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A Century On, Bloody Isonzo Stands for Peace

Ljubljana, 22 May - From 23 May 1915 to almost the end of 1917 the Soča Valley and its mountainous surroundings were the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen and the most expansive mountain warfare campaign in human history.

Bovec
The valley of the Soča river, the site of the Isonzo Front during WWI.
Photo: Aljoša Rehar/STA

What became known as the Isonzo Front, named after the Italian name for the Soča, claimed about 200,000 lives of soldiers on both sides, possibly more.

Close to 700,000 soldiers were wounded and an additional half a million disappeared or captured.

Both sides - the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies - numbered 1.5 million dead, wounded or captured among them.

In the book "Prelom: 1914-1918", historians Dušan Nećak and Božo Repe claim the Isonzo Front is unique in WWI.

The bulk of the fighting was carried out on steep high-altitude slopes, with some campaigns fought in the arid and scorched Karst terrain to the west of the Soča.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers fought Italian troops on the 90-kilometre front stretching from Mt Rombon in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south.

Even though the 12 battles on the Isonzo loom large in Slovenian history as the biggest theatre of war on Slovenian territory, historians note that Isonzo was not in fact the most casualty-heavy sector in WWI.

The majority of Slovenian victims - they numbered about 36,000 total - died in Galicia, according to historian Damijan Guštin.

But there is a good reason why the battles had such an impact on Slovenia: they affected life across Slovenian lands, says Petra Svoljšak, the head of the Historical Institute Milko Kos.

While the war, which began a year before the Isonzo campaigns, imposed war laws, the outbreak of fighting on the Isonzo made things even worse.

The hinterland areas were given special status and the military had absolute control over civilian life.

In fact, says Svoljšak, the entire Slovenian territory was considered a military zone and all support services were located there.

Accordingly, during the Isonzo battles the population of Slovenian lands temporarily surged by about 700,000.

While the two and a half years of fighting along the Soča produced countless stories and narratives, perhaps none is more widely known than the Miracle at Caporetto.

This was the name given to the 12th and final battle on the Isonzo, when the Austro-Hungarian forces, joined by German troops, pushed the front line about 100 km into Italy, to the Piave river.

The losses on the Italian side were massive: some 10,000 killed, 30,000 wounded and 265,000 taken prisoner.

To this day, Caporetto, the Italian name of present-day Kobarid denotes a great defeat for the Italians.

The 12th battle of the Isonzo officially ended on 9 November 1917, after 885 days of warfare.

Despite the massive losses, Italy was not defeated as French and British divisions rushed to Italy's aid after the Germans got involved, and the Piave line remained standing.

Less than a year later, on 11 November 1918, the war ended with Germany's capitulation.

Since the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after the war, the precise number of casualties was never determined by its successors.

What was an area of bloodbath a century ago has now become a memorial to peace.

The Path of Peace, stretching from Log pod Mangartom in the north and ending in Duino in present-day Italy, is a trail along caverns, outdoor museums, ditches, ossuaries, churches and cemeteries remembering the victims and serving as a warning against a repeat of such bloody conflict.

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© STA, 2015