The Storming of Krn
By Klemen Lužar
At midnight on the 23rd May 1915 the Italian 2nd and 3rd Armies crossed the Austro-Italian border and started to advance towards the Soča River. Although the Austro-Hungarian border troops, except at Tolmin and in the Gorica bridgehead withdrew to the left bank of the river, the Italian advance was extremely cautious and slow. The 1st Italian Cavalry Division, under command of General Pirozzi, was to occupy at the gallop the railway and road bridges at Pieris, but they advanced so slowly that the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were easily able to blow up the railway bridge on May 24th at 0600 hours in the morning and to burn the wooden road bridge. General Pirozzi, who advanced only "6km" on the first day soon became the first victim on Cadorna's long list of removed senior officers.
Similarly at midnight on 23rd May 1915 the units of Italian IV Corps (7th Infantry Division, 8th Infantry Division and 33rd Infantry Division, Special Bersaglieri Division plus 14 battalions of Alpini) crossed the border in Zgornje Posocje (the Upper Soča Valley), which corresponds to the present Slovenian-Italian state border. The Italians, like their colleagues in the 1st Cavalry Division again advanced extremely slowly, although they were facing only some weak Austro-Hungarian border units plus some Landsturm units comprised from soldiers unsuitable for front duties. However, they managed to occupy without a fight the peaks between the rivers Idrija (Iudrio) and Soča (Isonzo) and the Matajur-Kolovrat ridge. The Austro-Hungarians withdrew, except at Tolmin to the left bank of the Soča River, after they had previously blown all the bridges. During the morning of the 24th May the famous "Napoleon's" bridge at Kobarid fell into Italian hands. The same day during the afternoon the Italians (bersaglieri) marched into Kobarid and renamed it Caporetto. The Italian military history reports Kobarid as the first city to fall into Italian hands.
By the 29th of May some Italian units had already sent reconaissance patrols to Vrsic, the Zagreben plateau and Potoce but they soon returned back due to the bad weather. General Etna, the commanding officer of groups "A" and "B" of the Italian alpini was preparing to execute the plan of the 2nd Army, which was to mount an attack into the direction of the Tolminka Valley and Tolmin. They were to surprise the defenders. Alpini group "A (six battalions) under command of Colonel Tedeschi, was situated between Kolovrat and Globocak. The commander of the "B" group was Lieutenant Colonel Pettinati. His units, alpini battalions Exilles and Pinerolo with an attached battery of mountain guns, captured Kozljak (1602m) and Plece (1304m) South of Krn and were in contact with brigade Modena, acting as a part of 8th Infantry Division. On the 30th May, three additional alpini battalions of this group; Val Pellice, Val Dora and Val Cenischia arrived in Dreznica. The entire sector between Krn and the Slemen plateau was defended only by three or four Austro-Hungarian battalions with machine-guns and mountain guns. General Etna planned an attack in two directions; towards the North on the Austrian positions at Krn, while brigade Modena should attack in the direction of the Slemen plateau and Mrzli vrh. Lieutenant Colonel Petinatti correctly estimated on the 30th May that the key for a successful capture of the Austrian defence trenches on the mountain ridge north of Krn, between Vrsic and Vrata, was the capture of Krn (2245m). When the Italians discovered that on the peak (Krn) only a weak Hungarian garrison was stationed, they decided to attack on the 31st, although the weather was very bad. Alpini of the 102nd Company of the battalion Susa under command of Captain Achille D' Havet captured after a short fight the mountain of Vrsic and the ridge up to Lopatnik (2013m), defended by only one Austro-Hungarian company. From there the 85th Company advanced towards Griva (199m) and to the Cez Potoce pass . In total they captured 46 soldiers and 1 officer. Italian losses were minimal - 2 soldiers killed and 16 wounded.
The Austro-Hungarian soldiers prevented a further Italian advance from Lopatnik through a ridge towards Krnica, but on 2nd June a platoon of volunteers of the 85th Company under command of 2nd Lieutenant Barbier departed from the Zaprikaj plateau and by means of a flanking climb took the Hungarian position from the rear and successfully captured the strategically very important peak 1102.
The Austrians immediately assembled a group of 18 companies and a mountain artillery battery under command of Generalmajor Eugen Perneczky and tried to again re-capture the ridge. They failed. Subsequent to this, the commander of the 20th Honvéd Infantry Division, Generalmajor Paul Edler von Nagy, tried his luck on the 8th and 9th of June and personally led the newly arrived 3rd Honvéd infantry Regiment into the attack. All attacks failed.
On 5th June a group of 30 selected Alpini under the command of 2nd Lieutenant Vallera captured Skutnik (2074m). In memory of the brave 2nd Lieutenant, who was killed only a few days later during the attack on Krn, the Italians renamed the Skutnik as the Punta Vallera. Also mortally wounded in a subsequent battle on the ridge at Krncica on 11 June was the commander of the Alpini group "B", Colonel Luigi Pettinati. Eight days later he died in a hospital in Kobarid. He was posthumously awarded by the highest Italian military award - the gold medal for military merit. General Etna considered that Kozljak and peak 2102 on the Krncica-Krn ridge were suitable for a direct attack on Krn. He ordered simultaneous attacks on Krn on 16th June in the early morning by two alpini battalions; battalion Susa was to attack through the ridge Lopatnik-Krncica-Krn and battalion Exilles through the ridge Pleca-Kozljak-Krn.
The mission of the Exilles battalion was entrusted to three alpini companies which prepared to capture the mountain quickly, silently, in a disciplined manner and at any cost. That day, the commander of the 84th Company of the battalion Exilles, a Captain Vincenzo Arbarello played a decisive role in the Krn campaign. His company of approximately 130 men, divided into three platoons, left their camp at Pleca at 2130 hours in the evening. They started to advance from Kozljak towards the west via a narrow and rocky ridge at the west edge of the southern hillside of Krn. They climbed cautiously and quietly, as they were afraid of any unexpected rock falls or by any sudden surprises by the enemy. At the point was a small detachment of five men led by a young not yet 21-years old 2nd Lieutenant - Alberto Picco. He was followed by the 1st Platoon with about 50 men with Captain Arbarello. The soldiers were all experienced in mountain warfare. The other two platoons were led by NCOs.
The soldiers from Northern Italy also carried besides rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, rucksacks, filled with soil, which they would use as the only shelter at the exposed and rocky top of the mountain. At the same time, the 31st Company of the same battalion, led by Captain Rosso also started to advance on a hillside of the mountain. The men ascended silently through a long and steep mountain ridge from Kozljak. They advanced slightly further to the East than the 84th company, to the peak of Krn and Krnska Skrbina. At about 0300 hours in the morning they met the first Austrians at a distance of only 50 meters. They didn't return fire. When they heard shooting on the north side of Krn, where units of battalion Susa under command of Captain Vittorio Varese were attacking, they responded with fire. The Austrians directed fire at them from both the top of the mountain and from their positions at Krnska Skrbina and from Batognica. The Italians soon found themselves in a very difficult position.
The commander of the Exilles battalion supervised the attack from the top of Kozljak. He immediately ordered the nearest mountain artillery battery to shell the positions at the top of the mountain. It should be said here that the Austrian positions at the top of the mountain were very poor. They had only managed to dig some trenches, while most of the position was constructed of shelters made with rocks in a half circle just a few metres below the peak. In these groups of 5 to 6 men could take cover. Due to the lack of time, the Hungarians had not even laid barbed wire obstacles in front of their positions, which could at least partly hinder the Italians. The Italians were unsure of the exact strength of the enemy garrison at the top of the mountain. Austrian sources claim that one and a half companies of Hungarians (perhaps less) of the 3rd Gebirgsbrigade were in position there.
When the 84th Company also reached the Austrian positions on the summit without shooting, Captain Arbarello decided to assault the peak. He left the task of dealing with the defenders on the right and left flank to the troops following behind. The suprise was complete and hand to hand fighting developed. During the great confusion the Italians overwhelmed the Austrians. Those who remained alive ran for their lives towards Krnska Skrbina and Batognica which still provided a safe passage to the rear. 22 dead Hungarians remained lying on the peak and more than 10 of them were captured. During the battle 2nd Lieutenant Alberto Picco was killed. Although wounded in the leg he still continued with the fight, but he then fell mortally wounded with a shot to his stomach. Shortly after all units arrived at the summit, he died in the arms of Captain Arbarello. The 84th Company lost two more soldiers killed and 11 wounded. The 31st Company lost three soldiers and many wounded.
