Battle of Asiago
First Austro-Hungarian offensive on the Italian front
15 May - 10 June 1916
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
After a lull in fighting during the winter the Italians launched yet another attack on the Isonzo with minimal gains. In the aftermath of this battle the Austrians managed to launch their own offensive, which pushed back the Italian forces. In the end, the Italians managed to regroup and check the Austrian advance.
The Fifth Battle of the Isonzo was fought between Austria-Hungary and Italy as part of the coordinated Entente response to the German Verdun offensive in France. Nothing much was achieved before the Austrians launched their own Tyrolean offensive, driving out of the mountains across the Asiago Plateau sector of the Trentino Salient with the intention of breaking through to the coastal plain and severing the Italian communications running east to the Isonzo and Alpine fronts. Though the Italians managed to check the Austrian advance, the offensive had political consequences in Italy: the Antonio Salandra cabinet fell, and Paolo Boselli became Prime Minister.

The strength of the Italian army was increasing, and would eventually almost double, from thirty-six peacetime divisions to sixty-five, and during 1916 the Italians would attract thirty-five of the sixty-five mobilized Austrian divisions to their mountains. The consequent weakening of Austria's capacity to bear a fair share of the burden in the east would largely facilitate Russia's successful resumption of the offensive in this year.

Outnumbered though they were, however, the Austrians succeeded in frustrating Italy's continuing attempts to break into the Austro-Hungarian heartland via the Isonzo route and also launched a counter-offensive of their own directed towards the rich industrial and agricultural region in the plains of the River Po.

The course of operations in Italy during 1916 had one positive result for the Entente: by attracting Austrian divisions from the Russians' southern front, it allowed the Tsar's armies to organize a successful counter-offensive against their weakened enemy.

With a 48-hour bombardment, the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo concentrated on the middle reach of the river between Tolmein and Mount San Michele. This involved the usual bloodbath on the hill of Podgora, where the Austrian units resisted with their normal doggedness. The Italians gained one hundred metres of altitude on Mount Sabotino – a genuine achievement, made possible by long preparation over the winter. On San Michele, the Third Army gained ground near the hamlet of San Martino, only to lose it when the Austrians used tear-gas shells. Offensives around Tolmein and on Mount Mrzli met with no better success.

Snow in the north and fog in the south forced a cessation. Yet the fighting ran on; the Austrians counter-attacked, tightening their grip on Tolmein and Rombon, while the Italians captured an important position south of San Michele, between Mount Sei Busi and Monfalcone.

The Italians suffered another 13,000 casualties without improving their position much or helping the French in any way. A Croatian newspaper crowed that the fifth offensive had ‘ended in the same kind of success as the first four’.

Luigi Cadorna, the Italian Chief of the General Staff, took the outcome as final proof that he needed much more heavy artillery. His Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf, drew a different lesson: that the moment had come to turn the tables.

The Asiago attack was conceived by Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, who was desperate to stamp down on the Italians, whom he still considered as traitors to the cause of the Central Powers. This planned offensive would cause a considerable amount of friction with Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff. He believed that it was a distraction from the main battle against Russia and France.

Conrad was expected by his German allies to concentrate his main efforts against the Russians, freeing German formations for use on the Western Front. But he had ideas of his own. One was to mount a decisive attack in the Trentino, advancing rapidly across the Italian Plain to seize the great cities of the north. He selected the area around the Asiago plateau for the attack.

The prospect of an attack at Asiago appalled the Chief of the German General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn. Conrad held on to a mass of heavy artillery that Falkenhayn badly needed to reduce the French forts at Verdun, and his Trentino plan diverted a number of divisions from the Eastern Front. Falkenhayn also believed that the 18 divisions assembled by Conrad would prove inadequate, even though the Austrians enjoyed a marked superiority in artillery.

Conrad nurtured an almost personal hostility against Austria's former partner in the Triple Alliance and had fallen out with Falkenhayn over his determination to punish them at the expense of sustaining the joint Austro-German success against the Tsar's armies.

