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History

The History Context


The Pre-war Militarization (1861 - 1915)

The First Years of the Conflict and the Battle of Caporetto (1915 - 1917)

The Battle of Ragogna and the Breakthrough of Cornino (October 30th ­ November 3rd, 1917)

The Austrian-Hungarian Defensive Project (1917 - 1918)


The Pre-war Militarization (1861 - 1915)

In the years before the Great War, the whole basin of the Tagliamento River was powerfully fortified by the Italian Army. This stronghold, counting some 40 armored sites across a wide area, centered on the main Friulan waterway, was the crowning of the State Defense Project, intended to offer a stable defensive “buffer” along the Italian borders. The Forts of Friuli were built over the first fifteen years of the Twentieth Century, belatedly if compared both to the Austrian-Hungarian infrastructures in Carinthia and to other theaters in Italy. Nevertheless, they had to carry out the critical strategic task of locking the “Friulan Gate”, historically the point of contact between the Latin nation and the continental ones but, above all, the forced axis of attack for penetrating either side's defenses.
The installations in hand were of several types (from true and proper heavy forts, to less durable permanent gun emplacements), which had been devised by the military decision-makers of the Kingdom of Italy to counter the expected Austrian-Hungarian threat. This possibility was never really dismissed, notwithstanding the formal “Triple Alliance” signed in 1882 by Italy and the Central Powers, because of the never-subsiding rivalries between Italy and the Habsburg, and the strong irredentist claims left by the Risorgimento that characterized the political and social discourse at the time.
The territory included among Forgaria, Ragogna, San Daniele and Pinzano was immediately identified as a key node for the purposes of permanent fortification. Mt. Ragogna, an isolated high ground with its 512 meters of height on the left of the Tagliamento, had by itself a relevant tactical value. Additionally, at a time when the only possibilities of massively crossing wide waterways were entrusted to the few bridges then existing and the land communication lines had a vital strategic role, the area featured the Spilimbergo - Gemona railway, and the bridges of Pinzano (road), Cornino (railroad) and later Pontaiba (military use). Thus, this area became the keystone of the “Medio Tagliamento” system.
Following this reasoning, in 1908 the High Commission for State Defense, headed by the Chief of Staff, General Saletta, provided for the construction of a suitable fortified complex in the area of Pinzano and on Mt. Ragogna.
During 1909 the core of the wall was armed; that is, the permanent barbette batteries, each having four 149mm guns, named “Ragogna Bassa” (lower) and “Ragogna Alta” (higher) or “del Cavallino”. These strongpoints, positioned at the Western and Eastern ends of Mt. Ragogna respectively, thus hosted a total of eight ordnance pieces, but they were potentially organized to line up twice as much.
For the purpose of supplying the fortified system, bold war mule-trails were opened across the broken hillsides facing the Tagliamento. Several deep communication trenches, machine-gun nests, foxholes, redoubts and shelters completed the strongpoint.
In the vicinity of Pinzano, on Col Colàt (height: 280 mt.), an important fortification was built in 1909 for four 149mm guns, with powder magazines, barbettes and an access road. On the other hand, work on several roads was begun (such as the widening of the “Regina Margherita” road in Val d'Arzino or the bold mule-trail of Mt. Cuar); these were of great benefit to the local population, but they were mainly intended to guarantee good communications in a militarily decisive sector.
The role that the Ragogna bridgehead played in the pre-war years has also been disclosed by the attitude of the Austrian-Hungarians before the conflict. They organized an elaborate espionage service aimed at gathering as much intelligence as possible with regard to the Italian defensive laboratory. Two cases of intelligence operations by the Habsburg were documented in detail between 1913 and 1914, the latter of which ended with the conviction of an agent, Vittorio M. of Venice, who was arrested by the Reali Carabinieri, the Italian military police, in suspicious circumstances on Mt. Ragogna.

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The First Years of the Conflict and the Battle of Caporetto (1915 - 1917)

