Italian soldiers at the Piave (Imperial War Museums: https://www.iwm.org.uk)

When the hinterland and the soldiers fail too: the last attack of the Monarchy in 1918

140-150 thousand soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy were killed, imprisoned or wounded senselessly in the days after June 15, 1918, in northern Italy along Piave. The last attack of the Austro-Hungarian army in the World War was broken down for several reasons: one of the main factors was the disintegration of the hinterland.
The other was the shocking incompetence of the quarrelling generals – even in the last year of the war. The third factor was the weather, but this also has to do with the second one, since even the little ones know it: the beginning of summer is the wettest period in Central Europe.

Let us repeat: the beginning of summer is the wettest period in Central Europe. Leaders of the Austro-Hungarian army did not take this factor into consideration when preparing for the last major attack of the Monarchy. Therefore the flood of the Piave River surpassed many expectations, but the fact that it surprised the generals rather proved the complete incompetence of the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian army. The date set for the attack was June 15th. When commanders on the battlefield wanted to postpone it when seeing the river flood, central leaders could no longer stop the offensive, since diversionary operations had already been launched. Meanwhile, the Italians and the Entente had long known when the attack would take place: soldiers deserted from the army of the Monarchy in masses, so the enemy knew the date of the offensive and, for example, emptied the first lines and strengthened defence (at the back, deeply) at critical locations on time, and the Italians were even prepared for the counter-attack.

The badly prepared attack of the Monarchy was destined to fail already weeks before the offensive by the rivalry of the generals, according to Manfried Rauchensteiner military historian. On the one hand, they could not agree on the division of troops between the commanders on the front (this was the fault of the central unit, plotting secretly against Conrad, the head of the Tyrolean army group before the Habsburg ruler), so the attack had two major blows from the beginning. Or rather none in practice. Eventually neither General Conrad, nor General Boroević had the power to achieve lasting results against the Italians, strengthened by French, British, American, and even Czechoslovak troops.

In addition, József Galántai wrote on the tilt of the general balance of power on the Italian front for the benefit of the Entente: sixty divisions of the Entente faced the 54 attacking Austrian-Hungarian divisions. 7550 Entente cannons faced 6833 Austrian-Hungarian cannons, and the number of aircrafts also supported the Western allies, the ratio was 524:280 to their benefit. What is more, according to Galántai, the supply of the Austrian-Hungarian army was extremely bad as well. Rauchensteiner recalls that they practically allowed soldiers to seize food from the enemy through isolated individual actions.

More and more troops were transported to the front to start the offensive, but there were not enough trains left, there was not enough coal to heat the steam locomotives and thereby the supply was not received on the front. But the hinterland was depleted too, while there was tremendous tension between the soldiers from Austria and Hungary, since Hungarian soldiers were better supplied from the agriculturally better-equipped part of the country.

The Entente tried to persuade nationality soldiers to desert – with no little success. As we have mentioned, deserters knew the details of the last great assault of Austria-Hungary, but we can also recall that, against the Czech regiments of the Monarchy’s army, there were 12-13 thousand Czech-Slovakian soldiers on the side of the Entente. According to Rauchensteiner, if captured by Austro-Hungarian troops, these Czech legionaries, playing a rather symbolic role, could expect immediate headshot. The Entente propaganda also influenced the South Slavs; many deserters were caught because the Italian propaganda materials scattered from airplanes were found with them. So the morales were quite weak on the Austrian side.

The troops could not be held in the hinterland either – this is why they were sent to the front as soon as possible. In the hinterland, soliders were rioting one after the other, for example the riot in Pécs was defeated by the regiment from Kassa, ordered to the Italian front not long ago – as we have already written about in in a previous article. However, troops ordered to the front had to be defeated occasionally by other troops: in the fourth year of the war, soldiers were not really in the mood to die for the Habsburg ruler or anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Monarchy’s military leaders continued to quarrel: not only the commanders on the front, but there was constant tension also between the the commander-in-chief and Conrad, one of the commanders on the battlefield.

