Marking 1916 Jump-Off Line
Craig Wilson, II
The Editors of The Great Events of the Great War
For almost a year following Italy's entry into the War, the Austrians had allowed her to wear out her strength against their well-nigh impregnable mountain frontiers. In May of 1916 Austria suddenly assumed the offensive. She was facing the Italians on two lines. To the north of Italy lay the Austrian Alps, the region known as the Tyrol. Here the Italian "Alpini" had been fighting their way slowly northward over the mighty mountains, seizing the semi-Italian district called the Trentino. To the east of Italy at the head of the Adriatic lay the Isonzo River section of Austria. There the Italians had been making their chief attack and gathering their main armies.
In attacking along the less powerfully held line in the Trentino, the Austrians might hope to break into Italy from the north, get behind the Isonzo army, and so break its line of supplies and compel its surrender. The resulting campaign is here described both by an English correspondent with the Italian Army and an official German observer with the Austrians.
Austrian Assault Troops in Training
The heavy attack at first swept away the smaller bodies of Italians. Mountain peak after peak was stormed and captured. By the end of May the Italians were driven back across their own border; and the Italian cities of Arsiero and Asiago, the latter some seven miles behind the frontier, were in Austrian hands. This, however, marked the high tide of the invasion. Count Cadorna, the Italian general, had by this time strengthened his loosely guarded defenses and gathered his forces. His line stretched along the last and lowest series of hills by which the Alps sink into the Italian plain. Vicenza and the main railroad for supplying the Isonzo army were only twenty miles away. On June 3rd Cadorna issued a general order to stop the retreat before the foe, saying, "Remember that here we defend the soil of our country and the honor of our army. These positions are to be defended to the death."
They were thus held. More than one Italian regiment lost two-thirds of its men without giving way. The Austrian advance was completely checked. The main fighting was around Mounts Ciove, Pasubio and Sette Communi. A final assault was delivered against the latter on June 18th, and was repulsed with heavy losses. Gradually the Austrians withdrew to secure entrenchments, and the struggle shifted, as described in a later section, to the Isonzo front. Austria had attacked bravely; Italy had resisted with even greater strength and self-devotion.
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BY SIDNEY LOW [British Editor and Commentator]
The Austrian offensive in the Trentino was designed to draw away the pressure from the Isonzo, and divert the Italians from their main objective; with the subsidiary hope also of dealing them such a blow at a vital point that their whole scheme of defense would have been shattered. But General Von Conrad's enterprise involved so many risks, and most of all the risk of weakening the eastern flank in face of the Russian advance, that it was probably dictated as much by political and moral as by purely military reasons. Race hatred, an angry contempt for the Italians as a fighting people, and a desire to revive the prestige of the Monarchy by carrying the war into the enemy's country, were contributory factors. The conception, if faulty, was bold, and it was carried into execution with energy. In the spring vast depots of stores, equipment, and munitions were established, and an elaborate system of transport and water supply organized. Units were collected from the Russian front, the Balkans, and the Landsturm battalions, and by the middle of May the Austrians had massed upon the Trentino eighteen full divisions with supplementary battalions, roughly, 400,00 men, with no fewer than 2,000 guns, including twenty batteries of the huge 12-inch cannon, and eight of the 15-inch and 16.5 monsters -- giants which had no rivals on the Italian side.
Opposing Commanders: Conrad and Cadorna
"Moral" agencies were busily employed. The Trentino inroad was described as a Strafe expedition , designed to punish the Italians for their "treason." The soldiers were told that the Italian troops were cowardly and disheartened, that victory over them would be easy, and that then the towns and villages of Lombardy and Venetia, with their wealth, and wine, and women, would be delivered over to the lust and greed of the conquerors.
In the middle of May the powerful concentration of guns and men rolled down between the Adige and the Brenta. The Italians, battered by a tremendous bombardment and exposed to sudden infantry onslaughts at many points, bent back before the blast. They executed what the official review calls "a calm and well-ordered retirement," which eventually left the Austrians in possession of the greater part of the elevated plateau of the Sette Communi, with the upper portion of the Brenta valley. With the enemy hanging over the very edge of the plains, and steadily moving his great guns forward from the higher positions, the situation for the Italians in the beginning of June seemed at one time critical, and it looked as if the invaders might after all make good their dash upon the main railway and line of communications, and seize Vicenza and perhaps Verona.
But the army of the Trentino, hampered thought it was by insufficient ammunition, held on grimly, and its infantry never yielded a yard of ground without a desperate struggle. Von Conrad had banked all his stakes upon a swift irresistible advance that would paralyze the Italian defense in time to allow guns and troops to be sent back in a few weeks to the Eastern front. But after the first downward swoop the Austrian progress slackened, and by the middle of June it had definitely come to a standstill in the Adige valley. In the Astico and Val Sugana sectors the forward movement of the invaders was continued a little longer, and a considerable zone, mostly of wooded, rugged, and mountainous country, with the towns of Tonezza, Arsiero, Asiago, and Borgo, was abandoned to them.
Key to the Early Austrian Success
But here, also, the road was blocked. To obtained this limited success the Austrians had used up an enormous quantity of material and munitions, and had lost in killed and wounded at least a hundred thousand men. They had fatally weakened themselves on one of their fronts, and had failed to deliver a decisive blow upon the other. Such success as they had attained was largely the result of an audacious, but, as it turned out, a futile attempt at bluff. The Commando Supremo did not believe that the Austrian General Staff would leave themselves at the mercy of the Russians by sending a horde of troops and the cream of their artillery to cut the Italian communication in the Upper Veneto. The very irrationality of the project prevented adequate preparations being made to meet it. When the move did come it obtained the temporary advantage that nearly always attends a surprise attack.
