Northern foothills of the Hermada, as seen from the valley of Brestovizza-Bretovica pri Komn
“In the evening we stop, waiting for the Sektorkommando to send us a guide. In this area, the never-ending duel of the artillery is still rampant. Cannons rumble continuously behind the hills, red blazes lit the peaks; grumbles arise from the dolinas, hisses and grunts above roads and valleys. At certain point we leave the road, bombed to the point here and there it is barely visible. Our guide reassures us, we’ll be very well. Until this morning, the position we are assigned to was held by a battery of field howitzers, they are in perfect conditions. Also, it suffered little to no enemy fire. In front of us rises a low hill, blazing as huge grenades explode on its slopes. Nobody asks, yet we all know it is the cursed Hermada”.
Das ende einer Armee – The End of an Army, by Fritz Weber (unofficial English translation).
The southern Isonzofront was fundamental for Austria-Hungary, as the Empire faced the Italian Enemies on the front door of one of its most important cities, its main port: Trieste.
Along this frontline, running from Mern-Miren, then10km south to Gorizia, along the crack of the “Vallone” (now State Road 55), and ultimately reaching the Adriatic Sea, in the marshes of river Lisert, in front of the mouth of river Timavo-Timav, some of the bloodiest battles fought by Italy and Austria-Hungary in WWI.
A 30km frontline rooted on the plateau above the Vallone and the karst lakes of Doberdò-Doberdob and Pietrarossa-Prelosno, right in front of the last defense line on the way to Trieste: Mount Hermada.
On this front, all altitudes had a strategic value, they were simple hills, turned into cornerstones of the front’s defense: many little castles – connected by trenches and walkways – standing on the barren Karst plateau, surrounded an insurmountable maze of kilometres and kilometres of barbed wire and chevaux de Frise.
It was a protective network created by the Austrian defenders, skillfully implementing caves, dolinas, and all other natural features. Reaching perfection with “stronghold” Hermada, an high level engineering work with its with huge armored caves, impenetrable for the enemy, and its powerful artillery, that would bomb the Italians up to 25km away. A fire breathing “bestia indomabile” (untameable beast): this is how the Italians considered it.
Altitudes 208 North and South (the “evil” twins), altitude 144, altitude 146 (Flondar) and behind them the crest line of the Hermada, with its peaks (the highest measures 323 meters) sloping down into the sea. And, among the altitudes turned into forts and strongholds, small ghost villages (Jamiano-Jamlje, Doberdò-Doberdob, Medeazza-Medjavs, Comeno-Komen, Nova Vas, S. Giovanni di Duino-Štivan). Because the war had cancelled all traces of a normal life.
This was the place of many cruel battles (the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th battle of the Isonzo) to capture Trieste, which took place between September 1916 and October 1917, when the Caporetto breakthrough repelled the Italian troops behind the Piave (LINK).
If we visit those places today, all we can see it monuments and headstones that tell the story of the winners, or, in facts, the story of those who were awarded for the victory of their allies. Because Italy, alone, could have never won the war against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Italy had entered the war in May 1915, betraying Austria and Germany, its own allies, to feast on the spoils of the Empire: this was the reward the Entente had promised to Italy.
In that strip of land between the Karst Plateau and the Adriatic sea, in 12 months of cruel battles, more than 200,000 men, on both sides, have lost their lives.
Italy, despite the clear superiority of means and men (at least twice as many as the defenders) suffered harsh defeats and heavy human losses that only proved the complete ineptitude of the upper ranks of the military, which were themselves the mirror of Italian society, and the lack of training of the soldiers, mere cannon fodder sent to die by pompous and grotesque officers.
It is on this southern front, where the resistance of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers stood so firm, that the almost complete lack of monuments, memorials, and headstones in memory of the Imperial-Royal (Kaiserlich und Königlich – K.u.K.) divisions that fought covering themselves with glory clashed with the number of Italian ones, which only serve to hide the truth made of slaughters, blood, and defeat.
The main difference between the Italian army and the K.u.K. Austro-Hungarian army was about operating methods.
In the Italian army, it was all about obeying to the orders of commanding officers, which could not be disregarded, not even when, often, wrong. And this principle was exasperated to the point inferior officers leading a division or an Army Corp would never take initiative on their own. They would sit and wait for superior orders. Superior officers, fearing the always-imminent removal by the “generalissimo” Cadorna, would always wait for his orders. A war slaughterhouse with which, according to a clear political plan, blood was to be used to consolidate the unity of the young, imperfect Italian Kingdom, that was to receive the sacrifice of blood of its unconvinced “citizens”.
