9/8/1918 D’Annunzio’s flight over Vienna

Italian poet and man of action Gabriele D’Annunzio is serving in the Italian air force, commanding a fighter squadron. Now he combines his interest in words and aviation, leading his squadron on a roundtrip of more than 1,100 kilometres, flying from their base near Padua all the way to Vienna, Austria’s capital. Their mission is not to drop bombs but propaganda leaflets. Some of these are written by D’Annunzio himself, in colourful Italian prose that he declines to have translated into German. Other leaflets, including the one shown, are printed in both German and Italian.

That aeroplanes are able to make a trip of this distance is a sign of how far aviation has developed. That they are able to do so without interception by the Austro-Hungarians is a testament to Italian dominance of the skies. The starving people of Vienna may not be able to read the leaflets falling down on their city, but they know what they mean: the war is drawing to a close and defeat is staring them in the face.

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leaflets fall over Vienna, near St. Stephen’s Cathedral & Italian side of leaflet (Wikipedia: Flight over Vienna)

see also: Dieselpunks – Knights of the Air: Flight over Vienna

23/6/1918 Piave: for Italy a triumph, for Austria-Hungary disaster #1918Live

The Battle of the Piave is now over. The Austro-Hungarians have retreated to the east bank of the river having failed to break out of their bridgeheads. The Italians hail this “Battle of the Solstice” as a great victory: it shows that their army is able to fight again, the stain of Caporetto now erased. For the Austro-Hungarians meanwhile the battle is a disaster, laying bare the organisational failures that led to soldiers going into battle underfed and without adequate supplies.

The human losses of the fighting are considerable. The Italians suffer around 85,000 casualties, of whom around half were captured by the enemy and now face starvation (the Italian authorities forbid the sending of food parcels to their prisoners and the Austro-Hungarians are struggling to feed their own soldiers, let alone those of the enemy). Austro-Hungarian losses are greater, at around 118,000, with a much higher proportion of these killed or wounded.

The failed offensive severely dents the prestige of Emperor Karl, the army’s commander. Parliamentarians in Austria and Hungary condemn the foolhardiness the inadequately prepared venture. Wider discontent with the conduct of the war and the Empire itself spreads further through its subject peoples.

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Italian soldiers at the front (Wikipedia: Second Battle of the Piave River)

Emperor Karl (Wikipedia)

21/6/1918 Austria-Hungary retreats across the Piave #1918Live

Austro-Hungarian forces have crossed the Piave river. They hoped to deal a crushing blow to the Italians but were unable to break out of their bridgeheads. The Austro-Hungarians had hoped to reinforce their men from the Asiago plateau and then renew the offensive, but Italian pressure there has made that impossible.

After a strong Italian counter-attack threatened to overrun the bridgeheads, the Austro-Hungarians bowed to the inevitable: Emperor Karl has ordered a withdrawal to the east bank of the Piave. Now Austro-Hungarian troops are retreating across the river, largely unmolested by the Italians who are themselves also exhausted by this round of fighting.

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Aftermath (Battaglia del Solstizio – La Ritirata: Gli Austro-Ungarici ripassano il Piave)

19/6/1918 Francesco Baracca’s last patrol over the Piave #1918Live

One factor aiding the Italians in the Piave fighting is their control of the air. The Italian air force dominates the skies, allowing them to provide accurate target observation to their artillerymen and preventing aerial observation the enemy. As a result Austro-Hungarian artillery meanwhile is largely firing blind, unable to target anything its spotters on the ground cannot themselves see.

Italian aircraft are also assisting their men in the ground by strafing enemy positions. One flier undertaking missions of this type is fighter pilot Francesco Baracca, who has shot down some 34 enemy aircraft since the war started. Like his German counterpart Manfred von Richthofen, Baracca is an aristocrat and he decorates his aeroplane with the prancing stallion found on his family’s coat of arms.

Today Baracca and a wingman are flying low over the Piave battlefield, strafing enemy positions in the Montello hill area. Baracca does not return from his mission. His cause of death is unclear: the Italians report him as having been brought down by ground fire but the Austro-Hungarians claim him as having been shot down by one of their aircraft.

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Francesco Baracca (Wikipedia)

19/6/1918 Italy strikes back on the Piave river #1918Live

Austro-Hungarian troops have crossed the Piave, hoping to take Venice and Padua and thereby knock Italy out of the war. However they have been unable to break out of their bridgeheads. Emperor Karl and Arz von Straussenburg, his army’s chief of staff, had hoped to reinvigorate the offensive by transferring men and guns from the Asiago plateau, where Conrad‘s secondary offensive has been halted. Unfortunately this proves impossible: Italian counter-attacks have put Conrad under so much pressure that none of his men can be released.

Now the Italians launch a counter-attack against the Austro-Hungarian bridgeheads. The Austro-Hungarians manage just about to hold on but it is clear to everyone that their offensive has failed: there is no prospect of their capturing Venice or even advancing from the river. The Austro-Hungarian forces on the west bank of the Piave are now fighting for their own survival.

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map (La battaglia del Solstizio 15-24 giugno 1918)

16/6/1918 Failure on the Piave for Austria-Hungary #1918Live

The Austro-Hungarians are attacking the Italians, crossing the Piave along a broad front and also advancing from the Asiago plateau. The attack is intended to draw Allied reinforcements away from France and Ludendorff‘s offensives there. The Austro-Hungarian attack has however not gone well. An Italian counter-attack has brought the Asiago attack to an end while the Austro-Hungarians who crossed the Piave find themselves unable to break out of their bridgeheads. Then unexpectedly heavy rainfall causes the river to flood, washing away many of the Habsburgs’ pontoon bridges, leaving the men on the west bank dangerously exposed.

Austro-Hungarian commanders decided to transfer men and guns from the Asiago to the Piave, whereupon the offensive will be renewed. In the meantime the men will just have to hold on, subjected to relentless bombardment by the enemy and the attentions of the Italian air force.

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Resolute Italian defenders (MetroPostcard Guide to the campaigns of the Italian Front during World War One on postcards)

15/6/1918 Austria-Hungary attacks across the Piave

Left to their own devices the Austro-Hungarians on the Italian front would prefer to remain on the defensive. Unfortunately the Germans have put Emperor Karl under immense pressure to launch an offensive in support of the Kaiser’s Battle on the Western Front. Since the revelation of his secret negotiations with the Allies, Emperor Karl is in a weak position with regard to the Germans; he has had no option but to accede to their wishes.

Today is the day for the Austro-Hungarian attack. With German help the Austro-Hungarians won a great victory last year at Caporetto, driving the Italians back to the Piave river and bringing them to the brink of collapse. Now though the Austro-Hungarian army is a shadow of its former self. The ramshackle nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the ongoing food crisis means that many of the frontline soldiers are now severely malnourished (while still better fed than many civilians at home).

Emperor Karl and Arz von Straussenburg, the army’s chief of staff, have decided on a two pronged attack. Boroevic‘s men attack across the Piave river while Conrad (formerly Austria-Hungary’s chief of staff) attacks from the Asiago plateau, threatening the Italians’ lines of communication; unlike at Caporetto Boroevic has been ordered to attack on a broad rather than narrow front.

Neither thrust makes the gains that had been hoped for. Italian control of the air has prevented accurate observation of artillery targets, so the Austro-Hungarians have been unable to neutralise the enemy’s batteries and now find themselves faced by determined Italian artillery fire. The Italian infantry have upped their game, switching from a system of static to elastic defence that sees the Austro-Hungarians finding themselves lost in a tangle of trench systems and facing determined counter-attacks.

By the end of the first day Conrad has made some gains and Boroevic has established bridgeheads across the Piave. Italian resistance remains strong however and neither thrust looks like making gains similar to those seen in the German offensives on the Western Front.

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Austro-Hungarian troops move forward (MetroPostcard Guide to the campaigns of the Italian Front during World War One on postcards)