The Charlotte News
Friday, May 10, 1940
W. J. Cash
Associate Editor of The News
Site Ed. Note: We have set this historical note on the World War I Caporetto Campaign off to itself as it was a rare by-lined piece by Cash on the editorial page. See also "Too Far" and "Strategy" of the same date.
For an interesting and well-written anecdotal account of the Caporetto Campaign, as recounted by the son of a member of the Italian army which fought in it, see "Virgilio's Caporetto Odyssey".
The following letter comes to the editors of The News:
A friend of mine in Baltimore, whom I work with daily on a telegraph wire, mentions the fact that when he was overseas in the World War, he remembered hearing much talk about the Italians, several million strong, being completely overwhelmed by a much inferior force of Austrians at Caporetto.
As I enjoy all your editorials very much and agree completely with some of your opinions on both domestic and foreign issues... it occurred to me that you might have some statistics on this battle and now that Italy is a big question mark in the present European situation it would be extremely interesting to read an editorial of yours concerning this battle along with any comment you might make by way of comparing present-day Italian soldiers with those of the World War.
-- PAUL E. WRENN.
RFD 3. Box 450E,
Caporetto is a village of a thousand people on the Isonzo River, a stream which flows down from the Julian Alps to the Adriatic. It lies about nine miles northwest of the town of Tolmino, about 50 miles north of the Gulf of Trieste, some 40 miles east of Undine, and perhaps 200 miles northwest of Venice. At present it is a part of the Italian Province of Gorizia. In 1917, it was a part of the Austrian Province of Gorz, and went under the name of Karfreit.
THE STAGE IS SET FOR CATASTROPHE
In the late Summer and Fall of 1917, the Italians, under the command of General Cadorna, had carried out a great offensive against the Austrians, crossing the Isonzo. The Russians had collapsed on the eastern front and the Italian campaign had slowed to a halt. In October the soldiers were dug in for the Winter, confident that there would be no more fighting of any importance until Spring.
Meantime, however, the alarmed Germans had hurried troops to the assistance of the Austrians. General Cadorna was well aware of that, but underestimated the strength of the new reinforcements.
Meantime also, the mind of the Italian soldiers was being prepared for Caporetto. The Bolsheviks who had destroyed the Russian armies were busy among them. So were agents of the Socialist Front in Italy. They were tired, ignorant men, ready enough to listen to the insinuation, "What are we fighting for? Let us go home." In Italy the Socialist newspapers were shouting, "not a soldier in the trenches this Winter," and the weak government, headed by a premier 80 years old, made little effort to stop them.
THE GERMANS STRIKE IN THE DARK
The night of Oct. 23-24 was black and foggy on the Caporetto front, where stood the Second Italian army, commanded by General Capello, and the men were bewildered and uneasy when a tremendous bombardment ceased as suddenly as it had begun and down the pass began to pour the crack German infantry, moving with the swiftness and precision which characterizes it. Thousands of the terrified Italians died in the bayonet attack as it struck wave on wave. And the rest took to their heels. On the morning of the 24th the Germans struck at Tolmino, breaking through the first onslaught and in less than 24 hours the front had collapsed along the sixteen-mile line.
Thereafter followed one of the greatest routs of record. Artillery, equipment, baggage, were left behind almost in toto. Sometimes the dazed soldiers rallied here and there for a moment--gave up again and fled along, flinging away their rifles, their packs, even their personal belongings in the zeal to make haste. In twelve hours the Bainsizza Plateau which had cost twenty days of the bloodiest fighting to take, was lost. On the 27th the German commander, von Below, entered the Italian city of Cividale, halfway between Caporetto and Udine. On the 25th the Boselli Cabinet at Rome had fallen, as the wire crackled out the news, and Signor Orlando had formed a new and more vigorous government. The Italian third army was hurled into Gorizia in an effort to stem the tide, lost it to the Germans on the 28th.
A LONG FLIGHT AND A GREAT BAG
On the 29th fell to the Austrians Udine, seat of the Italian general headquarters. That day the Germans and Austrians claimed to have taken 700 guns, 100,000 prisoners. Then the fleeing horde of the second horde uncovered the flank of the Duke of Acosta's army in the south, left it crowded between the German-Austrian army and the Adriatic. Ensued a race to see which army could get to the Tagliamento River first. The German-Austrian host won, crossed the river on Nov. 5, and the Italians were driven back upon the Adige, then back to the Piave. Winter would save them there, but by Nov. 8 the enemy had taken 2,700 guns and a quarter of a million prisoners, and Venice was in grave danger when Spring should come.
The grim news had gone through Italy by that time, however, and the fleeing armies had begun to remember that Italy might be worth fighting for after all, had turned and were standing their ground. It is sometimes said that the British and French soldiers, which the Allies hurried in, saved them. And it is true that the appearance of the British soldiers in action coincides with a final halting of the German-Austrian advance. However, justice to the Italians requires it to be said that they had already definitely rallied before help arrived.
An excellent literary account of the retreat from Caporetto may be read in Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."
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