On the battlefield, this meant it was impossible derogating from the decisions of the Comando superiore. It applied to all brigades, regiments, battalions, company. Adapting the orders to the state of things was enough to be guilty of insubordination. To officers, it means martial court and removal from service, but for regular soldiers it meant decimation and immediate shooting. This was the rule of an army untrained for a war and fought the war killing its own soldiers.
On the contrary, in the Austro-Hungarian army, like in the German one, the commanders, even those of individual platoons, had full autonomy to make their own decisions. This means, immediate adaptation to the always-changing state of the battlefield. Austro-Hungarian officers can perfectly exploit the geographic features of the Karst plateau where they fought; they turn each cave, each dolina in a stronghold to defend the front. Also, their officers are trained much better than their Italian counterpart, despite the difficulties deriving for the complex structure of the K.u.K. army, where fought men from 15 different ethnicities.
This different mindset was already clear before Caporetto, right on the southern Isonzofront, where the attacks of the generalissimo Cadorna and of the 3rd Italian Army failed also thanks to the ability of Austro-Hungarian divisions to react adapting to the events on the battlefield, counterattacking quickly, eluding the enemy and hitting from the side, making its attacks fail (LINK).
The title of this post, “The five crosses”, is dedicated to the actions of five Austro-Hungarian officers. Lieutenant Johann Fousek, Tenant Theodor Wanke (to whom I did also dedicate my first post about Trieste’s cancelled history: LINK), Tenant Friederich Tischer, Tenant Friedrich Franek, and Captain Stanislau Wieronski, all of whom, thanks to their determination, tactical preparation, and courage, did successfully confront and reject immensely superior enemy forces, playing a decisive role during the Italian attacks on the southern Karst plateau in 1916 as in 1917. In recognition of their heroism, they were all decorated with the Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa, the highest military honor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
15 September 1916, hell on Altitude 208 North: Oberleutnant Johann Fousek (K.u.K. I.R. 102, IV Battalion). “Retreat or surrender? Counterattack.”
On 15 September 1916, in the middle of the battle for Altitude 208 North. The Italians call the two Altitudes “maligne gemelle” (evil twins), as they tower on the Vallone, barring them the way to the Comeno-Komen plateau. It is two well-defended Austro-Hungarian strongholds, cores of the frontline on the defense of the southern Isonzofront. One wave after another, under the fire of artillerymen and machine-guns, disregarding the losses, the Italian brigades Chieti and Macerata attack and break through the first Austro-Hungarian defense line, capturing Altitude 208 and from there can start a double action to circumvent the defending forces from North and South.
The condition of the defending Austro-Hungarian troops is critical, and it worsen from hour to hour. The IV battalion of Infantry Regiment 102 protects the sector, but is forced to draw back using every dolina ad new stronghold. The command of the battalion orders the three platoons in he area to hold the line, to protect every inch of land, but the attack of the Italians becomes stronger and stronger. At 1PM, 24-year-old Oberleutnant Joahnn Fousek, born in Hostim bei Braun, Bohemia, with his company of 120 men must make decisive decisions for the fate of the whole front. He known nobody is coming to help him in a short time: his men are isolated. A mass of Italians attacks, if they break through the whole sector defended by his company, they will spread behind the other defenders of Altitudes 208 North and South, putting the whole Austro-Hungarian sector in danger.
Bombings end, and Fousek groups his men as they leave their cave-shelters, then he organizes rifle fire against the attackers, who are only 30 meters away. The Bohemians take refuge behind the little walls made of Karst stone and decimate their opponents who, surprised by the powerful reaction, hesitate: this is then Fousek, a wounded hand notwithstanding, guides his men as they counterattack and, after a furious battle with handgranades, repels the enemy, captures a full Italian company, and wins back Altitude 208 North at 2.50PM, holding it until the arrival of a Landsturm battalion.
In this action, Fousek’s company, alone, faces three Italian companies. The breakthrough of the 134th regiment of the Chieti Brigade and of the 31st Italian Division is overcome by the firm reaction of the Czechs of K.u.K. I.R. 102, IV Battalion, and of the fierce, unpredictable counterattack lead by courageous Oberleutnant Joahnn Fousek with one only company.
