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

Friday, June 15, 2018

100 Years Ago: The Battle of the Piave Opens on the Italian Front

After Italy's Disaster at Caporetto

Once a Battlefield, the Piave River Today

The order to retreat to the Tagliamento River, was issued by Italy's Commando Supremo during the night of 26–27 October. The 2nd and 3rd Armies were to retreat to the so called "Yellow Line" on the Tagliamento and Italian positions in the Carnic and Cadore sectors (held by the Italian IV Army) were to be abandoned. 

However, it is important to remember that only the 2nd Army was destroyed at Caporetto. Much of the Italian Army retreated intact and in fairly good order. The 300,000 men of the 3rd Army and 230,000 men of the 4th Army had good roads available to them and were able to mount an efficient rearguard action. The 90,000 men stationed on the Carnic Alps front were not so lucky. The enemy captured most of them.

On 1 November, the Italian Army reached the Tagliamento and began winning their first small limited victories. On the Tagliamento, the Italians got a chance to catch their second wind.

At the same time, Austro-German units began running to a series of problems. They were not prepared for such a success, and they became divided on which objectives they should pursue. In the end, they decided to stick to the original plan and the Italian 3rd Army was able to retreat. As bad a Caporetto was for Italy, it could have been much worse. Italian forces completed the deployment on the Piave anchored on the Montello on 12 November. Then the Battle of Monte Grappa began. It would last until mid-December and end with an Italian victory.

Location of the Battlefield

In late October 1917 the Battle of Caporetto not only pushed the Italians onto the plains but forced them back to the river Piave, where the Italian Commando Supremo  managed to organise and establish a new front line, but they needed help to hold on.  While the retreat was still under way, help was heading to Italy from the Western Front, with most of the troops eventually to be deployed around Asiago. A total of six French and five British divisions were sent as well as a Royal Flying Corps brigade.  Americans also arrived, including the 332nd Infantry Regiment, ambulance units, and flyers including Congressman and Major Fiorello LaGuardia. Some of these units would return to France in 1918, but they had played a key role in the Arresto phase of the post-Caporetto action in France. 

The Battle of the Piave, aka the Battle of the Solstice

In early 1918, Germany seemed to be  riding high. Unable to resist Wilhelm's pressure, Emperor Karl pledged a two-pronged attack from Asiago in the north and across the River Piave toward Venice. Karl's promise of a two-pronged offensive flew in the face of warnings that Field Marshal Boroević (his new rank) had sent to the high command since the end of March. Karl and his chief of staff hoped to make Rome negotiate and enlarge their spoils when Germany won the war. Boroević did not believe the Central Powers could win. Instead of wasting its strength on needless offensives, Austria should conserve it to deal with the turmoil that peace would unleash in the empire. 

The bombardment began at 03:00 on 15 June. As at Caporetto, the Austrians aimed to incapacitate the enemy batteries with a pinpoint attack, including gas shells. However, their accuracy was poor, due to Allied control of the skies; many of the shells may have been time expired, and the Italians had been supplied with superior British gas masks.  

Austrian Engineers Bridging the Piave

The morning went well; the Austrians moved 100,000 men across the river under heavy rain. Watching the infantry pour over the pontoons, Jan Triska and his gunners wondered if this time they would reach Venice. Enlarging the bridgeheads proved more difficult. Progress was made on the Montello, where the four divisions pushed forward several kilometers, and around San Donà, near the sea. Elsewhere, the attackers were pinned down near the river. Farther north, Conrad's divisions attacked from Asiago toward Monte Grappa. Slight initial gains could not be held; the Italians had learned how to use the "elastic defence," absorbing enemy thrusts in a deep system of trenches, then counterattacking.

Progress on the second day was no easier. Conrad was in retreat; his batteries—more than a third of all the Habsburg guns in Italy—were out of the fight. Boroević ordered his commanders to hunker down while forces were transferred from the north. Meanwhile the Piave rose again, washing away many of the pontoons. Supplying the bridgeheads across the torrent became even more dangerous. The Austrians were too close to exhaustion and their supplies too uncertain for a sustained battle to run in their favour.

Boroević told the emperor that if the Montello could be secured, it should be the springboard for a new offensive. Securing it would need at least three more divisions, including artillery. If the high command did not intend to renew the offensive from the Montello, it was pointless to retain the bridgeheads; they should be abandoned and all efforts dedicated to strengthening the defenses east of the river. As Karl wondered what to do, the German high command stepped in, ordering a cessation of hostilities so that the Austrians could dispatch their six strongest divisions to the Western Front, for Ludendorff's spring offensives were running out of steam and 250,000 American troops were arriving every month. Karl consulted his commanders in the field, who echoed Boroević's stark choice: either reinforce or withdraw. Then he consulted his chief of the general staff, General Arz von Straussenberg. A new offensive within a few weeks was, they agreed, not a realistic prospect. Their reserves were almost used up; even if enough divisions could be transferred to the Piave from elsewhere—and none could safely be spared from Ukraine or the Balkans—the Italians would match them. It would not be possible to recapture the zest of 15 June without a lengthy recovery.

Italian Defenders

Late on the 20th, Karl ordered the right bank of the Piave to be abandoned. General Goiginger, commanding the corps that had performed so well on the Montello, refused to obey. They had taken 12,000 prisoners and 84 guns; how could they retreat? Eventually he submitted, and the withdrawal began. Both sides were exhausted, and the maneuver was completed without much fighting. The Bosnians and Hungarians on the Montello worked their way back to the river. The last Austrians crossed on 23 June, ending the Battle of the Solstice. The Italians had lost around 10,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, and more than 40,000 prisoners, against 118,000 Habsburg dead, wounded, sick, captured, and missing. Early in July, Third Army units capped the achievement by seizing the swampy delta at the mouth of the Piave, which the Austrians had held since Caporetto.

The rejoicing was widespread and spontaneous. For many soldiers, the Battle of the Solstice cleansed the stain of Caporetto, and the name of the Piave has ever since evoked a glow of fulfillment.

Source:  The White War, by Mark Thompson. Excerpted in OVER THE TOP, October 2010

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