In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway described the desolate environment of the Soča Valley:
“There was fighting for that mountain too … the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with autumn.”
It is hard to believe that Hemingway’s description here is of the same valley that stands today; a wide expanse of deep forests cut by canyons and rivers. Of course, his description was from a time in history when desolation was the norm: The First World War.
In the early twentieth century the Soča Valley “evoked horror and sorrow” as John R. Schindler argued. The Isonzo River was a battleground from May 1915 to October 1917, utilized by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. The goal of the Italian army was to seize the Bainsizza Plateau- a way north. Over the course of almost two and a half years, twelve battles were fought along the Isonzo river, and today, 18th August 2017, marks the 100-year anniversary of the eleventh instalment of these battles.
By 1917, both armies were at breaking point. After victories on the Eastern Front, General Erich Ludendorff sent more divisions to enforce the Austrian-Hungarian Army. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo lasted for almost a month, beginning on the 18th August and ending 12th September 1917. With new reinforcements and tactics, the assault had immense consequences for both sides; Italy had 40,000 recorded dead, 108,000 wounded and approximately 18,000 missing. The Austrian-Hungarian army had a total of 15,000 dead, 65,000 wounded, and 30,000 missing.
Schindler, in his book Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, emphasised how the cost of the battle outweighed any gain that was achieved by either army. Other than gaining a few miles of land every now and again, the only decisive victory came with the Battle of Caporetto in late 1917, when the Austrian-Hungarian army broke through the Italian front. The Italian army was only able to cross the Isonzo river in November 1918 after 29 months of fighting, and this was mostly due to the political collapse of Austria-Hungary, as opposed to any considerate military prowess.
With this tragic loss of life, a debate has surfaced which attempted to identify why the Isonzo campaign is generally a forgotten aspect of history. Perhaps to the trained historian, who specialises in Italian history, the mere mention of the word “Isonzo” would bring a torrent of information otherwise hidden in general history books. But to the average member of the public, the Isonzo campaign is virtually unknown compared to other World War One battles such as the Somme. Schindler has argued that the impact of the Isonzo was immense, especially in terms of politics, culture and society, and yet it has disappeared from history. This could be due to the fact that the Italian army was once the greatest in the world, and the twentieth century left it in tatters. But for English-speaking and western historians, Schindler states that battles that did not occur on the Western Front “apparently are not worth exploring.”
In a review of Schindler’s book, Lawrence Sondhaus agreed, stating that English, French, and German literature focussed mainly on the Western Front with a “heavy bias.” All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and the works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are just a few examples. Sondhaus also supported Schindler’s argument in that ultimately the sacrifices made along the Isonzo were enormous, and yet did not play a decisive role in the aftermath of the war. For many Italians and Central Europeans, the Isonzo campaign symbolized the “utter futility” of World War One.
Having said this, one could argue that perhaps the Isonzo was not as futile as it may appear. Michael Howard suggested that for English Prime Minister Lloyd George, the collapse of the Italian front was “providential.” With a reshuffle of troops across the Western Front to stabilise the Italian one, it led to a collaboration with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to create the Allied Supreme War Council in 1917. Based in Versailles, the council would lead the world to an armistice and eventual treaty in 1919.
In addition to this, Kirsten Amor has pointed out that the Ustanova Fundacija Poti Miru v Posočju Foundation was set up to avert the disappearance of one of many tragic marks of the First World War. The Foundation worked with the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to create ‘Pot Miru’ (‘Walk of Peace’); a 90-kilometre trail through the Soča Valley highlighting the major sites of the war.
Ultimately, the Isonzo Campaign cost Italy approximately 1.1 million casualties, and Austria Hungary 650,000. Schindler is adamant that these people were “sacrificed in pointless battles for useless objectives.” Whilst this is undeniably true, the Battles of the Isonzo are a reminder of the loss, sacrifice, and tragedy of war as a whole. They may be forgotten, but they are not insignificant.