Battle of the Asiago Plateau and the Piave River, July 1918

Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl’s promise of a two-pronged offensive flew in the face of warnings that Field Marshal Boroević (his new rank) had sent to the high command since the end of March. Karl and his chief of staff hoped to make Rome negotiate, and enlarge their spoils when Germany won the war. Boroević did not believe the Central Powers could win. Instead of wasting its strength on needless offensives, Austria should conserve it to deal with the turmoil that peace would unleash in the empire.

But Karl and the high command were adamant: there must be an offensive. Boroević prepared a plan to attack across the River Piave, towards Venice and Padua. Yet again, Conrad argued for an attack from the Asiago plateau: if successful, this would make the Piave line indefensible and force another Italian retreat. He urged the Emperor to attack on both sectors, and Karl gave way. Preparations began on 1 April with a view to attacking on 11 June.

Boroević had seen Cadorna make this very mistake time and again, attacking on too broad a front. He spoke up again: if they had to attack on both sectors, the high command should send reinforcements. In mid-May, he repeated his warning that it was irresponsible to attack without enough shells and with troops ill-equipped and famished. By way of reply, the high command told Boroević to confirm that he would be ready by 11 June. Not before the 25th, he replied. The date was set for 15 June.

On paper, the Austrian army looked strong enough. With Russia out of the war, most of the 53 divisions with a further ten in reserve could be kept in Italy, which was now the empire’s major front. However, the infantry divisions were down from 12,000 to 8,000 or even 5,000 men. New battalions were at roughly half strength. Some 200,000 Hungarian soldiers had deserted in the first three months of 1918. In the spring, Karl approved the call-up of the class of 1900; the new intake would be boys of 17, plus older men returning after convalescence. Cavalry divisions were even more depleted. The railways were dilapidated from over use, and motor vehicles lacked fuel.

The industrial capacity of the empire had never been strong; by 1917, output was declining under the double impact of battlefield casualties and the Allied blockade. In 1918, the decline became a slump. Production of artillery weapons and shells halved in the first half of the year, compared with 1917. Production of rifles fell by 80 per cent in the same period. Uniforms were tattered, there was no new underwear, and worn-out boots could not be replaced. Food shortages helped to trigger a general strike in January. The stoppages spread until 700,000 workers were crying for peace, justice and bread. Radical Socialists exploited the hardship caused by hunger, war taxes and inflation. (‘In Russia, the land, the factories and the mines are being given to the people.’) The mainstream Social Democrats, however, decided not to support the calls for revolution; instead they negotiated with the government. Even so, the army had to send forces from the front to ensure order. February brought the first significant mutiny, by naval crews in Montenegro. Food shortages and officers’ privileges were the trigger, and the unrest spread up the Adriatic coast. Hopes that cooperation with newly independent Ukraine would unlock huge imports of grain came to nothing. April brought food riots in Laibach and ‘mass rallies at which oaths for unity and independence were being sworn’. By now, seven divisions were deployed in the interior of the empire.

The army was not cushioned against the shortages. By 1918, it was getting only half the flour it needed. The daily rations of front-line troops in Italy were reduced in January to 300 grams of bread and 200 grams of meat. Even these statistics only tell half the story. A Czech NCO, Jan Triska of the 13th Artillery Regiment, recorded the real conditions. The rations had run out during the Caporetto offensive, and matters had grown much worse since then. The army was ordered to provision itself from the occupied territory. This was only possible for a month or two; in February, Boroević told the Army High Command that the situation was critical: the men had been hungry for four weeks, and were ‘no longer moved by incessant empty phrases that the hinterland is starving or that we must hold out’. They must be properly fed if they were to fight.

By late April, the men were starving. Bread and polenta were very scarce, and often mixed with sawdust or even sand. Meat practically disappeared. Soldiers stole the prime cuts from horses killed by enemy fire, and orders went out for carcasses to be delivered directly to the slaughterhouse. Triska’s battery horses were dying; only six of 36 were healthy. Even the coffee made of chicory was in short supply. ‘Salt was only a memory.’ The men were often given money instead of food, but there was nothing to spend it on. The men grew so weak during May that they could only walk with difficulty. Triska risked punishment by trading his service revolver and ammunition for horsemeat. He collected stems of grass to boil and eat, and picked mulberries when they could be found. Such was the condition of the men who were sent against the Italians in June.

