Battle of Vittorio Veneto
Decisive Italian victory. Collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
24 October - 4 November 1918
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
The Battle of Vittorio Veneto was the last battle of the Italian Front of World War One. The Italian victory marked the end of the war on the Italian Front and greatly contributed to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Battle of Vittorio Veneto was the last battle of the Italian Front during World War One. It was a decisive victory for the Italian forces, who managed to cause the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian army. The Italian victory contributed to the end of the war, less than 2 weeks later, and caused the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the war.

After the Italian victory at the Piave river in the spring, the Italian Chief of Staff, Armando Diaz, resisted appeals from the Entente commanders to launch any offensive before his army was ready.

By now the Italians had been augmented by significant French and British forces. Prime Minister Emanuele Orlando believed an attack now was essential in order to gain bargaining power at the conference table: all the signs indicated that the Austro-Hungarian empire was about to collapse.

As the Entente army attacked at Vittorio Veneto, the Austrians broke and ran. A rout ensued, with mutiny and mass desertions by Serbian, Croatian, Czech and Polish troops. Mutiny also broke out in the Austrian navy and on the 3rd of November Austria signed armistice terms. The war in Italy was over.

In the spring and summer, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch asked Diaz to support the operations in France by attacking across the Piave. Diaz refused: his army was not ready. Orlando agreed, but changed his mind by mid-September when it became clear that the Entente breach of the Hindenburg Line meant that German defeat was close. His impatience mounted along with Entente pressure, and Orlando pressed Diaz to plan an attack.

Bulgaria’s collapse at the end of September and Ottoman Turkey’s imminent capitulation had shifted the balance: with their southeastern flank wide open and the Entente poised to attack, the Central Powers would not hold out much longer. If the Italians were left digging in for the winter while the rest of the Entente drove the Germans out of France and Belgium, their negotiating position would be feeble. If they were to win the territory pledged in 1915, they had to defeat the Austrians once and for all, knocking them out of the war.

Diaz prepared to attack in the second half of October. His plan was ready by the 9th of October. When they met three days later, Orlando was smarting from his latest interrogation by Entente leaders in Paris; the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, easily irritated by the Italians, was galled by their inaction. Diaz issued the first orders for the offensive.

The Italians were worried to learn that Austria was working on a proposal to sue for peace on the basis of a unilateral retreat from Italian territory. This would steal their thunder, and Orlando – now so vexed by the Chief of Staff’s prudence that he wondered if he could replace him – telegraphed Diaz at once: ‘Between inaction and defeat, I prefer defeat. Get moving!’

The plan of attack centered on the upper and middle Piave. Diaz would punch through the enemy lines around the road to Vittorio Veneto and Sacile, splitting Svetozar Boroević’s Sixth and Fifth armies, deployed respectively on the northern and southern halves of the Piave. This would make the Austrian positions on the Asiago plateau and Mount Grappa untenable.

Of Diaz’s 57 infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions, including three British, two French and one division of Czechoslovak volunteers, some 33 would be committed in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto.

The spearhead would be the Eighth Army, comprising 14 divisions under General Enrico Caviglia. Its right flank would be protected by the Tenth Army: two British and two Italian divisions, under Lord Cavan. To its left, the small Twelfth Army (one French and two Italian divisions, under a French general) would secure the Piave below Mount Grappa and cross the river at the same time as the Eighth Army.

Grappa itself was the responsibility of General Gaetano Giardino’s Fourth Army, which had to support the Twelfth Army with counter-battery fire. The other armies in the battle, the Sixth on the Asiago plateau (six divisions, including one British and one French) and the Third on the southern portion of the front, were to await developments.

