Mass surrender and the Italian defeat at Caporetto
The battle of Caporetto has been the subject of interpretative disagreements almost from the moment it began. Political explanations in Italy and elsewhere tended to attribute the Italian defeat at Caporetto primarily to a failure of troops' morale on an unprecedented scale. If later historians qualified this view by eschewing the expressed view of the former Commander-in-Chief, General Luigi Cadorna, that the defeat was down to cowardice and betrayal, they continued to view the rout of II Army and the retreat to the River Piave as a manifestation of morale failure. Some posited the notion of Caporetto as a 'military strike,' an organised expression of concerted opposition to the war; others blamed the crisis of morale on the inadequate policies of the army and government alike. But only more recently have Italian historians begun to consider the idea of Caporetto as a straightforward battlefield defeat. Another relatively recent phenomenon has been a more thorough analysis of the Austrian and German tactics during the battle, which have contributed to a better and more balanced understanding of events. The causes of the defeat remain controversial though, and consensus on the battle remains a long way off. An examination of the phenomenon of mass surrender within the context of the battle can form the basis for a useful re-examination of this debate.
Undeniably, mass surrender was a crucial aspect of the battle in the opening days, which then acted to render untenable the original Italian lines, and sparked the subsequent catastrophic chain of events. Why did men and units surrender, and how did their actions and motives differ from those who simply deserted and returned home? By analysing individual incidents of mass surrender, and focusing on the early part of the battle, it is possible to create a coherent argument as to the nature and causes of these episodes and thus more widely of the battle as a whole. Furthermore, tactical defeat and the failure of combat morale are deeply intertwined phenomena, not mutually exclusive alternatives. In this paper, I hope to show that starting on 24 October 1917, Italian troops were effectively militarily defeated by a well-planned and effectively executed German and Austro-Hungarian attack. The circumstances and consequences of this battlefield defeat, however, can only be understood with reference to the wider social, political and cultural circumstances of Italy in 1917. Individual and collective decisions to surrender were based both on immediate tactical considerations and on men's morale and longer term attitudes. Instead of a mono-causal explanation I will endeavour to show an integrated approach to the causes of the initial defeat and of the unfolding catastrophe which will shed light on this most important part of the Italian war experience and perhaps raise wider theoretical questions about the relationship between morale and battlefield events.comment! please!