Primary Documents - Henri Kervarec on the Battle of the Piave River, 15-22 June 1918
Comprising the final Austro-Hungarian attack on the Italian Front during the First World War, the Battle of the Piave River proved a disastrous failure and virtually heralded the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian army.
Launched by Austria-Hungary in the face of sustained German demands to launch an offensive across the Piave River (nearby to several key Italian cities), the battle was fought from 15-22 June 1918. With its army demoralised and equipment and other supplies perilously low, and with army unit strengths depleted, the outcome of the attack proved a great contrast to the previous autumn's spectacularly effective success at Caporetto.
The comprehensive failure of the Austro-Hungarians served merely to hasten the disintegration of the army, which effectively ceased to exist as a single cohesive force. Its dismantling was finalised by the Italians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto some four months later.
Reproduced below is an account of the battle given by the official French observer Henri Kervarec.
Click here to read Conrad von Hotzendorf's official address given as encouragement to his forces on the eve of the battle. Click here to read the report written by the official German observer, Max Osborn. Click here to read an account of the battle given by G.M. Trevelyan, head of the British Red Cross in Italy. Click here to read the report by the commander of British forces in Italy, Earl Cavan.
Henri Kervarec on the Battle of the Piave River
In the series of great offensives that the Central Powers were to launch against the troops of the Entente, the Austrian offensive against the Italian front was meant, in the mind of the German General Staff, to hold fast the Franco-British troops which had been sent into Italy after Caporetto (October, 1917), and only a part of which had been withdrawn by Marshal Foch after the offensive against the English army of March 21, 1918.
The German Staff hoped also in this way to prevent the sending of Italian troops to reinforce the French front. It is what was declared by the Pan-German Taeglische Rundschau at the very beginning of the attack. "The Austrian attack, carried out over a wide front, will make this exchange of troops impossible henceforward; the Italians will now be unable to allow men to be sent into France."
In the excitement caused by the first shots, the Austrians on their side asked ironically if the French and English would be able, this time again, to send reinforcements across the Alps. "The Entente will no longer be able to repeat its theatrical gesture," wrote the Pester Lloyd on June 16th. "The English and the French have enough on their own hands."
Other reasons had motivated this offensive; reasons of general strategy: it was intended to crush Italy for good and all by conquering Venetia; reasons of home policy: the double monarchy was torn by technical dissensions; and the people was suffering from lack of food. The prestige of the Hapsburgs could be saved only by a victory.
Austria thus launched a politico-military offensive, hoping for success and profit. This double character appears very clearly in the proclamation that General Conrad von Hotzendorf had read to the troops on the morning of the attack.
It is certain that the preparations had been carried out with particular care. The troops set free by the cessation of hostilities on the eastern front had been brought back to Italy, and trained for the coming offensive. In May, 1918, too, the heavy artillery that the Austrians had lent the Germans for their offensive of March 21st had been brought back.
Carefully chosen attacking troops had been trained according to German methods. The doubtful regiments (composed of Czechs, Rumanians, and Slays) had been withdrawn. In short, everything was ready for the accomplishment of the decisive event of the war, during which, according to the Germania of June 12th, "the flags of the Hapsburg were to fly out again."
'What was the situation of the opposing armies in the beginning of June? From the Swiss frontier to the Adriatic, the front occupied a line that may be compared with the general line held for so long by the French front.
It ran, first of all from North to South, from the Stelvio Pass to the mountain-mass of the Adamello. Then from the Adamello to the Monte Grappa, crossing the Val Guidicaria, passing to the north of the lago di Garda, cutting the Val Lagarina (upper Adige) by the Monte Pasubio, the north of Asiero, the south of Asiago, the front stretched from west to east. Finally, the third part, from the Grappa to the mouth of the Piave, to Cavazuccherina, by the Montello, and all along the river, the front ran roughly from the northwest to the southeast.
In all 180 kilometres, held by sixty Austrian divisions, forming two armies, that of Conrad von Hotzendorf, from the Swiss frontier, to the Monte Tomba, and that of Boroevic, from the Tomba to the sea.
The Italian forces, under the command of General Diaz, were at least equal in number.
The railways and roads were not much in favour of the Austrians: one line only in the district of Trent, that from Trent to Verona; three in Cadore and Friuli, that from Feltre to Treviso, that from Udine to Treviso, and that from Trieste to Mestre and Padua. Very little, in reality, for the handling of large numbers.
