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World War I: Battle of Caporetto

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Battle of Caporetto - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Caporetto was fought October 24-November 19, 1917, during World War I (1914-1918).

Armies & Commanders

Italians

  • General Luigi Cadorna
  • General Luigi Capello
  • 15 divisions, 2213 guns

    Central Powers

  • General Otto von Below
  • General Svetozar Boroevic
  • 25 divisions, 2,200 guns

  • Battle of Caporetto - Background:

    With the conclusion of the Eleventh Battle of Isonzo in September 1917, Austro-Hungarian forces were nearing the point of collapse in the area around Gorizia. Faced with this crisis, Emperor Charles I sought aid from his German allies. Though the Germans felt that the war would be won on the Western Front, they agreed to provide troops and support for a limited offensive designed to throw the Italians back across the Isonzo River and, if possible, past the Tagliamento River. For this purpose, the composite Austro-German Fourteenth Army was formed under the command of General Otto von Below.

    Battle of Caporetto - Preparations:

    In September, the Italian commander-in-chief, General Luigi Cadorna, became aware that an enemy offensive was in the offing. As a result, he ordered the commanders of the Second and Third Armies, Generals Luigi Capello and Emmanuel Philibert, to begin preparing defenses in depth to meet any attack. Having issued these orders, Cadorna failed to see that they were obeyed and instead began an inspection tour of other fronts which lasted until October 19. On the Second Army front, Capello did little as he preferred to plan for an offensive in the Tolmino area.

    Further weakening Cadorna's situation was an insistence on keeping the bulk of the two armies' troops on the east bank of the Isonzo despite the fact that the enemy still held crossings to the north. As a result, these troops were in prime position to be cut off by an Austro-German attack down the Isonzo Valley. In addition, the Italian reserves on the west bank were placed too far to the rear to rapidly aid the front lines. For the upcoming offensive, Below intended to launch the main assault with the Fourteenth Army from a salient near Tolmino.

    This was to be supported by secondary attacks to the north and south, as well as by an offensive near the coast by General Svetozar Boroevic's Second Army. The assault was to be preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment as well as the use of poison gas and smoke. Also, Below intended to employ a substantial number of storm troopers which were to use infiltration tactics to pierce the Italian lines. With planning complete, Below began shifting his troops into place. This done, the offensive commenced with the opening bombardment which began before dawn on October 24.

    Battle of Caporetto - The Italians Routed:

    Caught by complete surprise, Capello's men suffered badly from the shelling and gas attacks. Advancing between Tolmino and Plezzo, Below's troops were able to quickly shatter the Italian lines and began driving west. Bypassing Italian strong points, the Fourteenth Army advanced over 15 miles by nightfall. Surrounded and isolated, the Italian posts in its rear were reduced in the coming days. Elsewhere, the Italian lines held and were able to turn back Below's secondary attacks, while the Third Army held Boroevic in check (Map).

    Despite these minor successes, Below's advance threatened the flanks of the Italian troops to the north and south. Alerted to the enemy breakthrough, Italian morale elsewhere on the front began to plummet. Though Capello recommended a withdrawal to the Tagliamento on the 24th, Cadorna refused and worked to rescue the situation. It was not until a few days later, with Italian troops in full retreat that Cadorna was forced to accept that a movement to the Tagliamento was inevitable. At this point, vital time had been lost and Austro-Germans forces were in close pursuit.

    On October 30, Cadorna ordered his men to cross the river and establish a new defensive line. This effort took four days and was quickly thwarted when German troops established a bridgehead over the river on November 2. By this point, the stunning success of Below's offensive began to hinder operations as the Austro-German supply lines were unable to keep up with the speed of the advance. With the enemy slowing, Cadorna ordered a further retreat to the Piave River on November 4.

    Though large numbers of Italian troops had been captured in the fighting, the bulk of his troops from the Isonzo region were able to form a strong line behind the river by November 10. A deep, wide river, the Piave finally brought the Austro-German advance to an end. Lacking the supplies or equipment for an attack across the river, they elected to dig in.

    Battle of Caporetto - Aftermath:

    The fighting at the Battle of Caporetto cost the Italians around 10,000 killed, 20,000 wounded, and 275,000 captured. Austro-German casualties numbered around 20,000. One of the few clear victories of World War I, Caporetto saw the Austro-German forces advance around 80 miles and reach a position from which they could strike at Venice. In the wake of the defeat, Cadorna was removed as chief of staff and replaced with General Armando Diaz. With their ally's forces badly wounded, the British and French sent five and six divisions respectively to bolster the Piave River line. Austro-German attempts to cross the Piave that fall were turned back as were attacks against Monte Grappa. Though a massive defeat, Caporetto rallied the Italian nation behind the war effort. Within a few months the losses of material had been replaced and the army quickly recovered its strength through the winter of 1917/1918.

    Selected Sources

  • First World War: Battle of Caporetto
  • History of War: Battle of Caporetto

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