau, they descended the south-eastern slopes to the valley of the Littawa, where they reformed. All along the valley other Allied units that had been driven off the plateau took up defensive positions or retreated to better ground. Before he left the plateau, Kutuzov despatched a hurried note to Buxhöwden, who still had not moved, ordering him to extract his three Columns from their bottleneck and retire. Soult’s two divisions were complete masters of the Pratzen Plateau, having swept away Allied IV Column along with Kamenski’s brigade of II Column by the sheer determination of their attacks. The time was probably around noon when, into this killing ground, marched the two lone battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, sent from Sokolnitz.

Believing the troops ahead of them to be Russian, they approached confidently but as they closed, Thiébault turned his exhausted men to face them and another firefight exploded. At the same time, Lavasseur’s brigade of Legrand’s division (IV Corps), which was occupying Kobelnitz, marched southwards presenting a possible flank threat to the Kursk battalions. To combat this move, the Podolsk Musketeers, part of III Column reserve, advanced to oppose them. Even without this intervention, the French troops on the Pratzeberg were in overwhelming numbers and soon began to surround the isolated Kursk battalions, who fought on for a while before collapsing amidst massive losses.

The victorious Thiébault, now mounted on his third horse – a small grey liberated from a captured Russian artillery limber – surveyed the destruction all around him. His own brigade had lost about a third of its strength, while another of his regimental commanders, Houdard de Lamotte of the 36ème Ligne, joined the growing list of wounded.

While this final struggle to clear the Allies from the Pratzen Plateau had reached its climax, elsewhere on the battlefield matters were also coming to a bloody conclusion.

Grand Duke Constantine, at the head of the Imperial Guard, had received no orders since a request arrived for him to send a battalion of infantry up onto the plateau. Since then his Guard Jäger had fallen back from Blasowitz, along with a supporting battalion of Semeyonovsk Guards. With only limited military experience, Constantine considered his options. To his right, masses of French infantry and cavalry were pressing aggressively towards Bagration, while to his left the Austrian cavalry, which had offered some protection on that flank, were withdrawing, having temporarily held back the advance of a massed infantry formation (Rivaud’s division of Bernadotte’s I Corps). Further to the left, up on the plateau, he could see that the French were driving back at least part of IV Column. Having surveyed the position, Constantine elected to pull back to his left rear (south-east), towards the Austrian cavalry and hopefully a junction with a reforming IV Column somewhere near Krzenowitz. At around 11.30am he turned his force, deploying the Guard Jäger as a flank guard.

In fact, he had not moved very far when he realised that the French troops previously held in check by the Austrian cavalry were now slowly advancing towards him. Up until now, Bernadotte had shown a marked reluctance to move forward since he crossed the stream at Jirschikowitz earlier that morning. Napoleon sent his aide, de Ségur, to ensure that Bernadotte carried out his orders, but the imperial messenger found the commander of I Corps agitated and anxious. Bernadotte indicated the Austrian cavalry to his front and bemoaned the fact that he had no cavalry of his own with which to oppose them, begging de Ségur to return to Napoleon and obtain some for him. De Ségur did as he requested but Napoleon had none to offer. However, now that the Austrian cavalry had withdrawn, Bernadotte cautiously advanced his corps, Rivaud edging slowing forward between the plateau and with Blasowitz to his left front, while Drouet led his division onto the lower slopes of the plateau in support of Vandamme.

Aware now of this forward movement, Constantine halted the Guard and faced them to confront this new threat. Behind him, the single bridge over the Rausnitz stream represented a very dangerous bottleneck. To gain time for his crossing, Constantine decided to strike a blow at the advancing French in an attempt to halt their advance. Forming the two Guard fusilier battalions from both the Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Regiments for the attack, he held back the battalion of Izmailovsk Guards in reserve and organised the cavalry in a supporting role. Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments took up positions protecting the left and right rear of the Russian Guard: 5. Nassau-Kürassiere to the left with 1. Kaiser and 7. Lotheringen-Küirassiere to the right. The four battalions leading the attack advanced with much confidence, roaring ‘Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!’ and when still 300 paces from the opposing French line, they broke into a run that their officers were unable to control. Although facing a withering barrage of musketry, the Russian guardsmen did not halt and smashed straight through the first line of massed skirmishers, pushing them back onto a formed second line of infantry, which they attacked with the bayonet. These too gave way, but although elated with their success, the Russian attack ground to a halt and when French artillery opened up on them they began to fall back in disorder. But the threatening presence of the Russian Guard cavalry prevented any attempt at pursuit and kept Rivaud’s division firmly anchored to the spot.

Up on the plateau, Maréchal Soult studied the ground, now that Vandamme had cleared Miloradovitch’s men from his front. He noticed the movement of a large body of troops from high ground near Blasowitz towards the Rausnitz stream, imagining them some of Lannes’ men moving to cut off the Allied retreat, but then, near Krzenowitz they turned and headed west. The movement puzzled him and he ordered Vandamme to send a battalion out to the left flank of the division to observe it. Selecting 1/4ème Ligne, Vandamme sent their commanding officer, Major Auguste Bigarré, at their head to investigate, detailing his own ADC, Vincent, to accompany him. The undulations of the plateau hid the lower ground from view and Bigarré had advanced about 1,200 yards when Vincent, who preceded him with a few scouts, came galloping back and warned him of the presence of a large body of enemy cavalry. Bigarré instructed the battalion to move to its left and then returned with Vincent to see the enemy formation for himself. As he approached the vantage point, five squadrons of Russian cavalry began to accelerate towards his battalion that now moved into view. Bigarré and Vincent galloped back to the battalion and hurried it into square to receive the inescapable charge.

The Russian Guard cavalry had kept a watchful eye on their infantry as it fell back from the French lines, which presented a formidable obstacle to a cavalry attack. But then, descending from the plateau, a lone infantry battalion appeared. As the cavalry moved towards this tempting target, the battalion scrambled into square formation. The cavalry halted at what Bigarré described as long musket range, and instead of charging, unmasked a battery of six guns, which opened canister fire on the square, creating havoc in the packed ranks. Observing this from the high ground, Vandamme ordered the two battalions of 24ème Légère forward to support the 1/4ème, but they were too late, for the cavalry was already on the move.

Considering that the artillery had done enough damage to the square, two of the five squadrons of Horse Guards charged. The leading squadron rode into a hail of musketry and veered away, but the second squadron reached the square before the men had time to reload and smashed their way in, hacking and slashing at the infantry, who defended themselves furiously. The squadron swept right through the square, turned and rode back though it again.

