The Battle of Caporetto was one of the more decisive battles of World War One. The Italian Army suffered major losses at Caporetto in terms of prisoners taken and equipment lost.
The Italian Army had enjoyed a number of successes around the Isonzo area of north Italy. However, none of these victories had been decisive and they had also been costly in terms of manpower. The primary opponents in the Isonzo area had been Austro-Hungarian forces and after the Eleventh Battle of Isonzo, there was a general concern amongst Germany’s senior military commanders that their allies here might falter leaving Germany facing a soft-underbelly on her southern front. The commander of the Austro-Hungarian forces in the Isonzo was Arz von Straussenberg. He asked Germany for more help and Germany’s commanders felt it was prudent to support him.
Aerial observations meant that the Italian Army was aware that a build up of sorts was taking place, though the Italian commander, Cadorna, did not know the actual figures involved. The Germans had decided on a mass attack on a front near Caporetto. It was the weakest spot in the Italian front line. Overall, the Italians had a numerical advantage over the attacking Germans (by 41 divisions to 35) but around Caporetto, they were more thin on the ground.
The attack started on October 24th. Aided by mist, the German attack completely surprised the Italians. The German commander of the German force, Otto von Bulow, was surprised by the success of his initial attacks. Cadorna ordered the commander at Caporetto to man a defensive line. However, the commander, Capello, decided on the opposite. He adopted a policy of aggression against the enemy which proved very costly and unsuccessful.
By the end of the day, the Germans fighting near Caporetto had advanced 25 kilometres. Other German assaults away from the central attack at Caporetto were less successful and an Austro-Hungarian force made little impact on the southern flank of the attack. However, the success of the central thrust by the Germans had thrown the Italian Army into disarray. To counter it, the Italians would have had to withdraw men from the sectors that were doing reasonably well against other attacking German and Austro-Hungarian forces – thus handing the advantage to them and possibly initiating further German advances in other sectors.
Despite his earlier aggressive stance, Capello requested that his forces should be allowed to withdraw. This was not allowed by Cadorna who hoped that the Italian Army would be able to regroup and fight back. This was not to be. By October 30th, the Italian Army had been pushed back to the River Tagliamento. It took four days for them to cross it. However, it was at this point that the Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces became victims of their own success. Their forward movement had been so great that their supply lines had been stretched too far. The Germans were unable to launch a fresh attack against the retreating Italian Army and in what must have seemed like a lull in the fighting, the Italians were able to withdraw to the River Piave just under 20 miles north of Venice.
The Battle of Caporetto and the subsequent withdrawal, had a major impact on the Italian Army. The Italians lost 300,000 men – of these, about 270,000 were captured and held as prisoners. Nearly all artillery guns had been lost. Such was the state of the Italian Army after Caporetto, the Allies sent to the region eleven divisions – six French and five British. Both forces were assisted by air power. Ironically, the disaster at Caporetto brought the new government under Orlando and the Italian people closer together. Patriotism rallied the nation and previously popular anti-war sentiments were effectively squashed.