In the meantime, Germans forced the decisive blow in the West to no avail: They had been attacking Paris or the English troops on French fronts since May – without any strategic results. Germans should therefore have needed the help. It would have been good for them if the Monarchy, after the breakthrough in Caporetto in 1917 , had once again been successful on the Italian front, but a year earlier, the army of the Monarchy achieved this with German help, reaching Piave. However, in June 1918, Austrian-Hungarian units were left alone. The worst was the lack of ammunition, which became apparent after the attack had got stuck. According to Galántai, the production of war materials in the Monarchy had been cut in half by this time compared to last year. General Boroević suggested the postponement of the assault on May 28, due to the catastrophic food supplies, but this was not taken into account by the military leadership, so the general was forced to start the offensive.

Meanwhile, divisions liberated by the Peace Treaty at Brest-Litovsk were constantly transported to the front from the Eastern front. “But they did not want to continue fighting. Attacks with such force and power relations were foredoomed to failure”, wrote Galántai.

It is difficult to follow the attack itself based on the contemporary press, the first news were published only three days after the launch of the offensive, on June 18, 1918, in Az Est. The title was probably expressive for routine war article readers: “The first official report on our Italian offensive”. So the title described neither the result of advancement, nor the number of captured Italians or another success, only the fact that an official report was received (which had been coming every day since 1914). Az Est strived to highlight “official report” in an attempt to distance itself from the events: “Yesterday our troops attacked the Italians and their allies yesterday morning along the Piave and from Brenta on two sides, after several hours of artillery mass firing. The army of General Boroevics managed to cross the swollen Piave in many places; corps of Colonel-General Wurm occupied the positions of the enemy after overcoming the desperate resistance next to San Dona di Piave and on both sides of the Oderzo-Treviso railway on a wide frontline; troops of Colonel-General Archduke Joseph conquered the defence forces on the eastern edge of the Montello in a surprise attack and forced their way into this highland area. Duke of Schomberg, General of the Cavalry, was injured by a bomb-shell during the crossing of his army corps. Number of prisoners arrested along Piave: 10,000; around 50 cannons captured have been reported so far.”

Even more shockingly, a severe failure was also included on the list of the first “success stories”: “The first attack was successful on both sides of the Brenta. Breaking the strong resistance of the enemy and overcoming all the obstacles of the wooded and rugged mountain, in many places, our troops managed to push forward to the third enemy position, while 6,000 Italian, French and English prisoners remained in our hands. However, we could only partially keep the advantage that we have achieved here. ” But what did partial exactly mean? It is immediately apparent from the continued news: “To the east of Brenta, we were forced to give up the Rantero Hill again against the counter-attack of the enemy, who attacked with a new force and slant cannon firing. However, on the northern slopes of Grappe, Italian attacks were to no avail against our battalions who were stout to hold the front lines of the enemy. In the forest zone of the Hétközség region, our regiments were forced to face an attacking force who had already been prepared by the allies in the previous days. As a result of their counter-attack, we had to evacuate a part of the occupied territory again.”

It is therefore apparent that the attacks were badly prepared, not like the Italian troops. In fact, the news told about “an attacking force who had already been prepared by the allies in the previous days”. All this projected a serious catastrophe. Another report reveals one of the causes of the disaster as well: “In the recent rainy season, the Piave swollen to be a kilometre wide, but the troops of Colonel-Generals Baron Wurm and Archduke Joseph still managed to cross the river in several places under the protection of  the excellent artillery.” That is, the flood of the Piave – which could be seen by anyone on the front – almost surprised the generals.

Pursuant to another report from June 18, the confident Italian Prime Minister, Orlando made an entirely different declaration:  “The battle is going on with great force. The pressure of the enemy is equally strong in every part of the attack line, from the Asiago plateau to the sea. The resistance of our troops, being excellent regardless of the situation, does not allow the enemy to cross the main resistance lines. The battle is happening on the front line with alternating successes, as our teams have made several counter-attacks, some of which have succeeded in restoring the original positions.”

