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Isonzo: a brutal First World War front

Austrian mountain troops climbing over mountain pass to surprise an Italian detachment in 1915 Austrian mountain troops climbing over mountain pass to surprise an Italian detachment in 1915 Everett Historical
17 Apr
2015
The Isonzo Front, Slovenia, was one of the First World War’s most brutal campaigns. Today stretches of fortifications have been carefully restored and a ‘Walk of Peace’ has been created threading through the truly beautiful Slovenian landscape linking sites of unimaginable horror

A hundred years ago, Italy entered the First World War on the Allied side and instigated one of the most brutal and – at least in the UK – little-known campaigns of trench warfare in Slovenia. Hundreds of thousands died in defences desperately heaved into the mountain terrain of the Julian Alps. Large sections were dug into mountains more than a 1,000m high with forward positions sometimes less than ten metres apart. The soldiers often used clubs, knuckle-dusters and daggers as rifles and bayonets were unwieldy in such close, rugged conditions. The death toll was awful.

A GEOPOLITICAL CROSSROADS

Battle of CaporettoThe Battle of Caporetto (Image: The History Department of the US Military Academy West Point)
The Isonzo section was the crucial part of the 600km-long front which ran from the Swiss Italian Austrian border across the Tyrol, the Dolomites, the Julian Alps and the Upper Soča valley down to the Adriatic Sea near Trieste. It stretched 90km along the Soča river which ran inside Austria–Hungary, parallel to the border with Italy from the Vršič Pass high in the Alps down to the sea. There it widened dramatically just few kilometres north of Gorizia, thus opening a narrow corridor between Northern Italy and Central Europe, which goes through the Vipava Valley and the relatively low north-eastern edge of the Kras plateau to Ljubljana. The corridor is also known as the ‘Ljubljana Gate’. It has long been a major geopolitical crossroads as it is the only access to Italy from the east and one of only two major routes through the Alps dating back to Roman times.

ITALY ENTERS THE WAR

11(Image: The Kobarid Museum)
In April 1915, in the Treaty of London, Italy was secretly promised by the Allies the territory of Austro–Hungarian Empire – which was mainly inhabited by ethnic Slovenes – as a lure to join the war on the Allied side despite being in a formal alliance with Germany and Austria. The Italians entered the war on 23 May 1915 and made immediate advances along the Isonzo Front but didn’t press their advantage and dug in for a long and bitter struggle.

A BLOODY STALEMATE

4(Image: The Kobarid Museum)
There followed 29 months of brutal trench warfare with 12 major battles and more than 500,000 casualties. Half of the entire Italian losses in the First World War were along this 90km stretch – some 300,000 out of a total of 600,000 fatalities. It is estimated that a further 200,000 Austro–Hungarian troops lost their lives. Thousands of Slovenian civilians from the Goriza and Gradisca region died from malnutrition in Italian refugee camps during the campaign.

A ROAD WITH A HEFTY TOLL

chapel

One particularly poignant aspect was the number of deaths among the Russian POWs who had been transported from the Eastern front by the Austrians to build the Vršič pass, the first paved road connecting the Upper Soča with the region of Bohinj in what is now Slovenia. As you climb the road, you pass a wooden Russian Orthodox chapel which is a memorial to the 300 who died in an avalanche (pictured above). However, it fails to mention the staggering 8,000 other fatalities of Russian POWs who died in freezing conditions as they laboured without warm clothing and with very little food to construct the road crucial to supplying the front. With a maximum elevation of 1,611m, it is still the highest road pass in the Julian Alps.

THE MIRACLE OF KOBARID

8(Image: The Kobarid Museum)
Eleven offences were launched by the Italian Army but the decisive one, the 12th, which pushed the front back from the Soča to the river Piave in Italy, was by the Austro–Hungarian troops supported by elite German soldiers using a prototype of the blitzkrieg tactics of rapid mobile advances later employed so effectively by Germany during the Second World War. The German troops also used poison gas. They were led by Erwin Rommell and the advance – sometimes called ‘The Miracle of Kobarid’ – helped create his invincible reputation which lasted until his North African desert campaigns of the Second World War. It was the most successful breakthrough operation of the First World War and one of the biggest battles ever to take place in a mountainous environment.

HEMINGWAY ON THE FRONT

fta1957

Ernest Hemingway’s first successful novel, published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms, is set on the Isonzo Front. It is based on his time as an ambulance driver for the Italian Red Cross on the front. He was hit my a mortar in 1918 when the front had been pushed back to the river Piave and he was transferred to a military hospital in Milan.

WALK OF PEACE

trench(Image: The Kobarid Museum)
A network of mountain trenches, fortifications, caves and a vast amount of discarded munitions was scattered across the Upper Soča region and the Kras for generations. In 2000, a foundation was formed to link the work of various historical societies and it created what is known as the ‘Walk of Peace’ from the Alps to the Adriatic a route taking in several outdoor museums, a number of memorials and other historical and cultural artefacts. This was followed by numerous restoration projects and today you can clamber through trenches and glimpse the grim reality of high-altitude fighting. You can also take in the stunning natural wonders of gorges, waterfalls and mountains of the region. The Walk of Peace covers 250km from Log pod Mangartom (a settlement in the Municipality of Bovec in the Littoral region of Slovenia) in the north to the Adriatic (Duino, Trieste) in the south. The full walk would take about 15 days and the foundation provides log book with stamps along the route.

The Walk of Peace Foundation www.potmiru.si & www.potimiru.siol.net

THE KOBARID MUSEUM
A privately run and international award-winning museum in the small town of Kobarid was set up by local history enthusiasts in 1990. It provides a thorough and evocative introduction into the conflict with photographs, maps, documents and an at times gruesome collection of weapons (the barbed metal man-traps designed to be buried in the snow are particularly chilling).

www.kobariski-muzej.si/eng/

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