The Austrians attacked. This was an amazing venue for modern warfare, the jagged ridges of the great mountains liberally slashed by yawning chasms, the splintering rock magnifying ten-fold the effect of bursting shells to produce a spray of deadly splinters. The heavy Austrian guns had a terrible effect on the Italians, who were forced back across the Asiago Plateau. For a while it even looked as if the Austrians might break through to the Po River and the coastal plains.

The Trentino attack began at dawn, using a short but concentrated artillery bombardment that virtually destroyed the Italian trench systems. The Austrian heavy artillery was devastating in the confined valleys, causing avalanches and rock falls; but the rugged terrain saved the Italians from overwhelming defeat, as it slowed the Austrian advance to a crawl.

The shock of the attack was attested by Italian author Giani Stuparich, then lieutenant in the Sardinian Grenadiers. Transferred to the Trentino in the first wave of reinforcements, he had the usual reaction of infantry when they moved from the lower Isonzo to the mountains. ‘How far we are from the convulsed and menacing Carso! The very sky seems “carefree”. Can the Austrians really be attacking?’ His disbelief vanished when a wounded infantryman told him that his unit was wiped out. ‘They’re up there.’ Stuparich squints at a tiny peak, swirling with cloud. ‘Up there? That’s insane!’ But it was true. The infantry struggled uphill against a current of old men, women and children on mules, pushing their belongings on carts, with cows and pigs trailing behind.

Conrad extended the operation eastwards to the Sugana valley. In this second phase, the Austrians swept onto the Asiago plateau. Their forces were still storming ahead, but their chances of reaching the sea shrank with every extra lateral kilometre. Their supply lines were weak, munitions were running low, and the men were exhausted. The Italians fell back to their third defensive line, but could not hold it.

Cadorna formed a new corps to defend Asiago. The Austrians captured the town of Arsiero, only a few kilometres from the plains. No defensive line had been prepared, despite the town’s strategic importance. The next day, Asiago fell. Cadorna shocked the government by warning that, unless the enemy pressure relented, he would order a full-scale withdrawal behind the River Piave, less than 30 km from Venice. The only good news at the end of May was the Austrians’ failure to break out of Vallarsa onto the lowlands.

The skill of the Italian Alpini troops, fighting on their home ground, bought time for the defense to stabilize. Even so, by 4 June the Austrians, who had captured the Italian code books and were intercepting their wireless traffic, were within 20 miles of Vicenza and the vital lateral railway supplying the Isonzo front. Here they ran out of momentum.

General Brusilov’s offensive succeeded better than the Italians could have hoped. The Austrian forces in Galicia were caught too far forward. After two days, the Russians had driven the Austrians back by 75 km, along a 20 km front. This relief came at the last possible moment, for the Sardinian Grenadiers were driven off the southernmost peak of the Asiago plateau. It was to be the Austrians’ last big achievement of the campaign.

By this point, Cadorna had survived a government bid to unseat him. Following the loss of Arsiero and Asiago, Salandra sought the King’s backing to oust the Supreme Commander. The King indicated that, if Salandra had full cabinet support, he would not stand in the way. However, the general had public support. When parliament opened, deputies blamed Salandra for the crisis so narrowly averted. The Prime Minister hit back, accusing Cadorna of failing to prepare his defenses. Most deputies backed the army, and Salandra lost a vote of confidence. ‘Hanged in his own noose,’ was Cadorna’s pithy comment.

Salandra met Cadorna himself, at Vicenza, after talking to the king. He told the old general that he would not hear of strategic retreats. If the army pulled back behind the River Piave, the government would fall and subversive revolutionary elements would seize their chance. Cadorna, imposingly calm and self-possessed, said that a retreat was now unlikely, but he was duty-bound to prepare for all contingencies.

Salandra was uncertain. If he forced Cadorna’s removal at the height of the crisis, who would take his place? And with what prospects of saving the day? While he vacillated, the military balance shifted in Italy’s favor. The press backed the generalissimo, extolling his dynamism and brilliance.

