The war on the civilian population of Britain began on 7 September 1940 when London was subjected to mass bombardment from the air. The British people had endured many shocks in the course of 1940 – the Norway fiasco, the retreat to Dunkirk, the desperate days of the evacuation, the collapse of France, the invasion threat, and the uncertainty about the outcome of the great air battles that raged above them. Could they endure a direct assault? How robust was the mood of the country on the eve of the Blitz? Public mood is notoriously difficult to assess but there are some guides through this minefield. In 1940 the measurement of public opinion was in its infancy but the authorities considered the matter important enough in wartime to make an attempt. From May 1940 the Home Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Information (MOI) and a private organisation later hired by the Ministry (Mass Observation or MO) compiled daily or weekly ‘morale’ reports. The information in these reports came from a variety of sources – the Regional Information Officers of the MOI, postal censorship, bookshop owners, cinema proprietors, and a group of investigators who listened in on the private conversations of people whom they considered to be a representative sample of the population. At their peak, however, only about 2,000 investigators were employed in these organisations. Moreover, most of the staff were middle class, male and well educated, factors that at least had the potential to skew the reported views of women, the working class and groups outside the social milieu of the investigators.

By focusing on ‘morale’ the government hoped to obtain some measure of the civilian population’s willingness to continue working. But the definition of morale for survey purposes was open to wide interpretation. Both the MOI and MO thought they knew what was meant by this most slippery of terms. To them, more often than not, high morale was equated with ‘cheerfulness’, a commodity in pretty short supply in Britain after recent events in Europe. Nevertheless, cheerfulness was considered crucial by the investigators, who assumed that only the cheerful could contribute effectively to the war effort. But even when circumstances were grim (and in MOI or MO terms morale had slipped) it was possible that those with so-called low morale could still do a decent day’s work, as suggested by this comment made at the end of a raid: ‘there was little time for grief, for after all the next raid was imminent and every air-raid warning in the night was followed by a new day when people had to work’.

Without a correlation between cheerfulness and the performance of the war economy the daily fluctuations in morale detected by the MOI and MO are virtually worthless as an indication of how the population might respond to the Blitz. Nevertheless, the MOI/MO reports can be instructive – not to track fluctuations in morale – but to identify frequently occurring themes that indicated ongoing concerns and attitudes.

The most constant of these themes is approval for any action taken by the Churchill government to prosecute the war more vigorously and a corresponding disapproval of any policy that seemed inadequate to the situation or harked back to the bad old days of appeasement. So the Emergency Powers Bill of May 1940 had ‘an excellent reception’, even though this bill stated that all persons might be called upon to ‘place themselves, their services and their property’ at the disposal of the government. It was an indication of the stern temper of the times that this measure was greeted with satisfaction among all regions in Britain. It was ‘well received’ in Northern Ireland, ‘welcomed’ in Birmingham and Leeds, ‘excellently received’ in Manchester, and met with a more sober ‘general approval’ in Cambridge.

In contrast was the public response to a broadcast by the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, urging the public to show the courage now that they had displayed in past crises. The reply the MOI conveyed to the minister was that the people had no doubt about their own courage but considerable doubt about the resolve of the government of which Duff Cooper was a part.

This concern was most often expressed over the extent of unemployment in Britain. This figure had stood at over 1 million at the beginning of the war and due to the lethargy of the Chamberlain government was taking some time to reduce. In June the MOI noted that whereas the French were said to be ‘staking all’ in their battles, Britain still had 500,000 unemployed. In particular, the high levels of unemployment in Belfast drew the ire of the Northern Irish – why did the government not place more war orders in the area to soak up the jobless?

Perhaps the most forthright comment on the government’s perceived tardiness to mobilise the economy came in response to one of Churchill’s most famous speeches. The MOI noted that in some quarters it had been said that ‘Phrases like “We will never surrender”, “We will fight in the streets, on the hills” are being criticised in the light of the inadequate mobilisation of men and materials.’ Even the finest of phrases was deemed no substitute for action.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood, was never thought to be adequate for his position. His interim budget in July 1940 raised taxation from 7s 6d to 8s 6d in the pound, increased taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and entertainment, and foreshadowed a purchase tax. All the comments the budget brought forth were critical of its feebleness. The opinion that it ‘did not go far enough to carry the tremendous burdens of expenditure needed to win the war’ was typical. Leeds, Cardiff and Reading all thought the budget ‘too timid’. General criticism of the budget continued into August: ‘Not nearly drastic enough’ was the usual comment.

There were other indications of the resolute mood in the country after the shock of Dunkirk. On 3 July Churchill ordered that the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria be sunk to prevent it falling into German hands. The French command was given the options of joining Britain or of sailing to a neutral port, but rejected both. Churchill gave the order with great reluctance and the British admirals carried it out with even greater reluctance. But the move proved highly popular with the public. Home Intelligence reported that the news of the action was ‘received in all Regions with satisfaction and relief’, the only criticism being that some French ships escaped.

This incident highlights the high approval given by the public to Churchill and his policy of victory at all costs. His great speeches were ‘much appreciated’ or held to have had a ‘steadying effect’. His determination to defend London ‘street by street’ was taken as an indicator that ‘we shall not be sold out as the French were by their government’. Generally his messages were well regarded even (or perhaps especially) when they painted the strategic picture exactly as he saw it without glossing over the peril in which the country found itself. It was said that ‘if he [Churchill] says things are all right … people know they are all right; if he says things are bad, we know they are bad’. His warnings against complacency in the invasion period were ‘widely welcomed’. His speech on the ‘few’ was thought to be ‘the most forceful and heartening he has yet made’ and ‘created a strong feeling of confidence’. Even critics who thought that he might have to be voted out after the war considered ‘he’s the man for us now’.

The most frequently mentioned members of the government apart from Churchill were Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. The attitude of the public towards these men was almost universally hostile. The adverse remarks began just after Churchill had seen off efforts by Halifax (sometimes supported by Chamberlain) to seek some kind of compromise peace with Hitler. On 12 June the MOI reported that the most that could be said about Chamberlain was that the view that he should resign from the War Cabinet was not increasing strongly. A week later there were reports from Newcastle, Scarborough, Brighton and London that both appeasers should go. The Ministry reports reveal that the public was ‘angry’ that they remained in power and even prepared to accuse them of treachery. These feelings did not diminish as the year went on. There was ‘puzzlement’ that Chamberlain in particular was still in office. ‘Demands’ were expressed that members of the previous government (with the exception of Churchill) ‘should be removed’. Criticisms such as these were almost a weekly occurrence throughout the year. Even after the Blitz had started, people found time to observe that Chamberlain should be dismissed. In October when Chamberlain finally resigned due to ill-health, he got scant sympathy. One remark was that ‘I think it is a damned good thing … We’re going to win the war now.’ Only when he died of cancer in November was ‘some’ sympathy expressed, but that emotion was far from universal.

Halifax did not escape censure either. His reply to Hitler’s ‘peace’ overture in June was a public relations disaster that brought down some criticism on Churchill’s head for giving him the job. But that criticism was mild compared to what was said about the Foreign Secretary. Home Intelligence felt moved to give the replies verbatim: ‘Too much like a bishop’, ‘Depressing’, ‘Disappointing’, ‘Unsatisfactory’, ‘What about the Burma Road?’, ‘A statesman has to be a fighter these days’, ‘He didn’t explain anything’, ‘Old-fashioned diplomacy’, ‘Too much like the Chamberlain days’, ‘It was a dull speech: I switched off … It’s no use treating a mad dog like that.’ Someone commented that he liked the ‘high moral tone’ in which the speech was delivered, but that was drowned out by the chorus of disapproval. The MOI tried to put the best gloss on this that they could. Perhaps, they reasoned, what Halifax said went over the heads of a large section of the public. Reading the comments, however, it seems that the public understood Halifax only too well.

Nor did Halifax’s image improve. In October hope was expressed that he would soon join Chamberlain in retirement, ‘as he has been living in a fool’s paradise for years’. Later in the month the view that he was only fit to be a bishop resurfaced in what Home Intelligence reported as a ‘growing feeling’ against him. This negative view remained. Churchill eventually shipped Halifax off to be ambassador in Washington in December. As far as the British people were concerned the Prime Minister could have acted earlier and not necessarily rewarded him with a plum job.

Another indication of the mood of the people was shown by attitudes towards feeding those in Europe under German occupation. Ex-President Herbert Hoover warned Britain that its blockade was threatening millions in Europe with starvation. The government’s policy was to maintain the blockade, as any food sent would be seized by the Germans. The MOI found that 82 per cent of the population supported the policy whereas only 3 per cent disapproved.

Finally there was the attitude to bombing the enemy. Bombs had fallen on London (by accident as it happened) in late August. Even before Churchill could respond, the public were calling for reprisal raids on Berlin. When the enemy capital was eventually bombed on 25 August, the raid caused ‘great satisfaction’ and evoked a ‘wide expression of approval’. Among the public there were ‘no scruples’ about the fact that some of the bombs might fall on civilians. On the contrary the only criticism of the raids was that they were not heavier. Later there was a another criticism – that ‘further accounts of the damage done by our raids on Germany’ should be published.

To sum up, the attitude of the British public (mobilise more rapidly, sink the French Fleet, remove the appeasers from office, call for victory at all costs, maintain the blockade of Europe, bomb Berlin and don’t mind the civilians) pointed in one direction. On the eve of the Blitz there was a remarkable unanimity in Britain around the general proposition of waging vigorous war. The arrival of the Blitz found the British people in good heart.


