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 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)

28/4/1918 The Austro-Hungarian army’s nationalities problem #1918Live

Austria-Hungary is a large multi-national empire. At the start of the war the army was largely organised on linguistic and regional lines, so that men from one place who all spoke the same language were placed in units together. The downside of this approach is that some nationalities of the empire are (or are deemed to be) less loyal than others. Czechs are seen as particularly disloyal and putting them together in all-Czech units appears only to encourage their disaffection, leading to malingering and desertion (with desertion on the Eastern Front being so great that Russia was able to form a Czech Legion to fight on its side against Austria-Hungary). Serbs and Romanians are also regarded with suspicion by the authorities.

In an effort to prevent military unrest, the army of Austria-Hungary is now being reorganised. Units will henceforth contain men from across the empire. This will hopefully make it harder for disaffected minorities to work together and may also engender a greater sense of pan-empire nationalism in the army.

There are of course downsides to this reorganisation. The esprit de corps of units is undermined by throwing disparate elements together. Combining men who speak different languages together also undermines unit effectiveness. And the elite units of Slovenes and Croats that had fought so well against the Italians are now diluted by the addition of more unruly elements. The danger of this reorganisation is that it might spread the bacillus of disaffection throughout the entire army instead of keeping it safely isolated.

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Bosnian officers in the Austro-Hungarian army (Austro-Hungarian Land Forces 1848-1918: The Bosnians)

8/4/1918 Austria-Hungary’s poor welcome for its returning POWs #1918Live

Russia released its prisoners of war after making peace with the Central Powers. The former prisoners do not always receive a warm welcome on returning home. Austria-Hungary’s leaders fear that the prisoners may have been infected by Bolshevism while in Russia. To prevent the bacillus of revolution spreading, returning Austro-Hungarian prisoners are held in camps, where they are monitored for any sign of socialist sentiment.

To effectively move from one prison camp to another is demoralising for the returning prisoners, as are the meagre rations they are provided with, a testament to the state of near collapse that Austria-Hungary in which finds itself. Soldiers are better fed than civilians, but the flour ration for those serving in the armed forces is now just 283 grammes, down from 500 grammes last year. The army also appears unable to issue new uniforms to its returning prisoners, instead granting them just an armband or, if they are lucky, a new cap. The former POWs are further shocked when they learn of the deprivation gripping the home front of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The authorities’ fear that the returning prisoners will have become socialist firebrands appears to be unwarranted. However their experiences on returning contribute to feelings of disaffection on the part of the former prisoners. This disaffection is increasingly expressed in national rather than class terms, a further sign of the centrifugal forces tearing Austria-Hungary apart.

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Austro-Hungarian prisoners in the war’s early days (Slovenians in WW1: Prisoners of War)