The battle of Caporetto also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo River was fought between the Central Powers, Austro-Hungarian and German forces and the 2nd Italian Army. The ultimate result of the battle was a disastrous loss of life, organisation, equipment and territory for the Italians. Yet it was several factors which resulted in an easy victory for the Central Powers.
The Italian army was led by Supreme Commander General Luigi Cardorna. In the lead up to the battle Cardona had twice ordered the army to adopt a defensive stance in the region. However for the most part his orders were generic and lacked real strategic information which didn’t enable the Italian army to have a substantial and co-ordinated defensive line. The commander at Caporetto was Luigi Capello who despite remaining in control over the battle was ill during the entire period of fighting. Further preparation in the region of Caporetto was undermined by Italian command who dismissed the idea of a large-scale offensive in Northern Isonzo because they believed the attack would take place in Trentino. This idea was furthered by a small attack by the Central Powers in that region previously. This resulted in Caporetto being one of the weaker points in the Italian defensive line.
But a bigger and more decisive factor in the battle was tactics from the Austro-Hungarian and German command. German forces had reinforced the Austro-Hungarian troops in the region as they did not want to lose their strongest ally from the war with Italy, with previous battles along the Isonzo river affective the stability of Austrian control of surrounding regions. As such due to easing commitments in the engagements with Russia they could afford to send units to reinforce and strengthen the Austro-Hungarian forces, the first time they had done so on the Italian front. As a result, they formed a new 14th Army with nine Austrian and six German divisions commanded by the German Otto Von Below. The Central Powers had used effective tactics which helped swing the balance away from the Italians even before the assault started. The Austrians and German’s had purposely misled the Italians prior to the battle on the amount of artillery equipment they possessed. Using slow sporadic fire over weeks prior to the war the Italians were unaware of the extent the Central Powers could launch an artillery barrage, with them having a gun every 4.4 metres.
The offensive was launched on the 24th October at two in the morning. One thousand gas shells were launched into Italian lines in the first thirty seconds of the barrage killing six hundred men. Each canister launched into Italian territory contained 600ml of chlorine and phosphine gases. With Italian gas masks only able to protect the soldiers for hours many had to flea for their lives as the onslaught continued. The retreat caused panic and disorganisation in the Italian army but it was followed up by a further and more devastating attack and onslaught by the Austro-Hungarian and German forces.
A follow up swift penetrative offensive was launched by the Central Powers later in the morning. The Italians vision was clouded by the numerous gas clouds which littered the battlefield was only made worse by dense fog that morning. Despite being ordered to take a defensive line Capello decided to try and go on the offensive which ultimately proved more detrimental to the Italians. A decisive infantry attack was spearheaded by German troopers who decisively attacked in small groups and at weak points across the Italian line. Effective penetration from the Stormtroopers and fellow infantry allowed extensive ground to be made up allowing for surprise attacks to be launched on the Italians from behind. This only added to the confusion within the Italian ranks. The penetration tactics used by the Central Powers were so effective by the end of the first day some platoons had advanced 25km. But more crucially the Italianswere pushed back into the mountain ranges, resulting in a weaker position as the German led offensive could look down toward the fleeing Italian army.
Capello eventually understanding the situation did request for a withdrawal troops, however he was met with disapproval as a defensive line was to be established. However despite some resistance from the Italian troops at both Plezzo Gap and Monte Nero there was no sustained defensive hold on which the Italians could regroup from. This was in part by weather as fog did limit vision but more importantly shelling and damage done by advances from enemy infantry had caused damage to telephone communication wires. This resulted in a disorientated and uncoordinated Italian retreat. This only further added to Italian casualties and loss because of the lack of directive for the Italian army.
A supremely effective breakthrough from the Austro-Hungarian and German forces had caught the Italians off guard, but crucially the amount of success also came as a surprise to the offensive troops. By October 30th the Italian army had been pushed back to the River Tagliamento. However the astounding success and territorial gain had surprised the Central powers and as such supply lines were becoming stretched and effecting the troops who were spearheading the assault. An Italian withdrawal took them to the River Piave, just 20 miles North of Venice. By the end of the battle the Italians had strengthened their defensive line south of the river and anchored on the Asiago Plateau and Monte Grappa in the North which provided a good strategic defensive position. This shoring up of Italian defence was only aided by further stretching of supply lines for the enemy and the German troops who spearheaded the offensive were becoming weary after a 70km advance into Italian territory.
But ultimately this was a disastrous result for the Italians. Italian losses were extensive with 22 airfields being abandoned, 40,000 dead, 280,000 taken prisoner by the enemy and 350,000 men had at least temporarily lost contact with their units. The last figure effectively illustrates the panic and incoordination of the Italian response to the offensive. Furthering on this a substantial amount of equipment had been lost in the hasty retreat.
The battle also brought about the creation of the Supreme War Council at the Rapallo conference between the 5th and 7th December. The council aimed at improving allied military co-operation and developing a unified strategy. Ultimately the Allies sent 11 divisions to the region in response to the defeat at Caporetto. This helped the Italians make a stronger defensive line and protect the city of Venice and further enemy advances.
A subsequent Italian parliamentary investigation placed blame for Caporetto on both Capello and Cardona. Luigi Cardona was ultimately replaced by General Armando Diaz. The effects of the defeat were even larger with Italian tactics being fundamentally altered. The Italian army didn’t go on the offensive until the end of the war and it played a crucial role in limiting Italian influence on the outcome of the war. Furthermore, it was at the time and still is regarded as one of the greatest military defeats in Italian history.