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

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Why Conrad's 1916 Asiago Offensive Failed

 General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf,
Austrian Chief of Staff

By Major Robert C. Todd, U.S. Army

Operational Art: The employment of military forces to attain strategic goals in a theater of war. . . through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations. U.S. Army FM 100-5

While his forces were stopping the 1916 Italian offensive of the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian chief of staff, decided it was time to take the initiative. He had always considered a massive attack from the Trentino as the way to defeat Italy. His plan called for two armies to sweep down from Lavarone-Folgaria to capture the rail center at Padova, and envelop the Italian forces along the Isonzo. This was an ambitious plan. Padova was over 45 miles away, a significant distance for a front where the lines had not perceptibly shifted in a year of war.

Conrad's German allies disapproved of this plan and did not provide any of the troops he requested. In spite of this, Conrad decided to pursue the offensive on his own. He transferred troops from the Isonzo and Russian fronts to the Trentino, forming them into the 11th Army with Archduke Eugene in command. The 13 divisions he took from the Eastern Front were the best Austrian units available. The weakening of the Austro-Hungarian forces in the east would result in success for the Russian Brusilov offensive that would begin shortly after Conrad launched his Trentino offensive.

The movement of 15 divisions was hard to disguise. Cadorna knew an attack was coming and ordered the First Army Commander, General Roberto Brusati, to prepare. Brusati, who would be relieved before the outbreak of the fighting, ignored the order. Why bother troops with preparing defensive positions in depth in a quiet area? Because of Brusati's attitude the Austrians achieved surprise when they attacked on 15 May 1916.

Opening (Solid Line) and Closing (Dotted) Positions
Click on Image to Enlarge

The Austrians surprised the Italians, but the friction of the difficult terrain in the Trentino and the arrival of Italian reinforcements from the Isom Front slowed the offense. That advance may have been hampered, but the Austrians took Asiago by the end of May and were still advancing at the start of June. Cadorna asked the Russians to help with an offensive in Galicia. The Russians responded with what became known as the Brusilov Offensive. 

By mid-June, the Austrians were at Arsiero. They were nearly out of the mountains but still over 30 miles from Padova.  The Italians began to mount successful counterattacks and held the Austrian offensive. Coupled with the Russian pressure it was enough to make Conrad stop the offensive. The Italians had held the offensive, but they owed a debt to the Russians for stopping it.

The failure of the Trentino Offensive was a major blow to Austrian morale. As Hindenburg put it, "the disillusion experienced through the failure of the offensive against Italy, which had been heralded with such exaggerated promises was profound." 

This offensive had met most of the criteria for operational art. It had a strategic aim that could have put Italy out of the war. The actions were distributed across the theater of operations with a holding action along the Isonzo and an offensive in the Trentino. The actions were conducted by more than one independent force, with the 11th Army operating in the Trentino while other Austrian forces held the Isonzo. The offensive would have had a cumulative effect on the Italians by cutting their lines of support to the Isonzo Front and isolating the forces in the east. The campaign was well on its way to forming a coherent whole when Conrad [was compelled to stop] the offensive. . . 

Italian Trench on the Asiago Plateau

Conrad had the weakness of not seeing his own false assumptions. He was familiar with the Trentino but forgot about the snow. This oversight led to a postponement of the attack and a loss of total surprise. Only the obliging stupidity of General Brusati let the Austrians achieve any surprise at all. Archduke Charles went so far as accusing Conrad of developing an operational plan that ignored terrain. The most significant failure of Conrad's operational vision was his inability to foresee a Russian offensive if he weakened the Eastern Front, for it was the Russian offensive that prevented the Austrians from reinforcing their success.

Conrad came close to successfully practicing operational art during the Trentino Offensive. Unfortunately, his lack of  operational vision did not let him comprehend all the linkages of  his actions. Conrad was disgraced by the failure of the Trentino Offensive and the success of the Russian Brusilov Offensive.

Source: "Operational Art on the Italian Front During the Great War," U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1992

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