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)

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 dĂ©bacle)

14/4/1918 The Sixtus Affair: Emperor Karl’s double-dealing loses him a foreign minister and the trust of Germany #1918Live

Since coming to power Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary has seen the war as a disaster which, if allowed to continue, will tear apart his empire. Czernin, his prime minster, shares the Emperor’s views and has been trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Germans to agree to a negotiated peace.

Behind Czernin’s back, Karl has also attempted his own secret negotiations with the Allies, using his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma as an intermediary. In these secret communications Karl accepted that Alsace-Lorraine should be returned to France. However the negotiations ultimately led nowhere as the Allies felt that Austria-Hungary was too dependent on Germany to negotiate with separately.

Now though Karl’s secret negotiations catch up with him. Earlier in the month Czernin declared that France’s claims on Alsace-Lorraine were the only obstacles to peace. The French retaliate by publishing the secret correspondence from Prince Sixtus, revealing that Karl accepted the justice of France’s claims on the lost provinces. Feeling himself betrayed, Czernin resigns as Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister. Now Karl has to find himself a new foreign minister. Worse, he will have to fend off the inquiries of the Germans, who are furious that their junior ally has been secretly negotiating with their enemies.

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Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary (First World War.com)

Ottakar Czernin (Wikipedia)

30/12/1917 Germany and Austria’s winter of hunger #1917Live

Germany and Austria-Hungary have had a good year on the battlefield, effectively knocking Russia out of the war and crippling Italy while Germany repelled enemy attacks on the Western Front. At home though things are more problematic. The British blockade and the wartime decline in agricultural production have led to food shortages. In Germany no one is starving as such, but civilian mortality rates are around a third higher than in peace time. Because food is being funnelled to the army and to workers in war industries, those deemed surplus to the war effort are getting the least to eat and so are vulnerable to illness and malnutrition.

The situation is worse in Austria-Hungary. The railway network is less extensive, making it harder to transport food to where it is needed, and the authorities have been less successful at organising an effective distribution of food. Agricultural Hungary has also restricted the transfer of food to the industrial regions of Austria. Large numbers of people are going hungry and actual starvation is a real threat to the urban poor.

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to bring the war to a victorious end but instead it has brought the USA into the war against the Central Powers. The leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary fear the indefinite continuation of the war will lead to revolution. Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary wants an immediate peace on whatever terms he can get, but Ludendorff in Germany is determined that any peace must be a victorious one. He is preparing for a spring offensive on the Western Front, gambling that he can knock Britain and France out of the war before the Americans arrive in strength. Then Germany will not have to face another hunger winter.

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Food queue, Vienna (1915) (The World of the Habsburgs)

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)

19/9/1917 As Eleventh Isonzo draws to a close, Austria plans to strike back #1917Live

After initial gains the eleventh Italian assault on the Isonzo has turned into another slogging match. The Austro-Hungarian decision to retreat to the eastern edge of the Bainsizza plateau has paid off: the Italian advance has been contained. After a series of massed attacks fail to break through Italy’s Cadorna orders his men to halt and assume a defensive posture. The battle is now over.

Italian losses have been great: they have taken some 166,000 casualties, with 25,000 losses in a series of fruitless attempts to take the mountain of San Gabriele. Two thirds of the units involved in the battle are now at half strength or less. Cadorna trumpets the battle as a victory on the basis of the early gains achieved, but a few more victories like this will break the Italian army.

The situation on the other side of the hill is not so good either. At 140,000, Austro-Hungarian casualties are also very high. Their army on the Isonzo is smaller than the Italians so the proportionate losses are greater.

Boroevic, the Austro-Hungarian commander, Boroevic fears that the next Italian offensive will cause the collapse of his line. However Emperor Karl has promised him that the next battle will be a counter-offensive against the Italians. Now he prepares to approach the Germans, to ask them to supply more troops for the Eastern Front that will allow him to send more Austro-Hungarians from there to the Isonzo.

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Italian position on the Carso (Storia e Memoria di Bologna: 11 Battaglia dell’Isonzo (History and Memory of Bologna: 11th Battle of the Isonzo))

24/8/1917 11th Isonzo: Austria-Hungary retreats

Italian attacks have made little progress in their attacks on the Carso plateau, on the southern end of the Isonzo line. Now the Italians scale back their efforts here to concentrate on the Bainsizza plateau to the north, where the they have made considerable gains. This however allows the Austro-Hungarians to begin transferring men from the Carso to aid their hard-pressed comrades to the north.

Following a conference between Boroevic, their commander, and Emperor Karl, Austro-Hungarian troops on the Bainsizza today withdraw to the eastern edge of the plateau. Fearing annihilation if they remain in place, the Austro-Hungarians hope that they will be able to contain the Italians from their new lines.

The Italians are used to the Austro-Hungarians holding positions to the last man. The Austro-Hungarian withdrawal happens before dawn, in silence and great secrecy. Failing to realise what is happening, the Italians then shell the now empty Austro-Hungarian positions.

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Fanciful image of Austro-Hungarian troops repelling an Italian attack today (Worldwar1.com, The St. Mihiel Trip-Wire: October 2013)