Two previous bearers of the 1/4ème’s eagle standard already lay dead on the ground: now, gripped desperately by the battalion’s sergeant major, a soldier of twelve years’ experience named Saint-Cyr, it was under attack again. Three horsemen surrounded him and hacked it from his grasp leaving him with five sabre wounds to the head and right hand. By now the 1/4ème had collapsed and those still standing were fleeing back towards the plateau leaving about 200 dead and wounded on the ground. The two squadrons of Horse Guards retired eastwards to reform. Even before the battalion disintegrated, the 24ème Légère arrived, advancing in line. The remaining three Horse Guard squadrons spurred forward, and despite receiving a close range volley, smashed through the thin infantry line and sent them reeling backwards too. In the confusion and panic that followed, a soldier of the 1/4ème picked up a fallen eagle standard of 24ème Légère believing it to belong to his battalion and carried it to safety. It was now perhaps around noon as Napoleon arrived on the Pratzen Plateau to oversee the next moves.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

No sooner had he arrived than those accompanying him observed a great dark mass of men coming towards the plateau in some disorder. Maréchal Berthier commented, ‘what a splendid crowd of prisoners they are bringing back for you.’ But Napoleon was not so sure and ordered one of his aides, Général de brigade Jean Rapp, to investigate. Leading two squadrons of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde Impériale, supported by a squadron of the Grenadiers à cheval and a half squadron of the Mameluks, Rapp advanced down from the plateau towards the site of the Russian Guard cavalry attacks. As soon as he cleared the plateau he saw that:

The cavalry was in the midst of our squares and was cutting down our soldiers. A little to the rear we could see the masses of infantry and cavalry which formed the enemy reserve. The Russians broke contact and rushed against me, while four pieces of their horse artillery come up at the gallop and unlimbered. I advanced in good order, with brave Colonel Morland on my left, and [Chef d’Escadron] Dahlmann to my right. I told my men: “Over there you can see our brothers and friends being trodden underfoot. Avenge our comrades! Avenge our standards!”’

Rapp led his Guard cavalry straight towards the Russian Horse Guard squadrons that had just cut up 24ème Légère. The Russians, disordered by their attack on the infantry, turned away and galloped off after a brief struggle leaving the chasseurs à cheval to ride on into the ranks of the reforming Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Guard battalions, as these infantrymen defended themselves with the bayonet. The French cavalry soon received support from the half squadron of Mameluks, who slashed their way into the ranks of the Preobrazhensk battalions, currently dispersed as skirmishers in the vineyards and already engaged with Rapp’s chasseurs. But now Rapp’s formations were disordered and Constantine took the opportunity to send in the leading three squadrons of the Russian Chevalier Garde to break their attack and free his beleaguered infantry. The charge met with success, causing Rapp to withdraw and reform while allowing the Russian battalions to draw back. But their respite was brief, as the rest of the French Garde Impériale cavalry now joined Rapp. The great cavalry battle – Imperial Guard against Imperial Guard – that followed is difficult to recount in much detail from the accounts that survive. Indeed one observer, Coignet, a soldier in the Grenadiers à Pied of Napoleon’s Guard, described how: ‘For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust.’

The Russian Guard cavalry drawn from the Horse Guards, Chevalier Garde and Guard Cossacks mustered about 1,800 men – the Guard Hussars appear not to have become directly involved in the fighting. Against them the French Garde mustered about 1,100 men, from the Chasseurs à cheval, Grenadiers à cheval and Mameluks. Although short on numbers, the well-disciplined French cavalry were able to withdraw from the fighting and fall back on their nearest infantry formations, reorganise and re-enter the fray in formed bodies. The Russians did not have this luxury, as their own Guard infantry battalions were caught up in the mêlée and unable to fire for fear of shooting their own horsemen. It became clear that the French were gaining the upper hand and Russian casualties mounted alarmingly, particularly in the Chevalier Garde. In particular, the fourth squadron of this elite formation was all but destroyed – only eighteen men reputedly making good their escape – and its wounded commander, Prince Repnin-Volkonsky, captured and presented to Napoleon.

Russian reports claim that the Chevalier Garde lost sixteen officers, 200 men and 300 horses killed and wounded. The Guards battalions extracted themselves from the maelstrom and fell back on the support of the Izmailovsk battalion, then all continued back towards Krzenowitz. The battered Russian cavalry also broke off the engagement and fell back too, their retreat protected by the Guard Hussars who hovered threateningly to the north, and the stand made by Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments. The belated appearance above Krzenowitz of the three battalions of Russian Guard Grenadiers, numbering almost 2,000 men, but suggesting to the French the arrival of a new strong Russian formation, limited any further significant advance in this direction.

While the great cavalry battle to their front delayed Rivaud’s movements further, Drouet had finally led his division up onto the plateau to the rear of Vandamme. The retreating battalion of 4ème Ligne, which had fled back onto the plateau and streamed past Napoleon without stopping, eventually rallied when they rejoined Vandamme’s division, and despite their recent traumas, took an active part in the latter stages of the battle, unaware they had lost an eagle.

With the Pratzen Plateau secured by the gradual arrival of Bernadotte’s corps, Napoleon turned his back on the northern flank. It was now clear that his grand plan to swing Lannes and Murat unopposed into the rear of the Austro-Russian army had failed, but it was also clear that the attacks by Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme had split the Allied army in two. Leaving Lannes and Murat to drive Bagration back, Napoleon issued new orders that he hoped would lead to the destruction of the left wing of the Allied army, which still remained locked in the Goldbach valley.

On the extreme right of the Allied line, General Maior Prince Bagration, like Constantine, received no fresh instructions from army headquarters. His original orders, which he viewed with little enthusiasm, required him to hold his position until, becoming aware of progress by the Allied left wing, he was to advance directly ahead and, initially, capture the Santon. Accordingly, he had pushed forward at about 10.00am but encountered extremely strong and determined opposition from Lannes’ V Corps and Murat’s cavalry. His attempt on the Santon had failed and now the French cavalry had pushed his own horsemen back after a series of ferocious mêlées. The French had secured the village of Blasowitz and the Russian Imperial Guard appeared to be moving further away, cutting his last tenuous link with the rest of the army. Bagration abandoned any offensive plans and looked to the preservation of his command.

With the Russian cavalry driven back behind their infantry to reform once more, Lannes ordered his two infantry divisions forward: Suchet on the left, Caffarelli on the right. In the face of this advancing wall of infantry, Bagration ordered all eighteen guns of his battalion artillery to open fire, along with twelve from a horse artillery battery. The brunt of this bombardment fell on the 34ème and 40ème Ligne of Suchet’s division and 30ème Ligne from Caffarelli’s, while also mortally wounding GB Valhubert, who commanded a brigade in Suchet’s second line.

With the French infantry brought to a halt by this concentrated firepower, Lannes drew all his available artillery together and focused on knocking out the Russian guns. The more powerful French artillery came out on top in this duel and after a deadly exchange, the Russian horse battery was forced to withdraw with mounting casualties, leaving just the Russian battalion guns to support the infantry against the increasing threat. Lannes pushed his infantry on once more but now Suchet’s division became the target for a series of desperate cavalry charges by Bagration’s reformed horsemen.

However, assailed by musketry, canister fire and then French cavalry countercharges, all they could manage was to slow this advance. Caffarelli’s division, operating south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, encountered less opposition and pushed ahead of Suchet’s men to threaten Bagration’s left flank, secured on the villages of Krug and Holubitz. In fact, the garrison of these villages was not strong, both defended by the men of 6. Jäger under General Maior Ulanius – who had already suffered considerably at Schöngrabern – with recovering cavalry formations to their rear. Sometime around noon, GB Demont’s brigade (17ème and 30ème Ligne) and part of Général de brigade Debilly’s brigade (61ème Ligne), advanced determinedly against the two villages.

Up until now the jäger had managed to repulse any French cavalry showing an interest in their position, but heavily outnumbered by Caffarelli’s infantry – and despite an initial stout resistance – French troops drove 6. Jäger out at the point of the bayonet. However, despite a lack of support, Ulanius did manage to extricate some of his men and reach safety.

