Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 246th installment in the series.
August 6-17, 1916: Italian Victory At Sixth Isonzo
With the failure of the Austrian “Punishment Expedition” against Italy in June 1916, when the Russian Brusilov Offensive forced Austria-Hungary’s chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf to withdraw troops to shore up the Eastern Front, the initiative returned to the Italians, and chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna began preparing yet another offensive in the Isonzo River Valley. The Italians had already suffered multiple defeats or Pyrrhic victories here in the first five battles of the Isonzo, but this time would be different. In fact the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, from August 6-17, 1916, would prove Italy’s greatest victory until the decisive battle of Vittorio Veneto at the end of the war.
In the new plan drawn up by Cadorna with the Duke of Aosta, the commander of the Italian Third Army, the Italian effort would be concentrated on a relatively narrow front compared to previous assaults, a stretch of the Isonzo River Valley less than ten miles long between the hill of Podgora (also called Mount Calvario) to the north and Mount San Michele to the south. They also reined in their ambitions considerably, giving up the idea of a decisive breakthrough towards Trieste in favor of a limited campaign focused on the town of Gorizia. In return for lowering their sights somewhat, Cadorna and Aosta were able to concentrate more artillery firepower and infantry divisions, totaling 200,000 troops, against a much smaller number of Habsburg defenders. Best of all, the Habsburg commanders were complacent following Italy’s close call in the Punishment Expedition, never imagining their foes would be able to mount another offensive so quickly.
The intensity of the Italian preparatory bombardment early on the morning of August 6 was unprecedented in proportion to the length of front being shelled, and Italian gunners delivered some of their most accurate shooting to date, thanks to increasingly detailed reconnaissance by airborne artillery spotters. The war correspondent Julius Price recorded his impressions two days later:
From Monte San Gabriele to Monte San Michele, a distance of, roughly, nine miles, was one continuous line of bursting shells of every caliber… The whole country appeared to be in a state of irruption, and columns of smoke of various colours and fantastic shapes were to be seen rising everywhere like embryo volcanoes… Seen through the telescope, the desolation of the countryside was revealed in all its horrors. At first glance it was a rich and smiling landscape bathed in the glorious sunshine of an Italian summer morning, but one soon discovered that the white houses of the villages were now but heaps of ruins. There was no indication of life in them anywhere – the God of war reigned supreme.
After a morning and afternoon of unrelenting shelling, at 4 pm the first wave of Italian troops poured out of their hillside shelters and swamped the outnumbered defenders, beginning at Mount Sabotino northwest of Gorizia, where the Italians had secretly dug shallow tunnels and concealed trenches (saps) more than halfway across no-man’s-land, allowing them to charge the surprised enemy from close range. The same tactics also yielded victory at the southern end of the battlefield, giving the Italians possession of the key transportation junction at Doberdò as well as Mount San Michele, the site of so much futile bloodshed in the first five battles of the Isonzo – albeit with heavy losses once again.
With no reserves immediately available and his existing forces already stretched to the breaking point, the talented commander of the Austro-Hungarian Fifth Army, Svetozar Boroević, had no choice but to allow his troops to begin making limited withdrawals to the second line of defenses behind Gorizia on August 7. The following day the Italians realized, to their astonishment, that Gorizia was virtually defenseless; as the nearest bridge was still under Austrian artillery fire, a small group of around 100 Italian soldiers simply waded across the shallow river and occupied the town, in something of an anticlimax following so much bloodshed on its doorstep.
Realizing that momentum was on their side for once, Cadorna ordered the Duke of Aosta to continue attacking the Habsburg second line in the western part of the desolate Carso plateau behind Gorizia, while sending the Italian Second Army to help exploit the unexpected success by attacking from the north and seizing the bridgehead at Plava. But with Gorizia lost Boroević saw no point in holding on to the western Carso plateau, and on August 9 the Habsburgs withdrew to a strong new defensive line running north-south along the far slope of the Vallone valley in the eastern Carso – and here the Italian offensive finally ran out of steam. Despite repeated assaults over the following week, the Habsburg defenders couldn’t be budged from their new trenches and on August 17 Cadorna finally broke off the offensive.
As usual, the losses on both sides were astronomical, with the attackers suffering disproportionately: total Italian casualties came to around 100,000 including 21,000 dead, while the Habsburgs lost around 42,000 including 8,000 dead. And as always, no man’s land and the captured enemy trenches presented gruesome sights, by now all too familiar across Europe as the First World War ground on and on. Crossing what was recently no man’s land to enter Gorizia behind the victorious Italian troops, Price recalled:
The spectacle we had before us of violence and death is indescribable. Everything had been levelled and literally pounded to atoms by the Italian artillery. The ground all around was pitted with shell holes, and strewn with every imaginable kind of debris… broken rifles, unused cartridges by the thousand, fragments of shell-cases, boots, first-aid bandages, and odds and ends of uniforms covered with blood.
The Habsburg first line trenches, where many brave troops had made a desperate last stand before the order to withdraw came, were even more horrifying:
The Austrian dead were literally lying in heaps along the bottom. They were so numerous in places, that had it not been for an occasional glimpse of an upturned face, or a hand or a foot, one might have thought that these heaps were merely discarded uniforms or accouterments. It produced an uncanny sensation of horror walking alongside these furrows of death, and this was heightened by the fact that at the time we were the only living beings there… I recollect I had the strange impression of being with a little band of explorers, as it were, in an unearthly region.
Turks Defeated In Sinai
Around 1,500 miles to the southeast across the Mediterranean, a very different battle unfolded in the Sinai Desert from August 3-7, as the Turks tried once again to foil British preparations for an offensive and maybe even capture the Suez Canal, thus severing this key lifeline between Britain and India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. Most of the fighting actually took place near the village of Romani, about 23 miles east of the canal in the middle of the Sinai Desert.
The Ottomans and their German allies were alarmed by British construction of a new railroad and pipeline for water east into the Sinai from the town of Kantara on the canal, which would eventually enable the British to advance across the desert to mount an attack on Palestine – opening the way to Syria and beyond it the Turkish heartland in Anatolia. In a last bid to stop the British before they came any closer, from late July to early August a Turkish force of around 16,000, partly led by German officers, marched west across the Sinai to attack the British (actually Dominion troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC) defending the advancing railhead at Romani.
The Battle of Romani pitted infantry from the Turkish 3rd Division and the special German-led Pasha I formation, along with irregular camel cavalry, against a slightly smaller British force, including infantry from the 52nd (Lowland) Division and light cavalry from the ANZAC Mounted Division. British cavalry patrols first established contact with the approaching enemy force in desert skirmishes during the night of August 3 continuing into August 4, when the outnumbered British cavalry began to fall back.
The arrival of more ANZAC cavalry reinforcements bolstered the defenders, who put up a stiff resistance as they fell back to stronger positions protecting the southern approach to the railroad, while the main infantry force of the 52nd Division defended the railhead east of the village of Romani. The Turkish and German attackers, running low on water and now mired in deep, shifting sands, were unable to regain the momentum and soon found themselves on the defensive, harried all along the line by the mobile ANZAC cavalry. By August 6 the attacking force was in retreat, although this time (unlike previous Turkish offensives against the canal) they managed to retain their cohesion and fended off repeated British-ANZAC attacks, preventing the withdrawal from becoming a rout.
Oskar Teichman, a medical officer with the ANZAC forces, recalled the aftermath of the fight in the Sinai Desert near Romani, showing once again that ordinary troops were frequently capable of sympathizing with their foes, at least when they weren’t actively trying to kill them:
It seemed very horrible to think of the number of wounded and dying Turks who must have been left out. We did what we could, but had no organization to deal with the large numbers… It was extraordinary how one’s feelings changed after a battle – during the fight, while our men were getting hit, one felt delighted every time one saw a Turk drop; but when it was all over and we had got all our wounded safely back, one thought of the number of wounded Turks who would probably never be found in this undulating country, condemned to die of thirst.
The ANZAC wounded, while doubtless faring better than wounded Turks left in the desert, still had to endure almost unimaginably miserable conditions, as Teichman himself soon discovered. After being wounded, Teichman had to wait over a day, first at the field ambulance station and then aboard open-air train cars, before finally being evacuated to Kantara on August 7:
This was the end of the desert railway, which was being rapidly pushed out across the Sinai Peninsula. The Field Ambulance was very congested, and there were many rows of us lying on stretchers, together with numerous wounded Turks. At 5.30 we were taken out of the tents and placed in the train. This “hospital train” consisted of one engine and a number of open trucks, the latter containing nothing – not even straw… On reaching Pelusium our engine broke down and the train waited for a considerable time; then the shrieks and groans of the wounded broke the stillness of the quiet night. But worse was to come: we had to be shunted in order to let a supply train pass through… It was a bad night, and one could not forget the horrors of that train journey.
For the rest of the ANZAC and British troops, deployed further back to guard the Suez Canal, the main enemy wasn’t the Turks or Germans but nature itself, including sand storms, biting insects, disease, and above all the heat of the Egyptian desert in summertime (below, Australian troops sit on the banks of the canal in April 1916).
John Tennant, a British air commander who passed through the Suez Canal in July, described conditions aboard the ship in the nearby Red Sea, which left no doubt that,
the “Briton” had not been built for these climates; the saloon at meals was like an Inferno, and it was too hot too sleep… The second afternoon the ship’s doctor died of heat-stroke; we buried him over the poop next morning in a thick haze of heat. The human frame could stand little more; the perspiration ran from head on to deck and down legs into boots. No sooner had we buried the doctor than one of the crew went down outside my cabin; his clothes were taken off, and we put him close to the side of the ship to get any air there might be, but despite all efforts he was gone in two hours.
Unsurprisingly the British and ANZAC troops spent as much time as possible either in their tents or bathing in the Suez Canal itself (below, ANZAC troops bathing and sunning themselves).
Like ordinary soldiers all over Europe, during the long periods of inactivity and mind-numbing boredom, British and ANZAC troops guarding the Suez Canal also had the uneasy feeling that their superiors may simply have forgotten about them. Tennant recalled the melancholy exchanges between homesick troops on the ship and restless troops on shore as the ship passed through the canal in July 1916:
All that stifling July night we were passing British encampments; many of the Tommies were floating about in the Canal, trying to get cool, even at 1 a.m. All night a fusillade of questions passed between ship and shore; the details aboard were anxious to find out if any battalions of their own units were ashore. In answer to their questions “Any Welshmen” “Any Leicesters?” from the dimness of the banks would come a weary attempt at cheerfulness, “Any beer?” The men on shore seemed to feel forgotten in the desert…