Primary Documents - General von Cramon on the Battle of Caporetto, October 1917
Reproduced below is an account of the combined German/Austro-Hungarian decision to launch a major attack at Caporetto in late October 1917 against the Italians Army.
Written by the German liaison officer attached to the Austrian Army, General von Cramon, the account documents the initial Austrian reluctance to involve German forces, and the primary role played by German commanders during its highly successful implementation.
Such was the scale of the Italian setback (some 300,000 Italian casualties) that Italy's Allies - namely Britain and France - were obliged to rush reinforcements to prop up the Italian front against further setback at the hands of combined German/Austro-Hungarian forces.
Click here to read Cadorna's official communiqué announcing Italian defeat at Caporetto. Click here to read French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau's reaction to news of Italy's defeat at Caporetto. Click here to read a memoir of the battle by the Chief of the British Red Cross in Italy, G.M. Trevelyan.
General von Cramon, German Liaison Officer to the Austrian Army, on the Battle of Caporetto
Renewed attacks of the Italians on the Isonzo front, although not crowned with a decisive success, had nevertheless weakened the defensive power of the Austrians and resulted in a not inconsiderable loss of ground on the Bainsizza plateau and in the direction of Kostanjevica.
It became questionable whether Trieste could be held in the event of another Italian attack. At Austrian army headquarters an increasingly large number counselled an offensive as the most effective measure to he adopted.
In the beginning of August, 1917, I made a report concerning the matter to the German high command and added that the resistance against the participation of German troops in this offensive had been abandoned even by the Emperor Charles, and that a combined attack for the rolling up of the Isonzo front from the north, after breaking through in the region of Tolmino, had been planned.
Such an operation demanded a far smaller force than a frontal attack and promised great results if successful. The situation was not dissimilar to that at Gorlice.
Ludendorff was not at first very enthusiastic over a common offensive against Italy. He would have preferred to overthrow Rumania completely by an advance into Moldavia. He finally, however, gave his consent, Emperor William and Hindenburg also agreeing.
An understanding had been reached when a courier of Emperor Charles arrived in Kreuznach with a personal letter to Emperor William requesting him not to agree to the employment of German troops on the southwestern front. Emperor Charles, without the knowledge of his general staff, and probably under the influence of the Empress, had interfered quite arbitrarily and unmeaningly.
General Arz was successful in neutralizing the incident by despatching General von Kaldstatten.
General Otto von Below was appointed to the chief command of the German 14th army, selected to operate on the Isonzo front. His chief of staff reconnoitred the ground on which the attack was to be made. In connection therewith all the details of the common undertaking were agreed upon at general headquarters in Kreuznach.
Seven divisions were placed at disposal by the German high command. The 14th German Army, reinforced by Austro-Hungarian troops, was to deliver the main blow. Before the middle of October an offensive was not to be thought of, because the railroads would not permit of a more rapid assembling of troops.
The preparations were proceeding apace when the common offensive was again made questionable by another incident. The Reichstag's deputy Haussmann had related to an officer of the general staff that Czernin had disclosed to one of the German deputies to the Reichstag that Austria had determined no longer to cooperate toward the realization of Germany's war aims; that it needed peace and did not think of starving or bleeding to death because of Germany's dreams of conquest, and that the deputy in question should use his influence in the Reichstag to the end that the Government, by reason of a refusal of further credits, would be compelled to begin negotiations for peace.
I was called to Kreuznach and commissioned by Emperor William to seek an audience with Emperor Charles, in which I was to state in unequivocal terms that, unless a satisfactory explanation were forthcoming, there could be no question of German military aid against Italy; that the granting of German troops would be conditional upon written guarantees.
This commission led to a long interview with Emperor Charles. He assured me that Czernin had not recently spoken with German deputies' and had not made the statements imputed to him; that there must have been a misunderstanding or deliberate mystification.
True, Czernin had probably often discussed questions of peace and had promised to use his influence in Germany in behalf of peace, but never in the form here affirmed. The German Government ought not take steps which might result in the fall of Czernin, who, unquestionably, was pro-German and would be hard to replace.
