The Isonzo and the Madness of War

Today Pope Francis denounced war as “madness” in a moving homily delivered at Redipuglia, at a vast monument to the dead of the First World War located in northeasternmost Italy, a stone’s throw from the Slovenian border. The pontiff did not mince words:

Humanity needs to weep and this is the time to weep … Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction … War is irrational; its only plan is to bring destruction: it seeks to grow by destroying … Greed, intolerance, the lust for power. These motives underlie the decision to go to war and they are too often justified by an ideology.

Pope Francis chose a very appropriate place to castigate war and those who advocate it as mad and irrational, as Redipuglia perfectly represents the brutal stupidity of deeply flawed war-making. It is located close to the Isonzo River, which witnessed the worst fighting of perhaps mankind’s most brutal conflict, the Great War. Between May 1915 and August 1917, the Italian Army attempted to cross the Isonzo and break through Austro-Hungarian lines in a series of eleven offensives, all of which were failures to one degree or another. Led by the inept bungler General Luigi Cadorna, who favored sheer brutality over tactical finesse — he made the much maligned Field Marshal Haig look like Napoleon — the Italians never achieved any major breakthroughs. In over two years of attritional fighting, the front budged only a few miles and in some places the Austro-Hungarian defenses never moved at all. In the process, Cadorna cost his country nearly a half-million dead.

After the bloodbath ended in late 1918, Italy collected its mountains of dead, gathering them in large ossuaries, the greatest of them at Redipuglia, located in the middle of the rocky limestone plateau overlooking the Adriatic known as the Carso, which witnessed so much fighting between mid-1915 and late 1917. After his Fascists took power in 1922, Benito Mussolini, who had been wounded in action in the Carso fighting, not far from Redipuglia, oversaw the construction of grandiose monuments to the dead of the Isonzo, his fallen comrades in arms.

Redipuglia’s massive multi-level ossuary, located at the peak of Monte Sei Busi, which witnessed savage fighting in 1915-16, is silently impressive. Here is the resting place of a hundred thousand dead Italian soldiers, victims of the Carso battles: forty thousand of those are unknown. To honor them, there is a monument with the simple inscription:


What does my name matter to you?

Cry to the wind


And I will rest in peace

The votive chapel at the top of the Redipuglia ossuary has a small museum filled with personal artifacts dug up all over the plateau — crosses, rosaries, pins, buttons, and the like — belonging to the legions of Italian dead. It is a story of a hundred thousand tragedies. One such recorded there is the death of three brothers, Achille, Ermino and Luigi Cortellessa, sons of a peasant family in Caserta, all of whom died on the Carso inside a year, the oldest of them just twenty-four. A faded photograph of the Cortellessa boys, located in the votive chapel, is all that remains of them.

The pope’s paternal grandfather, Giovanni Carlo Bergoglio, was one of the lucky ones. He fought on the Isonzo with the elite Bersaglieri, the rifle corps Mussolini also belonged to, but survived the war, later emigrating to Argentina, where the pontiff was born. Pope Francis recalled hearing “many painful stories from the lips of my grandfather.”

Before visiting Redipuglia, the pope started the day at Fogliano, just down the road, where the only major Austro-Hungarian cemetery located on the Italian side of the Isonzo valley can be found. Francis said prayers for the 14,406 Habsburg dead buried there, only 2,406 of whom lie in marked graves, with the rest remaining unknown. Above the entrance to the Fogliano cemetery is a sign reading Im Leben und im Tode vereint (United in Life and Death), and the men of a dozen nationalities of the long-defunct Habsburg Empire who gave their lives on the Isonzo indeed are united in perpetuity.

Today, in the era of the European Union, the notion of Italians and Austrians slaughtering each other in the hundreds of thousands over a minor Alpine river seems absurd. This is progress of an important sort. But Pope Francis’s visit to the Isonzo and his denunciation of war there is a message that the world needs to hear, especially as Europe’s largest country exploits nationalism in a manner Mussolini would have appreciated, saber-rattling and invading neighbors, thereby threatening Europe again with needless war. The ossuary at Redipuglia is a powerful reminder of where such madness ultimately leads.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about this subject, read my book, Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, which is available in English and Italian.



8 comments on “The Isonzo and the Madness of War”
  1. I’ve been to Redipuglia, it’s deeply moving. For what it’s worth, my grandfather served on the Italian front, on the Austro-Hungarian side, though well behind the lines as a member of the k.u.k. juridical corps. Some of the worst fighting, however, was in the Dolomites, ice, glaciers, snow, blizzards and ricochets.

    1. 20committee says:

      Your grandfather was a lucky man then. 🙂

      The war in the Dolomites and the Upper Isonzo, in the high Alps, was absolutely vicious, with thousands lost to avalanches, what the troops called the “White Death.”

      As I am sure you are aware, the defense of the Carso, around Redipuglia, especially in the critical battles of 1915, was led by Hungarian troops under Archduke Joseph. A high percentage of the k.u.k. dead buried at Fogliano are from Hungary.

  2. Mike Lumish says:

    Like you I have always regarded the Karst as an especially tragic front: it served no strategic purpose, even the greatest of victories would have led nowhere. I never understood why they did not simply move on Trieste and declare victory – perhaps I should read you book.

    1. 20committee says:

      You should — it explains why Cadorna’s strategy never stood any chance of getting to Trieste. Enjoy!

  3. Ed Poletto says:

    I had an uncle who was an artillery officer with the Alpine Corps and my father who was an Arditi. Both wounded but survived. Fathers birthday was Nov 1 but he changed it to Nov 11 because he said he was reborn on that day.

    1. 20committee says:

      Fascinating, thanks for sharing.

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