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With 23 undersized divisions on the Asiago plateau, another 15 on the line of the Piave and 22 more in reserve, the Habsburg force barely outnumbered the Italians, who had a clear advantage in firepower and in the air. The offensive would start on the Piave, where Boroević’s divisions would attack across the river. Conrad’s divisions were to follow up by striking from the north.

Addressing his officers, Boroević openly criticised the shortages of men and supplies. Due to Conrad’s stubbornness, he implied, the Piave line was short of ten divisions. After this rare indiscretion, the field marshal did his duty, ordering his battalion commanders to attack like a hurricane and not pause until they reached the River Adige. ‘For this, gentlemen, could well be the last battle. The fate of our monarchy and the survival of the empire depend on your victory and the sacrifice of your men.’ It has been claimed that, despite everything, Habsburg morale ran high in June. Certainly, there are reports of soldiers marching to the line with maps of Treviso in their pockets, gaily asking the bystanders how far it was to Rome. They would have taken heart from the order to plunder the Allied lines (no shortages there). Different testimony came from Pero Blašković, commanding a Bosnian battalion on the Piave. According to Blašković, a Habsburg loyalist to the bone, everyone without exception hoped the offensive would be postponed, for they were all aware of Karl’s muted search for a separate peace. It was this, more than hunger or lack of munitions, Blašković says, that took the men’s minds off victory, making them reflect that defeat would cost fewer lives, letting more of them get safely home in the end.

The bombardment began at 03:00 on 15 June. As at Caporetto, the Austrians aimed to incapacitate the enemy batteries with a pinpoint attack, including gas shells. However, their accuracy was poor, due to Allied control of the skies; many of the shells may have been time-expired, and the Italians had been supplied with superior British gas-masks. Too many Austrian guns were deployed in the Trentino, a secondary sector; some heavy batteries had no shells at all; and there was no element of surprise, for Diaz’s army had agents in the occupied territory, and deserters were talkative. The Austrian gunners only had the advantage on the Asiago plateau, where thick fog blanketed the preparations.

At 05:10, the guns lengthened their fire to strike the Italian rear lines and reserves. The pontoons were dragged out from behind the gravel islands near the river’s eastern shore. The enemy batteries were still silent; perhaps the gas shells had knocked them out? No such luck; the Italian guns opened up, pounding the Austrian jump-off positions. The Italian riverbank was still wreathed in gas fumes when the assault teams jumped ashore, quickly taking the Italian forward positions amid the chatter of machine guns.

The morning went well; the Austrians moved 100,000 men across the river under heavy rain. Watching the infantry pour over the pontoons, Jan Triska and his gunners wondered if this time they would reach Venice. Enlarging the bridgeheads proved more difficult. Progress was made on the Montello, where the four divisions pushed forward several kilometres, and around San Donà, near the sea. Elsewhere, the attackers were pinned down near the river. Further north, Conrad’s divisions attacked from Asiago towards Mount Grappa. Slight initial gains could not be held; the Italians had learned how to use the ‘elastic defence’, absorbing enemy thrusts in a deep system of trenches, then counter-attacking. By the end of the day, Blašković realised, ‘our paper house had been blown down’. The Emperor sent Boroević a desperate telegram: ‘Hold your positions, I implore you in the name of the monarchy!’ The answer was curt: ‘We shall do our best.’