The Italians, on the other hand, had the advantage of the inner line, and a more highly developed railway system. They had at their disposal stations like Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Treviso, splendidly prepared for heavy traffic.
They were threatened, however, on their front and their flanks, from the lago di Garda to the sea. And they had to resist converging attacks directed towards Padua.
On June 14th an order promising them glory, honour, good food, abundant booty, and especially, peace, was read to the Austrian troops.
On the 15th, at three in the morning, began the preliminary cannonade with poisoned gas shells. At four o'clock the general attack was launched from the Val Lagarina to the sea.
The efforts of the assailant were directed against some special points; on the plateau of Setti Communi, on both sides of the Brenta; on the Montello plateau, after which there is nothing to hinder a march towards the plains of Venetia; on the lower Piave, above San Dona.
It was very clear, towards the evening of the 15th, that the results hoped for had not been attained. The Italian High Command, as a matter of fact, had foreseen the attack: it would even seem that it had been informed of the time and the choice of the points specially aimed at.
At any rate the Austrian command has accused the Slav troops of having betrayed the cause of the monarchy in this supreme battle. Whatever the truth may be, immediately the preliminary bombardment was started, a very active counter-bombardment was ordered on the Italian side so that when the Austrian infantry attacked it could only gain very little ground.
On the Setti Communi the advance was not worth speaking about, as the Austrian communiqué was obliged to admit on the 16th. The French, English, and Italian counter-attacks soon set things to rights again. Further to the east, the Austrian succeeded in getting a footing on the slopes of the Montello, but could not reach its summit. To the south, they crossed the Piave. They even got a footing in the delta of the river, and thence threatened Mestre directly.
To sum up, at the end of the day, the mountain front was almost intact. Only the Piave had been crossed, and a dangerous breach been made in front.
The battle began again on the morning of the 16th. The Austrians, roughly handled on the Setti Communi plateau, and before the Monte Tomba, launched but few attacks, which went on dwindling away till the end of the battle in this sector (June 20th-21st).
The struggle on the Montello and the Piave was fiercer.
The very energetic Italian counter-attacks recovered on the 16th and 19th the ground which had been momentarily lost. To the south of the Montello, the Austrians, who had taken Montebelluna, on the line from Feltre to Treviso, were thrown back, and lost 1,200 prisoners and some dozens of machine guns.
In the centre, around Zenson, on the Piave, there was very hard fighting. But the enemy made no progress worth speaking of. In the south the Austrians advanced. For some time the situation became dangerous. San Dona was passed, as well as Capo Sile. The Fossetta Canal, to the east of Mestre, was crossed in several points. But on the 19th the advance was brought to a standstill. The Italians even recovered ground to the west of Zenson.
In the morning of the 20th, the enemy had been driven back to his starting point all along the line. He still held only a little ground on the lower course of the Piave.
In the evening of the 20th, the Italians could announce the failure of the offensive, and give out at the same time that they had made more than 12,000 prisoners and taken a great amount of war-material. The German press too began to lower its tone.
General Diaz, safe now in the north, had to resist only the threat coming from the East. The situation of Wurms's army, in the meanders of the Piave, was by no means enviable. It was holding marshes, with its back to a river that the slightest rain might swell. It could neither move nor dig trenches. It was an easy target for the Italian batteries and the Allied planes, and for the fleet of monitors moored at the mouth of the Piave. It was also extremely difficult to re-victual it.
Consequently on June 23rd, the Austrian command began preparing the public for the disagreeable news of a retreat referring at great length to the difficulties caused by the rain and the rising of the river.
The communiqué of the 24th (Monday) admitted the defeat in these terms:
The situation created by the rising of the waters and the bad weather have obliged us to abandon the Montello and some sectors of the other positions conquered on the right bank of the Piave.
The order given with this purpose, four days ago, already, has been carried out, in spite of the difficulties of the crossing from one bank to the other, in such a way that our movements were completely hidden from the enemy.
This movement had not escaped the notice of the Italians, as the Austrian High Command would have it believed, since General Diaz's communiqué, dated June 23rd, says: "From the Montello to the sea, the enemy, defeated and hard pressed by our brave troops, is re-crossing the Piave in disorder."
At the same time, the capture of numerous prisoners was announced.
Thus came to an end that offensive of the Piave which was to be so stunning a blow that Treviso was marked as the first day's objective!