It can be seen that the Italians were able to counterattack immediately, while the forces of the Monarchy hardly defended their hard-earned positions. According to military historians, this is when the swollen Piave became a catastrophe: the strong current of the river carried along the military bridges of the Austro-Hungarian army, so retreat was even harder, more victims were sacrificed for the unprepared action. The biggest mistake of the Austro-Hungarian military leadership also turns out from Orlando’s statement to the Senate: “The pressure of the enemy is equally strong in every part of the attack line, from the Asiago plateau to the sea.” However, frontal attacks can only be launched by an army – equally dividing forces on the entire front – that significantly outnumbers the enemy (but the best war-lords plan at least one enclosing operation as well in such cases).  However, besides not having advantage over Entente forces, the Monarchy also had financial and numerical disadvantage when launching the attack on the entire line, with an army that was disintegrating anyway.

This is even better illustrated by the news in Az Est On June 19, 1918. This is the second day when the readers could at all learn about the Austro-Hungarian “offensive”, and based on an  “official Italian report”, „The Hungarian-Austrian troops hold back the Italian counter-attacks and broaden the field gained around Piave.” So, already in the second wave, news told about the fact that the Monarchy’s troops have to hold back the Italians. As it turns out from the article, along Piave, „the battle continues with extraordinary vehemence. Troops have gone forward without any regard for the losses of the enemy”. All this indicated that the Austro-Hungarian offensive had already collapsed by this time, and this was worsened by further news revealing that before the attack, it was not the attacking party, but the Entente who bombarded the Monarchy’s armies for days, which was not returned by the Austro-Hungarian military leadership because they did not want to reveal where their artillery was hidden. After a few days, the situation became so serious that news from the Italian front almost disappeared (on 21 June, Az Est did not even write much about it).

Galántai summarizes the offensive as follows: “The attack began on June 15 at the South Tyrolean front line, where Conrad was the commander. The attackers were beaten back by the Italians already on the second day. At the other part of the attack, the Austro-Hungarian troops successfully crossed the Piave in several places and even managed to push a bit forward, but the attack, due to the Italian counterattacks, collapsed in a couple of days due to the lack of supply. It was also difficult to retreat over the river Piave that had swollen in the meantime, so the army suffered significant losses.” Galántai wrote about 150,000 people who were killed, wounded or captured. Pursuant to the lexicon on World War I, the loss of the Italians was 90,000 people in total during the fights until July 7.

The Monarchy was still saved for a while: the main forces of the Entente were fighting on the Western front, so they could not fully exploit the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Italy. The Monarchy settled for protection behind the Piave. Primarily Conrad was made responsible for the failure and was dismissed as the head of the Tyrolean army group. His successor was Archduke Joseph – but this did not change the situation much: after the nasty failure of the last offensive, the Monarchy was from this time on rather a passive victim of the happenings on the front. Of course, the egregiously bad leadership was only one of the factors in defeat, the general disintegration symptoms of the Monarchy were the decisive reasons. According to Tibor Hajdu and Ferenc Pollmann, in the aftermath of the World War, all this did not prevent the Parliament’s Military Misdemeanor Committee in independent Austria from putting the Piave disaster on its agenda.

References:
Az első hivatalos jelentés olasz offenzívánkról = Az Est, 1918. június 18.
Offenzívát kezdtünk az egész olasz fronton = Az Est, 1918. június 18.
Az olasz miniszterelnök az offenzíva első napjáról = Az Est, 1918. június 18.
Olasz hivatalos jelentés = Az Est, 1918. június 19.
Napokig ágyúzták olasz frontunkat az offenzíva megkezdése előtt = Az Est, 1918. június 20.
Galántai József: Az első világháború. Budapest, 1980.
Magyarország az első világháborúban. Lexikon A–Zs. (Főszerk.: Szijj Jolán) Budapest, 2000.
Hajdu Tibor – Pollmann Ferenc: A régi Magyarország utolsó háborúja. 1914-1918. Budapest, 2014.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő