British and Italian convoys passing abandoned Austro-Hungarian artillery on the Val d’Assa mountain road. This pass was entered by the 143rd Infantry Brigade, 48th Division, at 10am, 2nd November.
The Italians were worried to learn on 19 October that Austria was working on a proposal to sue for peace on the basis of a unilateral retreat from Italian territory. This would steal their thunder, and Orlando – now so vexed by the chief of staff’s prudence that he wondered if he could replace him – telegraphed Diaz at once: ‘Between inaction and defeat, I prefer defeat. Get moving!’ Wilson fuelled the fire under Diaz with a statement on 21 October supporting the Habsburg Slavs’ bid for independence. Diaz decided that zero hour would be 03:00 on the 24th.
Orlando busied himself wringing renewed British and French commitment to the Treaty of London. Statements were splashed in the press, but Washington would not be drawn; the Department of State said only that ‘Italy was entitled to the irredenta and also entitled to establish proper strategic boundaries.’ Orlando’s government explained coolly that this meant American support for its claims to the whole of the south Tyrol, Trieste, Istria and the Albanian coast. As the infantry on Grappa moved to the jump-off trenches and the gunners on the Piave waited in their pits, the government knew that the dividend of victory was still uncertain.
The plan of attack centred on the upper and middle Piave. Diaz would punch through the enemy lines around the road to Vittorio Veneto and Sacile, splitting Boroević’s Sixth and Fifth armies, deployed respectively on the northern and southern halves of the Piave. This would make the Austrian positions on the Asiago plateau and Mount Grappa untenable.
Of Diaz’s 57 infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions, including three British, two French and one of Czechoslovak volunteers, some 33 would be committed in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. The spearhead would be the Eighth Army, comprising 14 divisions under General Caviglia. Its right flank would be protected by the Tenth Army: two British and two Italian divisions, under Lord Cavan. To its left, the small Twelfth Army (one French and two Italian divisions, under a French general) would secure the Piave below Mount Grappa and cross the river at the same time as the Eighth Army. Grappa itself was the responsibility of General Giardino’s Fourth Army, which had to support the Twelfth Army with counter-battery fire. The other armies in the battle, the Sixth on the Asiago plateau (six divisions, including one British and one French) and the Third on the southern portion of the front, were to await developments.
Much depended on the river. Even if the Piave behaved itself, infantry columns made easy targets, silhouetted against expanses of shingle. When Diaz drew up his operational orders on 12 October, the river was running high. Under mounting pressure to move, he made a crucial decision: the attack would start on Mount Grappa instead of the Piave. Strengthened with three extra divisions and 400 extra guns, the Fourth Army would drive the Austrians off Grappa and then thrust northwards up the valley of the River Brenta, enveloping the Austrian force on the Asiago plateau. The operation on the Piave would begin overnight, less than 24 hours after Giardino’s attack in the mountains.
The Allies started with every advantage. Apart from infantry strength, their superiority in guns and aircraft had increased since June. Boroević decided to cede ground where he must, in the hope of counter-attacking later. This was a desperate gamble; if morale was as fragile as he suspected, the second and third lines and reserves might crumble when the enemy overwhelmed the first line. But there was no alternative. On 17 October, his order of the day exhorted the army to fight for ‘an honourable peace’. Privately anticipating a catastrophe, he laid plans for an orderly retreat with mobile rearguard protection. A dynastic loyalist to the end, his priority was to preserve his forces so that they could defend the empire against its internal enemies after the armistice. And these enemies were multiplying: on the 23rd, hours before the Italians attacked, several Hungarian units refused to go up the line, and two Bosnian companies mutinied.