Emperor Charles went on to assure me of Austria's good faith as an ally, and that he had often rejected offhand many enticing offers on the part of the Entente. Germany should not make it too hard for her allies. The majority of the population of Austria-Hungary were opposed to the war and only the sentiment toward the monarchy kept them in line.
Toward the middle of October Emperor Charles repaired to Bozen. The journey and my participation in it were discussed in detail in the newspapers, in order to draw the attention of the Italians in a false direction. The object was attained: In Italy there was much talk now of impending military events on the Tyrolean front. In addition several German storming battalions were sent to Tyrol and participated ostentatiously in small enterprises, while a detachment of wireless operators was also despatched. These, from Bozen, gave all kinds of orders and instructions to German formations which, in reality, did not exist.
The offensive against Tolmino, originally planned for the 15th of October, had to be postponed until the 24th, because of the unfavourable weather conditions. This proved to be an advantage because of the fact that certain reports made to the Italians by Czechs who had gone over to them, although essentially true, were subsequently unverified: the Italians had fully prepared for battle, had expected our attack earlier, unnecessarily lost their composure and abandoned further waiting.
The blow was in fact a surprise and broke through their front on both sides of Tolmino.
While the combat for the heights was raging, General Lequis, with the 12th Prussian infantry division, and favoured by a misty, rainy day, marched to Karfreit, took the dominating Mount Matajur, and drove back the Italian reinforcements who had been hurriedly sent from Cividale.
The conduct of the 12th division, both as regards leaders and men, is worthy of a place in the book of fame. The resolution required to march straight through the enemy's front, regardless of the exposure of one's flanks, is not readily appreciated by everyone. General von Below had promised to recommend for the order Pour le Merite the officer who would capture Mount Matajur within 24 hours after the commencement of the offensive.
Lieutenant Schnieber, of the 23d infantry regiment, succeeded in doing so before the expiration of the stipulated time.
The success at Tolmino quickly extended toward the north and the south. The whole north-eastern circle of the Italian front collapsed. Parts of the 14th Army, proceeding southward from Cividale, forced the Italians, retreating from the Lower Isonzo, away from the Tagliamento, and brought in thousands of prisoners. Whoever did not see with his own eyes the avenues of retreat of the Italians east of the Tagliamento, can form no conception of the picture of wild, headlong flight which presented itself. Great quantities of war material and supplies fell into our hands.
The Tagliamento, which, according to the original plan, was to be the farthest goal of the offensive, was crossed on November 6th. The Italians retreated behind that part of the Piave, where the right bank as well as the region between the Piave and the Brenta, including Mount Grappa, had been well fortified.
Owing to the rapid forward march of our infantry, artillery and ammunition supplies could not follow, nor were the materials for bridge building immediately on the spot. A German division which wished to storm the commanding Mount Grappa, could not win through without the requisite artillery support. The continuation of the offensive would have required renewed preparation and reserve forces.
Its success, in view of the formation of the ground, was questionable, more particularly as the Italians had been reinforced by English and French divisions. Therefore, a further attack was not undertaken.
General von Hoetzendorff had persistently urged the strengthening of the Tyrolean front also in such a way that it might take part in the offensive. The two operations could not, however, be carried out simultaneously because forces were lacking.
When the Italian front on the Isonzo had been defeated, the Austro-Hungarian troops there could be dispensed with. Von Hoetzendorff did not relinquish his efforts toward this end; but for some time his words fell upon deaf ears. Neither Arz nor Waldstatten favoured the proposition; they were of the opinion that the one operation had first to be completed.
The German high command generally coincided with von Hoetzendorff, but did not hesitate to make use of its prerogative of "high command" because it did not desire to use up too great a part of its forces on the Austrian seat of war.
When Austrian army headquarters toward the end of November decided to take up the recommendations of von Hoetzendorff it was too late; the bad conditions prevailing on the railroads made a rapid moving to and fro of troops impossible.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
"Bully Beef" comprised cans of boiled or pickled beef used by the British Army.
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