10 October 1916, the “lion” of Altitude 144: Oberleutnant Theodor Wanke
On 10 October 1916 started the 8th battle of the Isonzo (LINK). After days of hammering bombing, intensified on the 9th, Italian troops attack. They want to break through the southern sector of Austro-Hungarian defense, which stands between Doberdò-Doberdob and Jamiano-Jamlje.
The core are the two Altitudes 208, the ending part is Altitude 144, towering the valley of Jamiano and the lake of Doberdò. On this front fights the 33rd division, the Brigades engaged are the Padova and the Modena. Their goal is to occupy Altitude 144 and the village of Jamiano-Jamlje in the valley to reach the Flondar – Medeazza – Hermada area: the last Austro-Hungarian defense bulwark before Trieste.
The spearhead of the Italian attack to this sector is the 47th Battalion of the Bersaglieri, supported by the 42nd Regiment of the Brigata Modena. The attack must be quick and hit deep to shatter enemy lines and sweep away any resistance. In theory, it would be possible since the Italians are trice as many as the Austro-Hungarians; however, it is very difficult due to the firm resistance of the defending army up to that point. And so it is, once again. Because, as always, Austro-Hungarians don’t wait for the orders of their commanding officers, they act in accordance to the battlefield.
So, after a first, quick victory of the Bersaglieri who conquer Jamiano to the K.u.K. I.R. No.64, Italian troops and their “pompous” officers of all gallons end up trapped in the most typical wartime trap: circumvented and surrounded by the enemy. Who, from their posts on the surrounding altitudes tower over them, and can do target practice on the impudent neo-Garibaldini who, on their side, lack any tactical training. Amateurs vs. professionals, that’s it. The outcome is easy to predict.
The Austro-Hungrin division that distinguishes itself the most is the one led by Oberleutnant Theodor Wanke: the 9th company of K.u.K. I.R. 102 (which mostly consists of Czechs from Bohemia). Wanke, a career officer born in 1887 at Iglau from a German-Bohemian family, was a well-trained officer. He had already fought on the Serb front, where he was wounded and his military value earned him the Military Merit Medal Signum Laudis with swords.
On 10 October his company was kept in the back within the caves on the slopes of Altitude 144 and, from there, could see the Italian attack clearly. At 4PM, Wante takes action. The Italian attack was unorganized; the 117th regiment of the Padova brigade was held back by the defense of Altitude 208 South and so, the 42nd regiment of the Modena brigade, after breaking through Jamiano, has no defense on the sides. The Bersaglieri of the 47th battalion had advanced and occupied all of Jamiano, but by doing so they had remained undefended when Wanke’s 9th company gets around them and counterattacks: the machine-guns hidden in the caves hit the Italians from the sides and from behind.
Follows a second wave, the 10th company of K.u.K. I.R. 102 joins the counterattack, hand grenades and bayonets do soon defeat the battalion of the Bersaglieri, who are forced to hide in the village of Jamiano and then to withdraw quickly. The fall of the Bersaglieri is the prelude of the Italians’ defeat in the whole sector. Brigades Modena and Padova, without defenses on the sides and hit by the Austrians who are now supporting the counterattack of the heroic companies led by Oberleutnant Wanke must draw back in a rush, leaving hundreds of fallen and prisoners behind. At 5PM, the attack was repelled on the whole sector: the Austro-Hungarian defense resists firm thanks to the Bohemians of the K.u.K. I.R. 102.
11 October 1916, Landsturm Infanterie Regiment 11 is defending Altitude 208 South: Oberleutnant Friedrich Tischer. The Landstürmer hold the line.
The Landsturm Infanterie Regiment No. 11 had fought in Galizien before being transferred on the southern Isonzofront in summer 1916 and, in September of the same year, it had fiercely fought at Veliki Dol. 40% of the men in Infanterie Regiment 11 were Germans from the Sudetenland. Expecting new Italian attacks, on 5 October the regiment was transferred on Altitude 208 South as new rearguard, substituting K.u.K. I.R. No.2. The three companies engaged were the 5th, 7th, and the 8th, and the one that played a key role in the defence of the sector was the 5. Kompanie lead by Oberleutnant Friedrich Tischer.
Tischer was a 42-year-old veteran born in Theusing, not far from Karlsbad, and when his company, without losing a single man despite the intense artillery bombing, took control of Sektor 5 of the Abschnitt 6 it was clear to him that the situation was very serious. The attack of Italian infantry was imminent, and the bombing had destroyed the telephone lines. This meant his company was isolated, and could only communicate with the divisions near its defense sector.