Much depended on the river. Even if the Piave behaved itself, infantry columns made easy targets, silhouetted against expanses of shingle. When Diaz drew up his operational orders, the river was running high. Under mounting pressure to move, he made a crucial decision: the attack would start on Mount Grappa instead of the Piave. The Fourth Army would drive the Austrians off Grappa and then thrust northwards up the valley of the River Brenta, enveloping the Austrian force on the Asiago plateau. The operation on the Piave would begin overnight, less than 24 hours after Giardino’s attack in the mountains.

The final blow for the Austrians came when the Italians, with Entente support, launched an attack all along the Trent and Piave fronts. Although the Austrians resisted in places, their line soon began to crumble, and the Italians and a British force both managed to establish bridgeheads across the Piave.

Private Norman Gladden describes the crossing of the Piave late on 26 October: ‘The bridge swayed. The dark waters swirled and foamed below between the boats. A shrapnel shell burst venomously above. Slowly, now, no panic! Tramp, tramp, tramp. The bridge swayed rhythmically. A shell screaming into the waters alongside threw up a column of water, which splashed across the planks. I wanted to run; but no, we kept our paces, proceeding as if by clockwork. And then I saw the opposite bank looming out of the darkness. A shell burst somewhere behind; the bridge trembled and there was a sound of rending woodwork. I ran and jumped clear, sinking to my knees on the welcoming shingle.’ (Private Norman Gladden, 11th Northumberland Fusiliers)

Private Gladden had to wade across the final section of the river: ‘In front of us swirled an ominous black current which, with the enemy barrage now well in the rear, we had the unmixed blessing of contemplating without other fears intervening. The guides started forward into the darkness; we linked together in continuous chains of four or five and scrambled after them. The cold waters swept up round my body. I gasped as my heart seemed to stand still and I felt my feet going from under me. I had to hold the gun well above the waters. We strove vigorously in the torrent, which now came up to our shoulders. Then the worst was past, and the bed sloped up to the shore, on to which I scrambled, frozen and breathless from the struggle. Drenched and bedraggled, we had little of the appearance of an assaulting force at that moment.’

Attacking on schedule, the Fourth Army quickly ran into trouble. Giardino had less than a week to prepare an operation for which no studies existed, and the Austrian positions on Mount Grappa were strong. Boroević had expected the attack to begin on the high ground, and Italian artillery had been shelling the Austrian lines on Grappa for days, so there was no surprise. After six days’ hard fighting, Giardino had ‘no success’ to show for nearly 25,000 casualties. Fortunately for the Italians, operations on the Piave were going according to plan.

On the Piave the Austrian forward positions on the far shore were thinly manned behind the wire entanglements, and half-heartedly defended after a shattering bombardment by British gunners. Lord Cavan sent his divisions beyond the river. The troops’ mood lightened as they moved eastward in the morning sunshine, meeting little resistance.

Diaz’s original plan was taking shape: the Entente forces were moving towards Vittorio Veneto and Sacile, the axis that should split the Austrians. To protect his Sixth Army, Boroević ordered four reserve divisions to prepare to engage the enemy. One division refused to budge; the other three took up positions on a stream called the Monticano, between the Piave and the Livenza.

Boroević feared the envelopment of the Fifth Army, which had not been tested because the Duke of Aosta’s men were still on the right bank, though crossings were now imminent. So he ordered the Fifth to withdraw to the Monticano line. Here the empire made its last stand.

For a while there was still some fighting to be done. The Italians and their allies commenced a drive on the town of Vittorio Veneto in a successful attempt to separate the Austrian armies and cut the communications between them. The Austrian opposition crumbled apart as they commenced a withdrawal all along the line. The Trentino sector, that bastion of Austrian defense for the past three years, was overrun, and a general advance was commenced pushing north and east. As they fell back, over 300,000 Austrians became prisoners of war, mirroring the Italian disaster of Caporetto the year before.

Lord Cavan ordered his divisions across the Monticano. Except for an Italian battery, the British lacked artillery support; it took a whole day to knock out Austrian machine guns above the steep riverbank and in isolated farms. The issue was settled by nightfall, and Boroević ordered a retreat to the River Livenza, a few kilometres further east.