It is conventional to think of the Blitz on London as commencing on 7 September. Certainly, that date saw the first day of concentrated bombing of the capital. But bombs had been falling on Britain consistently since late May. After Dunkirk, Goering had ordered the Luftwaffe, as well as preparing the way for invasion and destroying the RAF, to carry out ‘dislocation and nuisance raids on Britain’. Such raids commenced in some strength in late June. Many of them were made at night by (usually) small numbers of aircraft. The idea was to dislocate British industry by forcing factories to cease work while the bombers were in range or by bombing factories that could be definitely identified. The method was for small flights to range far and wide across Britain so that no area could be considered safe. For example, on the night of 6–7 July bombs were dropped on the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. On the following night Peterborough was overflown, while on the night of 10–11 June bombers were in the vicinity of Portsmouth, Brighton, Horsham, Ipswich, Colchester, Grimsby, Hull, Lincoln, Boston, Canterbury, Norwich and King’s Lynn, causing sirens to be sounded and work in factories to cease for some hours.

From late August the attacks against industrial cities such as Birmingham, Coventry, Liverpool and Swansea were stepped up – on some nights over 100 tons of bombs being dropped. Little lasting damage was done to industry by these raids. The only vital target damaged in this period was the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich, which was hit on 27 August. Some machine tools were destroyed but the overall effect on Spitfire production was slight.

However, there is no doubt that these raids did cause dislocation. The siren policy adopted by the government meant that on most occasions when the sirens sounded, work would stop. Later the siren policy was changed and tools were only downed when raiders, identified by spotters on the roofs, were immediately overhead. But even in this period the production indices of most war materials increased, indicating that the greater numbers entering war production offset the dislocation or that workers went on working unless in immediate danger.

There is also no doubt that despite the lack of damage, these raids assisted the Luftwaffe in honing their night-flying skills. In addition the raids killed or maimed about 4,000 people – 6 to 7 per cent of the total bombing casualties for the entire war. However, there is another side to this story. Most raids were small scale so the damage they could do was limited. And the wide-ranging nature of the raids meant that a high proportion of the British population acquired some experience of air raids and sleeping in shelters before being subjected to ferocious bombing. This experience would prove useful preparation for the much sterner ordeal that was to follow.

That ordeal began for London on 7 September. In the afternoon a mass of German bombers crossed the coast and instead of following their past practice of peeling off to attack airfields or ports, they continued on to London. This wrongfooted Fighter Command which had scrambled its squadrons to protect its airfields, leaving the way to the capital fairly clear. This raid, it needs to be emphasised, was not in retaliation for the bombing of Berlin by the RAF. The leader of Luftflotte 2 (Kesselring) had always wanted to bomb London. Now he was convinced that the RAF was down to its last few aircraft, which would have to come up to defend the capital.

There were two main raids that day. The first was between 5.00 a.m. and 6.15 p.m.; the second lasted much longer – from 8.10 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. the following day. The statistics of the raids paint a formidable picture. In all the Luftwaffe dropped 649 tons of high explosive and 27 tons of incendiary bombs on London. The bombing was concentrated on the East End, especially on the docks around Stepney, Rotherhithe, Woolwich and Bermondsey, although 45 other London boroughs were also hit. Over 1,000 fires were started, nine of which were categorised as ‘conflagrations’ requiring the attendance of at least 100 fire engines. An area to the north of the Thames for a distance of about one a half miles was obliterated. Many from Silvertown, which lay in this area, had to be evacuated by river. Fifteen large factories were hit and three of these were totally destroyed. Five docks were put out of action. The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was damaged, severely restricting its output of ordnance. Three power stations were crippled and the Beckton Gas Works, the largest in Europe, was badly damaged. Transport along the river halted and almost 30,000 tons of shipping was sunk in the Thames while an additional 170,000 tons suffered damage. Over 400 people were killed and 1,600 severely injured.

The effect of this raid on London and Londoners was severe. A fireman attempting to fight the conflagration on the wharves thought of the destruction of Pompeii. Another fireman in West Ham was ‘frightened out of my life’. To him the bombs seemed to be saying ‘here comes death’. The docks to the south of the river were ‘a square mile of fire’. At night the scene at the Beckton Gas Works was chaotic: ‘Gasometers were punctured and were blazing away’, shrapnel rained down from destroyers firing (in vain) at the raiders. Many residents near the north Woolwich docks were trapped and were rowed to safety along the Thames.



Shortly after the bombing, the Isle of Dogs, one of the worst affected areas, was visited by a Mass Observation investigator. He found considerable damage in the area, with a bomb having fallen about every 50 or 60 yards. Many shops were shut or destroyed, although all the pubs were open. Transport was chaotic, with the main routes out of the area (the Blackwall Tunnel and the Greenwich foot subway) closed. The only way out was to walk or wade through mud to an improvised ferry. Gas and electricity supply was non-existent, which meant that most food had to be consumed cold. Immediately after the raid there had been no water for 12 hours. Telephone services were only available from the police station and postal deliveries were unreliable. After the raid there had apparently been a certain amount of panic and many had left with the few belongings they could muster. Some had decamped to Greenwich Park but others had trekked into the country. All told, the MO investigator estimated that two-thirds of the population of 5,000 had gone, with the caveat that most of the men seemed to be at work. He added apprehensively that there ‘was very little smiling and few jokes’. We will return to this theme later.

For London this was just the beginning. During the remainder of September the capital was bombed on most days and every night, the emphasis gradually shifting to night bombing because of the toll taken on the bombers by the RAF. That month on average 238 tons of high explosive and 14.5 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on London every 24 hours. About 7,000 people were killed in the raids and about 10,000 seriously wounded. In all 15,000 fires were started, the worst night being 19 September when there were 1,142 fires.

Bad weather reduced the number of large raids in October. The days when more than 100 tons of high explosive were dropped decreased to 19 out of 31. However, London suffered some form of raid on every day and the total tonnage dropped was approximately 5,000. The number of incendiaries is not known with any accuracy but the Germans, for reasons that are obscure, seemed to use fewer per raid than in September. About 4,300 people were killed in these raids and 6,500 seriously wounded. Some 8,200 fires were started, the worst night being that of 14 October when there were over 1,000.

In November, London was raided on most nights but on a much reduced scale. Bad weather often kept German incursions to a minimum. In all there were just eight occasions when over 100 tons of high explosive were dropped and only four occasions on which more than 100 people were killed.

This was not the end of London’s ordeal. It was heavily bombed on 28–29 December, 11 January, 8 March, 17 and 19 April and, finally, on 10 May 1941. Nevertheless these were sporadic raids and it is the experience of the concentrated raids that will be dealt with in depth here. By the time that bad weather in November 1940 limited the raids, London had been bombed for 56 consecutive days. This was unprecedented in the history of aerial bombing. Before the war, the small town of Guernica had been destroyed in an afternoon, Rotterdam had been bombed on just one occasion and Warsaw for eight days. The civilian population of London had therefore undergone an unparalleled and shocking experience – 13,000 had been killed, 18,000 severely wounded and about 24,000 fires started. Homes were damaged or destroyed at the rate of 40,000 per week in September and October 1940 but the severe raid on 19 April 1941 in itself affected 178,000 houses. The number of homeless in rest centres was never much less than 20,000 on any given night in the first months of the Blitz. A total of 200,000 people were made homeless from September 1940 to June 1941.

How did this onslaught further the German aims of breaking the morale of the country and crippling its industry? There are a number of factors that have to be considered. The first is the sheer size of London. In 1939 it encompassed 1,156 square miles of territory and had a population of 8,500,000. It was the largest city in the world. However, it has been estimated that just over 1 million people (evacuated women and children, and men moving into the armed forces) had left London in 1939 and they were followed by another 900,000 during the period of the bombing. Offsetting this was a considerable drift back to London from evacuation points during the whole period. Perhaps it would be conservative to estimate the population at about 7 million during the Blitz. If, taking the figures already cited, we estimate that about 12,000 people were killed in the concentrated bombing period, this amounts to 0.17 per cent of the population. If the seriously wounded are added in we have a figure of about 30,000 or 0.43 per cent. This means that the vast majority of Londoners came through the Blitz unscathed so far as major injury or death is concerned. The Luftwaffe had a long way to go before it could kill or maim widely across the capital. In this sense London was just too big a target for the Luftwaffe.

Some light is shed on this by examining the composition of the force that was attempting to reduce London to ruins. The Luftwaffe had about 1,400 bombers operational during the period of the Blitz. But in order to conserve aircraft and rest crews it was usually impossible for the Germans to send more than 300 or 400 bombers over London on any given night. When they occasionally exceeded this number, as they did on 7 September 1940 and on 17 April and 10 May 1941 (to select just three examples), they were not able to match this effort again for some days. And it must be remembered that in the pre-war years the Germans had built up a force of tactical bombers, well designed to aid the army but unable to carry the heavy bombloads of the later Allied aircraft such as the Lancaster and the B17. Most German bombers could carry approximately 1 ton of bombs and in a large raid drop 300 or 400 tons of high explosive. With the introduction of the Max, a bomb of 2,500 kilograms, the Luftwaffe was occasionally able to deliver a heavier load, but their efforts never matched the raids on Hamburg when Bomber Command was able to deliver 10,000 tons of bombs on just four nights.