With the villages of Krug and Holubitz now in French hands, Caffarelli redirected 17ème and 30ème Ligne against the left flank of Bagration’s threatened line. To oppose them the Russian commander sent his reserve infantry, the Arkhangelogord Musketeer Regiment, commanded by General Maior Nikolai Kamenski II. Although the French and Russian infantry were fairly evenly matched, the French were always able to bring up supporting cavalry and artillery to disrupt the Russian lines whenever their own infantry fell back to reform for a fresh assault. At times the Arkhangelogord Musketeers were under attack from all sides, and at one point faced a charge by d’Hautpoul’s 5ème Cuirassier, suffering horrendous casualties in the process. This regiment, which marched into battle with about 2,000 men, later showed losses of 1,625. Kamenski II had his horse shot from under him and only escaped capture when another officer gave up his own mount.

With Suchet’s division pressing him more and more from the front, Caffarelli making inroads on his left flank and Murat’s cavalry ready to exploit any opportunity, Bagration gave the order to retreat. Despite constant French cavalry attacks, the Russian infantry held together, supported by self-sacrificing charges by the exhausted Russian horsemen, and fell back steadily, abandoning the road to Austerlitz and reoccupying the high ground north of the Posoritz post house. However, this constant pressure eventually caused a split and the Russian cavalry of V Column, commanded by General-Adjutant Uvarov broke away. In his report Uvarov wrote:

‘we continued to fight with fervour, from which the losses on both sides were substantial. At the same time artillery and infantry of the enemy, moving on my flanks, opened such a fire that even with all the courage of the regiments which were under my command, we had to retreat across the river situated behind us.

Podpolkovnik Ermolov of the horse artillery recalled the confusion that then prevailed:

‘Our losses multiplied even more when the men crowded together at the very boggy stream, over which there were very few bridges, and it was not possible to cross it in any other way than via a bridge. Here our fleeing cavalry plunged in wading, and a lot of men and horses drowned, while I, abandoned by the regiments to which I was assigned, stopped my battery, attempting by the means of a short range action to stop the cavalry pursuing us. The first pieces of ordnance that I was able to release from the press of our own cavalry, making several shots, were captured, my men were cut down and I was captured as a prisoner. The division of General-Adjutant Uvarov, crowding at the bridge, had the time to look around and see that it was running away from a force small in number and that the majority of the forces were concentrated on the heights and were not coming down into the valley. Those who pursued us were then forced to retreat and exterminated, and my freedom was returned to me shortly, when I was already close to the French line.’

When Ermolov returned and crossed the Rausnitz stream he found Uvarov’s command still in great disarray at the foot of the hill held by the Russian Guard Grenadiers. With them now stood the tsar, prompting Ermolov to observe that ‘there were no confidants present, on his face there was a look of supreme grief, and his eyes were filled with tears.’

Bagration continued his withdrawal in the face of ceaseless French cavalry attacks and artillery bombardment, drawing back across the Brünn-Olmütz road onto high ground overlooking it between Welleschowitz and Rausnitz. The Pavlograd Hussars suffered at the hands of the French cavalry as they protected this final move, but their sacrifice gained enough time for Bagration to take up this new position. Lannes and Murat now advanced to occupy the position abandoned by Bagration north of the Posoritz post house and found themselves in possession of row upon row of Russian knapsacks. It was the habit of the Russian soldier to take off his knapsack before entering battle to allow more freedom of movement, leaving behind him all his meagre personal belongings. But if the French soldiers expected to find luxuries and warm clothing they were disappointed. Captaine Lejeune, Berthier’s ADC, reported that each bag contained only:

‘triptych reliquaries, each containing an image of St Christopher carrying the infant Saviour over the water, with an equal number of pieces of black bread containing a good deal more straw and bran than barley or wheat. Such was the sacred and simple baggage of the Russians!’

Bagration must have been wondering just how long he could continue to hold his force together against these constant French attacks when help arrived. Advancing down the road from Olmütz with all speed appeared an Austrian artillery officer, Major Frierenberger, at the head of a column of twelve guns. As he came level with Welleschowitz he turned off and positioned his guns on the high ground rising to the north of the road. The official Austrian account of the incident continues the story:

‘The army he faced was a victorious one. It had deployed at the Posoritz post house, and was now in full advance, firing with its powerful artillery against whatever Russian troops and batteries came into view. The Austrian battery now opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians shot with such extraordinary skill that they compelled the enemy to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the hostile pieces were silenced altogether, and the advance of the whole French left wing was held back.’

The battle on the northern flank now ground to a halt. Lannes and Murat had expected an almost unopposed advance but became embroiled in a lengthy and costly duel that had lasted almost three hours. In the face of the resolute defence now offered by these fresh Austrian guns, with their own ammunition supplies almost completely expended and their cavalry exhausted, the two corps forming the French left wing halted, and like Bernadotte’s I Corps, awaited developments elsewhere on the battlefield.

Granted this unexpected respite, the survivors of Bagration’s Army Advance Guard and to the south, IV and V Columns, and the Russian Guard, did what they could to instil some sense of order in their greatly depleted ranks. These latter formations nervously occupied the eastern bank of the Rausnitz stream, anticipating a renewed French assault at any moment, but it never came. Napoleon saw a greater prize elsewhere.

* Captured Russian cavalry officer to Lieutenant Octave Levasseur, of the French horse artillery, 2 December 1805.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance I

The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo

October brought weeks of rain to the upper Isonzo valley, turning to sleet on the heights. Italian observers on both sides of the valley glimpsed the river through ragged gaps in the fog. One morning, they saw Habsburg soldiers move steadily up the valley, two abreast on the narrow road, towards the little town of Caporetto. No cause for alarm; they had to be prisoners marching to the rear. Otherwise …

For the Italians, the Twelfth Battle began as something unthinkable. By the time they realised what was happening, they were powerless to stop it. Cadorna liked to say that he led the greatest army in Italy since the Caesars. The last week of October 1917 turned this epic boast inside out; no single defeat in battle had placed Italy in such peril since Hannibal destroyed the Roman legions at Cannae, more than two thousand years before.

The unthinkable had a name: infiltration. On the other side of Europe, while Capello’s Second Army died in droves behind Gorizia, the German Eighth Army rewrote the tactical playbook. It happened on 1 September 1917, around the city of Riga, where the River Dvina flows into the Baltic Sea. Aiming to paralyse the Russian lines rather than demolish them, the preliminary bombardment was abrupt – no ranging shots – and deep, preventing the movement of reserves. Protected by a creeping barrage, the assault troops crossed the river upstream and took the Russians by surprise, punching through their lines from several angles, attacking the weak points without trying to overwhelm all positions at once. The Germans’ mobility and devolved command let them exploit this method to the full.

Their success did not emerge from a vacuum. Since early 1916, if not before, the warring commanders had searched for tactical norms that could, in Hew Strachan’s phrase, ‘re-establish the links between fire and movement which trench warfare had sundered’. Falkenhayn’s initial bid for breakthrough at Verdun sent stormtroopers ahead in groups after massive bombardments that had destroyed French communications. The Russians discovered other elements of infiltration with Brusilov’s brilliant offensive of May 1916. The British tested different attack formations, turning infantry lines into ‘blobs’ or, later, diamonds. Although there was no magic key, infiltration tactics emerged as a solution to attritional deadlock against defences that were ‘crumbling or incomplete’. This was the situation in the Riga salient, where the Russians were preparing to withdraw as the battle began, and the garrison in the city escaped. And it was certainly the situation on Cadorna’s upper Isonzo.