The final stage of the battle began on the Piave, with Italians pouring across the river in strength. Civilians emerged from their homes to cheer the Entente. Cyclists and bersaglieri (sharpshooters) of the Eighth Army occupied Vittorio Veneto, some 16 km beyond the Piave. Later that day, forward units reached the River Livenza.

As per Diaz’s plan, divisions of the Eighth and Twelfth Armies swung northwards, forcing the Austrians to withdraw from the Grappa massif or be encircled. The maneuver succeeded; with the Fourth Army advancing at last, the Austrian Eleventh Army was exposed on the Asiago plateau. It withdrew from front-line positions. The Sixth Army turned this tactical retreat into a rout.

Austrian rearguards tried to delay the Entente as huge numbers of soldiers made for the River Tagliamento, abandoning everything, burning the bridges as they went. Writing to his wife, Diaz allowed himself, for once, to exult. It was, he said, ‘Caporetto in reverse’. Victory was assured. ‘I have won the war more by the strength of my heart and nerves than by any intellectual gifts, and I feel stronger, more balanced, than all of them’ – meaning the politicians who had carped at his caution.

The last Habsburg governor of Trieste received a cable from Vienna, announcing that Austrian rule on the Adriatic Sea was over. He left by train, shortly before Diaz ordered a general advance along the whole length of the front. The Asiago plateau was now completely in Italian hands. Advance units crossed the Tagliamento. Several Tyrolean regiments – the last Austrian units still fighting – surrendered.

The Italian campaign was over. The formal armistice began on 3 November 1918. In the end the Italians had helped bring the Austro-Hungarians to their knees, already weakened as they were by their titanic battles with the Russians on the Eastern Front. The Italians had played a major role by distracting the bulk of the Austrian Army that might otherwise have been redeployed to other fronts after the Russian Revolution.

At the Villa Giusti, General Pietro Badoglio handed over Italy’s terms for an armistice. The Austro-Hungarians must stop fighting at once; the imperial army must be reduced to 20 divisions and surrender half its artillery; all occupied territories must be evacuated within a period to be decided by the Entente; all German troops must leave the Austro-Hungarian empire within 15 days; all Entente prisoners of war must be liberated at once; and the Entente must have free use of all imperial transport networks. The terms were nonnegotiable and the Austrians had until midnight on 3 November to accept.

Emperor Karl conferred late into the night with his prime minister, foreign minister, and chief of staff. He was especially troubled by the prospect that the Entente would use their freedom of movement to attack Germany from imperial territory – an eventuality he had promised to forestall. General Arthur von Straußenburg advised him to accept as the only way to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The commanders at the front were informed; rashly, they were ordered to cease hostilities at once.

At this point, early on 3 November, the high command was unaware of an Italian stipulation that the ceasefire should come into effect with a 24-hour delay, so their forward units could be informed. General Viktor Weber Edler von Webenau realized the discrepancy would be disastrous for Austrian troops. In desperation, Weber asked Badoglio to suspend hostilities immediately. His request was brushed aside, and the Italians signed the armistice at 15:20. It would come into force at 15:00 on 4 November.

The Italians had 24 hours to round up unresisting Austro-Hungarian soldiers who believed the war was over. Some 350,000 prisoners were taken in the last day of the war. The Austrians kept their word and emptied their POW camps. When retreating Habsburg troops met Italians coming the other way, there was no hostility.

The completeness of the Italian triumph can be seen in that the Austrians were forced to cede all the elements of the Italia Irredenta still under their control, including the South Tyrol, the Isonzo Valley, Trieste, Istria, Carniola and Dalmatia. The Italian gamble of 1915 may have paid off, but the cost had been excruciatingly high: some 651,000 killed during the three years of brutal war.

Throughout, the campaign had been a terrible carnage, fought in a hostile mountainous environment. