WWI Centennial: Austria-Hungary’s Last Gasp

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 310th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JUNE 15-23, 1918: AUSTRIA-HUNGARY'S LAST GASP

The disaster of Caporetto in 1917 sent Italy’s military prestige plunging to new lows as the Western Entente powers, France and Britain, were forced to rush reinforcements to the Italian Front to shore up their beleaguered ally. But the summer of 1918 offered the Italians a chance at redemption, in the form of a renewed Austrian offensive along the Piave River. The Austrians immediately stumbled due to a reorganized, reinvigorated Italian Army. In fact, the Second Battle of the Piave, lasting from June 15-23, 1918, sounded the death knell of the exhausted, disintegrating feudal empire.

A lot had changed in the six months following the collapse of the Italian armies before the combined Austro-German onslaught at Caporetto, beginning with the replacement of the disgraced chief of the general staff, Luigi Cadorna, by his former aid General Armando Diaz on November 8, 1917. A skilled strategist and energetic administrator, Diaz worked closely with Italy’s British and French allies to establish a new line of defense along the Piave River, then set about reforming the demoralized Italian Army—effectively granting amnesty to tens of thousands of deserters, employing British and French officers as trainers, and reorganizing four unwieldy armies (as well as the remnants of the virtually destroyed Second Army) into nine smaller, more manageable armies, including one in reserve.

On the other side, things had also changed—mostly for the worse. Although Austria-Hungary’s strategic position improved with the Central Powers’ victory over Russia, the empire faced a deepening food crisis, mass strikes by hungry workers, and ever-present ethnic rivalries, now threatening to escalate into full-blown civil war. The military situation was just as desperate: The Habsburg Army was in tatters, never having recovered from its stunning defeats in 1914 and 1915, and now found itself deprived of Germany’s help, as the stronger ally withdrew almost all its troops for the final spring offensives on the Western Front. The outlook was so grim that Emperor Karl had secretly explored a separate peace deal with the Allies, but Habsburg peace entreaties were immediately rebuffed (and the offer soon leaked, sowing discord between Austria and Germany).

Map of Europe, June 1918
Erik Sass

Worst of all, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff expected Austria-Hungary to contribute to his final bid for victory with a new offensive on the Italian Front, intended to tie down Italian, British, and French troops in order to prevent them from reinforcing the beleaguered Allied forces on the Western Front. This request was supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was furious about Austria-Hungary’s offer of a separate peace and demanded the new offensive as proof of its loyalty.

But without substantial German help this plan was ambitious to the point of fantasy, prompting Austro-Hungarian Field Marshal Svetozar Borojević, considered one of the most gifted strategists of the First World War, to warn that it would almost certainly lead to defeat and the collapse of the Habsburg Army, probably followed by the empire itself. Instead, he argued for remaining on the defensive, digging in and holding on to northern Italy, at least as a bargaining chip for the inevitable peace negotiations.

However, Borojević was overruled by superiors who found it impossible to defy the Dual Monarchy’s powerful ally. Germany had thrown in its lot with Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the war, and now Austria-Hungary had no choice but to follow Germany to the bitter end.

FATAL PLAN

The original plan proposed by Borojević called for a concentrated attack along the River Piave, allowing Habsburg forces to maximize their scarce artillery and shells. However, Austrian chief of the general staff Arz von Straussenberg and former chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, now commanding the armies along the Asiago Plateau, called for simultaneous, widely spaced attacks all along the Italian front, from the Trentino sector all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Borojević appealed to Emperor Karl, arguing that the broad attack would fatally dilute their strength, but was once again overruled (below, an Italian position on the Piave just before the battle).

According to the final plan approved by the general staff, the two main attacks would pit the Habsburg Eleventh Army against the Italian Sixth and Fourth Armies on the Asiago Plateau, scene of Conrad’s failed “Punishment Expedition” in 1916, while the Habsburg “Isonzo Army” (formerly the Fifth Army) attacked the Italian Third Army defending Venice across the River Piave. A third, smaller attack by the Habsburg Tenth Army would tie down the Italian Seventh Army north of Lake Garda.

Italian front, WWI, June 1918
Erik Sass

Despite all the hurdles facing them, including an arduous river crossing (the Italians had destroyed all the bridges over the Piave), the Habsburg forces achieved surprising success on the first day of the offensive, principally because they retained the element of surprise—and while their artillery was spread out, the use of gas shells helped force the Italians from their frontline trenches in many areas. However, most Italian artillery positions remained undamaged, as evidenced by a furious counter-barrage pounding the Austro-Hungarian attackers.

Jan Tříska, a Czech noncommissioned officer in the Habsburg Army, remembered the opening bombardment at 3 a.m. on June 15, 1918, followed by the counter-bombardment beginning two hours later:

“By 5 a.m., thousands of shells flew over [their] position from both directions—concussion grenades, grenade-shrapnel, shrapnel, mortars, and bombs of all calibers. Light and heavy machine guns and trench mortars from both sides joined the fray. The din was overwhelming. Huddled in their deep shelter, the gunners were stiff with fear. Safely dug in, they still felt exposed and vulnerable in the eye of this storm of steel. This was much worse than anything they had experienced at the Isonzo. They were caught in the middle of one of the greatest battles of the war, and they could do nothing but sit, wait and pray.”