Of course some areas of London were bombed much more heavily than average figures indicate. We have noted that after the raid of 7 September two-thirds of the population of the Isle of Dogs decamped. Although Chelsea was not a prime target for the Germans, the vagaries of bombing in 1940 meant that because it was on the river and proximate to Westminster it was hit hard. One air-raid warden in the area (Jo Oakman) noted every ‘event’, as bombings were called, which she attended. Between 4 September and 29 December she was called out on over 400 occasions. If these are plotted on a map of an area bounded by Sloane Street, Cheyne Walk and the Brompton Road, the detail on the map disappears under a mass of red dots. And some of the ‘incidents’ she attended had multiple victims. On 11 September she visited 57 Cadogan Square, only to find that a shelter had been hit and some occupants ‘crushed beyond recognition’. Her comment ‘heaven help us all’ summed up the helplessness of those in the Air Raid protection squads. Almost every diary from the period contains the words ‘frightened’, ‘terrified’ or something similar. One account was entitled ‘Journal Under The Terror’, a reference to the period under Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution. The diarist described the night of 8 September as ‘a night of horror, a hell on earth’. The proprietor of a cinema in East Ham, one of the worst affected areas, wrote:

This week has turned us into a very frightened and a very desperate crowd of people … Men on my staff that were in the last war show their misery in the present situation more openly than the rest … Stranded in the theatre all night with half a dozen of them it was very pathetic … These old sweats are very defeatist in their views and keep rubbing in the terrible future they think we have in store for us. All my friends and acquaintances are quite sure they ‘can’t stand much more of this night after night’.

Nevertheless, despite the anxiety and fear, we know that even in areas that were badly bombed the Germans failed in their attempt to induce mass panic. Certainly some left the city. There were 25,000 ‘unauthorised evacuees’ to various towns and villages in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire by 15 September. Others trekked out to areas such as Epping Forest and the Chislehurst Caves at night, but many came back to work during the day. Indeed, special trains were laid on to assist them. In this regard it is worth noting the MO finding that of the 301 inhabitants of one street, 23 per cent of the women and children had gone but just 3 per cent of the men – no doubt because most of the men had to remain in reasonable proximity to their work.

How did people cope with the Blitz and carry on with their normal lives? Many factors seemed to have helped. Some are quite mundane. Most people simply had to go to work, for without work there was no pay and without pay there was no sustenance. And for most people work was an ingrained habit. This factor is often overlooked in analyses of the Blitz but it cannot be emphasised too strongly. Work was the bedrock of industrial society then as it is now. Many diarists mention this. Phyllis Warner made much of the fact that the horror was mixed with everyday routine. She picked her way to work past bomb craters and still did her job although there was a large hole in the roof. Even in the most difficult of circumstances people would stick to their jobs. One bank employee walked to and from work, although it was a journey of 12 miles and it took him three and a half hours each way. Only unexploded bombs kept him away. Others were just too busy or were in such key areas that stopping work never occurred to them. A sister on a children’s hospital ward records the daily terror, regularly notes her lack of sleep, but is only concerned about the babies and children under her care and their screams of terror when the bombs fall. There are innumerable other examples, but work and the routine of work should not be underestimated as providing the spur to continue.

Another factor was the sheer difficulty of leaving. Those who left either had a relative in the country or trekked back during the day. But for most, their support network in the form of family and friends was nearby. And the services they needed to sustain them if their house was demolished were also local. There were rest centres, mobile canteens and other facilities run by the local council. Few had the resources to move away from this network. Indeed, the majority of people did not own a car, the most immediate and personal means of transport. There was always the railway and some availed themselves of it, but the question remained of where to go and to whom to appeal for support on arrival. At other times it was German bombing that prevented this particular escape route from functioning. In short, there were powerful reasons to remain in the familiar surroundings of street and suburb.

It is in this context that statements to the effect that ‘over the first weekend, the nerve and spirit of those in the East End came close to breaking’ should be taken. That there was some panic is beyond doubt. That some of these people fled to safer areas is unquestionable. It also seems unquestionable that for many, removing themselves from where the bombs were falling was not so much a panic reaction as a sensible precaution. But most remained – either because they had no alternative or to utilise the local support networks. How many of these ‘came close to breaking’ can never be known. All we can observe is what actually happened. Most stayed in place and went to work when they could, hardly indicative of broken morale or mass panic. Perhaps the last word should be that of a keen observer of Britain (and of human nature). Before the Blitz had even started, Raymond Chandler predicted its outcome. He wrote to a friend, ‘as for bombing it will be bad but … the English civilian is the least hysterical in the world’.

It is even possible that the bombing stiffened the resolve of Londoners. Certainly they developed, unsurprisingly, a deep antipathy for the people bombing them. Most diarists record this fact. Vere Hodgson, that most sane and broad-minded of Londoners, thought she might never bother with Germans again.63 Ida Naish hoped to see Hitler in Hell. Winifred Bowman spoke of ‘those swines of Jerries’. Mrs Brinton-Lee compared British soldiers with the ‘bombastic’ or ‘craven’ German prisoners she had met. Finally a survey taken by Home Intelligence recorded that after three months of bombing 68 per cent of the people were in favour of subjecting Germany to a harsher peace settlement than Versailles. The diaries certainly show no overwhelming desire by Londoners to come to any kind of settlement with the country that was bombing them.

And even in these circumstances people displayed that normal tendency to come to terms with their situation. Phyllis Warner, who found the first days of the Blitz an appalling experience, reported on 18 September ‘that I’m glad to say that I’m not as frightened as I was. Last week I couldn’t sleep at all, and found the greatest difficulty in getting through my day’s work, but this week I feel much stronger … It’s just a case of getting over the first shock.’ Others felt the same. G. Thomas reported that by 15 September ‘we seem to be getting used to these battles’, while Ann Shepperd, although near an anti-aircraft battery, was sleeping well by 17 September. These individual impressions are supported by the statistics. Mass Observation noted that those getting no sleep decreased from 31 per cent on 12 September to 9 per cent on 22 September and 3 per cent on 3 October. And the numbers recorded by Home Security as sheltering in Underground stations reached a peak of 178,000 on the night of 27–28 September, but decreased to 105,000 on 5 December, 84,000 on 15 January, and just 63,000 on 11 March as more and more people decided to sleep at home. As the head of Mass Observation put it:

For the first few days of the London blitz, social life was shocked almost to a standstill: one left work in the evening to go home to an air-raid. One emerged from the air-raid in the morning to go back to work, maybe late, that was all; and while it was new, exciting, overwhelming, it was enough. Few had the time or the emotional energy for anything else – at first. Gradually, as the nights went by, priorities began to shift. Home life began to acquire some patterns again. New infrastructures were evolved, suited to the new conditions. Routines were established – going to the shelter or not going to the shelter; eating early before the sirens or packing up a picnic. The repetition of bombing on London, every night, helped give such routines both urgency and rhythm.

A comment is needed at this point on the shelters, both public and private, that were made available by the government. Mass Observation reports are highly critical of public shelters. They were unsanitary, there were too few of them, and some of the surface shelters were shoddily built and in effect little more than death traps. The government, including the new Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison, who had replaced the rather ineffectual Sir John Anderson in October, was reluctant to allow the Underground stations to be used as deep shelters. Why, given this situation, was there not some kind of rebellion? There was of course anger – after specific incidents – and many local authorities suffered a backlash due to the inadequacy of the shelters provided. The fact is, however, that most people did not repair to shelters during the Blitz. At its peak only 15 per cent of the population of London used a public shelter and this figure declined from late October to under 10 per cent. Hence the dissatisfaction that did exist had no widespread implications for the war effort.

The final factor to thwart the Germans was Churchill. It is easy now to adopt a cynical attitude to politicians touring disaster areas. But this was 1940 and Churchill’s visits to bomb-damaged areas fulfilled a number of needs. He was often moved to tears at the sight of the homeless and he developed an instant empathy with those whose houses and lives would never be the same. But he also represented something else. He had come to power at a desperate time when a fear was expressed that a British government might go the way of the French. A common call to him as he toured the devastated areas was ‘Give it ’em back’ or ‘when are we going to bomb Berlin?’ His resolute responses were invariably described as ‘reassuring’. In the course of the Blitz, Churchill toured most of Britain’s major cities, cheering people with his obvious concern but also letting them see that as long as he was in charge the war would be fought to the end.

This symbiotic relationship between Churchill and the people is often overlooked. He was seeking to comfort them and assess the response of the local authorities to their plight, but they were also assessing him as an indicator that there was no defeatism in the higher ranks of the government.

He made other interventions as well. It was his minute of 21 September in favour of allowing people to shelter in the Underground that broke the paralysis on the issue that had developed in Cabinet. And it was his experience of destroyed homes on the south coast that resulted in the War Damages Act that saw compensation paid to people for bomb damage.

If the German bombing did not cause a breakdown of society in London, to what extent did it achieve its other aim, that of stifling the capital’s war effort? During the war the ‘key points’ in the city were identified. These were facilities that, if hit or destroyed, could substantially damage the functioning of London as part of the war economy. They encompassed transport facilities, water storage, telecommunications, factories, radar, government buildings and docks. In 1940, 840 such points had been identified in London, a number that increased to 1,109 in 1941. One half to two-thirds of these were factories, 35 were electricity power stations, 23 were gas works, 15 ordnance factories and so on.


Let us examine two nights of heavy bombing to investigate what damage the Luftwaffe could inflict on these targets in London. On the nights of 14–15 and 15–16 October, London was repeatedly bombed. On the first night five factories were hit, including one that made instruments for aircraft. In addition six gas works, three electricity supply substations and a water main were damaged, two telephone exchanges were put out of action and six hospitals. No. 10 Downing Street and the Treasury were hit, 10 major roads blocked and five Underground lines affected. Railway services had to be suspended from Broad Street, Fenchurch Street, Marylebone, Charing Cross and London Bridge. Only restricted services could run from Euston, St Pancras and Waterloo.

