Soča Front/Isonzo Front

The bloodiest military confrontation on mountainous terrain

The World War I started with a shot in Sarajevo on 28 June, 1914. Gavrilo Princip a young Bosnian assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary. The states of Europe formed two major political and military blocks of allied powers. On one side Austro-Hungary, Germany, Italy and Turkey.  On the opposing side England, France, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Japan.

War declarations on all sides followed and WW I started on 4th August 1914 on a number of fronts and battlegrounds: the Western Front reached from the North Sea to Swiss border, where the opposing forces were English/French and German armies.

The Eastern Front, where Austro-Hungary battled Russia in Galicia, and Germany confronted Russia in Eastern Prussia, from Baltic Sea to Romanian border. The second Austro-Hungarian battle ground was the Balkan Front against Serbia.

Other fronts were opened up as Japan and Turkey joined in the war. It became truly a war on world scale when United States of America entered the war in 1917 on the side of English, French and Russians. It was finished with the capitulation of Germany on 11 November 1918. 36 states of the 57 states in the world took part in this war. There were 70 million men mobilized, of those 10 millions were killed.

In the town of Kobarid/Caporetto in Soča Valley (Isonzo in It.), one of the most scenic regions of Slovenia, there is today a great World War I museum, known as the Kobarid Museum. An initiative of a local group, it  received in 1992 the Valvasor Prize, the highest Slovenian museum award, and won the Council of Europe Museum prize in 1993. An enormous number of visitors from Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and other countries arrive annually to view the the exhibits portraying the events of one of the most ferocious battlefields, as recorded in images and written word – letters and diary entries . They view the exhibits, pay respects and reflect on the destructive horrors of war.

The War Museum exhibits the events that occurred during World War I on the Soča Front/Isonzo Front from 1915 -1917. They cover two and a half years of nearly static battleground fighting, portraying in detail the battles of the Soča Front, one of the bloodiest military confrontations on mountainous terrain, in history.

Soča Front came into being  when Italy, till then declared neutral, abandoned its allies, and joined forces with English, French, Russians.., and on 23. May 1915 declared war on Austro-Hungary. By changing sides the Italians were aiming to acquire additional territories, that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reaching to the Istrian peninsula and including the seaport of Trst/Trieste.

The one-time allies confronted each other on the so-called Soča Front, the south-western area of Austro-Hungarian border. 600 km in length, the line reached from the meeting point of three borders, Switzerland-Italy-Austria, over Tyrol, Carnia and Soča Valley to the Adriatic Sea.
The main action was concentrated in the 90 km of the steep, rocky and mountainous area above the Soča Valley, an area inhabited by Slovenian people since ancient times.

It was a bloody struggle between two giants, on steep rocky terrain, over the mountains of Krn, Gambon and Vršič, each side fiercely determined. The Italian army to achieve a break-through through the Vipava Valley, towards the Ljubljana Basin and Trieste. The Austro-Hungarian side was equally determined to maintain its naturally fortified position on the border of rocky mountain peaks.

It was a struggle between two great powers, Italian and Austro-Hungarian, over an area settled on both sides of the Soča River and further south towards the Adriatic Sea by Slovenian people.  The majority of men from this area were recruited into the Austro-Hungarian army, however a smaller number, living  within the Italian borders, in the Italian army. It was the place of the bloodiest battles in the W W I and the most savage on Slovenian territory, in terms of the fallen, wounded and maimed soldiers, and a dispossessed, rendered homeless populace.

On the Austrian side the inhabitants were emptied from the villages and moved away to Carniola/Kranjska. The Austrian authorities removed 80,000 villagers from their homes in the Soča Valley and environs of Gorica (Goriška and Posočje). Italians on their side of the Soča Front exiled around 12,000 Slovenian inhabitants, dispersing them all over Italy. All these people returned to their destroyed homes and devastated fields only in 1919.

The Soča Front in its 12 offensives, a few of them major, where nothing much was gained or lost except for destruction and loss of life, remained static throughout, except for minor advances and retreats on either side. In the meantime new strategies were employed, including gas, mortars, devices of destruction that were innovative, and resulted in enormous loss of life.

Soča Front Battle I  (23 June – 7 July 1915) Italian army attempted to conquer the bridgeheads on Soča River near Tolmin and Gorica.

Soča Front Battle II (18 July – 10 August 1915) Again an attempt on the Gorica Bridgehead. Some gains were made by Italians then lost.

Soča Front Battle III (18 October – 4 November 1915)  Another attempt by Italians to take   positions and the bridgehead. They used air-planes for the first time. Without success.

Soča Front Battle IV (10 November – 5 December 1915)  A fierce all-out attempt to take the town of Gorica, by using artillery and air-planes, and aiming for systematic destruction. Only some destroyed areas on the outskirts were taken.

Soča Front Battle V (11 – 16 March 1916) The attempt to take Tolmin and Gorica was again unsuccessful.