A week before the Riga operation, Emperor Karl wrote to the Kaiser ‘in faithful friendship’. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ‘has led me to believe we should fare worse in a twelfth’. Austria wished to take the offensive, and would be grateful if Germany could replace Austrian divisions in the east and lend him artillery, ‘especially heavy batteries’. He did not ask for direct German participation; indeed he excluded it, for fear of cooling the Austrian troops’ rage against ‘the ancestral foe’. The Kaiser replied curtly and referred the request to Ludendorff. The German general staff had already assessed that the Austrians would be broken by the next Italian offensive, which they expected before the end of the year. If Austria-Hungary collapsed, as it probably would, Germany would be alone: an outcome that had to be prevented. Meanwhile the Austrian high command – ignoring the Emperor’s scruple – had separately suggested a combined offensive.

Ludendorff decided he could spare six to eight divisions until the winter. He dusted off Conrad’s idea for an offensive across the upper Isonzo between Tolmein and Flitsch. Hindenburg, the chief of the general staff, sent one of his most able officers to reconnoitre the ground. An expert in mountain warfare, Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen had served in the Dolomites in 1915 and seen the emergence of fast-moving assault tactics against Romania. He now prepared a plan to drive the Italian Second Army some 40 kilometres back from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento and perhaps beyond, depending on the breakthrough and its collateral impact on the lower Isonzo. It was not intended as a fatal blow; the Germans believed the Italians were so dependent on British and French coal, ore and grain that nothing short of total occupation – which was out of the question – could make them sue for peace. Success would be measured by Italy’s inability to attack again before the following spring or summer.

The first target was a wedge of mountainous territory, five kilometres wide between Flitsch and Saga (now Žaga) in the north, then 25 kilo metres long, from this line to the Austrian bridgehead at Tolmein. The little town of Caporetto lies midway between Saga and Tolmein, near a gap in the Isonzo valley’s western wall of mountains. This breach, leading to the lowlands of Friuli, gave Caporetto a strategic importance quite out of proportion to its size. This had been recognised a century earlier by Napoleon, when he warned his commander in Friuli that if the Austrians broke through here, the next defensible line was the River Piave. South of Caporetto, the valley is a kilometre wide; northwards, the river snakes through a gorge of cliffs and steep hillsides, then broadens again at Saga, where the river angles sharply eastwards. At Flitsch, the valley splays open like a bowl, flanked on the north by Mount Rombon.

Since Austrian military intelligence had cracked the Italian codes earlier in the year, the Central Powers were well informed about enemy dispositions in this labyrinth of ridges rising 2,000 metres, where communications were ‘as bad as could be imagined’. Krafft thought the Italian defences were so shallow that losing this wedge of ground could crack open the front from Gorizia to the Carnian Alps. Eight to 10 divisions at Tolmein and three more at Flitsch should suffice. As at Riga, the artillery would deliver a very violent bombardment, then support the assault by laying down box barrages to isolate enemy units.

Hindenburg created a combined Austro-German force for the purpose, the Fourteenth Army, led by a German general, Otto von Below, with Krafft as his chief of staff. Seven German divisions, all of high quality, would join the three Austrian divisions already on the ground plus an additional two from the Eastern Front, backed by a reserve of five divisions: a total of 17 divisions, supported by 1,076 guns, 174 mortars and 31 engineering companies. It was an Austrian general who proposed applying the new tactics. Alfred Krauss, appointed to command a corps at the northern end of the sector, argued that the attack should proceed along the valley floors, avoiding the high ridges in order to isolate and encircle them. He had made a similar proposal to Conrad in 1916, in vain. This time, his advice was taken. For Cadorna, obsessed with attacking high ground and retaining it at all costs, this proposition would have made no sense. Yet it was appropriate to the terrain north of Tolmein, where the mountain ranges loosely interlock, with the Isonzo threading between them.

The attack was scheduled for mid-October, leaving only five or six weeks to prepare. The roads from the assembly areas beyond the Alps were few and poor, especially from the north; two passes linked Flitsch to the Austrian hinterland, but the roads were narrow. Fortunately the Austrians had a railhead near Tolmein. Some 2,400 convoys brought 140,000 men, a million and a half artillery shells, three million fuses, two million flares, nearly 800 tonnes of explosive, 230,000 steel helmets, 100,000 pairs of boots, 60,000 horses. Then October brought its downpours. The sodden roads sagged under the ceaseless traffic of boots, wheels and hooves. By veiling the massive concentration, however, the bad weather served the Central Powers well. The Germans went to great lengths to keep their presence secret. Transports arrived by night, some units wore Austrian uniforms, others were taken openly to Trentino then secretly moved eastwards. Fake orders were communicated by radio. The Austrian lines on the Carso, 40 kilometres away, were ostentatiously weakened to deter the Italians from transferring men northwards. The German air force, brought in for the first time, photographed the Italian lines and prevented Italian planes from overflying the Austrian lines. The gunners bracketed their targets over a six-day period, to avoid alerting the enemy.

If the Italian observers noticed nothing unusual, this was partly because they expected the front to remain quiet until spring 1918. Austrian deserters talked about an attack in the offing, but their warnings were ignored. By the 24th, the Central Powers had a huge advantage in artillery, trench mortars, machine guns and poison gas on the upper Isonzo, and roughly a 3:2 superiority in men. The Germans crouched like tigers, ready to spring. As for the Austrians, far from being demoralised by sharing their front, they were inspired by the scale of German involvement. Without knowing the whole plan, the troops realised something big was up. The possibility of moving beyond the hated mountains stirred their hearts.

On 18 September, Cadorna put the forces on the Isonzo front on a defensive footing. Without ensuring that his order was implemented, he let himself be absorbed by other matters. He was incensed to discover that Colonel Bencivenga, his chef de cabinet until the end of August (and who was so unhelpful over the Carzano initiative), had criticised his command in high places in Rome. This mattered because Cadorna’s Socialist and Liberal critics were finally making common cause, preparing to challenge his command when parliament opened in mid-October.

He was also vexed by an article in an Austrian newspaper. Cadorna filed every press clipping about himself, with references underlined in crayon. Several months earlier, a Swiss journalist had written that the Austrian lines on the Isonzo were impregnable. After the Tenth Battle, Cadorna sent his card to the journalist with a sarcastic inscription: ‘With spirited compliments on such penetrating prophecies about the strength of the Austrian lines, and hopes that you will never desist from similar insights.’ The insecurity betrayed by this gesture swallowed more urgent priorities. Now he did it again. A provincial newspaper in the Tyrol had commented that Cadorna wasted the first month after Italy’s intervention in May 1915. This criticism was too painfully true to pass; Colonel Gatti had to prepare a rebuttal explaining to readers in Innsbruck that Cadorna had not wasted even a day. (Would his revered Napoleon have written to an English provincial newspaper to explain why he decided not to invade Britain?)

Then he went on holiday with his wife near Venice. The rain was so heavy that he returned early, on 19 October, ‘in excellent spirits: calm, rested, tranquil’. By this point, the Supreme Command had been aware for at least three weeks that an attack was imminent on the upper Isonzo. The presence of Germans was rumoured. Even so, Cadorna’s staff did not take the threat seriously. The Austrians had never launched a big offensive across the Isonzo; why would they do so now, with winter at the door?