The next evening the Luftwaffe returned in equal strength. On this night seven factories, two gas works, four electricity supply substations and three water supply facilities were hit, and five docks put out of action. One water culvert at New Bridge Road, Edmonton, supplied London with 46 million gallons of water per day. Fifteen million gallons were restored within 24 hours, but it took 2,000 workers some time to excavate the 2,000 cubic yards of soil to get to the source of the problem. Meanwhile many London suburbs had no running water. Also that night, railway services were again hit badly and the position deteriorated further from the previous bombing. Damage was inflicted on four additional Underground lines, and services from three telephone exchanges were suspended. Finally Marlborough House, the BBC and four hospitals were hit.

This amounted to substantial damage. It made everyday life difficult, getting to work inconvenient, and it did affect the efficient running of the capital. But what the bombing did not do was radically affect the war effort. A total of twelve factories were hit but over 600 were not. The docks were back in operation in short order. The railway lines could be repaired. Buses could replace damaged Underground lines. Routes could be found around blocked roads. Interruptions to electricity and gas supplies were usually short. Couriers could be used by some firms instead of the telephone. The Home Security Report on electricity supply was an indicator of a more general trend:

London suffered the most [of any city in this area]. 30 power stations and three transformer stations were hit, while 1,393 main and secondary transmission cables and 8,590 distribution cables were involved in the general damage. Despite all this it was unusual for stoppages of supply to last longer than an hour. The most seriously affected generating station was that at Fulham, where a 190,000kw plant was not in full operation for a year. The load, however, was taken over by the grid system and the supply was only interrupted for a matter of hours.

This situation applied generally to all of London’s facilities. As for its output of war materiel, it was just too widely spread for the Luftwaffe to make much of an impact. Overall just 35 factories were totally destroyed. Damaged factories were usually soon back in operation and a sophisticated system of sub-contracting provided many alternative sources of supply.


So far we have dealt only with the Blitz on London. But there was another aspect of the German air assault – the assault on British provincial cities. These phases of the Blitz are not discrete events – there was much overlap between the raids on London and those on the provinces. As we have seen, the Luftwaffe never gave up on attacking the capital. And some heavy raids on the provinces took place while London was being bombed. However, as a generalisation and with one notable exception, London bore the brunt of the enemy attacks from September to December 1940, whereas the Germans concentrated more on the provinces in the early months of 1941. And in this case we cannot stop the story on the last day of December 1940. The campaign to break the British people and the industrial capacity of the country was just as severe in the New Year as it had been in 1940.

The main problem for the Luftwaffe was that provincial Britain was what would now be called a target-rich environment. In the north there were the industrial cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry, Sheffield and Leeds. South Wales also had a concentration of industry around Cardiff and Swansea. Along the south coast lay the major ports of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southampton. In the north-east were major shipbuilding and industrial areas around Hull and Newcastle. Major shipbuilding centres were located at Clydeside and Belfast. Each group of cities could be given a high priority. Spitfires were made around Southampton and at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham. The south coast ports commanded the Channel. The west coast ports saw vital supplies of oil and raw materials arrive from the United States. The ships that kept the trans-Atlantic trade flowing were built and based at Liverpool, the Clyde, the Tyne and Belfast.

Given the plethora of targets and given the fact that the Luftwaffe was hard pressed to assemble many more than 400 bombers per night, it was vital to the fulfilment of their objectives that a plan be developed to maximise the effectiveness of their bombing. No such plan eventuated or even formed in the minds of Goering, Kesselring or Sperrle. All they knew was that the attack on London had neither reduced the RAF to manageable proportions nor collapsed morale. Nor had the capital’s industry and infrastructure been reduced to rubble. Yet they would continue to attack London, while at the same time sending small packets of bombers to a variety of targets around Britain and mounting major raids on a selection of provincial cities. This was the opposite of a concentration of effort, but it was what the Germans would carry through from November 1940 until March 1941.

In that period heavy raids (defined as the dropping of over 100 tons of bombs) would be carried out on London on 12 occasions. Cities such as Southampton, Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth, Manchester and many others would be visited by small numbers of bombers and occasionally attacked in force.

The limitations of such methods can be demonstrated by examining one of the best-known provincial raids, the attack on Coventry on 14–15 November 1940. In many ways the city was an ideal target for the Luftwaffe. Coventry was small (a population of just under 250,000 in 1940) but it had many factories making such warlike goods as aero engines, motor vehicles and munitions. Some of these works (such as Daimler) were large, but there was a great number of smaller factories clustered with houses in the city centre around the medieval cathedral. The raid was carefully planned by the Germans. The special pathfinder group (Kg 100) led the way, guided by radio beams that the British failed to jam. Around 7.00 p.m. they dropped a mixture of high explosive with some accuracy on the city centre. The fires started guided the main force of about 440 bombers to the city.

Around 11.45 p.m. the raid reached its height but bombing continued until 6.15 a.m., some German aircraft returning to France to refuel and then bombing a second time. In all over 500 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. The havoc caused was considerable. The medieval cathedral of St Michael was destroyed beyond repair. A total of 41,500 houses (three-quarters of all houses in the city) suffered some damage. Of these 2,300 were totally destroyed and 6,000 rendered unliveable. In addition 624 shops and 121 offices were destroyed. The war economy was badly hit. Overall 111 out of 180 factories were damaged and 75 of them completely destroyed. The casualties (570 dead and 1,100 wounded) would have been more severe had not a proportion of the population been out of the city on their nightly trek.

Mass Observation rushed a team to Coventry and they reported on 18 November. The investigators found the damage greater than in any other city including London. They found a feeling of ‘helplessness’ among the population, many of whom had no idea what to do. There were signs of hysteria, terror and neurosis. It would indeed be surprising had there not been such feelings in a city small enough for almost everyone to know one of the dead or injured and with such widespread property damage. The mood soon improved, however. The army was drafted in to help clear rubble and essential services slowly returned. Two days after the raid, arrangements had been made to transport 10,000 people out of the centre, but only 300 actually left.

Nevertheless, considerable damage had been done to the war economy. One of the Daimler aero-engine factories was completely wrecked. It was estimated that it would take a month to restore production. A further 14 factories making engines or components for aircraft had suffered damage, as had such firms as Triumph that made parts for tanks and armoured cars.

Coventry, if not quite ‘finished’ as one observer put it, was certainly on its knees. Further raids of this nature by the Luftwaffe were greatly feared. Home Security concluded that ‘Another such raid might well have put Coventry beyond the possibility of repair.’ But the Luftwaffe did not return. In subsequent days and weeks it turned its attention back to London, then to Birmingham, then Bristol and then to other cities. Coventry did not suffer another major raid for some five months, when 100 aircraft dropped 100 tons of high explosive and incendiaries on it. Casualties were high – some 281 killed and 525 severely wounded. The Daimler works was again put out of operation for several weeks. On the night of 10–11 April there was a further major raid but on this occasion no important target suffered significant damage. These raids were certainly intense, but the five-month interval had allowed Coventry to recover – both in spirit and in productive capacity. By repeated bombing the Germans probably could have obliterated Coventry and that would have slowed British aircraft production significantly. This was a lesson that its citizens were happy for the Luftwaffe not to learn.

This pattern of dreadful destruction and then neglect was repeated by the Luftwaffe throughout the Blitz. Bad weather drastically curtailed their operations in January and February 1941, but by then some in the German High Command were becoming disturbed by the lack of results. On 4 February Admiral Raeder, General Jodl and Field Marshal Keitel expressed their concerns to Hitler. Raeder emphasised the importance of British dependence on imports and its need to continually build escort and merchant ships for the trans-Atlantic trade. As a result Hitler issued a new directive that gave the Luftwaffe at least some direction. He ordered that major raids be concentrated on the western ports that either built ships or received imports. Accordingly, when the weather cleared the Luftwaffe launched a major raid on Clydebank, which contained some of Britain’s largest shipbuilding yards. On the night of 13–14 March over 400 bombers dropped 1,100 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Clydebank. The loss of life was massive because many workers lived close to the shipyards – over 1,200 were killed and 1,000 injured. Clydebank was a rather self-contained area just to the west of Glasgow. Of its 60,000 inhabitants, just 3,000 remained after the raids – the rest had fled to safety. Indeed, there was not much to return to – only seven houses out of a total of 12,000 remained undamaged. The damage to the actual shipyards was not extensive, but the dispersal of the population had serious repercussions for the industry. John Brown’s shipyard normally employed 10,000 workers, yet a week after the raids just 6,500 had reported for work. Another week was to pass before the yard was 75 per cent effective.

For one of the very few occasions during the Blitz the deductions drawn by Home Security were alarming:

There is a real danger that continued and concentrated attacks on the residential areas of the ports will lead to a large-scale movement of the population, as a result of damage to houses and public services. These attacks may prove more effective in hampering the work of the ports than accurate bombing of the port facilities themselves. Undoubtedly provision of relief for the homeless and facilities to enable the workers to get back to work is of vital importance.

Home Security was no doubt correct. Many more raids on this scale would have seen vital works such as John Brown’s shut down through lack of labour. Yet once again the Luftwaffe did not follow up the attack. Over time the workers were rehoused and returned to their tasks.

In keeping with Hitler’s directive, Belfast suffered a major raid in mid-April. The shipbuilders Shorts and Harlands were out of production for three weeks. Some 20,000 people were made homeless by this single raid. Yet there was again no follow-up and shipbuilding in Northern Ireland was soon back to normal.

If we follow the pattern of bombing during February, March and April 1941, we can see that the Luftwaffe attempted to follow Hitler’s directive. There were raids on Swansea, Hull, Bristol, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Barrow and the Tyne in this period. But the pattern of one or two night raids repeated itself. Plymouth was hit particularly hard in April to the extent that civil administration almost broke down. Mass Observation reported much dissatisfaction with the local authorities. Yet Plymouth survived. This time there would be no more raids because Hitler had begun to regroup the Luftwaffe for operations against Russia.

