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).
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.
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.
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).
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.