October 24, 1917 – Battle of Caporetto Begins: Austro-German Forces Smash Through Italian Lines on the Isonzo, Italian Army Routed and in Total Retreat
Pictured – German shock troopers attack the Italian lines. German and Austrian stormtroopers used infiltration tactics to penetrate and surround Italian strong-points.
French and British newspapers reported victory on the Western Front on the morning of October 24. A French attack on the Chemin des Dames had succeeded with almost surprising ease; French troops had captured several miles of German lines in what one historian called as “neat and compact and satisfying as a gift package; indeed a gift to cheer a tired and discouraged country.” American artillerymen participated, using French 75-mm guns they fired the United States first shots of the land-war.
The Germans were not concerned about the loss. In fact, they had retired because of their plans elsewhere. That same morning, at 2:00 AM, a ferocious hurricane bombardment of high-explosive and gas shells fell on Italian positions guarding the northern part of the Isonzo River. There an Austro-German army, the Fourteenth, had assembled and planned a battle to smash through the Italian lines and end the ceaseless battle on the Italian frontier.
The breakthrough at Caporetto, October 1917.
The Italian Second Army had been warned of a possible attack, but its men were weary and wholly unprepared for the scale of the Central Powers’ assault. After four hours of bombardment, in which the Italians had minimal protection from the gas, squads of German and Austrian stormtroopers moved forward, infiltrating the Italian lines and sowing panic with grenades flame-throwers, and light machine-guns. Among them was a a young Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, who took 3,600 Italian prisoners himself in a few hours. With the next few days he captured more than 9,000 Italian prisoners with the loss of six men.
It was too much for the tired and demoralized Italians. By the end of the day the Second Army had completely crumbled. A long line of men streamed,directionless, away from the battlefield, a rout remembered vividly in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The Italian troops surrendered 25 kilometers of land they had held and bled over since 1915. The first indication many got that there had been a battle was when German stormtroopers showed up from behind to take the bewildered Italians’ surrender. Within the next day Italy’s Chief-of-Staff General Luigi Cadorna would order a general withdrawal, sending 1.5 million Italian troops into a humiliating retreat.