The Battle of Caporetto in 1917 was a decisive victory for Germany, and one in which 25 year old German lieutenant Erwin Rommel showed signs of his future greatness.
It was an spectacular victory, which brought Italy to the brink of national collapse.
But how were they able to so successfully overcome the far larger Italian forces? Here are five reasons explaining why Germany was the victor at the Battle of Caporetto.
The young Rommel – a Lieutenant in the Caporetto campaingn
1. Italy remained a predominantly agricultural society at the time of the First World War, and lacked the industry and infrastructure necessary to sustain a modern war of attrition. In consequence, even with the development of war industries between 1915 and 1917, Italian troops were often badly equipped and supplied.
2. Much of the Italian elite, especially the army officer-corps, was reactionary and corrupt. Cadorna was an extreme example: his indifference to the condition of his men and the casualties they suffered was notorious. A measure of his savagery is that, during the First World War, the Italians officially executed an estimated 729 men for cowardice and desertion; a further 300 are thought to have been executed summarily. The British, with a similar sized army, executed some 306, and none summarily.
3. Italy was a deeply divided society, with an impoverished peasantry and a small but increasingly militant and radical working-class. Socialist propaganda and the example of the Russian Revolution were growing influences in the trenches by 1917. The fact that the Italian Army recovered from the defeat at Caporetto and held a new line on the River Piave can perhaps be attributed to the fact that a war of imperial aggression had been transformed into a war of national defence.
4. The Germans had pioneered new infantry tactics capable of breaking the deadlock of trench warfare. The combination of short but massive artillery bombardment to neutralise front-line defenders and rapid assault by elite ‘storm-troops’ using fire-and-movement and infiltration was beginning to transform the battlefield.
5. Cadorna was especially arrogant and incompetent, refusing to countenance the possibility of a major Austro-German offensive on the upper Isonzo. The Italian trench-systems were incomplete in places, and the troops were too few and too badly deployed for effective defensive operations.
Read the full story about the Battle of Caporetto in the February issue of Military Times