As late as 20 October, Cadorna did not expect an Austrian offensive before 1918. On the 21st, two Romanian deserters told the Italians the place and time of the attack. They, too, were ignored. Next day, Cadorna escorted the King to the top of Mount Stol, one of the ridges above Caporetto that link the Isonzo valley to Friuli. They agreed there was no reason to expect anything exceptional. On the 23rd, he predicted there would be no major attack, and said the Austrians would be mad to launch operations out of the Flitsch basin. Even on the morning of the 24th, when the enemy bombardment was under way, Cadorna advised his artillery commanders to spare their munitions, in view of the attack on the Carso that would inevitably follow. Rarely has a commander been exposed so completely as the prisoner of his preconceptions. What Clausewitz called ‘the flashing sword of vengeance’ was poised above his head, and he was unaware. He had little idea what was going on in the minds of his own soldiers; imagining the enemy’s intentions was far beyond him.

At 02:00 on 24 October, the German and Austrian batteries opened up along the 30-kilometre front. The weight and accuracy of fire were unprecedented, smashing the Italian gun lines, observation posts and communications, ‘as if the mountains themselves were collapsing’. According to Krafft von Dellmensingen, even the German veterans of Verdun and the Somme had seen nothing like it. Rather than softening up the enemy, the purpose was to atomise the defence. It succeeded with terrible effect, helped by fog and freezing rain, and more significantly by Italian negligence. For the lines on the upper Isonzo were in a sorry state.

After 18 September, the Duke of Aosta put Cadorna’s order into effect on the Carso, placing the Third Army on the defensive. The lines after the Eleventh Battle were incomplete in many places and lacked depth in most. Batteries had to be moved to less vulnerable locations. Communications along and between the lines were poor, especially at the juncture of command areas; they had to be improved. These humdrum tasks also awaited the Second Army, by far the biggest Italian force, deployed between Gorizia and Mount Rombon. Yet its commander, General Capello, was reluctant; he convened his corps commanders and paid lip-service to ‘the defensive concept’ while urging them to hold ‘the spirit of the counter-offensive’ ever-present in their minds. Capello enjoyed a mystical turn of phrase, and what he meant here was not clear. Probably Krafft von Dellmensingen was right when he wrote in his memoirs that Capello had no idea what was meant by a modern defensive battle. He followed up with an order that his commanders must convince the enemy of ‘our offensive intentions’. Again, Capello wanted to go his own way, and again Cadorna shrank from confronting him.

This confusion was most harmful on the Tolmein–Rombon sector, which was woefully undermanned. Of the Second Army’s 30 divisions, comprising 670,000 men, only ten were deployed north of the Bainsizza plateau. The northern sector had seen little significant action since 1916, and the Supreme Command judged that the mountains formed their own defence. For the same reason, none of the Second Army’s 13 reserve divisions was located north of Tolmein. East of the Isonzo, the troops were concentrated in the front line, depriving the second and third lines of strength, while the mountainous terrain would make it difficult to bring reserves forward, even supposing they could be transferred in time to be effective.

Despite these defects, nothing much was done until the second week of October. By this time, Capello was laid low with a recurrent gastric infection and nephritis. Sometimes he relinquished command and retired to bed or to a military hospital in Padua. This did not improve the efficiency of his headquarters, however. With Capello breathing down his neck and the Supreme Commander ignoring him, the interim commander’s grip was less than assured.

Illness did not shake Capello’s conceit. On 15 October, he was still talking about ‘the thunderbolt of the counter-offensive’. Four more days elapsed before Cadorna unambiguously rejected his request for extra reserves to bolster a visionary operation to push the Austrians back by six kilometres. Another four days passed before Capello explicitly dropped the idea of a counter-offensive. He did not commit himself to Cadorna’s defensive design until late afternoon on 23 October: less than 12 hours before the start of the Twelfth Battle. Incredibly, Cadorna failed to see that the practical unity of his command had been compromised, perhaps beyond repair. There was no clenched fist in charge of the army, as his father had insisted there must be. His worst nightmare had come true, and he could not see it.

The weakest section of the front was strategically the most important, around the Tolmein bridgehead. Commands were blurred; brigades and regiments came and went, and commanding officers were shuffled like playing cards. On the Kolovrat ridge and Mount Matajur, many units that faced the German army on the afternoon of the 24th only reached their positions that morning.

On 10 October, Cadorna ordered the 19th Division to move most of its forces west of the Isonzo. This was significant, for the 19th straddled the valley at Tolmein. The lines in the valley bottom, and on the hills to the west, were in better shape than the lines further east. Cadorna saw that the distribution of men and guns favoured offensive action, and wanted this to be corrected without delay. As the 19th Division was part of XXVII Corps, responsibility for implementing this order lay with the corps commander, Pietro Badoglio. Since his men stormed the summit of Mount Sabotino in August 1916, Badoglio’s career had been meteoric, raising him from lieutenant colonel to general within a year, making him the best-known soldier in the country after Cadorna, Capello, the Duke of Aosta and D’Annunzio. Now, inexplicably, he waited 12 days before implementing Cadorna’s critical order. When the Germans attacked out of Tolmein, fewer than half of the division’s battalions were west of the river, with an even smaller proportion of its medium and heavy guns. Badoglio had ordered the valley bottom to be ‘watched’ (as distinct from defended) by a minimal force. He had also instructed the corps artillery commander not to open fire without his authorisation. Around 02:30 on 24 October, this commander called for permission to fire. Badoglio refused: ‘We only have three days’ worth of shells.’ By 06:30, the telephone link between the corps commander’s quarters and his artillery headquarters, five kilometres away, had been destroyed. The artillery commander stuck to his orders, so there was no defensive fire around Tolmein.

At the northern end of the sector, the Italians were tucked into strong positions along the valley bottom between Flitsch and Saga. If Krauss were to capture this stretch of the river and take the mountain ridge beyond Saga, the Italians had to be rapidly overwhelmed. After knocking out the Italian guns, the Germans fired 2,000 poison-gas shells into the Flitsch basin. The gas was a mixture of phosgene and diphenylchloroarsine; the Italian masks could withstand chlorine gas, but not this. Blending with fog, the yellowish fumes went undetected until too late. As many as 700 men of the Friuli Brigade died at their posts. Observers on the far side of the basin scanned the valley positions, saw soldiers at their posts, and reported that the attack had failed. The dead men were found later, leaning against the walls of their dug-outs and trenches, faces white and swollen, rifles gripped between stiff knees.

(In Udine, 40 kilometres from Flitsch, Cadorna rises at 05:00, as always, to find his boots polished and uniform ironed by his bedside. After breakfasting on milk, coffee and savoyard biscuits with butter, he writes the daily letter to his family. This morning, he remarks that the worsening weather favours the defence. He is, he adds, perfectly calm and confident. At the 06:00 briefing, he learns that the second line on the upper Isonzo is under heavy shelling. He interprets the fact that there has been no assault as support for his view that this attack is a feint, intended to divert attention from the Carso.)

Zero hour was 07:30. The Austrian units spread into the fogbound valley below Mount Rombon. There was not much fighting; the powerful batteries at the bend in the river, by Saga, had been silenced. In mid-afternoon, the Italian forward units on Rombon were ordered to fall back to Saga after dark. With Austrians above and below them, their position was untenable. After burning everything that could not be carried, the three alpini battalions traversed the northern valley slopes while their attackers felt their way south of the river.

The Austrians reached Saga at dawn on the 25th to find it empty: the Italians had pulled back overnight to higher ground. For Saga guards the entrance to the pass of Uccea, leading westward. The southern side of this pass is formed by Mount Stol. The Italians hoped to block access to the Uccea pass from positions on Stol. Daylight illumines the high ridges before the valleys emerge from shadow. The Austrians entering Saga would look up at the Italian positions on Stol, and know that very little stood between them and the plains of Friuli.

