Soča defence protected Slovenian territory from destruction

Ljubljana, 10 May - The proposal by General Svetozar Boroević to stop the attacking Italians on the Soča river instead of deeper in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy saved much of the territory populated by Slovenians from destruction, historian Renato Podbersič told the STA on the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities on the Isonzo Front.

Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, the WWI commander of the Austro-Hungarian forces on the Isonzo Front.
Photo: Archive of the Isonzo Front 1915-1917 Association

Archduke Eugen of Austria, who commanded the Italian Front, Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, who commanded the Isonzo Front, and Charles I, the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.
Photo: Archive of the Isonzo Front 1915-1917 Association

Historian Renato Podbersič talks to the STA about the Isonzo Front 100 years after the end of hostilities.
Photo: Aljoša Rehar/STA

The Soča river (Isonzo in Italian), along which the Isonzo Front ran in 1915-1917.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

The view from the Sabotin hill (516 m) on the Banjščica plateau and the valley of the Soča river, along which the Isonzo Front ran in 1915-1917.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

When it became clear that Italy would enter the war, the Austro-Hungarian general staff played out a variety of scenarios of how to defend the monarchy's territory, according to Podbersič.

It was immediately clear that the overstretched Austro-Hungarian army, which was already fighting in the Balkans and on the Russian front, would not be able to defend territory on the Italian-Austrian border, which was west of the current Italian-Slovenian border.

The decision was therefore made to mount defences on natural obstacles such as mountains and the river Soča, as proposed by Svetozar Boroević, the commander of the 5th Isonzo Army who commanded the Austro-Hungarian force on the Isonzo Front.

In preparation for the fighting, the civilian population was withdrawn towards the interior of the monarchy. "The rule was that everyone fended for themselves, albeit under appropriate oversight from the state, which resettled the refugees in the interior of the monarchy," he said.

Most of the displaced ethnic Slovenians remained in the Slovenian lands of Carniola and Lower Styria, but many ended up in refugee camps in the interior of the monarchy, he said.

After the civilian withdrawal, the military campaign started. The ratio between the warring sides was initially about nine to one as 500 Italian battalions faced just over 50 Austro-Hungarian battalions. It was not until later that the Austrian force was beefed up as troops were relocated from Galicia.

The Austro-Hungarian authorities leveraged propaganda to drum up support for the war effort, including by publishing the details of the 1915 Treaty of London and its devastating consequences, for south Slavs in particular, in the event of an Italian victory.

According to Podbersič, south Slavs including Slovenians, Croats, Dalmatians, Serbians living in the monarchy and Bosnians, who made up around two-thirds of the force on the Isonzo Front, were highly battle-motivated by the revelations from the Treaty of London.

"Dalmatian regiments in particular played a crucial role on Mt. Sabotin and the river Vipava. In popular lore they performed superhuman feats in the defence of Slovenian lands from Italian attackers."

Civilian propaganda was also widespread. Local papers carried appeals by politicians as well as writers calling on the people to stand up to the "perfidious Wops", as Italians were called at the time, and urged brave defence of the homeland.

"It was clear that if the Isonzo Front fell, the Italians would be in Ljubljana as the centre of Carniola, the most Slovenian land in the Habsburg monarchy at the time. It is no wonder, then, that Slovenian soldiers were highly motivated," said Podbersič.

The attackers never got to Ljubljana. Indeed, the only significant military goal that the Italians achieved was to take control of Gorizia, the only major Austro-Hungarian city they managed to capture in the entire war.

Gorizia fell in the 6th Battle of the Isonzo in 1916, whereupon the Italian offensive came to an abrupt stop and until the end of the war the Austro-Hungarian army kept the Italians from breaking through to the Vipava Valley and further to the east.

The last Italian offensives, the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo in May and August 2017, were attempts to capture Trieste, the monarchy's key port. But despite bloody battles, the Austro-Hungarian forces defended the strategic positions preventing the Italians from penetrating the defence lines.

During the 11th Battle of the Isonzo, the Italians captured Mt. Sveta Gora above Gorizia, but they were deflected at Mt. Škabrijel, where the casualties were horrendous.

"Mt. Škabrijel was nicknamed Death Mountain. Over 40,000 soldiers were rendered incapable for battle, about 25,000 on the Italian side and 15,000 on the Austro-Hungarian side," said Podbersič.

Slovenian soldiers played an instrumental role in the Mt. Škabrijel battles, in particular the 87th regiment from Celje, which would become the most decorated Austro-Hungarian unit of WWI.

It was due to the heavy losses in Mt. Škabrijel battles that the Austro-Hungarian army decided to change tactics: the 12th and last Battle of the Isonzo was the only one in which the defenders turned into attackers and managed to break through at Kobarid, completely reversing the fortunes on the battlefield.

"In under two weeks the Austro-Hungarian units managed to not only defend the Italian army on the Isonzo battlefield, but also chase it about 90 kilometres west towards the river Piave, where the front line settled," Podbersič said.

"The defenders not only defended themselves, they successfully stood up to the Italian army despite being far outnumbered."

© STA, 2017