When the news of this incontestable victory was confirmed there was among the Allies, and especially in Italy an explosion of joy. Instinctively the peoples felt that a great event in the conduct of the war had taken place, and the Italian people were particularly proud that this victory had been won by the soldiers of General Diaz.
The battle of the Piave was, in the first place, a battle fought in order to check the enemy, from the countering of the artillery, and the resistance offered by the advance posts. Then it was a counter-offensive, when it became necessary to wrest from the enemy the advantages he had won on the Montello and the Piave.
If the battle of June 15th-23rd on the Piave cannot be compared with the battle of the Marne, as was done immediately after the victory, yet it must be declared that this victory, won when it was won, had very important consequences, which must be briefly pointed out in ending.
Firstly, it proved the superiority of the Italian army over the Austrian army - command and soldiers. The Allied troops which held the mountain sectors certainly played an important part in this battle - and King Victor Emmanuel has done them full justice.
But the greatest effort was made by the Italian troops recruited in every part of Italy - Venetia, Piedmont, Lombardy, Calabria, Sicily, etc. The Italian soldier showed in this battle the traditional qualities of the race, tenacity and dash, thorough Roman obstinacy in defence, and patriotic enthusiasm in the attack.
The high command proved its mastery by the way in which it used its railways and roads, and distributed its reserves and brought them at the right time up to the points threatened. In a word, the prestige of the Italian army, which had fallen after Caporetto, was completely restored.
The repercussion in Italy even was considerable. The support of the nation was at once insured to the government. As regards the general conduct of the war, it became almost immediately evident that the Austrian army would hence-forward be incapable of taking the offensive. There there was a noteworthy decrease in the military power of the Central Empires.
But it was within the Austrian monarchy that the consequences of the defeat were the most immediate and far-reaching.
It had been hoped that a victory would be won, and consequently the difficult and diverse problems which the Austro-Hungarian Government had to face would be solved. Instead of a victory it was a defeat. Instead of the union which had been looked forward to, the divisions, the internal struggles on the contrary were going to spring up even more fiercely than before.
As early as the end of June peculiarly grave words were pronounced in the Hungarian parliament. M. Wekerle was obliged to recognize that the Austro-Hungarian losses reached 100,000 men. He was interrupted by deputies who shouted to him: "How many Hungarians?"
The Az Ujsag of June 28th relates the speech of the deputy Ladislas Fenyes in the Hungarian parliament:
Whatever the Minister of National Defence may say, it has been proved that in the battle of the Piave, many Hungarian regiments suffered tremendous losses, or were completely annihilated.
Even if the reports which are circulating in the country are untrue, it is nevertheless necessary that the voice of Hungary should come to the ears of the Austrian command, so that the Hungarian blood, sacrificed so often in vain may no longer be shed in torrents.
The Az Est of June 30th utters the same complaints and enables us more and more to measure the greatness of the Austro-Hungarian disillusionment:
The greater part of the 100,000 men we have lost on the Piave was composed of Hungarians. We have no exact information as to the proportion of nationalities, but the descriptions of the battle show us that the Hungarians were in the centre of the melee.
The Hungarian regiments have been sacrificed. It matters little to us that the enemy losses have been superior to ours. Our grief is sore indeed when we think that we have suffered the loss of hundreds of thousands of men, at the end of the fourth year of the war.
To attenuate the effect produced by the disaster on the Piave, and to attempt to disculpate itself, the Austrian Staff threw the responsibility of the check upon the Czechs.
We have unfortunately found that some Czech soldiers have gone over to the enemy, and that a certain number of their comrades are in contact with the Italians, whilst carrying on within our lines a dangerous propaganda.
Another issued by Headquarters accuses the Jugo-Slays of having betrayed, of having revealed to the Italians not only the date of the offensive but even the principal points of this offensive. "The exact moment," says this note, "must have been revealed by South Slav deserters. The enemy made arrangements to meet the expected bombardment with gas.
The government of King Charles I perhaps hoped to reconcile the Austrian and the Hungarians by throwing them on the Jugo-Slays and Czechs. These tactics, which were so long those of the Hapsburgs, were not to succeed this time.
The Hungarians were not satisfied; the Jugo-Slays were not any more so. The building was crumbling away on every side. The victory might have bolstered it up. The defeat suffered on the Piave on June 20, 1918, dealt Austria-Hungary the coup de grace.
The decomposition of the double monarchy was hastened by this military disaster.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
'White Star' was a German mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas, so-named on account of the identification marking painted on the delivery shell casing.
- Did you know?