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)

11/3/1918 The food crisis eating at the Austro-Hungarian Empire #1918Live

German civilians are suffering from food shortages. Compared to others in Central Europe however they are enjoying relative abundance. Food rations in German-occupied Warsaw are now half that of what people in Germany are enjoying. Worse, the difficult economic situation there means that few people are able to supplement their rations on the black market.

In Austria-Hungary the food situation remains deeply problematic. The same factors that apply to Germany also apply here: inability to source food or nitrate fertiliser from overseas and a fall-off in the agricultural labour force. The internal division between Austria and Hungary is limiting the transfer of food from agricultural regions to the cities. Moreover Austria-Hungary also has a less developed transportation infrastructure, on which military transport is being prioritised over food distribution. And the authorities in Austria-Hungary seem considerably less effective than their German counterparts in addressing the food issue.

Rations, even in agricultural Hungary, are considerably lower than in Germany. The result, particularly in the empire’s urban centres, is severe malnutrition and instances of actual starvation. One positive effect for the regime is that it deters desertion from the army, as soldiers are the one group in society receiving something approximating to an adequate supply of food. But across the empire, the food situation erodes support for the regime and exacerbates existing tensions between town and city and between the empire’s regions and nationalities.

Copying a German programme and following on from charitable efforts last year, the Austro-Hungarian authorities now initiate a programme to evacuate children from the cities to the countryside, where they will receive better food in return for light work on the farms. This may save these children from severe malnutrition, if not worse, and perhaps work to repair relations between the towns and the countryside. But the overall food situation remains unsustainable. If the war is allowed to continue it will bring about the Habsburg empire’s disintegration.

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Queuing for food in Vienna (The World of the Habsburgs – The food emergency in the First World War as a key social problem: Searching for the ‘enemy within’)

18/2/1918 Germany pushes into Russia #1918Live

At Brest-Litovsk Trotsky shocked the Germans by rejecting their harsh peace terms but then informing them that Russia will fight them no more. The Bolsheviks hope that this ‘No War, No Peace‘ strategy will expose the Germans as naked aggressors if their army resumes its advance in the east, triggering revolution from Germany’s war weary working class.

Ludendorff is Germany’s Quartermaster General and the effective dictator of his country. He does not care about being seen as a naked aggressor; he wants the war in the East brought to an end as soon as possible so that he can concentrate his efforts on the Western Front offensive he is planning. Today German and Austro-Hungarian troops launch Operation Faustschlag, an offensive intended to force the Russians to sign the peace treaty. They encounter no meaningful resistance; by now the old Tsarist army has been disbanded and the recently established Red Army is in no position to take the field against the Kaiser‘s juggernaut. The Germans and their allies advance at a speed that would be unimaginable on the Western Front.

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Austro-Hungarian troops advance into Kamianets-Podilskyi (Wikipedia: Operation Faustschlag)

14/11/1917 Caporetto winds down as Italy manages to hold the enemy at the Piave #1917Live

The German and Austro-Hungarian offensive at Caporetto has smashed the Italians, forcing them to abandon the Isonzo line. They retreated to the Tagliamento but were unable to stop the enemy there. Since then the Italians retreated to the Piave, knowing that if the enemy could not be held here then Venice would fall and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians advance could become unstoppable.

The Germans and Austro-Hungarians however are now finding the going harder. Their stormtroopers are exhausted after the continuous fighting and marching since the offensive’s beginning. Their commanders have failed to plan for the scale of the defeat they have inflicted on the Italians, failing in particular to adequately resource a second attack by Conrad from the Asiago plateau that could have cut off the Italian line of retreat.

With both sides exhausted, the Italians are able to hold the Piave. Italy will be able to stay in the war after all. But the battle has been devastating. The Italians have taken over 300,000 casualties in the battle, with some 294,000 of these captured by the enemy (only 42,000 of the Italian casualties are killed or wounded). Meanwhile another 300,000 troops have been separated from their units and are either trying to make their way home or are wandering aimlessly behind the lines. The Italians have also lost some 3,000 guns, half the army’s complement of artillery pieces. A telling tribute to the rout of its army is the loss by its soldiers of 300,000 rifles. It will be a long time before Italy is able to strike back against the Austro-Hungarians.

