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Campaigns of World War One:
The Italian Front  1915-1919


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To help protect it from France, Italy had joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungry in 1882. Over the years relations between Italy and France had grown warmer while those with Austria-Hungary soured, especially after they seized Bosnia in 1908. When the Great war broke out, Italy found excuses not to honor its treaty obligations and declared itself neutral. Prime Minister Salandra then opened secret negotiations in London and Vienna to see who would offer the most territorial concessions in exchange for Italian participation. Many Italian nationalists felt the kingdom’s borders were shortchanged when they achieved independence, and they still craved territory in Tirol, around Trieste, and the Dalmatian coast. Now the best way of achieving these aims seemed to be through war. Though most Italians held antiwar sentiments, the political climate at this time was very complex and divisive. Salandra believed that in addition to seizing territory, a war would help unite the country so he persuaded King Emmanuel III to take up arms against their former ally. Italy then declared war on Austria on May 23, 1915.

In 1914 Turkey held lands, if only nominally, stretching from Tripolitania (Libya) across the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia (Iraq). Due to the long distances involved, it was always difficult for the Ottomans ruling in Constantinople to properly control their far off territories. Much of the outlying area of the Ottoman Empire saw few visitors. Even their military were hampered when planning operations by the lack of maps of their own territory. This environment did not encourage many postcard publishers to depict much outside of Constantinople and Palestine. Not only were most of these cards printed in Austria and Germany, they were mostly sold outside of the Ottoman Empire. Cards in Arabic and Old Ottoman are relatively hard to find. While established photographers continued to work here during the War years, it proved a difficult balance in trying to satisfy religious pilgrims with mementos against the security concerns of Ottoman authorities.

Geography severely limited what military options Italy could undertake. The only viable route for a major attack was eastward across the Isonzo River, which was partially backed by the Julian Alps already fortified by the Austrians. General Luigi Codorna had been slowly transferring troops to this region from their initial deployment against France. The Austrians holding the more mountainous region around Trentino would just be contained. Austria-Hungary, already over committed on other fronts, adopted a defensive strategy. General Svetozar Boroevic was a specialist in defensive warfare, and he began to withdraw from the fortifications previously constructed on the Italian border to strengthen key points on more advantageous terrain.



1915


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General Codorna knowing that war was coming had been massing Italian troops for an offensive against the Austrian defenses on the Isonzo River for some time. While his army was not yet up to the strength he would have liked, he felt the element of surprise gave him the advantage and he attacked in June. His main thrust was designed to break through and capture the road hub at Gorizia, with the eventual aim of reaching Trieste. The Italian army could make little headway against a determined Austro-Hungarian resistance, finding themselves unable to even establish significant bridgeheads.

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Cordorna made another attempt to cross the Isonzo in July and take the high ground around Mount San Michele. Though the Italian army was now better to make an assault, they were still overconfident in their abilities and this drive made little headway. The Austro-Hungarians under General Boroevic von Bojna also took very heavy casualties by trying to give no ground.

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After mobilization increased the size of Codorna’s army, the Allies began to urge him to attack the Austro-Hungarian line one more to relieve pressure on Serbia. Though he thought the Italian army was not yet ready for the undertaking, he launched a massed frontal attack in October against well prepared defenses, and when that failed another attack was made in November. This resulted in some very modest gains of insignificant territory at the price of extremely high casualties. Bad weather put an end to the fighting for the rest of the year.

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In the wake of all the Italian failures to gain significant ground along the Isonzo, their postcard publishers depicted few actual scenes of battle, leaving those cards that reflected events more realistically to Austro-Hungarian publishers. While this of course is a generalization, most Italian military cards focused on allegory, representing the concepts of bravery, patriotism, and victory over actual accomplishments. Symbolic elements of religion or nationalism abound on these cards.

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Believing he would quickly make a breakthrough along the Isanzo, General Codorna paid little attention to Italy’s border with Austria-Hungry along the high Dolomite peaks. This provided the Austro-Hungarians with time to properly defend this weakly held region. As on the rest of the border the thinly spread out Austrians decided not to defend an imaginary border line, and pulled back to highly defensible positions concentrated around the mountain passes. When the first Italian attacks came in July they could not make progress and this high altitude front bogged down into trench warfare. This terrain was not at all suitable for fighting but it is where the border lay, and so it became a battleground.



1916


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Though not ready for another offensive, the Italian Army launched their fifth assault against the Austro-Hungarian defenses on the Isonzo in March to help take pressure off of the French at Verdun. Aiming for Goriza, they battered themselves to a standstill trying to take the heavily defended heights in between. While the Italians made no headway, General Conrad asked Germany for help in opening a new front in the Trentino that would stop this constant battering if his line. Germany was too far committed at Verdun to commit troops, but Conrad felt this plan so sound that he removed reserves from the Russian and Serbian Fronts to carry it out alone.

