Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign
The Italian Front 1915-1918
John Macdonald with Željko Cimprić
Review by David Parmee
Pen & Sword Military, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, 2015 £12.99 (paperback),
pp. 187 plus a one-page note on place names,
A two-page Preface,
A brief description of the Kobarid (Caporetto) Museum,
and sources of illustrations and bibliography.
ISBN 978 1 47384 572 5
'Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign' recounts the campaign in the region of the Isonzo River on the Italian Front from 1915 to 1917, including brief accounts of its background and aftermath.
'Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign' was first published in 2011 and reprinted in this format in 2015, perhaps to coincide with the centenary of Italy’s entry into the Great War.
The author, John Macdonald, was by background a distinguished management theorist, consultant and lecturer. Following a visit to the battlefields of Slovenia and Italy, he studied the Isonzo campaign in detail and completed this book shortly before his death in 2011. His collaborator, Željko Cimprić, was an experienced mountaineer and noted amateur photographer who was the author’s guide on his visit to the region. He subsequently became curator of the award-winning Kobarid (Caporetto) Museum.
In his introduction, the author notes the familiar fact that there are few books in English about the Isonzo campaign, and the best are lengthy and detailed. He, therefore, set out to meet the need for “a shorter book, packed with photographs and illustrations of the period, for the tourist and the impulse buyer”.
In my opinion, he achieves this and more. The book provides a very good overview of a little-known campaign in a theatre of the war that is often overshadowed by the Western Front, Gallipoli and other theatres. It meets the needs not only of the “tourist and impulse buyer” but also the amateur military historian.
The author also notes in the Introduction that the battles of the Isonzo “comprise one of the world’s major military campaigns ... certainly the greatest mountain campaign” and that the horrendous casualty rates - “Verdun on a mountain top” - more than matched the slaughter on the Western Front. These aspects are brought out forcibly in the later chapters.
Chapter one deals at a high level with the background to the campaign.
More thorough accounts are available to the interested reader, for example, in one of the books mentioned in the bibliography: ‘The British Army in Italy 1917-18’ by John and Eileen Wilks. One quirk, perhaps a typographical error, is the author’s use of the phrase Italia Irrendenta rather than the usual Italia Irredenta to describe the Italian desire, and war aim, to reclaim historic Italian territories from Austro-Hungarian rule.
Chapter two describes in some detail the appalling terrain over which the Isonzo battles were fought
It brings out the impact of the mountains, plateaus, ravines and river valleys of the region. A 1916 quotation from an American journalist is cited, in which the terrain is described as “the strongest natural fortress in the world”. Trench warfare on rocky ground and the effects of artillery bursts on rock were clearly key aspects of the campaign. The weather, of course, from the bitter cold of the winter to the searing heat of the summer, added its own terrible dimensions to the experience of the combatants.
Chapters three to five deal with the objectives of the opposing armies.
It covers the weapons, equipment and military formations, including specialist mountain units; and the Italian, Austro-Hungarian and German commanders. Not surprisingly, there are parallels with the Western Front as regards the advantage of defence over attack and equipment shortcomings. The cultural and ethnic diversity of the armies and the contrasts in training, morale and nationalistic spirit are features which, while not unique, are certainly distinctive for this campaign, and ones which had an effect not only on the battles but throughout the war on this front. The comparison of commanders is enlightening, particularly the hugely influential strengths and weaknesses of the Italian General Cadorna, the Croatian General Boroević and the German General von Below. The failings of Cadorna and the strengths of von Below are quite well known but Boroević is relatively unknown; the author describes him as “one of the outstanding defensive commanders in the First World War”.
Starting with a brief overview of the campaign, which includes an estimate of the casualty numbers for both sides, chapters 6 to 19 describe the opening skirmishes in May 1915 and the eleven battles along the Isonzo front that preceded the battle of Caporetto, which was fought in late October and early November 1917.
In their intensity and incidence these engagements matched or exceeded those of the Western Front. Often they were separated only by weeks - or just nine days between the third and fourth - and the gap between one battle and the next was often more akin to the opposing armies drawing breath for the next onslaught. Although the author himself quotes Albert Einstein:
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome”, he is adept at differentiating the strategic, tactical and logistical aspects of each battle, thereby taking the edge off the common view that the Isonzo campaign prior to Caporetto comprised very similar, repetitive slaughters of limited benefit.
For example, he describes the ferocity of the Italian artillery bombardments in the second, third and tenth battles; the impact of infectious diseases amongst front line troops during the third battle; the effects of the weather on the winter battles; the influence on both sides of events elsewhere, such as Verdun and the collapse of Russia; the first use of gas in the sixth battle and its particular impact in mountainous terrain; the logistical achievements of the Italians in the sixth battle; the use of specialist mountain troops; the tactical use of reserve formations; the huge failure of the Italians in the sixth battle to drive forward and capitalise on the Austro-Hungarian disarray; the effects of the gearing up of the Italian war economy; the severe fluctuations in morale, particularly in the Italian army, and the resulting disciplinary actions to counter mutiny and mass desertions, including Cadorna’s infamous ‘decimation’ executions; the deployment of British and French artillery units prior to the tenth battle; the enormous importance of the engineer battalions, especially for the Austro-Hungarians; and the use of bomber squadrons in the eleventh battle.
Chapters twenty to twenty-two deal with the battle of Caporetto and its aftermath.
It was a battle commonly recognised, as the author puts it, as “one of the most dramatic battles of the First World War”. It resulted not only in huge gains of territory by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, who came within 80 miles of Venice, but also in the fall of the Italian government, the sacking of Cadorna and the commitment of British and French divisions to the Italian Front. Chapter 20 succinctly captures all aspects of the battle including the strategic drivers that brought German forces and commanders into play, the brilliant logistical planning that moved the German troops to the front in secrecy, the significant impact of gas bombardments and the skilful use of ‘Hutier tactics’, the complete breakdown in Italian communications at all levels, and the rout of the Italian Second Army.
Chapters twenty-one and twenty-two cover the Italian consolidation.
Here is looks at the withdrawal of the German formations in preparation for the Spring Offensive on the Western Front, the eventual Allied counter-attack along the length of the river Piave in the spring of 1918, and the final assault of October 1918 as the war neared its end and the Italians realised that they would have little influence at a future peace conference if they did not take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarians.
The final short chapter describes in an appealing fashion the Isonzo battlefields of today and sets out the framework of a battlefield tour.
I enjoyed this book. As mentioned at the outset, it is an easily readable introduction for the military history enthusiast to a lesser-known theatre of the Great War. It is well illustrated by many contemporary photographs and maps (although a magnifying glass is helpful to study the latter at times). The author’s fascination with the Isonzo campaign and fondness for the mountains, rivers and valleys forming the modern day border regions of Italy and Slovenia are apparent. I have no hesitation in recommending it.
Review by David Parmee, October 2015