It was a spectacular day’s work by the Krauss Corps. At the other end of the wedge, around Tolmein, progress had been even more dramatic. As we move there, let us pause over the sharp ridges that radiate like spokes from Mount Krn, and look more closely at one of the batteries that stayed silent on 24 October.

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.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance III

Cadorna issued an order of the day, warning that the only choice was victory or death. The harshest means would be used to maintain discipline. ‘Whoever does not feel that he wins or falls with honour on the line of resistance, is not fit to live.’ He elaborated his instructions to the Second and Third Armies for an eventual retreat, and put the Carnia Corps and the Fourth Army on notice to retire beyond the River Piave.

What forced his hand was the loss that evening of Gran Monte, a summit west of Stol. At 02:50 on the 27th, he ordered the Third Army to retreat to the River Tagliamento. The same order went out to the Second Army an hour later. Yet 20 of the Second Army’s divisions were still in reasonable order, withdrawing from the Bainsizza and Gorizia. Cadorna’s priority should have been the safe retirement of these divisions – more than 400,000 men – behind the River Tagliamento. In his mind, however, the Second Army in its entirety was guilty. Perhaps this explains his decision to make the Second Army use only the northern bridges across the Tagliamento, reserving the more accessible routes for the ten divisions of the Third Army, which retreated ‘in good order, unbroken and undefeated’, burning the villages as well as its own ammunition dumps as it went, so that ‘the whole countryside was blazing and exploding’. This question of the bridges was critical, for the bed of the Tagliamento is up to three kilometres wide and the river was high after the rain, hence impassable by foot.

Between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento, the decomposing Second Army was left to its own devices. In the absence of proper plans for a retreat, there was nothing to arrest its fall. As commanding officers melted away in the tumult, key decisions were taken by any officer on hand, using his own impressions and whatever scraps of information came his way. According to a captain who testified to the Caporetto commission, the soldiers appeared to think the war was over; they were on their way home, mostly in high spirits, as if they had found the solution to a difficult problem.

A minor episode described in a letter to the press in 1918 illustrates the point. A lieutenant told the surviving members of his battalion that they would counter-attack soon, orders were on the way. Instead of orders, a sergeant came cycling along the road. When they stopped him and asked what was going on, he said the general and all the other bigwigs had run away.

‘Then we’re going too,’ someone said, and we all shouted ‘That’s right, we have had enough of the war, we’re going home.’ The lieutenant said ‘You’ve gone mad, I’ll shoot you’, but we took his pistol away. We threw our rifles away and started marching to the rear. Soldiers were pouring along the other paths and we told them all we were going home and they should come with us and throw their guns away. I was worried at first, but then I thought I had nothing to lose, I’d have been killed if I’d stayed in the trenches and anything was better than that. And then I felt so angry because I’d put up with everything like a slave till now, I’d never even thought of getting away. But I was happy too, we were all happy, all saying ‘it’s home or prison, but no more war’.

All along the front, variants on this scene convey a sense that a contract had been violated, dissolving the army’s right to command obedience. Nearly 400 years before, in his ‘Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians’, Niccolò Machiavelli had warned his Prince that ‘all-Italian armies’ performed badly ‘because of the weakness of the leaders’ and the unreliability of mercenaries. The best course was ‘to raise a citizen army; for there can be no more loyal, more true, or better troops’. They are even better, he added, ‘when they find themselves under the command of their own prince and honoured and maintained by him’. Machiavelli the great realist would not have been surprised by the size of the bill that Cadorna was served after dishonouring his troops so consistently, and neglecting their maintenance so blatantly, for two and a half years.

On the third day of the offensive, the Austrians and Germans gave the first signs that they would not convert a brilliant success into crushing victory. Demoted in spring 1917 from chief of the general staff to commander on the Tyrol front, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf had to sit and watch as von Below’s Fourteenth Army turned the tables on the hated enemy. Now he called for reinforcements so he could attack the Italian left flank. At best, Cadorna’s Second, Third and Fourth Armies and Carnia Corps would be trapped behind a line from Asiago to Venice, perhaps forcing Italy to accept an armistice. At the least, the Italians would be too distracted by the new threat to establish viable lines on the River Tagliamento.

Although Conrad’s reasoning was excellent, the Germans were not ready to increase their commitment or let the Austrians pull more divisions from the Eastern Front. Any Habsburg units which might be released by Russia’s virtual withdrawal from the war had to be sent to the Western Front, where the Germans were hard pressed by the British in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). All Conrad got were two divisions and a promise that any others no longer needed on the Isonzo would be sent to the Trentino for an offensive by five divisions, to commence on 10 November. But five divisions were pathetically few for the task, and 10 November would be too late.

Cadorna’s enemies had not expected such a breakthrough. As late as the 29th, Ludendorff stated that German units would not cross the Tagliamento. By this point, Boroević’s First Army (on the Carso) and Second Army (around the Bainsizza) should have been storming after the Italian Third Army. This did not happen, due to bad liaison between commanders, exhaustion, and the temptations of looting. As a result, the Third Army crossed the Tagliamento in good order at the end of October. Both divisions of the Carnia Corps also reached safety with few losses. Von Below would characterise the Austrian Tenth Army, that should have outflanked the Carnia Corps, as not ‘very vigorous in combat’.

On the afternoon of the 27th, the Supreme Command decamped from Udine to Treviso. Cadorna did not leave a deputy to organise the retreat. Was this an oversight or a logical expression of his belief that he was irreplaceable? Or was he punishing soldiers who had, as he believed, freely chosen not to fight? Let the cowards and traitors of the Second Army make their own shameful ways to the Tagliamento; they had forfeited the right to assistance.

By the following morning, the Supreme Command was installed in a palazzo in Treviso, more than 100 kilometres from the front. Over breakfast in his new headquarters, the chief talked about the art and landscape of Umbria, impressing his entourage with his serenity, a mood that presumably owed something to the King’s and the government’s affirmations of complete confidence in his leadership. (Meanwhile the enemy reached the outskirts of Udine, finding them ‘almost deserted with broken windows, plundered shops, dead drunk Italian soldiers and dead citizens’.) Before lunch Cadorna released the daily bulletin, blaming the enemy breakthrough on unnamed units of the Second Army, which had ‘retreated contemptibly without fighting or surrendered ignominiously’. Realising how incendiary these allegations were, the government watered down the text. It was too late: the original version had gone abroad and was already filtering back into Italy.

Late on the 28th, the enemy crossed the prewar border into Italy. The Austrian military bulletin was gleeful: ‘After five days of fighting, all the territory was reconquered that the enemy had laboriously taken in eleven bloody battles, paying for every square kilometre with the lives of 5,400 men.’ The Isonzo front ceased to exist. By the 29th, the Second and Third Armies were being showered with Austrian leaflets about Cadorna’s scandalous bulletin. ‘This is how he repays your valour! You have shed your blood in so many battles, your enemy will always respect you … It is your own generalissimo who dishonours and insults you, simply to excuse himself!’

An order on 31 October authorised any officer to shoot any soldier who was separated from his unit or offered the least resistance. This made a target of ten divisions of the Second Army. The worst abuses occurred near the northern bridges over the Tagliamento, where commanders who had abandoned their men days earlier saw a chance to redeem themselves.

The executions at Codroipo would provide a climactic scene in the only world-famous book about the Italian front: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking … No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the skyline. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm … The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on … They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops … So far they had shot everyone they had questioned.

