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)

14/5/1918 Diaz reforms the Italian army but angers Foch by refusing to attack #1918Live

Cadorna was sacked as Italy’s commander in chief after the disaster of Caporetto, succeeded by Armando Diaz. Since then Diaz has struggled to secure the Italian defensive line on the Piave and to restore the military effectiveness of the Italian army. Men from disintegrated units have been rounded up and returned to the front. The army’s officers display a new new-found interest in the morale and well-being of the rank and file, with food rations improved and leave extended. Efforts are made to combat defeatism and nihilism by communicating the war’s aims to the soldiers. Diaz also relaxes the harsh discipline of the Cadorna era; there will be no more decimations.

Diaz reforms the command structure of the army to hopefully make it more efficient. In particular he borrows from the Germans by devolving more responsibility to lower levels, rather than insisting that all operational decisions must be taken by him.

The reforms are yielding results: the Italian army now looks more like a fighting force than the disorganised rabble that it was after Caporetto. But it remains a force focussed on the defensive. Diaz fears that if the enemy were to breach the Piave line then Venice and Padua could fall, triggering a general collapse. His efforts remain focussed on holding this line at all costs. On that basis he refuses a request from Foch to relieve pressure on the Western Front by launching an attack on the Austro-Hungarians. Given the balance of forces, Diaz sees such an attack as foolhardy and fears the consequences of an enemy counter-attack. His decision earns Diaz the enmity of the Western Front commander.

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Armando Diaz (Wikipedia)

Ferdinand Foch (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

11/5/1918 Emperor Karl takes his punishment #1918Live

The revelation that Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary had been carrying out secret negotiations with the Allies has created a rift between the Emperor and his German allies. Karl’s position is an extremely awkward one, given Austria-Hungary’s dependency on Germany. Today he meets Kaiser Wilhelm at the German army’s headquarters at Spa in Belgium. Wilhelm is willing to put the Sixtus Affair behind him, but he extracts a price: Austria-Hungary will have to sign up to Germany’s Mitteleuropa plan, so binding the empire to Germany that it will become little more than a vassal state, akin in some ways to the status now enjoyed by defeated Romania. Germany also demands that Austria-Hungary prepare and launch a new offensive against the Italians, to draw Allied forces away from the Western Front.

Karl has no option but to accept his country’s complete subordination to its northern neighbour. He prepares to return home to tell his generals to start planning an attack across the Piave.

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Austrian magazine report on Karl’s visit to Spa (The World of the Habsburgs – The Sixtus Affair: A major diplomatic débacle)

18/3/1918 Looting the occupied Italian zone #1918Live

After Caporetto the Austro-Hungarians found themselves occupying a large swathe of north-eastern Italy. Many of the people in this zone, both ethnic Italians and Slavs initially welcomed the Austro-Hungarians because of fond local memories of Habsburg rule before the area’s incorporation into Italy in 1866. By now however most have a less favourable view of the Austro-Hungarians. The occupying army has been requisitioning the goods of the civilian population to supplement its own resources. Livestock, foodstuffs and wine, fodder and manure have all already been seized. Now the Austro-Hungarians begin to confiscate clothes and household linen, often leaving civilians with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

As cruel as these efforts are, they are a symptom of the rot eating at the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The food crisis at home is tearing apart the threads linking the different parts of the empire. While the army is better fed than Austro-Hungarian civilians, army rations are still not what could be described as generous. The looting of the occupied zone in Italy is a sign of Austria-Hungary’s weakness.

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Livestock confiscation (MetroPostcard, Themes of World War One: Food and the Great War  pt2)

Italian postcard of hungry Austrian soldier eating a church candle (MetroPostcard, Themes of World War One: Food and the Great War  pt4)