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Held off by snow, Conrad was not able to launch his offensive in the Trentino until mid-May. It was presented as a punishment expedition (strafexpedition) in the propaganda war against traitorous Italy. The Italian army having advanced beyond their defenses to occupy territory abandoned by Austria early in the War was not prepared to meet the attack. Conrad quickly secured a number of important fortified mountain positions that opened the possibility of invading the Po Valley and threatening the entire rear of the Isonso sector.

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By the end of May heavy fighting erupted around Asiago in the Trentino as Italian reinforcements were rushed in but it did not stop the Austro-Hungarian advance. While a victory here could have possibly knocked Italy out of the war, bad weather and timid leadership finally slowed the advance toward Venice. When Italy asked Russia for help they launched the Brusilov offensive in Galicia earlier than planed. This unexpected and crushing blow forced Austro-Hungarian troops to be suddenly transferred eastward. While the Italian army only recaptured some of the territory taken, the campaign in the Trentino ended in strategic failure for Austria-Hungary.

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Even though the Dolomites were so high and rugged to limit access over them, Italian units were not sent there to defend the border but to push through into Austria. They would expend a great deal of resources to inch forward across this strategically worthless ground. To help break the stalemate of trench warfare that quickly arose, the Italian army began a process of tunneling mines through the mountains to blow up strategic Austro-Hungarian defenses that were blocking their advance. The digging of mines for this purpose was an old practice, but they took much more effort to construct here due to the solid stone that had to be drilled through. The first detonations took place in April and the huge mine under Castelletto was blown in July. The Austro-Hungarians sensing these activities set up new defensive positions, and the Italian offenses that followed made little strategic gain. The Austrians would also detonate mines under Italian defenses on the Lagazoi, but they were only defensive measures meant to slow the enemy’s advance. There would be no major movement on this front.

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When fighting began in the mountains between Italy and Austria it had a noticeable affect on postcard production. Although this Alpine combat proved inconclusive, its unusual aspects had given it a romantic aura. The Austrians produced a great number of postcards capturing this front, and Italian publishers also began produced more cards that depicted scenes of combat and hardship. While many of these cards picked up on the nuances of high altitude fighting and sometimes showed the harsh conditions under which soldiers lived, they still did not express the terrible toll that avalanches and freezing weather had on the men fighting there. This unforgiving environment caused more casualties than combat. The cards of both Italians and Austro-Hungarians tended to emphasized the individual soldier, which not only reflected the small scale fighting, but personalized the situation for the home audience, showing just how much their brave soldiers were willing to endure.

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Both sides played up combat in the Alpine region through allegory. While the Italian approach was more through the use of symbols, the Austrians harked back to the Tyrolean War of Napoleon’s day in which the same territory was fought over. Sometimes this manifested in reproducing scenes directly taken from the earlier conflict, while other cards showed contemporary Austrian soldiers fighting alongside the spirit of the rebel leader Andreas Hofer for inspiration. In either case the message was the same; be as good as your ancestors and rally to the defense of your homeland against foreign invaders as they did in the past.

While postcards referencing the Tyrolean War were specifically marketed toward the natives of Tirol, they no doubt found a wider audience within the Austro-Hungarian Empire because of the almost a universal distaste for Italians. Slavs within the Empire that were reluctant to fight against the Russians were usually transferred to the Italian Front where they would be more inclined to kill the enemy.

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Believing the Austro-Hungarians would not expect an attack so soon after their offensive in the Trentino, General Corona resumed his attack along the Isonzo in August. The line was only thinly held as Conrad had moved many Austo-Hungarian troops to the Russian front to meet the Brusilov offinsive. After gaining a secure bridgehead in this sixth attack, the Italian army pressed forward to the high ridge at Duberdo. This victory finally left the road open to Goriza and the Italians seized it and much of the surrounding territory. While the capture of Goriza had been one of Cororna’s principal objectives, he failed to press forward and the city’s occupation changed little strategically. Although victory had only come at the cost of very high casualties, many saw this as a sign that the Austro-Hungarian army was finally weakening, and Italy now took the risk of declaring war on Germany.

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To take advantage of their victory at the Battle of Duberdo, the Italian army launched three new offensives on the Isonzo front in September, October, and November in hope of breaking the enemy line. While some more high ground was taken, there were no appreciable gains made from any of these very costly operations. Even though results from these attacks were modest, Codorna began to see this as a war of attrition that he felt he could win. The Austro-Hungarian army was indeed being worn down; and they only barely managed to hold on despite the influx of reinforcements.



1917


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To encourage another attack that would support the Neville offensive in France, the Allies heavily resupplied the Italian army. When the tenth offensive on the Isonzo front was finally launched in May it was their largest assault to date. The fighting to gain control over important high points continued on into June creating enormous casualties. While the Austro-Hungarian line was pushed back a little further, the strategic situation had not changed.