Those Italians who surrendered to the enemy may have hoped to quietly sit out the rest of the war. Sadly, for them the nightmare is only beginning. Austria-Hungary struggles to feed its own soldiers and civilians; it has little or no food to spare for this large bag of enemy prisoners. And the Italian government prohibits the transmission of food parcels to those captured by the enemy, who are viewed as little better than traitors. For the unfortunate Italian prisoners, starvation waits.

With the battle winding down, the Germans prepare to withdraw the men and the guns they have lent to the Austro-Hungarians. Soon their stormtroopers will be able to apply their infiltration tactics in France, when Ludendorff launches the battle he hopes will win the war.

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map (Wikipedia: Battle of Caporetto)

Italian prisoners (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: Disaster At Caporetto)

9/11/1917 Caporetto: as the enemy advance falters, Italy sacks Cadorna #1917Live

The Italians have been unable to hold the line of the Tagliamento and are now retreating to the Piave, hoping desperately that the Austro-Hungarians and Germans can be held here. The scale of the defeat they have suffered has stunned them and there is real fear that the Piave line too will fall, at which point the enemy would be able to seize Venice and advance across the north Italian plain.

The scale of their victory has also caught the Germans and Austro-Hungarians by surprise. They were hoping merely to push back the Italians and safeguard Austria-Hungary from further attacks this year, only to realise too late that there was a real prospect of destroying the Italian army and knocking Italy out of the war. As a result their exploitation of the initial victories is not what it might be: Conrad‘s men in the Trentino do not attack with sufficient strength to advance into the Italian rear and the main army’s pursuit runs out of steam as the Italians retreat. Of course the Austro-Hungarians and Germans are advancing beyond their supply lines, making it harder for them to maintain momentum.

The Italians also know that reinforcements are on their way from the British and French. As part of the price of this aid, Cadorna is now dismissed as the supreme Italian commander. He does not go quietly. Despite the personal remonstrations of the King, Cadorna refuses to leave his headquarters until a signed dismissal orders arrives. Today at last it does, and Armando Diaz takes over command of the Italian army.

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The retreat (WorldWar1.com – La Grande Guerra: Caporetto – A Fresh Look)

Luigi Cadorna (Arte nella Grande Guerra: Il generale Luigi Cadorna non merita vie e piazze)

2/11/1917 Caporetto: the unstoppable Teutons cross the Tagliamento #1917Live

The German and Austro-Hungarian assault at Caporetto has shattered the Italians, with Italian surrendering in large numbers or fleeing in disorder. In an attempt to restore order in his army, Cadorna has instinctively reached for his preferred option of harsh discipline, authorising the summary execution of men separated from their officers (i.e. tens of thousands of men). He has also placed General Graziani in charge of restoring discipline to the army. Graziani is a maniac who previously beat a soldier so savagely that the man was crippled.

With the army in headlong flight, Cadorna has had to abandon his headquarters at Udine, which is now in the hands of the enemy. The generalissimo naturally seeks to blame anyone but himself for the disaster and has issued communiques castigating his troops for their failings. Austro-Hungarian aircraft are now dropping these communiques on fleeing Italian troops, to show them what their commander thinks of them.

The Italians have abandoned the Isonzo line, retreating to the Tagliamento river, hoping to contain the enemy advance there. But today the Austro-Hungarians cross the river on a bridge that the Italians failed to destroy. With the Tagliamento line breached the Italians will have to retreat to the Piave. If this line cannot be held then Venice and perhaps Milan too will fall, at which point it would be hard to see how Italy could remain in the war.

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Austro-Hungarian troops crossing the Tagliamento (Storia e Memoria di Bologna: Tagliamento)

28/10/1917 Caporetto: as Italy reels, Britain and France promise help #1917Live

The German-led offensive at Caporetto has left the Italians reeling. Italian troops are retreating to the Tagliamento river, some in good order but many in a state of rout. German and Austro-Hungarian troops press on, hoping to exploit their success. Today they advance beyond the pre-war frontier, recovering all of the ground lost to the Italians, including Gorizia, which fell to the Italians last year in the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo.

But help may be on its way for the Italians, as the British and French agree to send six divisions to Italy. Given the parlous state of the country and its army, these reinforcements will not be enough to stop the enemy onslaught, but they do at least signal that Italy is not being abandoned.

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Italian prisoners under guard in Gorizia (Trono e Altare: 28 ottobre 1917, liberazione di Gorizia)

Emperor Karl inspects his victorious troops (Trono e Altare: 28 ottobre 1917, liberazione di Gorizia)