The narrator is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with the Second Army ambulance unit. Caught up in the retreat from the Bainsizza, he is arrested on the bridge as a German spy. As he waits his turn with the firing squad, Henry escapes by diving into the river. ‘There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time.’ He is swept downstream, away from the front and out of the war. Immersion in the Tagliamento breaks the spell of his loyalty to Italy. ‘Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation … I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honour. I was not against them. I was through … it was not my show any more.’

The deaths in Hemingway’s chapter on Caporetto involve Italians killing each other. The enemy guns are off-stage, heard but not seen, while German troops are glimpsed from a distance, moving ‘smoothly, almost supernaturally, along’ – a brilliant snapshot of Italian awe. Henry shoots and wounds a sergeant who refuses to obey orders; his driver, a socialist, then finishes the wounded man off (‘I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I’ve wanted to kill a sergeant’). The driver later deserts to the Austrians, a second driver dies under friendly fire, then there is the scene at the Tagliamento. It is a panorama of internecine brutality and betrayal, devoid of heroism. With the army self-destructing, nothing makes sense except Henry’s passion for an English nurse. Caporetto is much more than a vivid backdrop for a love story: it is an immense allegory of the disillusion that, in Hemingway’s world, everyone faces sooner or later. Henry’s desertion becomes a grand refusal, a nolo contendere untainted by cowardice, motivated by a disenchantment so complete that it feels romantic: a new, negative ideal which holds more truth than all the politics and patriotism in the world.

By 1 November, there were no Italian soldiers east of the Tagliamento. Cadorna had hoped to hold the line long enough to regroup much of the Second Army. Instead, early next day, an Austrian division forced its way across a bridge on the upper Tagliamento that had not been completely destroyed. This gave heart to a German division trying to ford the river further south. When both bridgeheads were consolidated, Cadorna faced the danger that most of his Second Army and all of his Third Army could be enveloped from the north. On the morning of 4 November, he ordered a retreat to the Piave line. The Austro-German commanders redefined their objectives: the Italians should be driven across the River Brenta – beyond Venice! However, Ludendorff was not yet convinced. By the time he changed his mind, on 12 November, approving a combined attack from the Trentino, the Italians had stabilised a new line on the River Piave and Anglo-French divisions were arriving from the Western Front.

Haig commented privately on 26 October that, ‘The Italians seem a wretched people, useless as fighting men but greedy for money. Moreover, I doubt whether they are really in earnest about this war. Many of them, too,’ he added for good measure, ‘are German spies.’ Although these prejudices were widely shared in London and France, the Allies were shocked by the speed of the disintegration and alarmed at its potential impact: if Italy were to be neutralised along with Russia, Austria would be free to support Germany on the Western Front. On 28 October, with Friuli ‘ablaze from end to end’, Britain and France agreed to send troops. Robertson and Foch, the respective chiefs of staff, offered six divisions: hardly enough to bail out their ally, but sufficient to bolster the defence and buy London and Paris political leverage that could be used to unseat the generalissimo.

The deed was done at an inter-Allied meeting in Rapallo, on 6 November. General Porro’s presentation dismayed the British and French; his vagueness about the facts of the situation and his pessimism confirmed that change at the top was overdue. There was even talk of retreating beyond the Piave to the River Mincio, losing the whole of the Veneto. In a stinging rebuff to the Supreme Command, and specifically to Cadorna’s allegations of 28 October, the British stated that they were ready to trust their troops to the bravery of the Italian soldiers but not to the efficiency of their commanders. When Porro tried to speak, Foch told him to shut up. On behalf of Britain and France, Lloyd George insisted on ‘the immediate riddance of Cadorna’. This gave cover to Orlando’s government of ‘national resistance’, which wanted Cadorna to go but feared a showdown. In return for an Italian pledge to hold the line on the Piave, the British and French increased their promised support to five and six divisions respectively.

As the flood of Italian troops ebbed towards the Piave and the Supreme Command reasserted control over shattered units, the Central Powers made errors. Instead of striking from the north-west as von Below and Boroević swept in from the east, Conrad’s underpowered army advanced to the southern edge of the Asiago plateau and no further. The Krauss Corps was sent north to secure Carnia instead of pursuing the Italians westward.

After the war, Hindenburg described his disappointment over Caporetto. ‘At the last the great victory had not been consummated.’ Krauss accused Boroević of failing to clinch victory over the Third Army. These recriminations reflect the bitterness of overall defeat in the World War, which made Caporetto look like a missed opportunity. Piero Pieri, the first notable historian of the Italian war, put his finger on the problem: the Central Powers had, on this occasion, lacked ‘the annihilating mentality’.

King Victor Emanuel had his finest hour on 8 November, rising to the moment with a speech affirming his faith in Italy’s destiny. That day, the Second and Third Armies completed their crossing of the River Piave, which was running high after heavy rain. At noon on the 9th, the engineers dropped the bridges.

The new line lay some 150 kilometres west of the Isonzo. The fulcrum of the line was a rugged massif called Grappa, some 20 kilometres square. If Grappa fell, the Italians would be vulnerable both from the north and the east. After the Austrian attack of May and June 1916, Cadorna had planned to fortify Mount Grappa with roads, tunnels and trenches. In effect it was the fifth defensive line from the Isonzo. Engineering in mountainous terrain was what the Italian army did best, yet these works were hardly in hand when the Twelfth Battle began: a single track and two cableways to the summit, a water-pumping station, some barbed wire, and gun emplacements facing the wrong way (westwards).

When the Krauss Corps and then von Below’s Fourteenth Army hit the Grappa massif in mid-November, like the last blows of a sledgehammer, the Italians were almost knocked back onto the plains. Conrad quipped that they hung on to the south-western edge of Grappa like a man to a window-ledge. The Supreme Command packed 50 battalions onto Grappa – around 50,000 men, including many recruits from the latest draft class. The ensuing struggle was a battle in itself; the situation was only saved at the end of December, with timely help from a French division – the Allies’ sole active contribution to the defence after Caporetto. This achievement gave birth to two new, much-needed myths: the defence of Mount Grappa was acclaimed as a victory that saved the kingdom, and the ‘boys of ’99’, sent straight from training to perform miracles, proved that Italian fighting mettle was alive and well.

Foch and Robertson would have preferred the Duke of Aosta to replace Cadorna. This was said to be inappropriate because the Duke was a cousin of the King; in truth, it was impossible because Victor Emanuel loathed his tall, handsome cousin. So they accepted the government’s proposal of General Armando Diaz, with Badoglio and Giardino as joint deputies.

Diaz, a 57-year-old Neapolitan, had risen steadily through the ranks. After the Libyan war, in which he showed a rare talent for winning the affection and respect of his regiment, he served as General Pollio’s chef de cabinet. After a year in the Supreme Command, he asked to be sent to the front, where his calm good humour was noticed by the King, among others. He led the XXIII Corps on the Carso with no particular distinction. A brother general described him as a fine man and a good soldier but completely adaptable, ‘like pasta’, with no ideas of his own. Cadorna’s court journalists scoffed at the appointment, and Gatti was withering (‘Who knows Diaz?’).

Diaz would vindicate the King’s trust. News of his promotion, on 8 November, struck him like a bolt of lightning. Accepting the ‘sacred duty’, he said: ‘You are ordering me to fight with a broken sword. Very well, we shall fight all the same.’ And fight he did, though in a different way from his predecessor. He proved to be an exceptional administrator and skilful mediator, reconciling the government and the Supreme Command to each other, and rival generals to his own appointment. Journalists were told that ‘with this man, there will be no dangerous independence. State operations will be kept united at all times.’ In other words, no more ‘government in Udine’. His first statement to the troops urged them to fight for their land, home, family and honour – in that order. He was what the army and the country needed after Cadorna, and while he showed no brilliance as a strategist, he made no crucial mistakes and took the decisions that led to victory.

