Battles - The Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, 1916

Conrad von Hotzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff With the bitter Isonzo winter over, and with four unsuccessful attempts to storm across the Isonzo River to date, Italian Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna regrouped and prepared to launch a fifth offensive in early March 1916.

In do doing Cadorna was acting under pressure from French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre to relieve German pressure at Verdun as per the inter-Allied agreement reached at the Chantilly Conference of December 1915.

For a single-article background to the Isonzo battles click here.

In actuality the Italian army was in no real state to renew hostilities at this stage, with shortages of men and - crucially - artillery certain to hamper the effectiveness of any attack.  Nevertheless with Italy under increasing pressure from French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre to launch an attack along the Isonzo so as to provide relief to Verdun - then under heavy bombardment from the Germans - Cadorna's hand was largely forced.

Launched on 9 March 1916 and directed once again chiefly at the capture of Gorizia (with probing attacks also at Tolmino and along the Carso) the fifth Isonzo battle was necessarily short-lived.  Halted almost as soon as it began on 17 March on account of continuing poor weather, Cadorna had no opportunity to resuscitate what was really no more than a half-hearted attack before he was forced to deal with a large-scale Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Trentino.

Having observed Austro-Hungarian Commander-in-Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf actions in deploying fifteen divisions to the Trentino he ordered General Roberto Brusati's Italian First Army to prepare itself for an unexpected Austro-Hungarian attack.

While Cadorna's action in warning Brusati was certainly well-judged it came undone with Brusati's decision to ignore Cadorna's instructions; instead he determined to continue with preparations already in hand to launch local attacks of his own.

The consequence was painful for the Italians.  Archduke Eugen's Third and Eleventh armies stormed the Italian positions in May 1916 and, at least initially, succeeded in achieving substantial gains.  Fortunately for the Italians the ruggedness of the terrain served to impede the Austro-Hungarian supply chain and gave Cadorna an opportunity to save the situation.

Calling upon his Russian allies to mount a distracting offensive on the Eastern Front aimed at drawing Austro-Hungarian forces away from the Trentino (taking the form of the Russian Brusilov Offensive), he abruptly abandoned plans to continue the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo and redeployed half a million men to the Trentino.

These acts of sharp thinking certainly saved the situation for the Italians and by 2 June the position in the Trentino had been stabilised.

The fifth Isonzo battle may have been abandoned in haste but Cadorna was already planning the next, encouraged by promises of additional supplies of artillery from Italy's allies.  Accordingly, the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo was launched on 6 August 1916; it was to prove by far and away the most successful of Italy's eleven offensives along the Isonzo.

Click here to view a map charting the progress of the first eleven battles of the Isonzo.

Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

A "Communication Trench" was a narrow trench constructed at an angle to a defensive trench to permit concealed access to the defensive trench.

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