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The Battle of Caporetto (also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Battle of Karfreit as it was known by the Central Powers; ), took place from 24 October to 19 November 1917, near the town of Kobaridmarker (now in Sloveniamarker), on the Austro-Italian front of World War I. The battle was named after the Italian name of the town of Kobarid (known as Karfreit in German).

Austro-Hungarian forces, reinforced by Germanmarker units, were able to break into the Italian front line and rout the Italian army, which had practically no mobile reserves. The battle was a demonstration of the effectiveness of the use of stormtroopers and the infiltration tactics developed in part by Oskar von Hutier. The use of poison gas by the Germans played a key role in the collapse of the Italian Second Army.

The Battle

The German offensive began at approximately 02:00 on 24 October 1917. Due to the inclement weather that morning, particularly the mist, the Italians were caught by complete surprise. The battle opened with a German artillery barrage, poison gas, and smoke, and was followed by an all-out assault against the Italian lines. The defensive line of the Italian Second Army was breached almost immediately. The German forces made extensive use of flamethrowers and hand grenades as a part of their infiltration tactics, and were able to tear gaping holes in the Italian line. By the end of the first night, von Below's men had advanced a remarkable . German and Austro-Hungarian attacks from either side of von Below's central column were less effective, however. The Italian Army had been able to repel the majority of these attacks, but the success of von Below's central thrust threw the entire Italian Army into disarray. Forces had to be moved along the Italian front in an attempt to stem von Below's breakout, but this only weakened other points along the line and invited further attacks. At this point, the entire Italian position on the Tagliamento Rivermarker was under threat.

Realizing his forces were ill-prepared for this attack and were being routed, Capello requested permission to withdraw back to the Tagliamento. He was overruled by Cadorna, however, who believed that the Italian force could regroup and hold out against the attackers. Finally, on 30 October, Cadorna ordered the majority of the Italian force to retreat to the other side of the river. It took the Italians four full days to cross the river, and by this time the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were on their heels. By 2 November, a German division had established a bridgehead on the Tagliamento. About this time, however, the rapid success of the attack caught up with them. The German and Austro-Hungarian supply lines were stretched to breaking point, and as a result, they were not able to launch another concerted attack. Cadorna took advantage of this to retreat further, and by 10 November had established a position on the Piave Rivermarker.

Failures of German Logistics

Even before the battle, Germany was struggling to feed and supply its armies in the field. Erwin Rommel, who, as a junior officer, won the Pour le Mérite for his exploits in the battle, often bemoaned the demands placed upon his "poorly fed troops". The Allied blockade of the German Empire, which the Kaiserliche Marine had been unable to break, was responsible for food shortages and widespread malnutrition in Germany and allied countries. When inadequate provisioning was combined with the gruelling night marches preceding the battle of Caporetto, a heavy toll was extracted from the German and Austro-Hungarian forces. Despite these logistical problems, the initial assault was extremely successful. However, as the area controlled by the combined Central Powers forces expanded, an already limited logistical capacity was overstrained. By the time the attack reached the Piave, the soldiers of the Central Powers were running low on supplies and were feeling the physical effects of exhaustion. As the Italians began to counter the pressure put on them by the Central Powers, the German forces lost all momentum and were once again caught up in another round of attrition warfare.

Aftermath

Italian losses were enormous: 11,000 were killed, 20,000 wounded and 265,000 were taken prisoner. Furthermore, roughly 3,000 guns, 3,000 machine guns and 2,000 mortars were captured by the Austrians along with an untold amount of stores and equipment. In addition, a large number of Italian soldiers deserted the army following the battle. Austro-Hungarian and German forces advanced more than in the direction of Venicemarker, but they were not able to cross the Piave Rivermarker. Although to this point the Italians had been left to fight on their own, after Caporetto they were reinforced by six Frenchmarker infantry divisions and five Britishmarker infantry divisions as well as sizeable air contingents. The Piave served as a natural barrier where the Italians could establish a new defensive line, which was held during the subsequent Battle of the Piave Rivermarker and later served as springboard for the Battle of Vittorio Venetomarker, where the Austro-Hungarian army was utterly defeated.

The battle led to the conference at Rapallomarker and the creation of a Supreme War Council, with the aim of improving Allied military co-operation and developing a unified strategy.

Luigi Cadorna was forced to resign after the defeat. The defeat alone was not the sole cause, but rather the breaking point for an accumulation of failures, as perceived by the Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando. Throughout much of his command, including at Caporetto, Cadorna was known to have maintained poor relations with the other generals on his staff. In addition, he was detested by his troops as being too harsh. He was replaced by Armando Diaz and Pietro Badoglio.

This led governments to the realization that fear alone could not adequately motivate a modern army. After the defeat at Caporetto, Italian propaganda offices were established, promising land and social justice to soldiers. Italy also accepted a more cautious military strategy from this point on. Just one fifth of the total 650,000 Italian casualties during the war occurred after Caporetto, a marked improvement.

After this battle, the term "Caporetto" gained a particular resonance in Italy. It is used to denote a terrible defeat - the failed General Strike of 1922 by the socialists was referred to by Mussolini as the "Caporetto of Italian Socialism". Many years after the war, Caporetto was still being used to destroy the credibility of the liberal statem.

Popular Culture

The Battle of Caporetto has been the subject of a number of books. The Swedish author F.J. Nordstedt (e.g. Christian Braw) wrote about the battle in his novel Caporetto. The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms.

Notes

  1. Seth, Ronald (1965). Caporetto: The Scapegoat Battle. Macdonald. p. 147
  2. Dupuy & Dupuy (1970), p. 971


References

Printed sources:
  • Connelly, O. On War and Leadership: The Words of Combat Commanders from Frederick the Great to Norman Schwarzkopf, 2002 ISBN 069103186X
  • Dupuy R. E., & , Dupuy, T. N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, (revised edition), Jane's Publishing Company, 1970, SBN 356 02998 0
  • Morselli, M. Caporetto 1917: Victory of Defeat?, 2001 ISBN 0714650730
  • Reuth, R. G. Rommel: The End of a Legend, 2005 ISBN 1904950205
  • Seth, Ronald: Caporetto: The Scapegoat Battle. Macdonald, 1965
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