Primary Documents - Thomas Nelson Page on the Asiago Offensive, April-June 1916
Tired of having to constantly fend off sustained Italian attacks along the Isonzo River, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf resolved in early 1916 to mount an Austrian offensive through the Trentino mountain passes towards Italy's northern plain, trapping the latter's main forces along the Isonzo and others based in the Carnic Alps.
Disappointed to find that his German allies were unable to offer military assistance - the German Army was under heavy pressure at Verdun - Conrad nonetheless pressed ahead with his offensive (sometimes referred to as the Trentino Offensive) on 15 May 1916.
Although meeting with notable initial success the Italian Army under Luigi Cadorna ultimately regrouped - despatching half a million Italian troops into the Trentino - and expelled the Austrians from Italian territory by the end of the month.
Reproduced below is a summary of the Austrian offensive from the viewpoint of the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page, as documented in his post-war memoirs.
The Asiago Offensive by the U.S. Ambassador to Italy Thomas Nelson Page
It was to Italy that many eyes were turned in the early part of 1916, amid the gloom of the destruction of Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania; the invigoration of Turkey and Bulgaria; the obscurity of Greece; the increase in the submarine campaign, and the murderous persistence of the attack on Verdun-Italy, without coal, grain, or metal save what she could obtain with difficulty; with scarcely anything in sufficient quantity - Italy not yet at war with Germany, nor certain that she would be; with her Sphinx-like Minister for Foreign Affairs, and her strong political antiwar element; with her men, amid the measureless snows of the Trentino and Carnic and Julian Alps, driving, in Arctic cold, under incredible hardships, tunnels through mountains of ice and rock, scaling icy precipices, swinging their cables across vast gorges.
Would she stand it? Could she stand it?
As the spring drew nearer it was evident that Italy was irrevocably bent on getting Gorizia and Trieste, and Austria-Hungary began to feel the need of some action that would weaken the incessant drive that Italy was making on the Isonzo front, and relieve herself from the ever-increasing pressure toward Gorizia and Trieste.
Moreover, the "gradual advance of the Italians into the Trentino, which was approaching closer and closer to the main lines of his defence, aroused in the enemy a desire to free himself from a pressure which was growing more threatening."
Russia had been driven back sufficiently to give Austria a freer hand on her western and southern front, but was preparing for another attempt later on. Germany was being held up at Verdun. The time appeared ripe for a blow at Italy before Russia should be ready.
Austria accordingly made carefully elaborate secret preparations for an offensive against Italy through the Trentino.
The offensive began on May 14, with an artillery bombardment of great violence along the entire Italian front, from East to West, from the Carso to the Giudicaria.
It soon became evident, however, that the real assault was on the Trentino front, on the sector between the Val Lagarina and the Val Sugana. Here, after a terrific bombardment, the Infantry in great masses were launched to the attack under an artillery cover unprecedented on that front in violence or effectiveness. Eighteen divisions, or some 400,000 men and some 2,000 guns, were employed in the offensive.
The Austrians knew every foot of ground: mountain and valley, and their attack was admirably planned and well carried out. Both Artillery and Infantry were skilfully handled. The Italian advanced positions were swept away by the flood of shell poured out on them. Then, under the tremendous bombardment of the great guns, moved forward as required, other positions were rendered untenable.
From point after point, position after position, the Italians were driven, with increasing losses in men and guns. Austria's dream appeared on the eve of realization.
When June came in the Italians, after two weeks of as fierce and unremitting battle as had taken place in the war, with every advantage save one against them, had made their last stand above and across the mouths of the valleys that opened on the Venetian Plain; and the Austrians, believing themselves victorious, were pressing forward with all the ardour born of success and lust of loot, and heightened by the furious desire to wreak their vengeance on an enemy whom their Emperor had denounced to them as having betrayed Austria.
A few days later (June 3) General Cadorna, confident of the stability of his army, now strung to the highest pitch by the peril to their Patria, announced to his Government that the immediate danger of invasion of Italy was past. The Italians had stopped the Austrians. The latter were now dashing in impotent rage against the Italian lines. The Italians had been ordered to hold them to the death, and they held them.
The Italians knew now that Italy herself was at stake, and all Italy was now in the fight. For some time, notwithstanding Cadorna's encouraging announcement, the issue appeared to hang in the balance.
Austria, balked at the very moment of seizing the prize, as she deemed it, was loath to relinquish her aim, and continued to hurl her masses against the Italian positions, only to break in foam against them. Their force was spent, and as the Italians grew stronger the tide turned.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A "Dixie" (from the Hindi degci) was an army cooking pot.
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