The last period of the Blitz presents one of the great question marks over German strategy. Liverpool was the port through which flowed most supplies from America. Before May 1941 the weekly tonnage handled by the docks was 181,562 tons. It was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe. Indeed, Liverpool was raided on over 60 occasions between the outbreak of war and May 1941. Yet many of these raids were flights by just one or two aircraft and most did not attain the status of a major raid. The main exceptions were the nights of 12–13, 13–14 and 14–15 March. In these three nights over 450 tons of high explosive were dropped, causing damage to the docks and to commercial and residential buildings.

Despite these three nights it could be reasonably stated that before May 1941 Liverpool had not received from the Germans the attention warranted by its importance. That all changed in the first week of May. From 1 May the city was bombed for seven consecutive nights. In all 839 tons of high explosive were dropped along with hundreds of thousand incendiaries. The raids killed 1,900 people and seriously injured 1,450. At one stage four miles of docks were engulfed in flames. On the night of 3–4 May the SS Malakand, which had 1,000 tons of ammunition on board, was hit and exploded, virtually destroying the Huskisson Dock. A total of 70,000 people, almost 10 per cent of the total population, were made homeless and trekking became a way of life for many. Mass Observation reported widespread dissatisfaction with the local authorities and described an atmosphere of ineptitude, lack of energy and drive on their part. A strong rumour circulated that martial law had been declared. It had not but this was probably a comment on the population’s view of the local leadership.

By the end of the week the capacity of the docks had been reduced to just 25 per cent, a potentially disastrous situation for Britain. Yet even during the Merseyside Blitz the Germans could not concentrate on just one target. In the middle of their campaign against Liverpool they diverted major forces of bombers to Barrow, Belfast, Glasgow and Hull. Thus the number of bombers over Merseyside dropped from 293 on the night of 3–4 May to 55 on the following night, to 27 on the following two nights, then back up to 166 on the final night.

But the surpassing folly from the German point of view was that this series of devastating raids came at the very end of the Blitz. After one more massive attack on London on the night of 10–11 May, the bombers were gradually withdrawn to the east for the impending attack on the Soviet Union. Slowly Liverpool returned to some kind of normality. By mid-May the docks were unloading just less than half their normal tonnage and by mid-June they had returned to full capacity. The thousands of trekkers also returned. In fact most of the dock workers who trekked only did so at night and returned to their jobs during the day, so the same everyday imperatives that acted to keep London going through the Blitz applied at Liverpool as well. For the remainder of the war Liverpool continued to be the main destination for American imports. Any chance that the Germans might have had to cut this lifeline had gone.


The Blitz failed in its objectives. The Germans could neither cow the British people into surrender nor destroy the fundamentals of their war economy. The Luftwaffe, which was never developed as a strategic weapon, proved inadequate to the task. It had too few aircraft that carried inadequate bomb loads, had too many targets to hit and lacked a coherent overall plan. Civilians, it was proved, could stand up to bombing over a prolonged period without cracking, despite the rather feeble defences the British could deploy against the night Blitz and the government’s ramshackle shelter policy.

However, this is much more apparent now than it was then. When they put their minds to it the Luftwaffe could deliver concentrated blows – against London, Coventry, Glasgow, Belfast, Plymouth, Birmingham and other centres – that caused havoc and destruction to an extent never witnessed in Britain before. To those under the bombs this certainly did not seem like an air force too feeble to prevail. No city or country had ever been subjected to the level of aerial bombardment experienced by Britain in these months. In this sense those in charge of Home Security were only being prudent in their attempts to test the daily ‘morale’ of the people. Their methods might appear amateurish today but there seems little doubt that the overall tenor of the reports must have given some comfort to those in authority. Panic at times was reported; there was some looting; defeatist talk was occasionally expressed. But the solidarity of the population was no myth. Most carried on with their lives as best they could. After the constant series of reverses that marked the first part of the year, the ordeal suffered by the British might have been the last straw. That it came nowhere close to delivering a knock-out blow says much about the resolution of a determined people. They had accepted Churchill’s proposition that this war had to be fought to the end. Indeed, there was some concern that the government might fall below this level of resolve. Churchill’s presence in the bombed cities reassured them that this would not be the case, as did his assurances that when the time came Nazi Germany would receive a greater measure of destruction than had been meted out to Britain. He was as good as his word.

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.


A certain stability, or at least consistency, returned to Italy in the middle of the tenth century when Otto, the Saxon King of Germany, claimed the throne of Italy through his wife Adelaide (the daughter, widow and jilter of three previous kings of Italy) and made himself King of the Lombards. Following Charlemagne’s example, he travelled to Rome in 962 and had the pope crown him emperor, thus inaugurating three centuries of rule over Italy by three dynasties of German emperors – Saxon, Salian and Swabian (usually known as Hohenstaufen) – with brief interludes supplied by members of the Welf and Supplinburger families. The gallery consisted of one Lothair, two Fredericks, three Conrads, four Ottos and seven Henrys.

The rulers styled themselves rex romanorum et semper augustus (‘king of the Romans and ever emperor’), and the coronations that their realms required indicate both the complexity of their roles and the difficulty in fulfilling separate duties as kings of Germany, kings of Italy and Holy Roman emperors. After being elected by the German princes, they were crowned kings of Germany at Charlemagne’s beloved Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and became then also known as kings of the Romans. Later they crossed the Alps to receive the iron crown of the Lombards at Pavia, Monza or Milan. The last stage of the process was the journey to Rome, where they were crowned emperors by the pope.

The German Empire stretched from the Baltic and the North Sea to the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian. Such a distance, with a lot of mountains in between, forced emperors to spend long periods on the road. An emperor might be in Italy, quarrelling with the pope over ecclesiastical appointments, when an outbreak of civil war in Germany made him hurry northwards; after settling that crisis, he might have to scuttle back across the Alps to confront the rebellious cities of Lombardy or go even further south to deal with a military threat from Byzantium or the Norman kingdom of Sicily. Even so, emperors managed to find time for outside interests such as campaigning in Poland and participating in four of the Crusades. A predictable consequence of such frenetic activity was the neglect of Italy.

The emperors had their judicial and fiscal institutions in Italy; they also had their supporters among the magnates and bishops, whom they relied on for the administration of the cities. Yet the absence of their overlord enfeebled the institutions and the bishops and encouraged magnates to do what they liked to do anyway: plot and switch allegiances. Such a structure was ill-equipped to administer the new Italy of the eleventh century, in which agricultural wealth, the expansion of trade and a rise in population were transforming societies and economies. The growth and prosperity of the cities gave their citizens the desire and self-confidence to run the affairs of their own communes. Unwilling to accept that they should remain loyal to an absentee foreigner with doubtful rights of sovereignty, they were soon electing their own leaders, running their own courts and raising their own militias. The emperors, distracted by incessant wars in Germany, made concessions that left the communes virtually autonomous. By the late eleventh century their rule over the Lombard and Tuscan cities had become almost nominal.

Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard), the Duke of Swabia who became emperor in 1155, was determined to reverse the drift. A relentless warrior, with grandiose notions of his rights and his dignity, he later became renowned as a symbol of Teutonic unity, a hero to German romantics and an inspiration for Adolf Hitler, who code-named his invasion of Russia ‘Operation Barbarossa’. He regarded the Ottos as successors to the Caesars and himself as successor to the Ottos. As he claimed his position to be equivalent to that of Augustus, he considered the kings of France and England to be inferior rulers. As for Italy, he was intent on reclaiming the so-called ‘regalian rights’ which lawyers in Bologna conveniently assured him he possessed. These included the rights to appoint officials in the cities, to receive taxes on fish and salt and to collect money from tolls and customs. He wanted the cash and was determined to get it; he also enjoyed the prestige acquired from the submission of others.

The defiance of Milan, the largest Italian city, inspired Barbarossa to invade Italy, which he did half a dozen times. His pretext – and perhaps it was a little more than a pretext – was that he was coming to the rescue of those pro-imperial towns, such as Como and Lodi, which earlier in the century had been devastated by the Milanese. He captured Milan in 1162 and destroyed it. He also obliterated the town of Crema, one of its allies, after besieging it with exceptional brutality: hostages from Crema were tied to the front of his siege towers so that the defendants could not avoid hitting their relatives and fellow citizens with arrows.

Barbarossa’s actions led to the foundation of the Lombard League, formed by sixteen cities in 1167 to defend themselves against his imperial armies. An early confrontation was avoided, however, when more urgent matters forced the emperor to return to Germany, and he did not come back at the head of a new army for several years. Despite the defection of a couple of cities, the League won a great victory against him in 1176 at Legnano near Milan, its infantry forcing Barbarossa’s German cavalry from the field. It was a historic moment for the peninsula, perhaps the most united moment between the death of Theodoric and the creation of modern Italy. When patriots of the nineteenth century scoured their history for heroic events to depict, Legnano was a popular choice for literature and painting; it also inspired one of Verdi’s least memorable operas, La battaglia di Legnano, in which the chorus opens the evening with the words

Long live Italy! A holy pact

binds all her sons together.

At last it has made of so many

a single people of heroes!

Unfurl the banners in the field,

unconquered Lombard League!

And may a shiver freeze the bones

of fierce Barbarossa.