At 2PM the artillery stopped, Italian troops launched their attack. The sound of rifles and machine guns came from the north. Austro-Hungarian defense, severely affected by hours of bombing, was disorganized. Italians were getting close. Tischer understood they were to break through the north of Sektion 5 and were getting close from the side and were about to sneak behind his defensive positions through the Nova Vas – Iamiano road. This meant his company was about to be surrounded by predominant enemy forces: they were alone, about to face the enemy. It was necessary deciding what to do. And Tischer did it, with no hesitation.
After giving all hand bombs available to a small division, and ordering it to guard the posts below Altitude 208 South to prevent its fall, he and a platoon of 20 men follow walkway “B” on the way to the Hölen-Doline to assault the Italians that had circumvented Sektion 7.
An impetuous bayonet attack: the enemy is repelled, leaving 50 prisoners to the Austrians. Sektion 7 was safe. And Tischer decided to keep fighting yo free Altitude 208 from the assault. With another platoon, he follows walkway “A” protected by the firewall of this own men, and with an unexpected side attack he faces the enemies, which are in grater number than his own troops.
Facing the fierce action lead by Tischer, the whole line of Italians attacking Altitude 208 South falls. After capturing 65 more prisoners, Tischer continues his action clearing all the Altitude 208 South area up to the Hölen-Doline behind it, capturing many Italian soldiers and freeing the Commanders of the Battalion, who had been taken prisoners.
At 4PM, Tischer and his 5.Kompanie Landstürmer had taken back full control of their sector and saved the whole Southern front from the fall.
25 May 1917 in front of Mt. Hermada: Hauptmann Stanislau Wieronski
25 May 1917, afternoon: the 10th battle of the Isonzo (LINK). Now the target of the Italians is definitively the Hermada. The greatest effort focuses on Valle di Brestovica-Brestovica pri Komnu, separating the Comeno-Komen plateau and the Isontine Karst from the stronghold on Mt. Hermada and the Triestine Karst.
The attack of Italian brigades Gaeta and Bergamo pushes the tired Austro-Hungarian troops of the 16th Division back to Klariči. Now the Italian assault overcomes the last Austro-Hungarian defense lines and climb Altitude 146, conquering it. Driven by enthusiasm, the Italians spread around following the Austrians in retreat and, after crossing the road to Medeazza-Medja vas they reunite to the left wing of the 45th division. Some companies of the Bergamo brigade reach Altitude 175, Mr. Flondar and, right in front of them, stands “stronghold” Hermada: the “bestia indomabile” is only one kilometer away. But they’ll ever reach it. This is the deepest point of the Italian advance to Trieste.
In their ruthless, unorganized attack, Italian troops went too far, and their sides are undefended. The counterattack is immediate, quick, and efficient. And, once again, it is lead by isolated Austro-Hungarian divisions that do not wait for the orders of their commanding officers, but react to the events adapting their actions to the battlefield.
Hauptmann Stanislau Wieronski, experienced Polish officer, leads three companies of the K.u.K. Infantry Regiment Nr.11, almost completely consisting in Czech soldiers to the counterattack against the Italians. The Czechs throw hand-grenades, surprising the infantry of the Bergamo brigade, who retreat immediately, leaving Altitude 175 behind. Wieronski does not allow them rest, and with his troops runs after the Italians, who are reaching Altitude 145. With his three companies, now reduced to only 240 men, Hauptmann Wieronski crushed an Italian regiment, turning the outcome of the battle around.
Now also the other Austro-Hungarian regiments reorganize themselves and join the counterattack: they are the surviving infantry of the 4th Battalion of K.u.K. I.R. 77 and of the 1st Battalion of K.u.K. I.R. 62. The Italians are forced to return behind the defense line of the Flondar: the first attack to the Hermada ends in a bloodbath.
21 August 1917: Oberleutnant Friedrich Franek
The 11th battle of the Isonzo is Cadorna’s last push on the southern Isonzofront before Caporetto. And it is the bloodiest all Great War battles on the southern front. The two sides lose a total of 280.000 men: it is carnage.
