On the Footsteps of the Great War From Natisone to Isonzo

The start of the First World War on the 28th July 1914 should not have disturbed the Natisone Valleys since Italy was part of the Triple Alliance with “Central Empires” Germany and Austria-Hungary, so the Slavia Friulana border was a “friendly” border. In addition, the Italian government had already announced its neutrality on the 3rd August as they claimed that the Triple Alliance had a defensive agreement and the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war against Serbia, making them the aggressors; and hence not obligating Italy to enter. The Austro- Hungarian Empire had in fact declared war in order to avenge the assassination of the Archduke Francesco Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, in a nationalistic Serbian attack.

Nevertheless there was something that was not right regarding the official structure of the Alliance. The inhabitants of the Natisone Valley realised this from the second half of the 1914: because on the border (which then coincided exactly with today’s border between Italy and Slovenia, and is also the centuries old border that divided the Venetian Republic and the Hapsburg Empire) between Castelmonte/Stara Gora, Kolovrat, Matajur and Craguenza/Kraguojnca mountains and Mladesena, Italy started important preparations to strengthen defences by constructing fortified trenches, logistic infrastructures and also road networks behind defence lines. The latter however was rather lacking if you exclude the main road on the Natisone/Nediža valley floor. Furthermore, during this period, most of today’s road network structure in the Benecia area was developed.

Italy in reality was secretly negotiating with the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia).


During the stalemate period that followed after the first weeks of the First World War, Italy could have made the scales tip to either side of the parties involved and was therefore able to negotiate and consider who would give the best territorial advantages in the event of a victory. In addition a cultural, but influential, minority saw this as an advantageous reopening of the hostilities with Austria to end the cycle of wars of the Risorgimento and to reclaim all the unredeemed territory.

The Italian defence in the Natisone valleys was already incredibly developed and the population already lived in a war zone when Italy renounced its obligations to the Triple Alliance and joined theTriple Entente by signing the Treaty of London on 26th April 1915.

The first cannon was fired on 24th May 1915. In the Natisone valley the cyclist bersaglieri advanced to Kobriad/Caporetto; another division of Bersaglieri from Cepletischis/Čeplešišče occupied Livek and the territory on the right of the Isonzo/Soča River.

At Solarie/Solarje on the night of 24th May the first Italian soldier, Riccardo Di Giusto, a Friulian Alpine Troop, was killed by Austrian shooting. The advancements of the Italian army were not heroic since the Austrian soldiers simply retreated from their defence posts on the left of the Isonso/ Soča River. In June 1915 the capture of Mount Ken/Nero’s peak was of great importance for the Italian Alpine troops, although difficult and arduous.

From then on, on the Isonso/Soča front the situation remained unaffected until the battle of Caporetto. The eleven battles of the Isonzo before did not have any effect, only that of creating a huge number of dead and wounded.

The Natisone valleys became a zone immediately behind the war zone; even though the situation here was not as dramatic as that at the front conditions were not easy. The permanent presence of tens of thousands of soldiers and of those in charge of logistics outweighed the few thousand inhabitants of the Natisone valley. Once in a while, a little enemy fire would hit the zones of Drenchia/ Dreka, Tribil/Tarbiji and Castelmonte/Stara Gora and at times resulted in wounded and victims. Houses, fields and churches were requisitioned in order to leave space for lodgings for men andanimals, for hospitals and for storage rooms; roads were always blocked by a continual flow of vehicles and men, cargo of weapons, ammunition, provisions and equipment. In 1916, there was a little relief by the creation of a short railway line (75cm) from Cividale to Sužid (a town near Kobarid/Caporetto, sheltered from the direct hit of Austrian cannons) with stations at Sanguarzo, Ponte S. Quirino/Muost, S. Pietro al Natisone/ Špietar, Brischis/Brišča, Pulfero/Podbuniesac, Loch/Log, Stupizza/Štupca and Robič.

The Italian defence was organised into three lines of resistance. The first ran along the ridge of Mount Stol, descended to Staro Selo, then went back up Matajur and continued along the peak of Kolovrat beyond the Iudrio/Idrija valley on Mount Ježa and on Mount Globočak. The second line of resistance detached itself from the first line in the valley between Livek and Polava, and it crossed, transversely, the Natisone valleys passing over the tops of Mounts S. Martino/Sv. Martin and Cum/ Hum. Finally the third line of resistance, from Punta di Montemaggiore along the ridge of Joanaz/ Ivanac, Craguenza/Kraguojnca and Mladesena, up to Purgessimo, Castelmonte/Stara Gora and Mount Korada. These defences, howerer, proved not to be very effective in the October of 1917 against the offensive of the Central Powers.

Russia had retreated from the war as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution and Romania had been defeated, so the Austro-Hungarians were now able to reinforce the Isonzo front which had resisted, albeit with difficulty, the eleven Italian offensives. In addition, on this occasion, the Hapsburg forces were supported by the Germans.Impressive displays of armaments were drawn up, as well as mortars to shoot poison gas shells against which the Italians were not at all ready for. Their military strategy was innovative; instead of heading for the fortified posts on the tops of the mountains, the Caporetto Offensive wanted to attack from the valley floor (Talstoß) with the subsequent surrounding and surrendering of the raised positions. The force of this military action (that of Rommel on Kolovrat for example,See itinerary 6) surprised the Italian troops. Even though they came to know of this imminent Offensive, through spies, it was still not to their advantage. Instead, the changes of formation, the turnover of divisions and the reinforcing of trenches at the last minute only created even more confusion. When the Offensive occurred many divisions had just moved and some were even still on route.

In the Natisone valleys the Caporetto Offensive had apocalyptic characteristics. It started at night in the early hours of the 24th October with a








violent attack of artillery. “The mountains appeared to be engulfed by fire,” eye witnesses stated, and the ground seemed to erupt like “hot fountain jets that gushed everywhere, heating the air.” There were also dramatic consequences with poison gas shells. Further north, towards Bovec/Plezzo, where the Isonso/Soča valley is at its narrowest, the use of poison gas was intense as it infected the whole valley. In the Natisone valleys “small gas shells” were used, that is cylinders containing a lethal mix of gases inside the shells, the so called Buntschiessen (colourful bullets).

This was a mixture of difenilcloroarsin (so called Blaukreuz as a result of the blue cross thatcharacterised the shells filled with this substance), which provoked eye irritation, respiratory problems and spasms of vomit, and which easily filtered gas masks and induced soldiers to take them off and of the lethal gas phosgene (Grünkreuz, characterised by the green cross on the shells filled with this gas), that paralysed the nervous system.

The Infantry attack started in the morning and was unstoppable despite the resistance, at times strenuous, of the Italian troops. On the 25th October the posts on Kolovrat fell; on the 26th those on Matajur and at Stupizza/Štupca; on the 27th those on the ridge of Craguenza/Kraguojnca and Joanaz/Ivanac. The Friulian and Venetian plain were now vulnerable.