Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 11, 2016

War in the Altipiani: Part II – The Strafexpedition of 1916


Italian Prisoners Taken in the 1916 Austro-Hungarian Offensive

In May 1916 on the first anniversary of the war in Italy, the largest battle on the Italian front outside of the Isonzo region was launched from the Austrian fortresses. Called the Battle of Asiago in English-language sources, it was known to the participants as the Strafexpedition — Austria's Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf's "punishment" of Italy for breaking the Triple Alliance. With 18 fresh infantry divisions and over 2000 guns, including 20 batteries of 305mm howitzers, the Austrian Strafexpedition was launched on 15 May 1916. The attack frontage stretched nearly 40 miles from Pasubio to Ortigara. Once off the plateau, Conrad's army would only need to advance across the northern Italian plain a short 35 miles to reach Venice and the sea. The eastern high outposts and the Isonzo front would be cut off and enveloped, and Italy would fall.

In five days the Austrians advanced five miles and captured all the Italian forts. The final penetration was 13 miles with the advance stopped just east of the Town of Asiago. Although outgunned and outnumbered initially, major reinforcements rushed from the Isonzo allowed the Italian Army to hold, eventually. Many sources attribute the halting of the Austrian attack to the beginning of the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front (4 June) that targeted Austrian forces on that front. However, the attack in the Trentino had run its course by then and could only have been renewed with new forces that were just not available.

Trenches South of Asiago Town  Where the Line Was Stabilized at the End of 1916

For 18 months Austrian forces would control most of the Altipiani but would not mount any more attacks until Caporetto got the front moving dramatically. After the long Italian retreat, the Asiago plateau would be the western anchor of the new line along which the war in Italy would be decided. We will cover the 1918  operations in the Altipiani and Trentino in future postings on Roads to the Great War.

2 comments:

  1. In the face of the attack, the Italian engineers quickly built the road up to Asiago which is still in use today. I think that it's got over fifteen switchbacks.

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  2. I and about 25 of my closest friends have just completed a week-long tour of the battlefields in the Asiago Plateau, Piava River area and near Cortina in the Dolomite Mountains. The road up the side of the mountain by Asiago is only one of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Italian and Austrian forces during the war. They scaled the heights of multiple mountains using only their backs to take field guns, ammunition, food, water, and other supplies to their trenches and bunkers. We walked trails uphill to over 10,000 feet and could only imagine the difficulty the soldiers experienced at even higher altitudes with their heavy loads in freezing temperatures within the sights of the enemy guns.

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