On 7 November, hosting his last supper at the Supreme Command, Cadorna addressed posterity over the plates: ‘I, with my will and my fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of 3,000,000 men, until yesterday. If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe …’ Early the following day, the King arrived to persuade Cadorna to leave quietly. They conferred for two hours. Cadorna knew he could not survive, yet the humiliation was too much. There was no graceful exit. Diaz arrived late that evening. When he presented a letter from the minister of war announcing his appointment as chief of staff with immediate effect, Cadorna broke off the meeting and telegraphed the minister: he would not go without a written dismissal. The order arrived early next morning. A new regime took over at the Supreme Command.

The phrase ‘doing a Cadorna’ became British soldiers’ slang for coming unstuck, perpetrating an utter fuck-up and paying the price.

The statistics of defeat were dizzying. The Italians lost nearly 12,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 294,000 prisoners. In addition, there were 350,000 disbanded men, roaming around or making for home. Only half of the army’s 65 divisions survived intact, and half the artillery had been lost: more than 3,000 guns, as well as 300,000 rifles, 3,000 machine guns, 1,600 motor vehicles and so forth. Territorially, some 14,000 square kilometres were lost, with a population of 1,150,000 people.

The Austro-German offensive was prepared with a meticulousness that the Supreme Command could hardly imagine. The execution, too, was incomparably efficient. Cadorna’s general method, as he once explained to the King, was to use as many troops as possible along a sector as broad as possible, hoping the enemy lines would crack somewhere. The Italian insistence on retaining centralised control at senior levels was also archaic beside the German devolution of authority to assault team level. Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organisation, one of the most hidebound in Europe.

The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed. An Austrian officer who fought in the Krauss Corps described the assault on 24 October as a fist punching through a barrier, then unclenching to spread its fingers. This is very like a recent description of Blitzkrieg as resembling ‘a shaped charge, penetrating through a relatively tiny hole in a tank’s armor and then exploding outwardly to achieve a maximum cone of damage against the unarmored or less protected innards’. Those innards had, in the Italian case, been weakened by a combination of savage discipline, mediocre leadership, second-rate equipment and arduous terrain. Without this debilitation, the Second Army would not have collapsed almost on impact.

Naturally, Cadorna could not see or accept that he had undermined the troops. But he knew that others would make this charge, which is why he launched, pre-emptively, the self-serving myth that traitors and cowards were responsible for the defeat. This myth became Cadorna’s most durable legacy, thanks in part to a prompt endorsement by Leonida Bissolati, the cabinet minister. Adding a nuance to Cadorna’s lie, Bissolati claimed that a sort of ‘military strike’ had taken place. Probably he was scoring points against his rivals on the political left; instead he deepened a stain on the army that still lingers. By likening the events on the Isonzo to the recent workers’ protests in Turin, Bissolati put a political complexion on the defeat. The ease with which discipline was restored by the end of 1917 would have scotched these allegations if it had not suited Italy’s leaders to keep them alive. It also suited the Allies, who wanted to minimise the responsibility of their Italian colleagues and had their own doubts about Italian martial spirit. Ambassador Rodd and General Delmé-Radcliffe parroted the conspiracy theory in their reports to London. For the historian George Trevelyan, leading the British Red Cross volunteers who retreated with the Third Army, there was ‘positive treachery at Caporetto’; Cadorna’s infamous bulletin had told the salutary truth. For the novelist John Buchan, working as a senior propagandist in London, treachery had ‘contributed to the disaster’, for a ‘secret campaign was conducted throughout Italy’ in 1917, producing a ‘poison’ that ‘infected certain parts of the army to an extent of which the military authorities were wholly ignorant’.

For some, a more dreadful possibility underlay these accusations. Was ‘Italy’ a middle-class illusion? Instead of forging a stronger nation-state, the furnace of war had almost dissolved it. What would happen at the next test? Disaffection with the state might be wider and deeper than they had thought possible. Had the mass of Italians somehow been left out of the nation-building process? If so, what further disasters still lay in store? It was a moment when everything solid seemed to melt away. The philosopher Croce, usually imperturbable to a fault, wrote during the Twelfth Battle: ‘The fate of Italy is being decided for centuries to come.’ Even politicians who did not swallow the ‘military strike’ thesis, and knew that Socialist members of parliament were too patriotic to want peace at any price, feared the outcome if popular disaffection became politically focused. After all, Lenin had taken power in Russia in early November. For weeks after Caporetto, many officials believed that revolution or sheer exhaustion would force Italy out of the war.

This mood of shaken self-questioning subsided as the army was rebuilt in late 1917 and early 1918. It would be driven underground, into the national unconscious, first by the victories of 1918, then by Fascist suppression. Yet those who took part never forgot the fearful dreamlike days when the world turned upside down. For the essence of Caporetto lay in the wrenching uncertainty of late October, when the commanders did not know what was happening, the officers did not know what to do, the soldiers did not know where the enemy was, the government did not know if Italy was on the brink of losing the war, and ordinary citizens did not know if their country might cease to exist. All Italians dreamed that dream; the nation was haunted by an image of men fleeing the front in hundreds of thousands, throwing away their rifles, overcome by disgust with the army, the state and all its works, wanting nothing more (or less) than to go home. When the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti wrote in the 1920s that the Italians were still ‘a people of stragglers, not yet a nation’, he evoked that fortnight when the country threatened to come apart at the seams.

Under Mussolini, the myth of a military strike was discouraged; it undermined the Fascists’ very different myth of the war as the foundation of modern Italy, a blood rite that re-created the nation. The fact of defeat at Caporetto had to be swallowed: a sour pill that could be sweetened by blaming the government’s weakness. Fascist accounts of the Twelfth Battle tended to whitewash Cadorna and defend the honour of the army (‘great even in misfortune’) while incriminating Capello and indicting the government in Rome for tolerating defeatists, profiteers and bourgeois draft-dodgers. Boselli (‘tearful helmsman of the ship of state’) and his successor Orlando were particularly lampooned. One valiant historian in the 1930s turned the narrative of defeat inside out by hailing Caporetto as a deliberate trap set and sprung by Cadorna, ‘the greatest strategist of our times’. The Duce himself called Caporetto ‘a reverse’ that was ‘absolutely military in nature’, produced by ‘an initial tactical success of the enemy’. Britain and France could also be condemned for recalling, in early October 1917, most of the 140 guns they had lent Cadorna earlier in the year. Even so, the defeat was not to be examined too closely. When Colonel Gatti wanted to write a history of Caporetto, in 1925, Mussolini granted access to the archives in the Ministry of War. Then he had second thoughts; summoning Gatti to Rome, he said it was a time for myths, not history. After 1945, leftist historians argued that large parts of the army had indeed ‘gone on strike’, not due to cowardice or socialism, but as a spontaneous rebellion against the war as it was led by Cadorna and the government.

That primal fear of dissolution survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded ‘a moral Caporetto’. Politicians accuse each other of facing an ‘electoral Caporetto’. When small businesses are snarled up in Italy’s notorious red tape, they complain about an ‘administrative Caporetto’. When England lost to Northern Ireland at football, it was ‘the English Caporetto’. This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure – rottenness laid bare.