Not everybody realises that in the First World War Italy fought on the Allied side. In the second ‘war to end all wars’ Italians were persuaded by Mussolini to side with Adolf Hitler, and this decision cost them dear. The battle of Caporetto also cost them dear, for they were fighting against Austro-German forces for nearly a month in the last months of 1917.
In any event the Italian front stretched too far, from the frontier with Switzerland in the west as far as the river Isonzo, entering the Adriatic near Trieste, in the east. Practically the whole length of the front was mountainous, and the Austrian forces held all the highest points. Thus the Italians were at a distinct disadvantage from the beginning.
In an awful period between June 1915 and August 1917 the Italians launched 11 attacks on the river Isonzo but gained only 7 miles. The commander was a ferocious disciplinarian called General Cadorna who believed in frontal assaults whatever the cost. His soldiers’ morale was at its lowest when Austria, strengthened by 7 German divisions, attacked following a vicious bombardment at Caporetto. The Italians were confused and probably frightened, and panic ensued. They began an unorganised, undisciplined withdrawal which did not end until scattered groups reached the river Piave, nearly seventy miles from Caporetto. The casualty rate was disastrous: roughly 40,000 Italians were killed and wounded; 275,000 were captured by the Austrians and sad to say, many deserted. The Austrians lost 20,000 men. French and British soldiers were rushed to the new front at Piave, and held it. This was the most humiliating defeat for Italy in the First War, and Austria saw it as the aid to revival, however temporarily, for the collapsing Habsburg Empire.