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Strange tales: Stormtroopers in Prosecco

One hundred years ago in 1917 the Germans launched a devastating attack on the Italians on the Isonzo River and captured huge amounts of supplies, including millions of litres of wine and brandy.

German stormtroopers during the battle.

By 1917 the First World War had built to such intensity that not all of the original participants could keep up with the horrendous rate of attrition and demands on manpower and industrial output required to prosecute the war effectively.

Among the Central Powers, Germany soon found itself having to prop up the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire in sectors such as the often overlooked or forgotten Italian theatre of the war; something that was bitterly resented by the German high command (General Erich von Ludendorff supposedly complained Germany was, “shackled to a corpse”).

As such, just as the Allies had tried to knock the Ottomans out of the war at Gallipoli in 1915, so the Germans quickly looked at how they could smash the Italian army and force a surrender of its government.

The site they chose for the battle was the plain of Caporetto, now Kobarid in present day Slovenia, where there was a break between the mountains and Adriatic Sea that made the movement of troops easier.

The aim was to punch through the Italian line and breakout into northern Italy, capturing Venice and Padua. With the entire Italian line then outflanked and the German-Austrian army clear to descend all over Italy, its government would have no choice but to surrender.

On 24 October, therefore, what has become known as the Battle of Caporetto (or Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo) began.

The Germans first hit the Italian line with a gas attack, massive but concentrated artillery bombradment and then spearheaded their assault with their newest corps – the stormtroopers, who had first seen action at Verdun in 1916 and whose aggressive infiltration tactics proved devastating.

The Italian Second Army, poorly equipped, ill-led and with morale at rock bottom, crumbled before them.

It is striking that although Italian casualties for the entire three-week battle numbered 10,000 dead, the number of men who simply surrendered was 265,000. Most simply decided to pack it in as soon as they caught a whiff of the Germans approaching.

The chaos of the Italian retreat, with packs of drunken soldiery completely out of control and the summary, at times arbitrary, executions of ‘deserters’ and even high ranking officers for ‘cowardice’ and ‘treachery’, is vividly conveyed in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and he served in the sector as an ambulance driver in 1918.*

Also at the battle on the other side was a young German officer later to win fame in the desert of North Africa, Erwin Rommel.

Rommel’s daring leadership during the battle earned him Imperial Germany’s highest and most coveted award the Pour le Mérite. His memoirs recount not only the large numbers of Italians “shouting with joy” at the prospect of surrendering but also the huge quantities of supplies the Central Powers captured.

By 1917 the Royal Navy’s blockade was starting to cause severe privations among the German people and its army and so the luxuries captured from the Allies caused the Germans unending delight.

Rommel recalled: ‘The contents of the various vehicles [they had captured] offered us starved warriors unexpected delicacies. Chocolate, eggs, preserves, grapes, wine and white bread…morale two miles behind the enemy front was wonderful!”

Writing in History Today, the historian Vanda Wilcox gives a broader picture of the booty taken by the victorious Central Powers in total, which included: 10 million ration sets, six million tins of fish and meat, 1,039 tonnes of dried pasta, 645 tonnes of cheese, 235 tonnes of coffee, 966,000 coats, 320,000 pairs of boots, 1.5 million pairs of pants and socks, 295,000 sheets and blankets and over 3,000 pieces of artillery and machine guns.

Furthermore, some 5m litres of wine and 1,600 litres of brandy went into the bag although that’s probably not counting what its capturers swiftly consumed on the spot.

Indeed, there is some suggestion that captured wine supplies may have given the Italian army the time needed to recover its composure.

By mid November the Central Powers had pursued the Italians into what is now the Prosecco region (indeed, much of the battle took place in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia) and the tired but happy Germans and Austrians are often said to have taken advantage of all the local wine cellars to refresh themselves on the way, sometimes a little too much, which led to delays in their advance. They were also outrunning their already strained supply lines which they needed for ammunition and artillery support if not exactly food or drink.

The Italians reformed along the line of the Piave River and, at last, held.

Towards the very end of the battle fresh Italian and French and British units were fed into the line and the situation stabilised.

The sight of victorious and hungry German troops breaking ranks to pillage food and drink was repeated the following year.

Having used the same tactics to effect a major breakthrough on the Western Front in 1918, German troops fell upon the vast stores of rum the British had in their supply depots and, in some cases, drank themselves senseless.

But that is a story for another time.


*The Italian chief of staff, Marshal Luigi Cadorna, is widely considered as one of the most unimaginative and cruel of all the First World War generals; a martinet who had 750 of his soldiers shot during the course of the war, the highest number in any army. If ever a First World War general could said to be a ‘donkey’, Cadorna was. The Caporetto debacle saw him replaced by Armando Diaz who oversaw the Italian stand on the Piave and improved the morale and effectiveness of the army immeasurably.

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