Attacking on schedule, the Fourth Army quickly ran into trouble. Giardino had less than a week to prepare an operation for which no studies existed, and the Austrian positions on Mount Grappa were strong. Boroević had expected the attack to begin on the high ground, and Italian artillery had been shelling the Austrian lines on Grappa for days, so there was no surprise. When more rain fell on the 24th, Diaz had to delay the Eighth Army’s attack – by 48 hours, as it turned out – which deprived Giardino of support on the right. Worst of all, the Italian tactics were primitive: infantry units were spread evenly, regardless of terrain, and advanced in lines. The fighting degenerated into a bloodbath, in Cadorna’s worst style. Austria’s initial resistance let Karl hope that all might not yet be lost. But he was not a fantasist; on the 26th, he informed Wilhelm that he would have to seek an armistice and a separate peace.
After six days’ hard fighting, Giardino had ‘no success’ to show for nearly 25,000 casualties: two-thirds of the Italian losses in the battle. Fortunately, operations on the Piave were going to plan after a delayed start. A British corps commander had proposed that the Papadopoli islands, a shingle archipelago south of the Montello, should be occupied before the main attack. This was done on 23 October,2 leaving the Tenth Army well placed for the next stage. Still, the island was separated from the Austrian lines by the main channels of the river, almost a mile wide, brimming and raging after days of rain. There was little that Cavan could do but wait.
Eventually, under cover of night on the 26th, the Tenth Army moved in strength across to the islands. Norman Gladden, a private in the 11th Northumberland Fusiliers (23rd Division) who had survived the Somme and Passchendaele, was among the troops waiting on the western shore. Over his shoulder, he saw ‘thousands of gun flashes coalescing to form a continuous blaze of light along the bank’. In front, the pontoon bridge was a frightening sight.
A string of small boats had been thrown across the river in such a way that the powerful current tended to force them closer together, and they supported a planked gangway, which was roped across their gunwales. Over this bridge the assault troops had to pass, regulated by an Italian boatman to ensure that the structure should not become overloaded at any point. We were to proceed at three-pace intervals. I saw a steel-helmeted figure mount the bridge and stride slowly forward; and another, and another. The gangway stood some feet above the water and in the darkness seemed to be hung high in the air. The flaming horizon beyond threw the dark figures into relief, while shrapnel shells stabbed the darkness above.
The Austrian forward positions on the far shore were thinly manned behind the wire entanglements, and half-heartedly defended after a shattering bombardment by British gunners. A British divisional history recorded that ‘Not many Austrians stayed to fight, the majority, surprised and dismayed at the failure of the wire to hold up the attack, streamed back inland in disorder, almost too fast to give the riflemen and Lewis gunners much chance to shoot them down.’ Further north, protected by a ferocious barrage, the Eighth and Twelfth Army engineers threw 11 pontoon bridges across the river. During the night of 26–27 October, the Piave tore most of them down; Austrian artillery demolished the rest. A few Eighth Army units that had crossed the river were trapped in bridgeheads between Grappa and Montello, helpless to assist Giardino. The Twelfth Army was no better off.
In this predicament, the role of spearhead fell to the British divisions of the Tenth Army, not an outcome that has won much recognition from Italian historians. Cavan sent these divisions beyond the river at dawn on the 27th. The troops’ mood lightened as they moved eastward in the morning sunshine, meeting little resistance. ‘A new carefree attitude was taking control. We were no longer the frightened troops nailed to the earth by a storm of steel. We were advancing into enemy-held territory, victors at last.’ The Austrian 7th Infantry Division apparently panicked at the sight of the British (whose presence during the preparations had been carefully concealed), and the disarray spread to adjacent divisions. Some reserve units refused to move up when ordered.
Caviglia was stuck; high water as well as accurate Austrian shelling stopped him from enlarging his bridgehead. As had been agreed for this eventuality, he lent a reserve corps to the Tenth Army; this was sent southwards to use Cavan’s bridges. The Italian–British force crossed overnight; the northern bridgeheads of the Eighth and Twelfth Armies were linked during the 28th and extended against a patchy defence. Major Blašković’s battalion, deployed opposite a French bridgehead, was encircled and captured when a Hungarian regiment on their flank ran forward waving white rags. His men, filthy and pot-bellied with hunger, were a pitiful sight beside the smart, well-fed poilus.