The Italian counter-bombardment terrified young, green Habsburg recruits, according to Tříska, who recorded the unromantic, if entirely understandable, response:

“The veterans among the gunners, terrified, could still manage to maintain their composure; but the 17- and 18-year-old replacements, ‘cannon fodder,’ were a different matter. Nearly all of them had to be physically restrained from jumping from the trench and running. They wept, wet their pants, cried for their mothers, and disintegrated completely. Two boys did manage, somehow, to escape from the trench and made a dash for the road parallel to the river. Some seventy paces behind the trench they were mowed down like weeds by enemy fire.”

Habsburg engineering units next moved forward to build pontoon bridges that allowed around 100,000 attacking infantry to cross the river and overwhelm the Italian frontline trenches, forming temporary bridgeheads across the Piave. The crossing was conducted under heavy enemy artillery fire, which the Habsburg artillery did its best to suppress, albeit with limited success. The prospect of further advances, and perhaps even a breakthrough leading to another Italian rout like Caporetto, didn’t seem so unrealistic now, as Austro-Hungarian artillery units moved forward to keep up the pressure. Tříska remembered that the attackers were amazed by their initial success:

“Exactly as planned, at 5:45 a.m. the sappers began to build two pontoon bridges across the river, which here was about 700 meters wide, up to 3 meters deep, and interspersed with many small islands and gravel bars … 75 minutes later, at 7 a.m., when the bridges were ready and in place (the gunners could not believe their eyes), the Austrian infantry, which in the meantime had moved to the river, began to swarm over the bridges to the Italian side. By then many of the enemy trench mortars and machine guns had been silenced. Once most of the Austrian infantry had made the crossing … the gunners stopped firing at the Italian infantry trenches and started to shell the artillery positions. When the Austrian infantry, after heavy man-to-man fighting, had secured the Italian trenches and had the enemy on the run … the gunners stopped firing—the gun barrels were dangerously hot by then—dismantled the guns, and packed them and the remaining ammunition on the carts that were already waiting with their horses and drivers on the road behind the riverbank … Unbelievably this whole operation, which had started at 3 a.m. this morning, went like clockwork.”

However, the Austro-Hungarian success was short-lived. Following Caporetto the Italians had wisely adopted a strategy of flexible defense, similar to the doctrine of “defense in depth” now generally practiced by both sides on the Western Front. Frontline trenches were usually lightly held, backed up by a whole network of secondary and reserve trenches where the majority of the defending infantry lay in wait, ready to stage a counterattack after the enemy offensive lost its initial momentum. Heavily fortified strongpoints between trenches helped break up and channel the enemy attack to provide denser targets for defenders to the rear (below, Italian marines).

Italian marines, WWI, June 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As a result, the Austro-Hungarian troops found it impossible to widen the bridgeheads when approaching strongly held Italian positions on the other side of the Piave River valley. On the second day of the attack the offensive began to fall apart: As Borojević had predicted, Conrad’s offensive from the Asiago Plateau towards Monte Grappa had stalled due to lack of artillery shells, forcing the attackers to retreat. Even worse, unseasonably heavy summer rains caused the Piave to begin rising, washing away pontoon bridges and threatening to cut off the attackers on the far side of the river. British and French planes also bombed the bridgeheads with little opposition, reflecting Allied air superiority on the Italian Front.

A fierce Italian counterattack beginning June 19, using troops transferred from the sector opposite Conrad’s failed sally, left no doubt: The besieged Habsburg bridgeheads, coming under increasingly heavy enemy artillery fire and aerial bombardment, could no longer be held. The whims of Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally settled the question: Ludendorff decided the abortive Austro-Hungarian offensive was no longer important, and instead demanded a quarter million Habsburg troops for immediate redeployment to the Western Front, where his fourth offensive, Gneisenau, had once again failed to achieve a breakthrough. The remainder of the battle was spent withdrawing across the remaining pontoon bridges. By June 23the battle was over (below, an Italian frontline trench).

As always, both sides paid a heavy price in blood for the pointless Second Battle of Piave (which did, however, restore Italian morale and burnish the Italian Army’s credentials in the eyes of Britain and France). Total Habsburg casualties came to 118,000, including dead, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the Italians suffered 10,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, and 40,000 taken prisoner. More importantly, however, the Italians had withstood the final Central Powers onslaught—and the Habsburg Army was finally approaching its breaking point.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

The Kansas Shoe Salesman Responsible for Veterans Day

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The reason we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th dates back to 1918, when an armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed that essentially ended World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the following November 11th.

World War I was billed as the war to end all wars, but of course it didn't. So by the 1950s, with so many American men and women veterans of World War II and the conflict in Korea, some thought the term "Armistice Day" was outdated.

A new day

There's a shoe salesman from Emporia, Kansas, who probably isn't in many history books, but he deserves at least a paragraph. In the early 1950s, a gentleman by the name of Alvin King thought Armistice Day was too limiting. He had lost family in World War II, and thought all American veterans of all wars should be honored on November 11th. So he formed a committee, and in 1953 the city of Emporia, Kansas, celebrated Veterans Day.

Ed Rees, Emporia's local congressman, loved the idea and took it to Washington. President Eisenhower liked King's idea, too. In 1954, Eisenhower formally changed November 11th to Veterans Day and invited some of Emporia's residents to be there when he signed the bill. King was one of those invited, but there was one problem: he didn't own a nice suit. His veteran friends chipped in and bought him a proper suit and paid his way from Kansas to the White House.

In 2003, Congress passed a resolution declaring Emporia, Kansas to be the founding city of Veterans Day.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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