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Constantly fearful that another Austro-Hungarian attack from the Trentino would jeopardize operations on the Isonzo front, the Italians opened a secondary offensive against this salient in June, to eliminate the threat for good. Although the Italians had massed superior numbers, the Austro-Hungarians anticipated an attack from Asiago and prepared for it in highly defensible terrain. The Italians were repulsed with high casualties gaining no ground.

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Leaving the Trentino front lightly defended, General Codorna massed as many men possible to his eleventh and largest offensive on the Isonzo front in August. While his main thrust attacking south of Goriza made little headway, the Italian army attacking the poorly defended but rugged Bainsizza Plateau broke through the Austro-Hungarian line. With no reserves to salvage this situation, the Austro-Hungarians made a strategic withdrawal yielding much territory to the Italians but preserving the integrity of their line. The exhausted Italian army had outrun their supplies and this long sought victory could not be exploited further. While an Italian victory, it still did not change the strategic situation on this front as the Austro-Hungarians still held important mountain defenses, though their army was nearing its breaking point.

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The terrain beyond the Isonzo proved decisive in the Italian failure to completely break through enemy lines. The area of the Carso was not only difficult to traverse, the Austro-Hungarians had heavily fortified the high mountain peaks that punctuate the region. Many were now laced with excavated caverns that protected both men and guns. If taken, it was only through an enormous loss of life, which further demoralized the Italian army. Much of the fighting from the end of 1916 focused on taking these summits, and they became the subject of postcards. It wasn’t that there was a rush to document as much as the drama in these events created customers for their representation. For publishers it didn’t matter if these battles were victories or not; they could be presented in dramatic fashion and they could display the passionate heroism of their soldiers, all ingredients for propaganda and sales. If not for their captions, there would be little to differentiate them from cards picturing the fighting in the Dolomites.

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Austria-Hungry was deeply shaken by their defeat at the eleventh battle of the Isonzo. Germany fearing that they would make a separate peace with the Allies if they lost another battle decided to reinforce the Italian Front with troops withdrawn from Russia. In late October this combined force made an unexpected counterattack at Tolmino where they still held a bridgehead on the upper Isonzo. By using a generous amount of mountain troops, stormtrooper tactics, and new weaponry against the Italian line it quickly broke. Not only were Italian defenses here weak and lacking in reserves, the army was so demoralized by years of poor treatment that many solders just through down their arms. As the Italian army at Caporetto began to flee in disorder, the Italian flank was threatened and they were also forced to withdraw. Not expecting such a lack of resistance, the Germans were unprepared to fully exploit this situation and failed to cut off the Italian forces to the south.

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Once Caporetto was in German hands there was little terrain in the low country below that the Italian army could hold. Forced out from the Isonzo front, the Italians made efforts to regroup and establish a new defensive line behind the Tagliamento River as was anticipated. After the Germans secured a bridgehead across the Tagliamento near Casrsa in early November, the Italian line crumbled once more and they continued to retreat until they escaped over the River Piave. The Italian army had not only suffered tremendous casualties, many more soldiers simply went home. The Italians were prepared to retreat further but were convinced to set up a new defensive line on the Piave in mid-November after promises by France and Great Britain to send reinforcements. This disaster caused the ouster of Cadorna, who was replaced by General Armando Diaz. The Battle of Caporetto had a very damaging effect on Italian moral and they now began taking a more cautious approach to the War.

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The Italian retreat from the Isonso also necessitated the abandonment of the Dolomite front. The new Italian line ran up from the marshlands on the Adriatic up along the Piave and turned westward where a sharp bend in the Brenta River came up behind it, and then extended all the way to the Trentino. To the Austro-Hungarians and Germans this gap between the two rivers seemed like the only possible route to outflank the Italians behind the flooded Piave River. Making this move difficult was the heavily fortified ridge of Monte Grappa that formed a choke point high above the Venetian Plain. An assault on this height was launched in mid-November, and while a number of summits were captured, they could not drive the Italians completely off the ridge. Heavy fighting would continue on these rocky slopes through a very harsh winter and into March of 1918 without a breakthrough.

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After the disastrous Italian defeat at Battle of Caporetto in the fall of 1917, the United States, already at war with Germany since April, then declared war on Austria-Hungary on December 7th. Although this move was made largely for moral support, it generated a wave of pro-American enthusiasm that quickly generated a whole series of postcards. This card production slowed when it became apparent that their would be no great influx of American troops. To accommodate the Italian Prime Minister and the Italian-American community, a infantry regiment along with ambulances sections and bomber pilots were eventually deployed on the Italian Front.