The Friulan territory became a “war zone” with the declaration of war against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire by the Kingdom of Italy (May 24th, 1915). Since the very first shots, the front stabilized along a virtual line that started with the Carnic and Julian Alps, followed the Isonzo River, surrounded the Karst heights and reached the Adriatic Sea at Monfalcone. Therefore, the Friulan permanent fortifications were left out of the operations, which were taking place beyond the range of their artillery.
This situation suggested the High Command to disarm almost entirely the Tagliamento Line, in order to send garrisons and weaponry to the front, where both men and equipment were urgently needed. The forts of Ragogna and Pinzano were not spared this demobilization order, and they were turned into logistical bases.
However, the first years of war saw the blossoming of several communication lines, which were also intended to boost the potential of the permanent fortifications: between 1915 and the summer of 1917, for instance, the Italians built the Pontaiba footbridge, the road along the namesake valley, the Cornino - Trasaghis road, and a remarkable network of mule-trails among the ridges of the Carnic Alps foothills. In 1916, the entrenchment system came to light, on three lines that as of today still mark the slopes of the mountain, from the Colle del Castello at San Pietro to Cimano: at the time, it was visited even by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III. Besides, the town of San Daniele became an important node in the rear areas, with barracks, the “Casa del Soldato” (Soldiers' House) and several typically military structures.
In August, 1917, the Italian Chief of Staff, General Cadorna, prophesized what was going to happen two months later and thought about forming an impressive tactical reserve group at the Ragogna bridgehead. But the tail end of the 11th Battle of the Isonzo distracted him, and the project was abandoned.
It was by the time of the breakthrough at Caporetto (October 24th, 1917) and the consequent unstoppable Austrian and German advance, that the Tagliamento front was hurriedly bolstered. On October 30th, 1917, the vanguards of the 14th Imperial Army already overcame the defenses of San Daniele, and came into contact with the outer perimeter of the garrisons of Ragogna and Cornino, threatening to outflank the 3rd Italian Army to the South and the 4th to the North-West. The outcome of the war would be played out among the Pinzano bridge, Mt. Ragogna and the Cornino bridge.

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The Battle of Ragogna and the Breakthrough of Cornino (October 30th - November­ 3rd, 1917)