A mixture of exhaustion and the knock-on effects of the successful Brusilov offensive on the Russian Front began to impact the Austrian effort. Conrad was forced to divert divisions to help shore up the Eastern Front, and the Austrians slowed to a halt. Taking advantage of this, the Italians managed to divert some troops from the Isonzo front and counter-attacked hard, regaining much ground as the Austrians fell back to their prepared defensive positions. Falkenhayn was furious, for by diverting troops and guns from the east, Conrad had enabled the Russian General Aleksei Brusilov to launch a successful offensive.

Rising at last to Conrad’s challenge, Cadorna transferred all available units from the Isonzo. Within a fortnight he had formed a new army of 180,000 men in the Trentino. The Fifth Army would guard the valley mouths, where they opened onto the plains of the Veneto. Several new divisions were mustered from new conscript classes. Additionally, he recalled two divisions that Sonnino had sent to Albania – a snub to the foreign minister. By mid-June, more than 300,000 men were deployed on the Trentino sector.

The Austrians withdrew to well-prepared defenses. Arsiero and Asiago were ransacked, burned and abandoned, their streets strewn with rubble, faeces and dead horses. Cadorna dissolved the Fifth Army, its task fulfilled.

The Italians were surging back up the flank of Mount Cengio. The Austrians tried to beat them back. Ferruccio Fabbrovich, a 19-year-old volunteer, described the clash: ‘Suddenly the alarm sounds, the enemy is out of his trench and coming to attack. Only one voice spoke up: be brave and always go forward! Our loopholes are already open, we were all ready for the counterattack. The order suddenly comes to fire at will; dear father, if you could only have heard the racket; thousands and thousands of rifles – the whole Pistoia Brigade was there – spewing fire at the barbarous enemy hordes. But the Austrians kept coming; they were only 40 metres away. We kept waiting, because it was impossible to give the Savoy because of the distance, and the mountainside was very steep and rocky. My heart was bursting with emotion, I trembled all over. Ah, father, what terrible minutes those were. Finally the order came: “Savoy!” At the fateful cry 6,000 Italians leaped out of their burrows like a single man and flung themselves at the Austrians, massacring them and shoving them back into their trenches. I found myself well and safe in the darkness, I don’t know how or when: I was stunned. Oh what joy it was, what indescribable joy you feel when you go into the attack with a bayonet…’ The tide of the battle had turned.

By the middle of June, the offensive was slowing down in the face of Italian reinforcements. Italy’s entry into the war, which had been planned for the sole purpose of draining off Austro-German resources, was now moving in the opposite direction. The reverse flow, of Allied troops into Italy, had not yet begun, but the danger signals were there. But once again, the Russians came to the rescue with a grand offensive in the East, and by the start of the Somme in France, Austrian troops had been driven back from their forward positions around Arsiero and Asiago.

The Italians suffered some 147,000 casualties, the Austrians 81,000. Neither side could really afford this rate of attritional fighting.

The Austrians held firm on the northern portion of the Asiago plateau. The plateau would be a battleground for the rest of the war, stretching the Austrian forces even more thinly.

The Trentino salient still hung over the army like the sword of Damocles. Cadorna, fixated on the Isonzo, did not contemplate an all-out attack to remove this threat. On the contrary, he seemed to take a perverse pride in his vulnerability. When General William Robertson, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, wondered how the Italians could persevere despite such gaping insecurity, Cadorna felt gratified as if by praise.

For Conrad, slender gains were no success at all when measured against his original ambition and the disaster in Russia. By 4 June, Conrad knew his original planned strength was inadequate, and the emergency created by Brusilov prevented him from transferring more troops from the Eastern Front. Yet the Russian crisis did not force him to go below that strength and, anyway, the offensive had stalled several days earlier.

Conrad underestimated the manpower necessary for such a broad offensive; underrated Cadorna’s energy and resolve; discounted the impact of Russian support; and failed to use Svetozar Boroević’s army for large-scale diversionary action on the Isonzo. Above all, he stuck to traditional tactics in mountain warfare, dragging artillery up cliffs with block and tackle.