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)

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)

6/11/1917 Rapallo: Allied leaders demand Cadorna’s head #1917Live

Allied leaders are meeting at Rapallo in Italy to discuss the desperate position of the Italian army. Prime Minsters Lloyd George, Painlevé and Orlando are present, together with a raft of other politicians and senior generals from all three countries (and also Smuts of South Africa). A curious absence is Cadorna, Italy’s supreme general.

Caporetto has shattered the Italian army and the country’s leaders are essentially begging their Allies for the help needed to stave off complete defeat. However the British and French have no confidence in the command structure of the Italian army. They attach two conditions to their aid: British and French troops sent to Italy will remain under French command (specifically under Foch, now the French chief of staff) and Cadorna will be removed as Italian commander. The Italians have no choice but to accept these terms. Orlando is no friend of Cadorna and is probably happy to have an excuse to remove him.

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The New Kursaal Hotel, where the Allied leaders met (My Simple Life in Liguria: the Glory Days of Rapallo)