Seeing Through The Soca – Twelve Battles On The Isonzo: War Without End

The Kobarid Museum was a beginning rather than an end for accessing the history of World War I on the Italian Front. The museum had a wealth of artifacts and world class exhibits, but for the curious this was just the beginning. Nothing beats a visit to the actual sites where the fighting occurred. To strip the veneer of glory from war, one should get as close as possible to where battle occurred. Many of the old lines of fortification still exist, sprawling in the valleys. on the hillsides and atop mountains. The inhospitable terrain has acted to preserve these remnants of war. Just outside the museum begins a five kilometer trail known as the Kobarid Historical Walk, the name is something of a misnomer. The trail is not only about what happened in this area during World War I, it also takes in a wealth of natural and cultural sites. The trail first goes up to the Italian Charnel House, then stays close to the Soca River. The river has been termed by some as the most beautiful in Europe. The setting is enhanced by the mountains which tower in the near distance. The two Darja’s, little Alex and myself set off first for the Italian Charnel House. My Slovene companions never ceased to amaze me, they wanted to make sure I had the best experience possible. I cannot imagine many people, let alone two Slovene women in their 20’s would choose to visit the grounds of a Charnel House. Nevertheless, they did it with open minds and genuine curiosity.

Italian Charnel House - Kobarid

Italian Charnel House – Kobarid

A Sublime Paradox – The Charnel House
The Italian Charnel House was the first ossuary I have ever visited. I would prefer not to repeat the experience. Despite beautiful weather, it felt weird and gloomy. At the time, we were the only ones on-site. Because it was set on Gradic Hill, the Charnel House stood above the town. At a distance it looked spectacular, closeup it felt more like what it was, a monument to death constructed around a monument to eternal life. Octagonal in shape, its core consists of three concentric circles that narrow and get smaller as they rise. This work surrounds St. Anthony’s Church, which was built on the hill in the late 17th century. The Charnel House’s symmetry, austere exterior and penetrating silence had the effect of making it seem devoid of life. The complex holds the remains of 7,014 Italian Soldiers, both known and unknown. This added to the uneasiness I felt as I walked around it. The architecture may have been designed with reverence in mind, but for me it acted as a barrier. Owing to the material used for its construction and the dramatic scale, it felt sterile and lifeless. I doubt that was what the architect had in mind since the Charnel House was built to honor the dead. The soldier’s remains had been moved to it from nearby Army cemeteries, in this case some things are better left alone.

Those seven thousand soldiers buried in an ossuary surrounded by such incredible natural beauty was a sublime paradox. The fact that ferocious battles had been fought amid this magnificent landscape was difficult to grasp. The Soca River’s trance inducing turquoise waters were said by some to be the most beautiful in all of Europe. I would not disagree with that assessment. Tragically, the Soca was also synonymous with the bloody battles that occurred in northeastern Italy during the war. The Italian version of the river’s name, Isonzo, has been given to the catastrophic battles fought in the area from May 1915 until November 1917 on a front that stretched along the Soca River, in western historiography they are known as the Twelve Battles of the Isonzo. It is hard enough to imagine industrialized warfare taking place along the Soca/Isonzo, but the type of fighting that occurred is just as difficult to comprehend.

Italian infantry leaving their trenches - Ninth Battle of the Isonzo

Italian infantry leaving their trenches – Ninth Battle of the Isonzo

At The Highest Cost – Extremely Offensive
The battles were more like mini campaigns lasting for weeks or months. The 2nd and 4th Battles of the Isonzo each went on for 24 days, the 10th and 11th for 26 days. These battles were just as destructive as any other World War I campaign, but with the added element of rugged topography that made the fighting extremely lethal. Desperate frontal assaults were attempted across the karst (limestone) plateau. When artillery shells exploded on this terrain, rock would splinter in all directions. These deadly projectiles caused horrific casualty rates. The first eleven battles of the Isonzo resulted in over a million casualties. The Italian Army suffered over 60% of them. The astronomical casualty rates were largely due to two factors, the environment in which the armies fought and outdated military tactics that had not caught up with the new technological means transforming warfare.

Prior to the First World War, the side waging the offensive traditionally held the advantage. That was no longer true. Machine guns and mass artillery fire provided an entrenched defensive force with the firepower to withstand a numerically superior attacking force. The Italians waged the offensive during the first eleven battles of the Isonzo to their own detriment. In almost every case, the Austro-Hungarian forces had the advantage of occupying the high ground. The Italians tried largely in vain to dislodge the defenders. What territory they did take came at an unacceptably high cost. It is little wonder that after the Battle of Kobarid (Caporetto) (also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo) was launched on October 24, 1917 by combined Austro-Hungarian/German forces the Italian army collapsed.

The Soca (Isonzo) River near Kobarid

The Soca (Isonzo) River near Kobarid (Credit: Aschroet)

Surrendered To History – The Other Side Of The River
The two Darja’s, Alex and myself made our way along the Kobarid Historical Walk, covering some of the same ground where the Italians were overrun by the  14th Army of the Austro-Hungarian/German forces. This was where years of stalemate vanished in a matter of hours. The Italians surrendered en masse. During the two-week debacle that was the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, thirty Italian soldiers surrendered for every one that was killed. They were done fighting along the Isonzo. The river would no longer be the scene of fighting as the front moved further south. It would now become part of history. The river’s beauty remained, but the years in which it ran red with the blood of thousands forever tarnished its remarkable image. I could not look into the Soca’s transparently turquoise waters without recalling that the river was part of the setting for a series of deadly battles that destroyed over a million lives.

Click here for: Through Other People’s Eyes – Slovenia’s Soca River Valley: From War To Peace



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