That morning, Boroević reported to the high command that resistance by non-German troops was weakening and incidents of mutiny were increasing. ‘He was informed that the government had asked President Wilson for an Armistice, and commented that this news would hardly raise morale.’ Diaz’s original plan was taking shape: the Allies were moving towards Vittorio Veneto and Sacile, the axis that should split the Austrians. To protect his Sixth Army, Boroević ordered four reserve divisions to prepare to engage the enemy. One division refused to budge; the other three took up positions on a stream called the Monticano, between the Piave and the Livenza. He also feared the envelopment of the Fifth Army, which had not been tested because the Duke of Aosta’s men were still on the right bank, though crossings were now imminent. So he ordered the Fifth to withdraw to the Monticano line. Here the empire made its last stand.
Late in the day, Lord Cavan ordered his divisions across the Monticano. Except for an Italian battery, the British lacked artillery support; it took the whole of 29 October to knock out Austrian machine guns above the steep riverbank and in isolated farms. The issue was settled by nightfall, and Boroević ordered a retreat to the River Livenza, a few kilometres further east. He had urged the high command to tell the Italians that Habsburg forces would pull back behind the 1866 border, unilaterally evacuating the Veneto. (Preparations for this contingency had been in hand since 14 October, when the high command ordered the armies in Italy to send all inessential equipment and infrastructure to the interior of the empire.) General Arz, conceding that the army in Italy was finished, ordered Boroević to withdraw at once, as a token of goodwill. Cavan’s forward units saw the sky light up as the Austrians burned their ammunition dumps. In Austrian accounts the retreat was dreadful but not headlong; ‘a semblance of order’ was ‘maintained by sheer force of habit, a march into nothingness’.
Back on the Piave, the bridgeheads were enlarged all along the river. The final stage of the battle began on the 30th, with Italians pouring across the river in strength. Allied heavy guns crossed as well, which cheered the advance units, though resistance faded so quickly that artillery support was superfluous. Civilians emerged from their cottages, their faces taut with starvation, to cheer the Allies. In the morning, cyclists and bersaglieri of the Eighth Army occupied Vittorio Veneto, some 16 kilometres beyond the Piave. Later that day, forward units reached the River Livenza.
As per Diaz’s plan, divisions of the Eighth and Twelfth Armies swung northwards, forcing the Austrians to withdraw from the Grappa massif or be encircled. The manoeuvre succeeded; with the Fourth Army advancing at last, the Austrian Eleventh Army was exposed on the Asiago plateau. That night, it withdrew from front-line positions. The Sixth Army turned this tactical retreat into a rout. Over the next three days, the British 48th Division took more than 20,000 prisoners for the loss of 26 killed and 129 wounded.
Let us pick up the story of Jan Triska, the Czech artillery officer, who returned from home leave in mid-September. On 30 October, with the Italians less than 10 kilometres away, Jan’s regiment prepared to retreat. For the first time ever, the men were ordered to fall in, in national groups. A second shock followed: the officers canvassed views on the future of the empire. Who was for the Emperor? Sixty hands went up. Who was for a republic? Eighty-six hands. And who wanted a national state of their own? Some forty Czechs raised their hands.
On the last day of October, the Italian line moved steadily eastwards. Cavan’s 23rd Division liberated Sacile. Austrian rearguards tried to delay the Allies as huge numbers of soldiers made for the River Tagliamento, abandoning everything, burning the bridges as they went. Writing to his wife, Diaz allowed himself, for once, to exult. It was, he said, ‘Caporetto in reverse’. Victory was assured. ‘I have won the war more by the strength of my heart and nerves than by any intellectual gifts, and I feel stronger, more balanced, than all of them’ – meaning the politicians who had carped at his caution.
A woman on the road from Conegliano to Vittorio Veneto was seen shouting triumphantly ‘Now it’s goodbye, Caporetto, and good riddance!’ Across the empire, nations emerged or re-emerged into history. Karl refused on principle to approve the use of force against the separatists.