The goal of the Italian army is always the same: conquering Trieste circumventing the firm Austro-Hungarian defense. The attack comes from the north, with a march on the Bainsizza plateau (LINK), and from the south, with a news frontal attack against the Hermada. Here, Italian troops attempt a last pounce to get back the positions they had occupied during the 10th battle of the Isonzo, when they had reached the Flondar. This means, only 2km away from Mt. Hermada. But the distance is a hell made of traps, chevaux de Frise, caves hiding machine guns, trenches build on many levels and with different depths. And, least but not last, there is the deadly artillery of the Hermada stronghold itself, which hits every inch of land in front of it.
The only way for the attack to have a slight chance of success is to destroy the Austro-Hungarian defense with a hammering artillery bombing. And so they do. The Italian artillery shakes the Hermada with uninterrupted bombings, to the point it looks like an erupting volcano. Austro-Hungarian troops await the inevitable attack of Italian infantrymen hidden in the shelters within the caves, but nevertheless they lose many men.
On 21 August, the divisions of the 3rd Italian Army attack: two Armies against three Austro-Hungarian divisions. The battle is harsh, often fought hand-to-hand. But the waves of the Italian infantrymen are once again massacred by the Austrian Schwarzlose and Mannlicher. On the Flondar, the last surviving men of the 12th Austro-Hungarian division are saved from complete annihilation by the Czech infantrymen of the 9th division. Another Austro-Hungarian division the had fought hard in the Flondar sector in the past three days was the 35th, Transylvanian, and the 63rd Regiment, mostly consisting of Rumanian soldiers, played a decisive role in stopping the Italian attack to the Hermada.
26-year old Franek, Viennese, was a well-trained, experienced officer. He was fighting since the beginning of the war with the 63rd Regiment, he had been wounded to the head twice, in Galizien and on the Carpathians, being awarded numerous decorations for his heroism. After a long convalescence, he and his division are reassigned to the southern Isonzofront. And, once again, Franek earns great glory.
On 21 August, Franek’s 17th Company is in the shelter-caves to shield itself from the Italians’ annihilation bombing. For three days, together with the whole 63rd I.R., the Rumanian infantrymen resisted the uninterrupted and heavy Italian attacks in the area between Altitude 146 and the Flondar, but in the end they had to draw back, suffering severe losses. Now, on the fourth day of attacks, the companies of the 63rd I.R. are exhausted, the men isolated from one another, and they have no way to contact the heads of the regiment, or any superior officer. All they know, it is necessary standing to the last, awaiting reinforcements. Exploiting the bombing, the Italian infantrymen are drawing near the two caves that shelter part of Franek’s company: the Rumanians are trapped.
Franek, with one platoon, is in another cave-shelter that has not been reached yet by the outnumbering Italian troops: he reorganizes his men, and decides to attack the enemy. Not men, but ghosts come out of the bowels of the Karst: they are men who have fought without rest for four days, and, for four days, are suffering the hammering bombings of Italian artillery in their underground “dens”.
The walls and ceilings of the soldiers’ shelter-caves are hammered by the heavy Italian artillery. It seems they are about to fall, the men are afraid to be trapped under there in case the entrance of the cave is hit. Surviving in fear, awaiting a horrible death.
Until the artillery fire ends, which means, the Italian infantry is about to attack, follows the order to the riflemen, machine-gun fire, exploding hand-bombs and a battle-cry: “Savoia”. Finally, the Austro-Hungarian men can leave their coffins and fight with the sky up above their heads, finally human, although broken by the was: it is still a liberation, even if it means dying.
Franek and the only 30 men left by his side attack firmly the Italians, and overwhelm them. The Rumanians are unstoppable, and their “Hurra!” multiplies their number and strength, as they launch hand-grenades and fight with the bayonets. The Italians, despite being numerically superior, withdraw quickly, surprised by the powerful reaction of the Austro-Hungarians.
Franek won’t waste time, he attacks the Italian divisions that trapped the other men of this company in the two caves under Altitude 146 from behind. Once again, they fight with bayonets, daggers, shovels, hand-grenade: the counterattack is deadly for the Italians who, trapped between two fires, are forced to run away.
This is how Franek reunited his company, saving it from annihilation. Yet, he won’t stop. Taking advantage of the Italian fall in his sector, and to prevent them from reorganizing, continues his attack, gun in hand and leading his men, he frees other Austro-Hungarian divisions of the 63rd I.R. who were trapped in caves that otherwise would have become their graves. At dawn, thanks to the powerful reaction of Oberleutnant Friedrich Franek, the whole Sektor Altitude 146 – Flondar is once again firm in the hands of the defending Austro-Hungarians.