Free Trieste Movement

ISONZO FRONT, 25 NOVEMBER 1915

Kevenhuller_san_michele

THE K.u.K. Infanterieregiment Nr. 7 “KHEVENHÜLLER” ON THE SAN MICHELE

November 24th, 1915, Mount San Michele, afternoon. The fourth battle of the Isonzo is in full swing. The goal of the 3rd Italian Army lead by the Duke of Aosta is to break through the southern front and find a way to Trieste, the main port of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

Capturing Trieste would be an epic victory for Italy, but it would be a fatal blow for Austria. However, going through the well-furnished Austrian-Hungarian first line, which on the south runs from Gorizia to the sea, requires seizing one of the strongholds  of this mighty defense: the San Michele.

This first line consists of low hills that dominate river Isonzo and the low flat completely. Behind the San Michele begins the dry plateau of the Karst which, after 20 kilometers, hosts the second defense line, the last shield before Trieste: the Hermada “fortress”.

The San Michele itself was fortified by the Austrian-Hungarians, its four peaks are now the domes of a citadel made of fences, trenches, galleries dig in the stone, observation points, artillery posts, machine gun nests. This is where took place the the first, three battles of the Isonzo, all were extremely violent, thousands fell on both sides.

But the Italian army did not destroy the Austrian-Hungarian defense lines, which remain still on the predominant peaks. This is how the Italian divisions end up with their tranches embraced on the steep slopes of the Mountain, some dozens of meters from the first Austrian-Hungarian line above them and with the Isonzo behind them: a very uncomfortable position.

The bloodbaths of the previous, terrible battles on the San Michele, when the Italian army suffered three times more losses than the Austrian-Hungarians, did not teach a thing to the Italian “strategists” who support the theory of frontal attacks of “generalissimo” Cadorna, so it all continues the same way, over and over again.

The first phase of the attack ends on 16 November, after a week of harsh struggles. Preventive, blanket bombings, then the obvious attacks, with many infantrymen thrown right under enemy fences, often intact, only to be mown down by the cross-fire of machine guns, rifles and grenades. Obviously, it is all in vain, As all frontal breakthrough attempts fail into massacres, so fail the attacks on the Doberdò plateau, often defended by the 17th Austrian-Hungarian infantry regiment and by the 22nd Schützendivision.

After a short, 2-days pause due to the worsening of weather conditions and the necessity to reconstitute the front of the attack, substituting the units that have “dissolved” in the infernal cauldron of the San Michele with new troops, new cannon fodder ready to be slaughtered, Cadorna launches the second phase of the battle. At sunrise, on the 18th, Italians bomb the San Michele uninterruptedly, like never before. On the north, the San Michele is defended by the 6th infantry regiment, on the south by the 17th division, while its peaks, both on the northern side and the main peak, are assigned to the 12th Infantry brigade, with the battalions Feldjäger, No. 7, 8, 9 and the 7th Infantry Regiment Khevenhüller.

Follows complete devastation. The bombing thorns Austrian-Hungarian trenches and the land around, bringing back to light the bodies of the fallen in previous battles. Men live and die in the infernal battles that last for six long days. Slipping in the blood of comrades and enemies, rolling over their bowels, thorn outside their bodies, desecrated and delineated by grenades.

Italians break through some positions, try to expand the breaches, conquer some hundred meters, but they are ultimately rejected by Austrian-Hungarian counterattacks: they take their positions back. The same happens in San Martino, where, in the afternoon of  November 23rd, Italians enter the trenches on the right wing, defended by the 16th Landsturm Mountain Brigade. However, the prompter action of the 1st battalion of the 7th regiment, lead by Captain Gawaloski, stops the Italians. Although with halved forces, Gawaloski’s battalion counterattacks without hesitation despite the Italian army being about 10 times bigger, and resist until the arrival of the 17th Honvéd regiment. On the following day, the old defensive position San Martino will be reconquered completely. By Captain Gawaloski’s battalion alone, with only 80 men left.

The K.u.K. Infanterieregiment Nr. 7 Khevenhüller plays a decisive role in this battle.. They are an élite army, called to defend the dangerous breaches opened by the Italian attacks on  the San Michele. This is how the brave mountain troops from Karten prevent the most dangerous breakthrough of the Italians in this cruel battle. On November 24th, on the northern side of the San Michele, Italian troops successfully capture altitude 124, wedging themselves between the 3rd Honvéd infantry regiment and the 17th infantry regiment. The situation is dangerous. Now Italians could overwhelm the Austrian-Hungarian defence line and circumvent altitude 275, the main peak of the San Michele. A prompter reaction is vital to prevent Italians from organizing themselves.

The counterattack is entrusted to the 3rd battalion of the 7th infantry regiment Khevenhüller lead by Captain Barger, the companies involved are the 9th, the 10th and the 11th. At 11.30PM, the 9th and 10th company start marching, approaching their target. In the middle of the night, in complete darkness, and in maximum silence, the men must go through the former trenches of the 3rd regiment Honvéd. It is a difficult action, they are just 30 meters away from the Italian line, and it is important avoiding unnecessary sounds. The two kilometers are covered in three hours and a half. The military units contact the men of the 27th Regiment.

The attack does not begin before the arrival of the 11th company, which covers the others. The enemy is not further than 15 meters. At 4.30AM the 9th company, lead by lieutenant Zigurnigg, attacks. Zigurnigg is in front of his men, a gun in his hand. The 10th company starts its assault as well. The Khevenhüller throw lots of hand grenades in enemy trenches, then attack at draggers drown, and the battle continues as hand to hand combat. The Italians are taken by complete surprise and retreat, leaving dozens of fallen and prisoners behind.

The trench that was occupied by Italians until only few hours before, becoming a wedge in the Austrian-Hungarian line, is once again firmly in the hands of the Imperial and Royal troops. The front is reinforced and the possible circumventing of the San Michele bulwark is prevented.

During the twenty days the battles on Mount San Michele, in November 1915, the K.u.K 7th Infantry Regiment loses 980 men out of 1,705. About 58% of its troops. Terrible losses, which testify their role and permanent presence in all most critical parts of the front.

On December 9th, the Khevenhüller Infantry Regiment that bleed this much on the Mount San Michele is sent back to Austria and re-established: it remans on the Karten front until October 1917, when it takes part to the 12th battle of the Isonzo and that takes part in the Caporetto – Kobarid Breakthrough.

Translated from blog “Ambiente e Legalità” – “Environment and Legality” by Roberto Giurastante

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