His humiliating defeat forced Barbarossa to negotiate, and at the Treaty of Constance in 1183 he conceded the rights of the communes to elect their own leaders, make their own laws and administer their own territories. Concessions made by his opponents were nominal or unimportant: among them were an oath of allegiance and a promise to give a sum of money to future emperors as they proceeded to Rome for their coronations. As the historian Giuliano Procacci noted, ‘the communes recognized the overall sovereignty of the emperor, but kept the sovereign rights they held’. Barbarossa died seven years later, drowned in an Anatolian river on his way to join the Third Crusade, but his Italian ambitions lived on in the person of his grandson, the Emperor Frederick II, who made equally futile attempts to cow the cities of northern Italy.

The wars between Barbarossa and the communes were part of a longer and wider struggle between the Holy Roman emperor and the papacy, which had supported the Lombard League. As with so many conflicts on Italian soil, this one thus became internationalized, several popes calling in German and French princes to assist their cause. Competing factions in the Italian communes soon acquired labels of bewildering foreign origin. Papal supporters were known as Guelphs, called after the Bavarian Welf family that produced Otto IV, briefly an emperor in the early thirteenth century, as well as, later and less relevantly, the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain. Their opponents, the pro-imperial Ghibellines, took their appellation from an even more obscure source, the Salian and later Hohenstaufen town of Waiblingen, a name sometimes used to denote members of the house of Swabia. In their endless medieval struggles, however, Italian Guelphs and Ghibellines were motivated far more by local factors than by remote loyalties to popes and German emperors.

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, it was clear that the Franks, who had rescued the papacy from the Lombards, were the senior partners in the alliance. Yet Leo’s successors tried to reverse the roles by claiming the right to choose who would be emperor. By the eleventh century they were insisting that the emperors acknowledge they received their thrones from the pope, who, as Christ’s vicar on earth, was the highest authority in Christendom. Power was involved along with pride and prestige. Gregory VII, pope (1073–85) and later saint, insisted that only he had the right to invest the clergy with abbeys, bishoprics and other ecclesiastical offices: secular rulers who disobeyed him were excommunicated. The Emperor Henry IV, who planned to continue the policy of his father (Henry III) of appointing and dismissing popes as well as bishops, reacted by deposing Gregory and calling him ‘a false monk’. In retaliation the pope excommunicated the emperor and encouraged his subjects to rebel. Alarmed by threats to his rule in Germany, a contrite Henry then apologized to the pope, waiting for three days in the snow outside the castle of Canossa until Gregory finally absolved him from excommunication. Within three years, however, they were again at odds, and Henry was deposed and excommunicated once more. This time he responded by seizing Rome and setting up an anti-pope who crowned him emperor, but he was soon expelled by the real pope’s Norman allies, who burned much of the city. The feud between Henry and Gregory was not a unique one: these medieval centuries abound with examples of emperors dethroning popes and of popes deposing and excommunicating emperors as well as other monarchs.

Another ingredient in the dispute between pope and emperor was the status of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The south of Italy was already very different from the north, more rural and feudal, more ethnically varied, its life determined by the Mediterranean and its peoples in a way unknown to the cities of the Po Valley with their ties to Europe beyond the Alps. Under authoritarian rulers, who liked to direct the economy themselves, and living uncomfortably beside a feudal baronage, the towns had little chance to prosper as their counterparts could do further north; the few that had recently flourished, such as the port of Amalfi with its merchants in Egypt and on the Bosphorus, soon withered. Like the north, the south had its Romans, Lombards and Franks, but it also contained large numbers of Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs as well as a significant Jewish minority. This multicultural, multi-confessional amalgam was unexpectedly welded into a kingdom by a small band of knights from Normandy whose descendants ruled it, flamboyantly and on the whole successfully, for nearly 200 years.

Norman adventurers, seeking work as mercenary soldiers, had begun arriving in the south early in the eleventh century. Pope Benedict VIII hired some of them to fight the Byzantines in Apulia, and before long a few of the knights, notably the remarkable Hauteville brothers, were receiving lands from grateful employers. Fearing that these Normans were becoming too strong, a later pope led an army against them but was defeated and taken prisoner by one of the five Hautevilles, Robert Guiscard, in 1053. Making the best of it, the papacy agreed soon afterwards that, in return for recognizing papal sovereignty over the south, Robert Guiscard could call himself ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria and future Duke of Sicily’. The adjective ‘future’ soon became redundant when the new duke, assisted by his equally talented younger brother Roger, advanced down Calabria and invaded Sicily in 1061. Thereafter, Robert Guiscard concentrated on conquering the mainland north, capturing Bari and ending Byzantine rule there in 1071, while Roger (later known as ‘the Great Count’) overcame the Arabs of Sicily, taking Palermo in 1072 and completing his conquest of the island in 1090. After the deaths of the two brothers, the Great Count’s son, another Roger, united the Hauteville territories and, following the capture of another pope, was recognized as Roger II, King of Sicily.

The new king was one of the finest rulers of the Middle Ages, a broadminded and farsighted man of wide culture and much administrative ability. He refused to join the Second Crusade because religious toleration was fundamental to his rule, and he insisted that the laws and customs of the peoples of his kingdom should be respected. Fluent in Greek and Arabic, he presided over the most intellectual and cosmopolitan court in Europe, and the architecture he loved – a blend of Saracen, Norman and Byzantine – is still visible in Palermo, in the Palatine chapel with its mosaics and in the red domes of the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. He returned Sicily to the prosperity and influence it had not enjoyed since the days of the ancient Greeks – and to which it would not return again. He made of the Mediterranean’s largest island a microcosm of what the sea might be but very rarely is, a space where cultures, creeds and peoples meet in a climate of mutual tolerance and respect.

The popes treated the Normans much as they treated the emperors: cajoling and pleading when they needed them, fighting and trying to depose them when they did not. Robert Guiscard and Roger II both suffered excommunication. When the Hautevilles and the Hohenstaufen (Barbarossa’s family) became dynastically united in 1186, the hostility became almost permanent. Roger was succeeded by his son William I, another talented and successful Hauteville, unjustly known by his foes among the barons as William the Bad, and by his grandson, William II, called ‘the Good’ because he was more lenient to those perennially annoying subjects. Since Barbarossa after Legnano was no longer a threat to Italy, the second William decided to marry his aunt Constance to the emperor’s heir, the future Henry VI; as his own marriage was childless, a son of this union might thus add the crown of Sicily to the titles of King of Germany, King of Italy and Holy Roman emperor. The prospect of an emperor ruling lands both north and south of the expanding papal states naturally alarmed Pope Celestine III, who first promoted a rival claimant (an Hauteville bastard) to the Sicilian throne and then tried to thwart Henry’s plan to have his son Frederick elected King of Germany. He failed when Frederick was chosen by the electors at the age of two in 1196, but the deaths of the boy’s parents before he was four, together with Constance’s choice of the next pope (Innocent III) as her son’s guardian, postponed an inevitable struggle.

The infant became the charismatic Frederick II, a monarch whose cultural range makes his fellow rulers of the period seem brutal, boorish and philistine in comparison. Hailed as stupor mundi (‘the amazement of the world’), he was lauded in his time as a linguist, law-giver, builder, soldier, administrator and scientist; as an ornithologist he wrote a masterly book on falconry and dismissed the notion that barnacle geese were hatched from barnacles in the sea – an example of deductive reasoning rather than observation because he had no opportunity of studying the breeding habits of the geese inside the Arctic Circle. Yet the adulation, like the appellation, was excessive. The comparison with contemporary kings may stand, but he was not as wise a ruler or as cultured a man as his maternal grandfather, Roger II. He was justly famous as a champion of religious tolerance, yet his skills as a builder, architect and linguist have been exaggerated. In any case, whatever his talents, he failed to solve the three great inherited problems of his position: relations with the papacy, relations with the Lombard cities, and the relationship between Sicily and the empire.

Frederick antagonized the papacy early in his reign by crowning his baby son King of Sicily and, a few years later, making sure he was elected King of Germany. When he himself was crowned emperor in 1220, at the age of twenty-five, he assured the papacy that the crowns would remain legally separated. Yet the assurance did not convince a subsequent pope, Gregory IX, once a friend of St Francis and St Dominic but now a dogmatic and irascible leader of the Church. In 1227 he excommunicated Frederick after an outbreak of plague had forced the emperor to abandon a crusade; when the expedition was resumed a year later, the pope was so enraged that an excommunicant was leading it that he launched an invasion of Sicily while its king and his army were away campaigning triumphantly for Christendom. Frederick soon returned from the Holy Land, where he had crowned himself King of Jerusalem, defeated the papal armies and forced Gregory to come to terms and absolve him from excommunication.

The truce between the two men lasted for almost a decade after 1230, but the pope did not relinquish his ambitions to remove the Hohenstaufen from Sicily and to promote a new dynasty for the empire. Frederick’s invasion of Sardinia in 1239 gave him a pretext to excommunicate the emperor once again and build alliances with the pro-Guelph cities of the north. Gregory died in 1241, yet his vendetta was continued, with matching vindictiveness, by a successor, Innocent IV, who deposed Frederick, called him a precursor of the anti-Christ and urged the German electors to supply a new emperor.

Stupor mundi may have been unlucky in his relations with the papacy but he was unwise in his dealings with the Lombard cities. Claiming that northern Italy legally belonged to him, he was determined to succeed where Barbarossa, his paternal grandfather, had failed. In 1226 he summoned an imperial assembly to Cremona, most loyal of Ghibelline towns, and announced his intention ‘to restore regalian rights’. His ambitions predictably led to a revival of the Lombard League, and most of the Po Valley cities banded together to resist him for the last quarter-century of his life. Frederick defeated the League at the Battle of Cortenuova in 1237 but then overplayed his hand by demanding an unconditional surrender, which the cities refused to give him; the following year he was humiliated by his failure to capture Brescia after a lengthy siege. Despite military successes in 1240–41, when he captured parts of the Papal States, and in 1246, when he suppressed a rebellion in the south, the campaigns achieved nothing durable. Even more humiliating than Brescia was the siege of Parma in 1248, when the apparently beleaguered garrison unexpectedly stole out of the town and ransacked Frederick’s camp while he was out hunting.

