14/9/1918 Emperor Karl seeks peace, in vain

Austria-Hungary is falling apart. Four years of war have led to unimaginable privations on the home front and an accentuation of divisions between regions and ethnicities as well as between town and countryside. The army is increasingly unable to continue fighting thanks to supply problems, a breakdown of its cohesion and a collapse in morale following the failure of the Piave offensive.

Emperor Karl and his government fear that the war’s continuance will lead to revolution and social collapse. They have pressed the Germans to seek peace on whatever terms can be obtained, but the Kaiser‘s government and generals have prevaricated. While the Germans are on the back foot on the Western Front, their domestic situation is not quite so disastrous as Austria-Hungary’s, so they do not feel under quite the same pressure. While Emperor Karl is seeking peace at any price, the Germans are still hoping to retain the gains of 1914, terms which are anathema to the Allies.

With Germany’s Ludendorff still talking of pursuing the war to victory, Emperor Karl decides that he has to act. He has Burián, his foreign minister, issue an appeal for peace to the Allies. But alas, the effort avails him nought. The Allies see negotiations with Austria-Hungary as a waste of time, as their real enemy is Germany. And this latest attempt at negotiations serves only to further poison relations between Berlin and Vienna.

Emperor Karl (Tradical (@NoTrueScotist) on Twitter)

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)

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 débacle)

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)