Primary Documents - Italian Statement on the Asiago Offensive, June 1916

Austrian mountain soldiers 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 the official Italian summary of the offensive, published in June 1916.  Click here to read the report of the official German observer attached to the Austrian forces, General von Cramon; click here to read a summary written by the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page.

Official Italian Statement on the Asiago Offensive

The plan of the invasion of Italy on these weak frontiers was the most familiar to Austria in all its military manoeuvres, the most studied and thought over by the Supreme Command, and especially by the Commander in Chief, General Conrad von Hotzendorf, who was wholly in favour of the campaign in the Trentino.

Germany had decided on the destruction of France and the British Army, and Austria had decided on her "Punitive Campaign."

Conrad's choice to attack by way of the Trentino, under snow until spring was well advanced, and the necessity of regulating the Balkan disturbances, prevented simultaneous attacks.

The undertaking against Italy, which would be invaded and forced to a separate peace, was a foregone conclusion in the mind of the Austrian General who had long boasted of the merits of this "Decisive Blow."  The certainty of Conrad's plan was such that the Austrian Command ordered a prolonged and careful preparation of the offensive.  This certainty was based on two decisions which later proved themselves grossly erroneous.

The first was based on the presumption of feeble resistance on the part of the Italian army which was deemed incapable of facing a broad and decisive frontal attack, incapable not only on account of defects in preparation, but more on account of a want of moral strength, whereby any retreat from a good position would have speedily become a rout.

The second was based on the impossibility of the Russians to attempt a grand offensive after the actions of January, which were promptly frustrated.

Strong in these conceptions, the Austrian Command, deeming its eastern front secure, drew therefrom her finest, most warlike and most faithful troops, with a vast quantity of artillery, and these with others selected from the Balkan front, constituted the 18 divisions destined to attack the Trentino.

This force of 400,000 men supported by more than 2,000 cannon the half of which were of medium calibre, with 40 pieces of 305, four of 380, and four of 420, was entitled the "Punitive Expedition," a title which breathed assurance and contempt.

This, with the aid of a concentrated artillery fire and with the aggression of battalions massed on a restricted front defended by mountain ranges, would rapidly descend on the Paduan plains, thus obtaining a position in the rear of the Italians on the Isonzo, who, caught between two fires would be driven to a hasty retreat.

The successful invasion of these valuable and populous regions of Italy was so certain, that many officials, with manuals of art and history and Baedekers, were appointed to follow the victorious troops and to collect the most precious treasures of the country from Italian museums and churches, etc., and pack them off to Austria.

The scheme failed rapidly and utterly.  The attack chosen by the Austrians comprised the zone between the Adige and the Brenta.  The bombardment opening on May 12 became terrific on the 14th.

An apparent offensive spread rapidly from the Val Giudicaria to the sea in order to deceive the Italians.  This the enemy could well afford to do, as the massing of artillery for the real attack was not interfered with by those feigned elsewhere.  It revealed the tremendous superiority of their guns.

On May 15 the infantry assault followed, very fierce and impetuous on the lines chosen for the real attack.

The assault by their right wing was most impetuous, because they wished to drive the Italians from the positions dominating Rovereto, which were already threatened, especially as a swift success in this zone would have decided the offensive.

Their forces, conquering the Vallarsa, would have attained by the road from Rovereto to Schio, the nearest points from which they could descend to the plains, and they would have established themselves on the rear of the Italians who were defending the tableland of Asiago.

Instead, four days after the attack, the right wing of the Austrians was absolutely blocked.  After an orderly and tenacious retreat from the most advanced positions, the Italian resistance grew more and more stubborn on the Coni-Zugna-Passo di Buole lines, and maintained itself vigorously in hostile territory some 12 kilometres beyond the old frontiers.

Until the end of May the Austrians, realising the deep value of the defence offered by the 37th Division, harried them with ceaseless attacks, but after 12 days of incessant combat, the Buole Pass and the swollen stream of the Adige were filled with Austrian dead.

The swift invasion was thus arrested on the right, not only through this, but because of the stubborn resistance on the Pasubio that had become one of the strongest bulwarks against the desperate hostile assaults in this same month.

The left wing suffered much the same fate in the Val Sugana.  Here, to gain the end desired, the Austrians had need of a rapid victory along the course of the river Brenta.  The Italians had to be thrust back from Borgo beyond the former boundaries, to secure their left flank from ulterior menace.

Instead from May 15 to May 25 the Italians retired ever fighting from the most open positions and selected a line of defence slightly to the rear of Borgo, still in hostile territory at about 18 kilometres from the frontier. Here, every attack was repulsed.

Thus four days after the offensive or on May 19, the Austrian right wing was held up; later on May 26 their left wing was also held.

Both wings thus weakening, the advance of the Austrian centre necessarily lost its value, and this on the tableland of Asiago where battalions and artillery, crushed in a restricted zone, were all but smothered by their own advance. Arsiero and Asiago, the chief inhabited spots of this mountainous and wooded region, relinquished by the Italian troops, suffered the rage and fury of the enemy that had failed in victory, and were sacked and burned.

On June 2, thanks to 18 days' gallant defence, the Italian Supreme Command, as announced by Cadorna in the Bulletin of the succeeding day, could consider the Austrian offensive absolutely arrested all along the front.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

"Suicide Ditch" was a term used by British soldiers to refer to the front-line trench.

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