The emperor died in 1250 and, after the brief reign of his son Conrad, his southern territories were claimed by his bastard child Manfred. Another talented descendant of the Hautevilles, Manfred was a poet, a scientist and a diplomat wiser than his father in his dealings with northern Italy. Yet Frederick’s death had not halted the papacy’s efforts to eliminate the house of Hohenstaufen and to find a new monarch for the kingdom of Sicily. In 1266, after the entreaties of several popes, Charles of Anjou, a brother of the French king, victoriously invaded: Manfred was killed in battle, and the last male Hohenstaufen, Conrad’s teenage son Conradin, was executed.

Charles made himself unpopular in Sicily, chiefly by transferring his capital from Palermo to Naples, and he was ejected by the islanders following the uprising in 1282 known as the Sicilian Vespers. In his place the throne was offered to King Peter of Aragon, whose wife was a daughter of Manfred. Peter’s acceptance and reign may have given some solace to supporters of the Hohenstaufen, but Aragonese rule presaged the long decline of the island. Already cut off from north Africa and the Arab world, it was now detached from France and Italy, although over the centuries the southern mainland – known as ‘continental Sicily’ – was from time to time reunited with island Sicily to be called eventually the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Yet from the end of the thirteenth century the island was effectively an outpost of Spain, tied torpidly to Iberia for over 400 years. Like Sardinia, it received viceroys but little attention from its Hispanic rulers.

Frederick’s rule had resulted in the extinction of his dynasty and the impoverishment of Sicily, which had to pay for his wars. Another casualty was the idea of uniting Italy under a single ruler, which is what he wanted and which no one tried to make a reality again for another six centuries. The beneficiaries of his failure were the cities of Tuscany and the north, which could now pursue their cultural and communal development – as well as their local rivalries – without much external interference. The defeat of a cultured monarch of the south thus led to a cultural efflorescence of the north.               


Russian prisoners of war after the Battle of Tannenberg.

Eastern Front, 17–23 August 1914.

Movements of 23–26 August 1914. Red: Germans, blue: Russians

Movements of 27–30 August 1914.

The general staff had expected that Russia would be slow to mobilize, but the Tsar’s army defied these estimates by coming into action quite quickly against the German forces in East Prussia. There the 200,000 men of the German Eighth Army, commanded by 66-year-old Generaloberst Maximilian Wilhelm Gustav Moritz von Prittwitz und Gaffron, had been deployed to secure the eastern frontier while Germany’s main onslaught fell upon France in the west. Although the Russian army’s preparedness to conduct offensive operations was considerably less than that of the Germans, it nevertheless responded with alacrity to a French request to launch an offensive on the Eastern Front. Having moved two armies into East Prussia in mid-August, III Corps of Russian General Rennenkampf’s First Army struck the German I Corps at Stallüponen on 17 August.

Altogether the Russians fielded some 250 battalions against a German strength of about 144, although the German Eighth Army’s artillery was significantly stronger in terms of the ratio of supporting guns to battalions and of the amount of heavy artillery it had available. In addition, Russian command and control and support arrangements were generally archaic: for example, compasses were available, but few maps were issued, even at formation headquarters. Many Russian junior officers could not read maps in any case. Insufficient availability of telephone cable meant that many operational messages were necessarily sent by radio, but these were often transmitted ‘in clear’ (unencrypted) because the Russian signallers either had no codes or else the message recipients were incapable of decoding them. Meanwhile, little mechanical transport was available to the Russian army, and despite the updating action taken after Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1904 much of the army’s other supporting services and logistical arrangements were still primitive. In East Prussia in 1914 neither the Russian commander-in-chief, General Jilinsky, nor his two army commanders, General Rennenkampf (First Army) and General Samsonov (Second Army) displayed more than average competence as commanders, while at the same time the dislike of Rennenkampf and Samsonov for each other was well known. On the other hand, events on the German side would reveal shortly that the professional ability and judgement of the Eighth Army commander, Generaloberst von Prittwitz und Gaffron, also failed to measure up to that which was expected of an army commander.

In response to the Russian attack, von Prittwitz und Gaffron ordered I Corps, commanded by General der Infanterie Hermann von François, to withdraw his corps to Gumbinnen. But von François refused to do this and instead attacked the Russians, taking some 3,000 prisoners before at last being forced to fall back to Gumbinnen, albeit with the loss of seven guns. Meanwhile, General der Kavallerie (later Generalfeldmarschall) Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen’s XVII Corps43 and Generalleutnant (later General der Infanterie) Otto von Below’s I Reserve Corps moved to reinforce von François, arriving at Gumbinnen at about midday on 20 August. Gumbinnen was then the scene of the next clash, where von François attacked the Russian flank that morning and took a further 5,000 prisoners. Von Mackensen’s XVII Corps was, however, less fortunate. It arrived at Gumbinnen ahead of von Below’s corps and was immediately committed to the battle, where a local Russian advantage in artillery first halted the German advance and then broke the newly arrived corps. There followed the rare sight of an entire German corps rendered non-effective, one division actually breaking and fleeing the battlefield, with many of its soldiers retreating as far as fifteen miles before their flight was finally halted. Although they had lost about 19,000 men, Gumbinnen was a victory for Rennenkampf’s First Army, but it had been achieved in relative isolation, as General Jilinsky lacked both the aptitude and the essential command and control facilities to coordinate the actions of his two armies successfully and thus exploit the Russian success.

In the belief that his rival’s success at Gumbinnen heralded an imminent German collapse, and determined to gain his own victory, General Samsonov advanced his Second Army to the south of the Masurian lakes. Although these sizeable lakes now effectively divided the two Russian armies from each other such that the Second Army could no longer be supported by the First, von Prittwitz und Gaffron assessed that the Russian advance was so strong that the whole of the Eighth Army should now withdraw west of the River Vistula. At 19.00 hours on 20 August he issued the necessary warning order and notified by telephone chief of the general staff Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke at army supreme headquarters in Koblenz of his intentions. In practice, this decision was somewhat premature, for within 24 hours two of the principal staff officers in Eighth Army headquarters had persuaded von Prittwitz und Gaffron that offensive action rather than a withdrawal was both necessary and feasible. Accordingly the army commander rescinded his earlier order for a retreat to the Vistula, thus stabilizing the operational situation and establishing the foundation from which a major German success would shortly be launched.

But for Generaloberst von Prittwitz und Gaffron it was all too late. His initial call to Koblenz had provoked horror within a high command and general staff that could not countenance either the abandonment of German territory or an apparently blatant disregard of von Moltke’s direction for the Eighth Army to counter the Russian advance by offensive rather than defensive action. Since that fateful telephone call, von Moltke had solicited reports from a number of general staff officers in key posts within the various units, formations and headquarters of the Eighth Army, and from these he had ascertained that the situation was by no means as precarious as that portrayed by von Prittwitz und Gaffron. As a result, and irrespective of the Eighth Army commander’s subsequent change of orders on 21 August, von Moltke decided to replace him forthwith.44 This decision, and von Moltke’s choice of a new commander for the Eighth Army, would have important and far-reaching consequences both for the army and, in due course, for Germany.

The officer now selected by von Moltke to take over command of the Eighth Army was 66-year-old General der Infanterie (later Generalfeldmarschall) Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und Hindenburg, whose chief of staff at the Eighth Army would be Generalmajor Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff, an officer who had already gained a formidable reputation on the Western Front during the siege of Liège, where he had served as deputy chief of staff of the Second Army. Paul von Hindenburg was born on 2 October 1847 and, having gained a commission in the 3rd (Prussian) Regiment of Foot Guards (3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß), served as a junior officer during the wars against Denmark, Austria and France in the period to 1871. Consistently regarded as a very capable general staff officer, as well as a pragmatic and strong leader, he rose to command an army corps as a Generalleutnant, eventually retiring from active service in 1911. He had achieved command of an army corps despite his well-known preference for service with troops rather than in staff appointments, a preference that rarely resulted in rapid advancement in the peacetime army but which earned him the loyalty and respect of those he commanded. During the later years of his service, von Hindenburg had been considered as a possible contender both for the post of chief of the general staff and for that of Prussian minister of war, but this did not happen. When he retired as a corps commander in 1911 his last first-hand experience of a major conflict had been as an infantry junior officer in 1871, so that when von Hindenburg was recalled to serve his country as commander of the Eighth Army in late August 1914, almost half a century had passed since he had been at war. Nevertheless, the formidable combination of army officer training, the general staff system and a rigorous process of selection for high command – together with the inherent ability and personal qualities von Hindenburg brought to his new assignment – ensured that the right man had been found to produce a German victory in East Prussia. In addition, this was an area that von Hindenburg already knew well, not only due to the number of manoeuvres and general staff training exercises staged there but also because he had been born in Posen (modern Pozna in Poland) in East Prussia.