From the Batognica the Austrians continued to shell the Krn, but the bombardment wasn't especially troublesome for the Italians who were assembled at the summit of the mountain. This was one of the main reasons for Captain Arbarello to continuing with the attack against Batognica. The Italians renamed the mountain as Monte Rosso. Arbarello soon reported to his superior his intention to launch a new attack and requested reinforcements. The response was short and clear. The battalion's commander Lieutenant Colonel Pozzi responded that the plan had only included the capture of Krn and nothing more! General Etna later confirmed this and ordered the unit to remain on the mountain and to defend their positions at all costs. This was a mistake they would later heavily regret. He sent to Arbarello an additional company. At about five o'clock in the morning, immediately after he (Etna) was informed about the victory of his unit, he send a telegram to the corps commander and confirmed that the whole ridge Potoce-Vrata-Krn was in Italian hands and that they had captured about 200 Austro-Hungarian soldiers. At 1000 hours a new message arrived. At Zaprikaj plateau they had assembled all the prisoners - 315 NCOs and soldiers and 14 officers. Additionally battalion Susa had overwhelmed the Hungarian defenders and among the prisoners was Oberstleutnant Balogh, a Hungarian.
The Italians immediately sent another new unit to the top of the mountain and didn't leave anything to chance that the Austrians could re-take the mountain back. They built new underground shelters with cannons, dug new trenches and machine gun nests from which they easily dominated the surrounding area.
The trenches on Krn received a bad reputation among the Italian soldiers because of the usual heavy Austrian artillery bombardment from the valleys and especially because of the many heavy lightning strikes. The mountain soon gained a reputation among the Italian soldiers as "Picco delle folgori"- the Mountain of Lightning.
What became of Captain Arbarello? He survived the assault on Krn. In August of the same year he was hit by a grenade splinter at Tolmin but survived. His chest was shining with two silver medals and he was additionally honoured with the title of Cavaliere dell' Ordine Militare di Savoia. He died as the commanding officer of alpini battalion Monte Granero on the 2nd April 1917 in Karnia. A huge snow avalanche filled up the HQ barracks and Arbarello died in it together with his subordinate officer and 14 other soldiers. Under the snow they found a small sheet of paper on which he had wrote with a shaking hand his last message: " I believed that I would die differently. I had tried all to help my Lieutenant, but all was useless".
The Italians glorified this initial military victory at the beginning of the war with Austria-Hungary as they badly needed a success for political purposes. They also naturally wanted to raise the morale of their units which had suffered heavy casualties at the beginning of the war. The fallen soldiers and officers were almost all posthumously decorated with gold and silver medals as indeed were the survivors. The storming of Krn is looked upon from a military aspect as a success for the attackers but one should not forget the weakness of the defenders, bad equipment, little or no training for combat in mountain conditions and finally also the fact that they allowed the Italians to surpise them. The commanding general Etna wrote after the victory on Krn to General Cadorna amongst others: "The storming of Krn will be written in history as the example of the most successful fighting in the mountains".
A modest rocky pyramid was the first monument built by the Italians in memory of the successful attack and one of the first victories in the initial days of the war. The storms in 1922 destroyed the monument (statue). The fascists accused the local population from the villages under Krn of destroying it and some of them were even prosecuted. In Kobarid they (the fascists) ruined the monument dedicated to the composer Hraboslav Volaric and left the message: "In rappresaglia per monumento al Monte Nero -per ora questo"
After the capture of Krn, Italian public opinion started to favour the Italian army and its mountain units as they had proved their abilities in mountain warfare. The public and newspapers enjoyed the success but the soldiers expressed their feelings in a different way. Shortly after the capture of Krn mountain a poem "O vile Monte Nero" was composed which was written and sung in the form of an old Milanese melody (vecchio canto milanese). In it can be seen the truth and the sad picture of useless dying, killing, suffering and the human distress of the young people who fought in these mountain battlefields:
Per venirti a conquistare
Abbiam perduti molti compagni
Tutti giovani sui venti anni
La sua vita non torna piů.
O monte Nero
Traditore de' vita mia…
2nd Lieutenant Alberto Picco was posthumously decorated with a gold medal and his name was written on the massive monument which was built after the war by the Italians several metres under the peak.
The huge rocky monument, which actually depicted the entrance into a mountain shelter, was built and ceremonially opened in 1928 in the presence of General Etna the ex-commander of the "A and B" groups of Alpini and the 3rd (Alpini) Regiment which had conquered the peak. At the top of the monument was a sign "Victoribvs esto", under which were huge rocky sculptures of four eagles and under them on both sides of the entrance fascist signs. The huge monument was too exposed to the rain storms and heavy lightning which regularly struck and slowly ruined it in a few years. The Italians even suggested that the local people destroyed it. Today there is little sign of this monument on Krn mountain. At the same place is built the mountain refuge "Gomisckovo zavetisce" from where one can enjoy a nice view over the Upper Soča Valley.
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