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The German occupation of northeast Italy came to closely resemble their harsh occupation of Belgium. Not only were resources removed, there were deportations, executions of civilians, and purposeful destruction of cultural landmarks. Postcard production largely followed the same model as found with the rape of Belgium, only in far lesser numbers. The Austro-Hungarians would replace the German occupiers with the coming of the new year. While their occupation induced little fear among the populace, extreme shortages of supplies caused them to increasingly ravage the countryside until they also resembled their vicious caricatures on Italian propaganda cards. Publishers in Austria-Hungary took a cue from Germany and began depicting their soldiers feeding hungry Italian children on propaganda cards.



1918


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The German involvement in Italy was meant only to last until the Austrian border was secure, and with the Italian army nearly destroyed they saw no need to initiate another major offensive against them. They were largely satisfied using their forward position to launch airstrikes deep into Italy. By June the Germans had transferred all their men in Italy to the Western Front, and Austro-Hungarian forces under General Boroevic moved forward to face the Italians across the Piave alone. When Emperor Karl’s moves to make a separate peace became known to the Kaiser, he demanded that Austria-Hungry launch a new offensive in Italy to prove their loyalty. Despite the poor condition of their army, the collapse of Russia had freed enough troops that three new offensives could be launched against the Italian defenses.

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To create a diversion the first Austro-Hungarian offensive was launched out of the Trentino but it only made a little headway before it was quickly forced back in a counterattack. The main Austro-Hungarian offensive of June took place along the Piave where they secured a bridgehead and pushed forward toward Padua. What at first looked promising turned into disaster when the river behind them unexpectedly rose cutting their supply lines. The Austro-Hungarians then had no choice but to withdraw. A third Austro-Hungarian offensive was launched concurrently on the Italian flank at Monte Grappa. It also made some headway but was stopped when the Italians counterattacked with their own elite assault troops, the Arditi. This massive campaign ended with nothing to show for it except heavy losses that could no longer be replaced. The ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army grew even more depleted as the rate of desertions increased. The Italian army was also very weak and General Diaz refused Allied demands to follow up with a counterattack.

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Pressure continued to be placed on Diaz to attack the Austro-Hungarians. With the War going badly for Germany on the Western Front, and with many of the Italians who had deserted during the Battle of Caporetto returning, Diaz had a change of heart. He was afraid that if he did not make a move now, Italy would be in a poor position to demand its land claims at the peace table. Toward the end of October a new Italian offensive was launched starting with an Allied attack to regain all of Monte Grappa. The Austro-Hungarians put up a stronger defense than expected and they could not be expelled from the ridge. The aggressiveness of the attack however did force them to commit the last of their reserves to this battle, which would be missed elsewhere along the front in the days ahead.

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While the fighting for Monte Grappa continued, the primary push was then made against Austro-Hungarian defenses on the Piave. This attack was heavily supported by British, French, and Czech Legion forces with a token American regiment thrown in. While this attack was made on a broad front, the swollen river prevented general progress though two bridgeheads were secured at a strategic location. With Austro-Hungarian troops now disobeying orders to counterattack, the Allies quickly pressed forward to Vittorio Veneto, which separated the Piave front from units holding positions in the mountains. This Allied victory now placed the Austro-Hungarians in a perilous position as their divided army could not hold its ground. Although the Battle of Vittorio Veneto was a clear Italian victory, the scope of this achievement was exaggerated for propaganda purposes for years to come.

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If having their defense split in two was not bad enough, General Boroevic was thrown into further confusion when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved at the end of October. A retreat to the old border was then ordered, but as the Allies quickly followed they began to widen the gap they had already created between the two retreating armies. Unable to support one another the Austrian forces disintegrated. Many were taken prisener by mistakenly beleiving the War had ended. Boroevic was forced to sign an armistice the next day on November 3rd. Despite this agreement the Italian army continued to advance into the Trentino to make sure the retreating Austrians did not regroup in the coveted Tyrollean Alps.


1919


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As a result of the Versailles Treaty Austria lost access to the Adriatic by ceding Trieste to Italy. Italy also gained Trentino in the southern half of the Tyrolean Alps and Albania became an Italian Protectorate. All of this was far less territory than the Allies had promised them in the London Treaty when they made the decision to enter the War. They took it into their own hands to land troops in Anatolia, which almost brought Italy back to war only this time with the Americans who strongly apposed this land grab. Italy had already captured much of the Dalmatia coast including the ports of Lissa and Lagosta, and did not want to give them up.

Tensions over the contested port of Fiume rose to a boil in September when its Italian and French occupiers began to clash. The Italians were then ordered out but they were rallied by the poet D’Annunzio who staged a military takeover and declared Fiume part of Italy. The new Premier, Francesco Nitti denounced D’Annunzio as a traitor but his army only grew as his ranks filled with deserters. This led to a political crisis in which the government was dissolved. Italy was already shifting towards Fascism.




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