Primary Documents - Max Osborn 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 extract from the report written by the official German observer during the battle, Max Osborn. In his report Osborn attributed the Austro-Hungarian failure more to ill-luck - viz, severe adverse weather - than other factors.
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 official French observer's report on the course of the battle. 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.
Max Osborn on the Battle of the Piave River
In the plain near San Dona and Capo Sile, General Wurms's storm battalions were sent over the Piave River and the canal.
From Treviso General Diaz sent against them the 30th and 27th Corps, and General Croce's corps, newly formed from 18-year-old youths.
The Austrians thus gallantly won a most important objective - the summit of the Italian hinge position was thrust through by the storming of the Montelle. The rolling up of the whole of the Piave front from there appeared possible - indeed, certain.
Nature then pronounces an inexorable and cruel veto. Heaven opens and the deluge descends. The mountains foam, the crevasses made in them by time overflow as if weeping, and all the waters empty themselves into the Piave, which rises rapidly.
The upper bridge is torn away by the irresistible pressure of the water, and the pontoons, loosened by the force of the waters, are driven against the lower bridge and pushed through it.
The Italian artillery has in the bridges targets which cannot be missed for long. Fountains like the spouting of whales ascend from the river in ever quicker succession.
Suddenly airmen also appear. They come down silently from a great height in far-reaching volplanes. Now their motors hum again and their machine guns rattle. A hail of steel pelts down on the pontoons, which sink riddled.
The guns of the defence bark from the bank and the fragments of their shrapnel endanger the lives of their own men, men whom they wish to protect. One, two, three of the great Caproni bombarding planes descend, shot down on the mud of the Montello. A Nieuport comes down like a torch hurled from heaven - the famous airman, Major Barracca, is a heap of ashes.
His list of victories is the same as that of his most victorious Austrian adversary, Captain Brumowski, who conquered thirty-four opponents. Lieutenant von Hoffmann, in peace time a Ministerial official in Vienna, and his band dash against the biplanes. Like raging bulldogs the English now advance on their furiously swift Sopwiths against our airmen, engineers, artillery, and infantry.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, avails. The enemy airmen are too numerous, the enemy's shells too many. Like Sisyphus multiplied a hundredfold the bridge builders work incessantly; they fall and disappear in the flood without a cry; they launch new pontoons; they think out new methods of trans-port from bank to bank - nothing helps; absolutely nothing avails. Six times are the bridges and footways completed, six times are they destroyed.
The divisions yonder on the green summit of the Montello, which resembles so completely in situation and importance the Podgera heights on the other side of the Isonzo, fight with an uncovered rear, without heavy artillery, without reinforcements in men, munitions, or provisions.
Only one thing could now alter everything - namely, to carry the attack so far forward that the Piave crossings fall out of the range of the hostile artillery.
Brave Hungarians and Lower Austrians burst out of conquered caverns, officers going first. Both Brigadiers of one division of Chasseurs fall. The attacking wedge presses deep into the mountain fastnesses; close to the summit the troops settle themselves firmly in the Italian trenches and caverns and wait not for dismissal or for their places to be taken by reinforcements, nor for munitions and food.
Cartridges have been used up, hand grenades hurled away, the reserve ration eaten. What was found of the Italians' provisions was also consumed. Reinforcements, however, only come by driblets.
Chains of bearers bring boxes of ammunition from the river to the mountain, airmen throw bags of preserved food over the first line, but always in insufficient quantities.
The one footbridge is repaired at last. The weather clears up; but renewed tempests of rain tear the bridge away again. Then the army command took the resolution, a hard but necessary one, to withdraw behind the Piave again.
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.
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