Dressed in his old 1911-era uniform, von Hindenburg was met by his new chief of staff at the main railway station in Hannover on 23 August, from where they would travel on together to Eighth Army headquarters. Generalmajor (later General der Infanterie) Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff45 was a very different man from von Hindenburg, but the personalities of the two generals complemented each other very well. Born in 1865 and in due course commissioned into the infantry, Ludendorff had no direct experience of combat or of a major conflict prior to 1914. Unlike von Hindenburg, however, he readily accepted that a career in the general staff was the route to speedy professional advancement, and having achieved membership of the staff he quickly demonstrated his aptitude, intellect and professional abilities. Despite his undoubted professional competence, he also acquired a reputation as an ambitious, mercurial, violent and abrasive officer who carried these less-positive traits into his approach to the organization and conduct of warfare. His vision of modern conflict was one of ‘total war’, waged to the uttermost extent of the resources of the nation, with little thought for matters of morality or principle if these should prejudice the army’s operations. From 1904 to 1913 Ludendorff had worked in the operations and mobilization department of the general staff, rising within it to head that department from 1908 until 1913. In that capacity he had been very directly involved in the several measures proposed to increase the size of the army in the pre-war years and had suffered the frustration of seeing the increases essential to the success of the Schlieffen Plan refused by the government in 1912 and 1913. Indeed, he had also been an important contributor to von Moltke’s operational review and modification of various aspects of the Schlieffen plan, having worked closely with him in the years prior to the outbreak of war. So it was, at Hannover Hauptbahnhof (the city’s main railway station) on 23 August 1914, that the leadership duo that would just a year later assume total command of the German army for the remainder of the war, was formed. The two officers’ onward journey to the Eighth Army headquarters at Marienburg (now Malbork) on the Vistula took them north and east from Hannover, and they arrived there later that day. En route they developed their own strategy to deal with the Russians, and on 25 August von Hindenburg signed off the operation order that committed the Eighth Army to what would become known as the Battle of Tannenberg, a defining moment not only of the fighting on the Eastern Front but also of the wider war. On 26 August von Hindenburg was promoted Generaloberst.

In fact, the operations staff at the headquarters of the Eighth Army had already produced a design for battle which virtually mirrored that devised by von Hindenburg and Ludendorff on 23/4 August. There, the chief of operations, Generalmajor Grünert, but more particularly his deputy, Oberstleutnant Max Hoffman, had also identified the disjointed command and control arrangements between the two Russian armies and the very different operational approaches of Rennenkampf and Samsonov. They assessed that this offered the Eighth Army an excellent opportunity to isolate and destroy the two Russian armies separately by conducting a holding action against one Russian army while concentrating and employing the maximum force against the other. In addition, the physical barrier provided by the Masurian lakes further exacerbated what was already the virtually non-existent coordination between the two Russian armies.

Given Samsonov’s over-optimism and recklessness – even now he was pushing his Second Army onwards at best speed in order to attack the German right, with his exhausted infantry regiments marching up to twenty kilometres a day – and Rennenkampf’s caution, the Germans judged that Samsonov clearly posed the greater threat. A captured Russian map showing the First Army’s operational plan, together with the steady flow of intelligence gleaned from German intercepts of Russian radio traffic (all still sent in clear), tended to confirm this assessment. However, if the Germans had miscalculated and Rennenkampf should break through on the northern flank, which was held by a predominantly cavalry force of just one division necessarily deployed on a frontage that exceeded thirty kilometres, then the Eighth Army risked an overwhelming attack into its rear area while its main combat units were still dealing with Samsonov to the south. In any event, the meeting of minds between the new commander and his chief of staff and the in-place operations staff of the Eighth Army meant that the army’s new offensive could be launched in fairly short order.46

As ever, the railway played a crucial part in moving major elements of the German corps speedily and largely undetected to concentrate against the Russian Second Army to the south. The German I Corps was still de-training to the west of Tannenberg on 25 August following its move south-west from Gumbinnen when Ludendorff, concerned by the threat posed by Rennenkampf, ordered its commander, General der Infanterie Hermann von François, to attack Samsonov’s Second Army forthwith. This was despite the fact that none of the I Corps’ heavy artillery was by then available and that neither I Reserve Corps nor XVII Corps would be able to support such an attack as both corps were still moving south by road to join the battle against Samsonov. At first von François refused to launch such an ill-judged venture, but he was then visited by von Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffman. The outcome of the ensuing discussion was a statement by von François that, if the attack order were indeed to be confirmed, he would only agree to carry it out on the understanding that the resulting action would unavoidably have to be carried out by the infantry alone! Hoffman, who was undoubtedly more in tune with the Russian deployment and activities than Ludendorff, supported von François’ decision but did not declare this to the new chief of staff. Fortuitously, however, just then intelligence was received that Rennenkampf’s progress was sufficiently slow for his army to be unable to threaten the Eighth Army’s rear. At the same time, Samsonov had ordered a pursuit of what he had mistakenly assessed to be a still-demoralized and routed German XX Corps commanded by General der Artillerie Friedrich von Scholtz.

As a result, the original assessment of the Russian intentions made by Hoffman and Grünert was validated. Von François was no longer required to carry out his premature attack, while Samsonov’s Second Army was drawn even more deeply into the German trap. Battle was finally joined when Samsonov launched his own attack at dawn on 27 August, advancing north-westwards on a general line from Allenstein to Osterode. At that stage the two corps commanded by von Below (I Reserve Corps) and by von Mackensen (XVII Corps), which had deployed to the north and south of Tannenberg, fell upon the Russian right. By that evening the Russian advance had been halted, with many casualties sustained. Samsonov, however, was relatively undisturbed by this turn of events and still anticipated the imminent arrival of the First Army from the north. In the meantime, early that morning von François’ I Corps – now with its full complement of heavy artillery available – had begun a seven-hour bombardment of the Russian left, accompanied by a series of attacks that virtually annihilated the Russian corps on the Second Army’s left wing. Samsonov threw five more divisions into the battle, but they failed to break through the German forces that had by then almost encircled him. By nightfall on the 27th the Russian army group commander, Jilinsky, was at last becoming aware of the disastrous situation concerning his Second Army and ordered Rennenkamp to hasten his attack from the north.

On 28 August the fighting continued, and the German encirclement of the Second Army was completed when von François again disobeyed an order from Ludendorff, which on this occasion required him to move to assist von Scholtz’s XX Corps. Fortunately, XX Corps did not need this assistance, and by driving instead upon Neidenburg (now Nidzica), von François’ I Corps effectively cut off the Russians’ potential escape route to the south. Although the remnants of the ensnared Second Army fought on bravely and enjoyed some local successes, including the temporary recapture of Neidenburg, the end was not in doubt. Late on the night of 29 August Samsonov walked alone into the dense fir woods, took out his pistol and shot himself. The last units of his decimated army dug in and continued fighting until the morning of 31 August, when they surrendered. By then the last of the Second Army’s ammunition was gone, and there was no hope of resupply or relief. In the defeat of the Second Army 50,000 Russians had been killed or wounded, with 92,000 prisoners taken by 31 August – the ‘day of harvesting’ as von Hindenburg termed it – together with some 500 guns.

Of the great haul of prisoners taken, no fewer than 60,000 were directly attributable to the actions of von François, who had yet again modified Ludendorff’s orders for his I Corps at the end of the main battle, thus ensuring that the remaining Russian troops could not infiltrate away to the south and east. Although his intuitive command of I Corps had been most effective in accordance with the concept of Auftragstaktik, and he was a key contributor to the German victory against the Second Army, von François had not endeared himself to Ludendorff during the Battle of Tannenberg. Consequently, despite his clear professional ability and suitability for advancement and high command, von François was destined to remain a corps commander throughout the war.

Meanwhile, now fully aware of Samsonov’s fate, Rennenkampf withdrew his First Army, only to find himself being pursued by German forces now reinforced by an additional two corps from the Western Front. During the ensuing Battle of the Masurian lakes, fought between 5 and 15 September, von Hindenburg’s forces finally crippled Rennenkampf’s army, which lost more than 125,000 men including 30,000 as prisoners, together with 200 guns. However, the defeat of the Russian First Army was not as decisive as that of the Second Army: Rennenkampf managed to disengage and withdraw part of his command successfully, often marching his men more than thirty kilometres a day on congested roads in blistering heat. The end of this follow-on battle by the Masurian lakes marked the conclusion of the Battle of Tannenberg, a German victory that had great significance for the wider conflict, shaping its future course and that of European history, but particularly that of tsarist Russia.

Tannenberg also assured the future prominence and fortunes of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The former continued as commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front throughout 1915, achieving several further successes. By the end of that year von Hindenburg had become a household name within Germany and internationally, and when the Kaiser relieved General der Infanterie Erich Georg Sebastian von Falkenhayn of his post as chief of the general staff in August 1916 von Hindenburg assumed that appointment, becoming in practice Germany’s supreme warlord throughout the remaining years of the war.

Meanwhile, Ludendorff continued as von Hindenburg’s principal adviser, and so from August 1916 he exerted a very significant influence upon many aspects of an army that was by then engaged in a modern, industrialized war of attrition. He addressed the army’s doctrine, tactics, technology and organization with great energy, as well as the key policies and practicalities that affected the means of industrial production necessary to support such an army. Whereas von Hindenburg was unquestionably Germany’s military and national figurehead during those years, he lacked the sheer ability of his subordinate. Ludendorff’s was the intellect and the brain that drove the nature and spirit of the army and, arguably, that of the German nation in arms from 1916 to 1918, while von Hindenburg’s great skill was to recognize Ludendorff’s considerable, if sometimes erratic, attributes and his own limitations, simultaneously directing, supporting and focusing the former while not deluding himself over the latter. The enormous breadth of power and responsibility that was accorded to von Hindenburg and Ludendorff from 1916 made them true warlords of their time and exemplars of more than a century of Prussian and German military professionalism. For both of these senior officers their ultimate wartime achievements were the culmination of a process that began in East Prussia during August–September 1914 at Tannenberg and the Masurian lakes.