The 305 Skoda
Cadorna had the situation well in hand throughout. Even while the Austrians were still slowly and extensively bending back the Italian front, he was pushing his troops up on their flanks. For this purpose strong reenforcements were required, and a new army was collected from the garrisons, the reserve companies, and other portions of the line, organized, equipped and moved to the field of action with unprecedented rapidity.
By the opening of the last week in June the Austrian General Staff recognized that its bold stroke for the subjugation of Italy had failed. Their invading force, held fast in front, and now counter-attacked on both flanks, could make no further progress; and events in Galicia clamored for the release of the regiments and batteries tied up beyond the Alps. It was decided that half at least of the eighteen Trentino divisions and most of the heavy guns should be withdrawn back and railed to the Carpathians. Cadorna knew of this intention, or shrewdly guessed at it, and determined that it should not be carried into effect without at least considerable delay and difficulty.
Italian Reinforcements Head for the Asiago Plateau
Then followed another week of rapid movement, fierce fighting and skillful maneuvers. The Chief of the Italian Staff performed an invaluable service to the Allied cause, not so much by compelling the Austrians to retire, for that had resolved to do in any case, as by rendering it impossible for them to retire in the manner they had proposed. Their program was to fall back upon their prepared positions on the high ground across the Altipiano, to the Dolomites, and to establish themselves on this commanding line, with much reduced numbers, while at least nine full divisions were being brought away for the East. But the pursuit was so eager that the Austrians could not disengage, and could only fall back slowly, in touch all the time with their relentless antagonists.
It has been a notable victory, achieved not only by the gallantry and fighting quality of the troops engaged, but by the consummate generalship.
BY GENERAL A. VON CRAMON [Germany]
The attack had originally been planned for the 10th of April. High snow, however, made the realization of this plan impossible. The same occurred on the 20th of April and the 1st of May. Von Hoetzendorff raged; he claimed never to have seen so much snow on the heights of Southern Tyrol as in the spring of that year. Others, however, who knew the ground very well, declared that, even with the normal conditions of temperature, the date decided upon would have been premature.
The damage resulting from the constant postponement of the date of attack was naturally great. The assembling of troops in all villages of Southern Tyrol could not be concealed from the enemy. Moreover, a deserter of Italian descent, who went over to the enemy on the plateau of Vielgereuth, made valuable disclosures to the enemy regarding the intentions of the Austrians. Under such conditions it could not be asserted that the confidence of the Tyrolean leaders was particularly great. The reports of the German officers in charge of communications verified this. Powerful countermeasures on the part of the Italians were to be expected.
Arsiero: Captured in the Battle
When, at the beginning of May, the day of the attack had again been postponed,, General von Falkenhayn commissioned me to ask General von Hoetzendorff whether it would not be better to dispense altogether with the offensive -- which would no longer come as a surprise and would therefore be problematical -- and place a portion of the troops stationed in Southern Tyrol at the disposal of the Western Front. This proposition was somewhat of a surprise to me as Falkenhayn, during the winter, had been averse to utilizing Austro-Hungarian troops on the front in France. Manifestly, this change of opinion was due to the doubtful situation at Verdun.
General von Hoetzendorff declined on the ground that the offensive, prepared to the minutest detail, could not be abandoned now, more particularly as the artillery, permanently placed for the attack, could not readily be withdrawn again.
Finally, on May 15th, the avalanche of Vielgereuth-Lafraun was launched, the first attack being made by the corps of the Austrian Crown-prince Charles, to be followed two days later by the army corps of Graz, operating on the eastern wing and commanded by General Krautwald. The beginning was magnificent. The German-Austrian picked troops of the attacking group recorded a great achievement and within a a few days brought in 30,000 prisoners and 300 guns. Asiago was taken. Von Falkenhayn sent a cordial telegram of congratulation to von Hoetzendorff, whose acknowledgment was equally hearty. At Teschen general headquarters everyone was beside himself with delight. We German officers also frankly rejoiced over the victory won by our ally.
Italian Prisoners Captured in the Battle
On the 24th of May, however, the corps of the Austrian Crown-prince came to a standstill. The enemy meanwhile utilized the situation and brought up all the artillery and infantry that could possibly be placed on the "Terra ferma," covered in every direction by lines of railroad and highways. I was informed subsequently that the troops of the 20th Army Corps had begged to be permitted to make the leap to the edge of the mountains, without "drawing breath," and before the enemy could recover. But the corps command would not permit this because it believed that the heavy artillery would first have to be brought up. In this way the Italians had been able to gain a footing once more on the Priafora and the towering rocks nearby, thus setting at naught a continuation of the Austrian attacks.
On the other hand it was asserted that the command of the various army groups had so placed in rank the reserve divisions that it was impossible for them to participate at the right time. It cannot be our purpose here to enter into an investigation as to the accuracy of these charges. It is my opinion, however, that it did not require an entry into the campaign on the part of the Russians in the East to bring the Austrian offensive launched from the Southern Tyrol to a standstill. This had already been checked and could only have been continued with new forces, which, however, were not available.
War Memorial in Center
Sources and Thanks:
The articles were originally published in the book The Great Events of the Great War, Volume IV , Editor-In-Chief Charles F. Horne, Ph.D; Directing Editor Walter F. Austin, LL.m.; Copyright 1923 National Alumni, Printed in USA.
Contributed by Craig D Wilson II .
The article on the battle at FirstWorldWar.com is strongly recommended. Click here to view it.