From October 30th and November 3rd, 1917, one of the most important engagements of the withdrawal was fought among Pinzano, Ragogna and Forgaria: the Battle of Ragogna and the Breakthrough of Cornino.
Having conquered the town of San Daniele, on October 30th no less than four imperial divisions converged towards the Pinzano and Cornino bridges, whose defenses were centered around Mt. Ragogna and the “Clapàt”.
The Mt. Ragogna ridgeline was manned by the “Bologna” Brigade, a battalion of the “Barletta” Brigade and by four MG companies. The Cornino bridge, the Mt. Prat heights, the Peonis road and the Flagogna plains were defended by 1,000 men of the “Genova” and “Siracusa” Brigades, by the “Lombardia” Brigade and by two battalions of the “Lario” Brigade.
These units had been mobilized in the controversial Special Army Corps, which had been established under General Di Giorgio on October 26th-27th, in order to maintain the strategic link between the XII Corps of Carnia and the 2nd Army, therefore ensuring the withdrawal of the “bulk” of the army. Actually, this “emergency” unit, stretched out across the Middle Tagliamento between Spilimbergo and Trasaghis, found itself in the burdensome necessity of wholly replacing the defensive role of the 2nd Army's left wing, by now completely routed.
Notwithstanding the evident inferiority in men and equipment (in some points the Austrians and Germans enjoyed a 12:1 ratio advantage over the enemy forces) and the unfavorable situation for the defenders, who were fighting with a crumbling morale and from poorly built trenches, the order by the Italian commands was clear: “Resist at all costs!”.
The troops of the Austrian divisions of the “Krauss” group and the 12th “Silesian”, after having uselessly attacked (with the 50th and 55th Austrian-Hungarian units) the Cornino bridge, which was effectively defended by machine guns on the Clapàt islet and by the few Italian artillery pieces deployed on the right of the river, attacked Mt. Ragogna on October 31st. They bypassed San Giacomo (with the 12th “Silesian”) and Muris (with the 50th Austrian-Hungarian). At the same time, the 13th German Division unleashed a furious counter-battery fire against the enemy artillery, deployed on the heights of Pinzano, and outflanked the defensive bridgehead to the South-West. The German Alpenkorps, which Lieutenant E. Rommel was serving in, crossing Pontaiba on November 3rd, 1917 just behind the first vanguard units, was committed towards the Bonzicco bridge and in the Aonedis area.
The attackers climbed more than once the slopes over the village of Muris and the Rio del Ponte, but they were forced to withdraw by furious and unexpected counterattacks by the Italians.
At 03:00 a.m. on November 1st, the machine gunners deployed on the Clapàt disengaged across the swollen Tagliamento towards its right shore, damaging the Western span of the Cornino bridge. However, the explosive available was insufficient in quantity and poor in quality, thus the bridge was not entirely demolished.
At the same time, the footbridge of Pontaiba, too, a narrow passageway over the Tagliamento completed by the Engineers in 1916, had been seriously compromised: the one way out for the heroic infantrymen of the “Bologna” Brigade remained the Pinzano bridge.
On the morning of November 1st, the 12th Division (General Von Lequis), “the one of Tolmino”, supported by tens of batteries and a regiment of the 13th Schützen, launched the attack that was meant to be decisive. But, even if they came within some 300 meters of the Pinzano bridge, the Silesians' drive was pushed back by the survivors of the “Bologna” Brigade.
However, given the severity of the situation, General Sanna, commander of the 33rd Division and therefore of the whole front interested, ordered the Pinzano bridge to be blown up. Since the engineers could hear the fighting raging among the houses of San Pietro, they were more than relieved to light up the fuses. Some sources report that the deafening explosion involved some German vanguards that were already crossing over the bridge.
The destruction of the Pinzano bridge, carried out at 11:45 a.m., closed any possibility of retreat for those who were defending the Mt. Ragogna trenches on the left of the Tagliamento: nevertheless, the infantrymen opposed a hopeless resistance until sunset, when it was unavoidably overcome.
Hundreds of Austrian and German soldiers met with death, no less than four hundred bodies of Italian servicemen were later collected by the inhabitants and buried, in part, in the no longer existing war cemetery of Ragogna (at the memorial monument of Ragogna, there still is a plaque installed by the German Cemetery Department, remembering 37 Italians who were hit by “friendly fire” by tragic mistake). Some three thousand survivors were captured by the enemy. The overall commander of the Imperial 14th Army, General Otto von Below, conceded the honors of war on the Vittorio Emanuele II Square of San Daniele to the warriors of the “Bologna” and to their valiant commander, Colonel Carlo Rocca. Also, the official Austrian report, just like every Italian source, praises the “heroic defense” of the Savoy infantry on October 30th and November 1st, 1917.
Having unhinged the Mt. Ragogna position, Prince Schwarzenberg and his Jaegers headed for breaking the front at Cornino. With regard to the Austrian nobleman, a great historical and military figure, it is worth recalling his adventurous slipping and consequent “swimming” in the ice-cold water of the Tagliamento in full spate; a banal accident that, in time of war, could have cost him his life.
Between November 1st and 2nd, with support by the daring action of the artillery deployed right in the first line, and exploiting the uncertain attitude of the Italian commanders, the Bosnian soldiers of Major Redl (K.u.K. I.R. IV/4º) firstly occupied the islet of Clapàt, and then they assaulted the thinly stretched companies of the “Lombardia” Brigade, entrenched on the right shore of the Tagliamento. Notwithstanding their combative resistance, the infantrymen were overcome, and in the night of November 3rd the Austrians of the “Krauss” Group overwhelmed the Italian defense line, encircling and destroying most of the “Lombardia” Brigade (Col. Puglioli), which bravely fought in the vicinity of San Rocco and on the highland of Mt. Prat. The surge by the few units belonging to the “Lario” and “Barletta” Brigades was likewise defeated in the partial entrenchments they had dug among Pontaiba, Flagogna and Forgaria.
The defensive action of Mt. Ragogna allowed the Royal Army's columns to gain the time needed to organize an effective withdrawal, and to complete the defense line on the new front (Piave - Grappa - Altipiani). A doubt was cast on the invincibility of the attackers, who had to commit significant efforts for the above-mentioned repeated attacks. However, the success was scaled down by the decision of the higher HQs, which was explicitly meant to sacrifice an effective, useful brigade like the “Bologna” on the altar of a moral redemption after Caporetto, while a disengagement of that unit was still possible.
The imperial breakthrough at Cornino, named the “Second Caporetto”, doomed the 36th and 63rd Divisions to encirclement, being still trapped among the Carnic Alps foothills, and provided the events with such a maneuver momentum that could have turned out to be very dangerous for the Italian redeployment. In the end, the Italian soldiers fighting between Ragogna and Forgaria, (some 7,500 men), by withstanding the impact by enormously stronger in numbers and equipment (at least 25,000 men), offered to the bulk of the Royal Army that time delay that in the final analysis was shown to be indispensable for the purposes of the recovery from the Piave.

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The Austrian-Hungarian Defensive Project (1917 - 1918)

During the year of Imperial occupation (Nov. 1917 - Nov. 1918), the Austrian-Hungarian army also organized an entrenched compound for the defense of the Middle Tagliamento, a sector that would have become decisive should the Italian break through the Piave frontline.
The keystone of the system was a complex of fortifications on the higher shores of the Tagliamento, South of Villuzza (Ragogna), built in 1918 by the cadets of an Engineer Corps Technical School. The Corps HQ was in Pignano, in Villa Locatelli, not far from the local military infrastructures of the time.
In the event, when the Royal Army overcame the Austrian-Hungarian armies following the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (Oct. - Nov. 1918), the K.u.K. permanent defense of Ragogna opposed no resistance at all against the advancing Italian units.

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