Soča Front Battle VI (6 – 17 August 1916) The two main targets of the Italian army were Gorica and the plain of Doberdob. They were successful this time in taking the ruined town of Gorica and the plain of Doberdob, while the Austrian army retreated to their auxiliary line. Italians attempted to drive them further back, but succeeded only in taking the village Opatje selo. They again failed in their chief aim to fight through to Trst/Trieste, the strategically important seaport.

Soča Front Battle VII (14 – 17 September 1916) Italians pushed the defenders past the Miren Castle and some of their positions.

Soča Front Battle VIII (10 – 12 October 1916) Italians achieved some negligible gains.

Soča Front Battle IX (31 October – 4 November 1916) Italian planes bombarded the town of Sežana, and the villages of Dutovlje and Miramar. In fierce charges of three battles, Italians advanced 3 to 4 kilometers, but the breakthrough to Trieste did not succeed.

Soča Front Battle X (12 May – 5 June 1917) Another attempt on Trieste through the gateway of Vipava Valley. There were three major assaults. At the end, Austrians regained the lost positions on Flondar-Fornazza-Vršič line.

Soča Front Battle XI (17 August – 15.September 1917) This represented the greatest effort on the Italian side, they wanted it to be the last and decisive battle. The main arena was between Tolmin on the Soča River and the sea. They achieved success and advanced in several places, forcing the Austrian army to retreat. The weakened Austrian army needed to prepare a major counterattack if it was to stop the Italians from advancing further.

The 11th Soča Front battle was the bloodiest military confrontation of the 12 Soča battles and the most savage ever on Slovenian soil. In 27 days 40,000 Italian soldiers died, 108,000 were wounded. On Austro-Hungarian side there were 10,000 dead, 45,000 wounded, 20,000 sick and 30,000 missing.

The use of ammunition was enormous. Italians shot almost 3 million grenades, Austro-Hungarian army 1,500,000 grenades from light artillery, 250,000 from middle weight and 22,000 from heavy mortars. The strength and use of artillery had increased horrendously on the Soča Front since the 1st battle, when Austrians shot 55,000 grenades.

Soča Front Battle XII (24. October – 27 October 1917) In preparation for the counterattack and in view of the shortage of troops, the Emperor Karl I asked the German Emperor Wilhelm II for assistance. The Germans agreed and prepared a major surprise attack from the Upper Soča in the north. The assistance came in troops, supported by the use of poison gas and a concerted action by infantry and artillery. The Italian army was successfully driven from the positions that they had gained in the previous assault.

It was the last battle of the Soča Front, the Italian army retreating in disarray or captured in huge numbers.

From May 1915 till October 1917 over a million lives were lost, and countless number were wounded, maimed or missing. They left behind them an indescribable destruction and a real human, ecological and economical catastrophe.

An Austrian historical military study Austro-Hungary’s Last War made the assessment that the battle of the 87th Infantry Regiment from Celje In Carniola, for the Mali Vrh of Škabriel was the fiercest battle of any Austro-Hungarian unit in the history of the monarchy.

The bloody war was as senseless as it was destructive, starting because some counties that did not have colonial possessions, wished to gain some. Italy entered the war on the condition, that allies would cede to it the territory as far as Trst/Trieste and Istra/Istria.  Allies acceded to these demands after the war, ignoring the rights of the Slovenian inhabitants, who wished to be part of the newly formed multinational South Slav state – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. A very bitter period in the history of Slovenian people began for the whole Slovenian Littoral/ Primorska and Goriška region, which came under the oppressive Italian Fascist regime. It lasted till the end of WW II, when the Italian Fascist regime with the full power of the state put all its energies into changing the ethnic identity of the region from Slovenian to Italian. The brutal oppression only ceased with the end of World War II, when the area was joined to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and formed a part of the northern republic – Slovenia.

The Soča Front confrontation was made more complex because Austria-Hungary was a multinational state, containing Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles. At the end of the brutal war, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy fell apart, and the stage set for a new historical period in the creation of a number of national states.

In the aftermath of WW I the national state of Hungary and Czechoslovakia were created. Subsequently Slovenes, Croats and Serbs formed their multinational Slav state, – the State of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1918 – 1929), later renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929- 1941).

After World War II it became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945 -1992). Slovenia declared its sovereignty as an independent democratic state in 1991, and became the Republic of Slovenia. It regained some of its ethnic territories, including the Valley of Soča River, but Trieste with its Slovenian environs was allotted to Italy.

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Aleksandra Ceferin
Aleksandra Ceferin

Aleksandra Ceferin (M.A., B.A., Dip.Ed.) has introduced Slovenian language as a school subject in Australian school system and founded the Slovenian Teachers’ Association of Victoria in 1976. She has extensive experience in language education: as teacher, lecturer, curriculum coordinator, course writer, language consultant and manager, VCE State Reviewer and Chief Examiner. Since 1998 she has been the President of ISSV and the manager and chief editor of its projects. Aleksandra visits Slovenian annually, establishing and maintaining contacts with Slovenia, and initiating exchanges and cooperation between organizations. In 2004 she was the recipient of the National Education Award of RS Slovenia.