Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Pyrrhic Victory and Failure on the Isonzo

After orders were refused among his military units, Italy’s Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna realised that the soldiers needed a break. Yet his measures gave the impression after the eleventh Isonzo battle (mid-August to mid-September 1917) that he would soon go back on the offensive. Adequate defence positions were dispensed with. All guns remained on the foremost front line.

The next blow was delivered under these conditions by the Central Powers. Germany moved seven divisions to the upper Isonzo. Together with the Austrian-Hungarian units, they succeeded in breaking through on October 24, 1917, and advancing to the Piave by mid-November. The ‘catastrophe of Caporetto’, as the Italians described the 12th Isonzo battle, brought to light significant shortcomings on the part of the Apennine Kingdom. Besides 40,000 casualties and injuries, as well as 280,000 prisoners of war, the Italian armed forces lost tens of thousands of men through desertion. Mutinies pointed to the deep dissatisfaction felt in the country. Many deserters found refuge among peasants. Revolts and protests in Turin and Milan drew attention to the shortage of provisions and a swelling anti-war mood. The army cracked down harshly, with demonstrators killed and military personnel sentenced to disciplinary punishment and the death sentence.

The possibility of a breakthrough by Italy was real. Yet a revolution did not occur, whereby it was precisely the ‘disaster of Caporetto’ that played an important role, heightening national readiness to offer resistance: after the 12th Isonzo battle, the offensive war turned into a defensive one, which once again mobilised the available forces including allied reinforcements, distributed resources better and thus extended the powers of the state.

Conversely, in the Habsburg Empire in December 1917, when the fronts came to a standstill, the masses of prisoners taken were gawped at in fascination, yet they also now had to be fed. From the perspective of the overall Austro-Hungarian prosecution of the war, the victory on the Southwest Front rather brought with it dangers for the Monarchy. While soldiers and war materiel were transferred from one place to another, fuel and provisions were in short supply in the cities and larger towns.

The problems back home were mixed up with the needs at the front. When the Austro-Hungarian army attacked on the Piave in June 1918, it was exposed to the pressure from the hinterland. The offensive failed. Exhausted, poorly equipped and half-starved soldiers also struggled with diseases such as malaria in the months to follow. At the end of August and beginning of September 1918 two-thirds of the Austro-Hungarian divisions were only at half-strength.


Isnenghi, Mario/Rochat, G.: La grande guerra 1914–1918, Mailand 2000

Rauchensteiner, Manfried (Hrsg.): Waffentreue: Die 12. Isonzoschlacht 1917, Wien 2007

Rauchensteiner, Manfried: Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburgermonarchie 1914–1918, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2013

Strachan, Hew: Der Erste Weltkrieg. Eine neue illustrierte Geschichte, München 2009

Contents related to this chapter


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Prisoners of war

    In May 1916, Anton Baumgartner sent a POW postcard to his son Otto in Novo Nikolayevsk POW camp in Siberia (now Novosibirsk). Otto Baumgartner is only one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fell into enemy hands during the First World War. One in thirteen German soldiers, one in ten French and Italian, one in five Russian and almost one in three Austro-Hungarian soldiers ended up in captivity.

  • Object


    Desertion was a phenomenon that all of the armies – including the multinational Habsburg army – had to deal with throughout the four years of the war. This official proclamation from 1915 in three languages (Hungarian, German and Serbian) relates cases of desertion by prisoners of war and their ‘deliberate’ support by the local civilian population. It is described as a ‘crime against military supply’, which is subject to ‘merciless’ punishment.

  • Event

    Start of 12th Battle of Isonzo

    German and Austro-Hungarian troops achieved a breakthrough at Flitsch [Bovec] and Tolmein [Tolmin] and advanced as far as southern Friaul [Friuli].