Progress on the second day was no easier. Conrad was in retreat; his batteries – more than a third of all the Habsburg guns in Italy – were out of the fight. Boroević ordered his commanders to hunker down while forces were transferred from the north. Meanwhile the Piave rose again, washing away many of the pontoons. Supplying the bridgeheads across the torrent became even more dangerous. The Austrians were too close to exhaustion and their supplies too uncertain for a sustained battle to run in their favour. By the first afternoon, Major Blašković realised that the Austrian artillery, laying down a rolling barrage for the assault troops, were already husbanding their shells. If the under-used Italian units further north were to be redeployed around Montello, the Habsburg goose would soon be cooked. Overhead, the Caproni aeroplanes chased away the Habsburg planes and British Sopwith Camels proved their worth, bombing along the river. (‘In aviation, too, morale is very important,’ Blašković remarked sadly, ‘but technology is even more so.’) The pontoons and columns of men on the riverbank, waiting to cross, offered easy targets. While the Austrians ran out of shells, the Allied artillery and air bombardment were unrelenting. The fate of Jan Triska’s battery on the Piave was indicative: over the week of battle, it lost 58 men, half its strength.

Conrad’s divisions were too hard pressed to transfer men to the Piave. In fact, the opposite happened: the Italians transferred forces from the mountains to the river. When these reinforcements arrived, on 19 June, the Italians counter-attacked along the Piave. They failed to crack the bridgeheads, but the Austrian position was untenable. Pontoons that had survived the bombing were damaged by high water and debris. Blašković’s regiment (the 3rd Bosnia & Herzegovina Infantry) ran out of shells and bullets; the men fought on with bayonets and hand-grenades until a Hungarian regiment managed to bring up a few crates of ammunition from the river.

Boroević told the Emperor that if the Montello could be secured, it should be the springboard for a new offensive. Securing it would need at least three more divisions, including artillery. If the high command did not intend to renew the offensive from the Montello, it was pointless to retain the bridgeheads; they should be abandoned and all efforts dedicated to strengthening the defences east of the river. As Karl wondered what to do, the German high command stepped in, ordering a cessation of hostilities so that the Austrians could despatch their six strongest divisions to the Western Front. For Ludendorff’s spring offensives were running out of steam and 250,000 American troops were arriving every month. Karl consulted his commanders in the field, who echoed Boroević’s stark choice: either reinforce or withdraw. Then he consulted his chief of the general staff, General Arz von Straussenberg. A new offensive within a few weeks was, they agreed, not a realistic prospect. Their reserves were almost used up; even if enough divisions could be transferred to the Piave from elsewhere – and none could safely be spared from Ukraine or the Balkans – the Italians would match them. It would not be possible to recapture the zest of 15 June without a lengthy recovery.

Late on the 20th, Karl ordered the right bank of the Piave to be abandoned. General Goiginger, commanding the corps that had performed so well on the Montello, refused to obey. They had taken 12,000 prisoners and 84 guns; how could they retreat? Eventually he submitted, and the withdrawal began. Both sides were exhausted, and the manoeuvre was completed without much fighting. The Bosnians and Hungarians on the Montello worked their way back to the river. The last Austrians crossed on 23 June, ending the Battle of the Solstice. The Italians had lost around 10,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and more than 40,000 prisoners, against 118,000 Habsburg dead, wounded, sick, captured and missing. Early in July, Third Army units capped the achievement by seizing the swampy delta at the mouth of the Piave which the Austrians had held since Caporetto.

The rejoicing was widespread and spontaneous. For many soldiers, the Battle of the Solstice cleansed the stain of Caporetto, and the name of the Piave has ever since evoked a glow of fulfilment, as smooth as the sound of its utterance, untouched by the horrors of the Isonzo front or the controversy that overshadowed Italy’s victory in November. Ferruccio Parri, a much-decorated veteran who became a leading antifascist, said at the end of his long life that the Battle of the Solstice was ‘the only proper national battle of which our country can truly be proud’.

For the Allies, two things were clear: the Italians were a fighting force again, and the Austro-Hungarian army was still dangerous: its morale had not collapsed and the soldiers were still loyal. The view inside Boroević’s army was different; to their eyes, the civilian system had let them down. They were still better soldiers than the Italians, but what could they do without food or munitions? The spectacle of his own men after the battle filled the genial Blašković with despair: ‘weary, dejected and starving, their tattered uniforms crusted with reddish dry clay. Their weapons alone gave them any likeness to soldiers, for otherwise they looked like beggars roaming from pillar to post.’ Gloom settled over the Austrian lines.

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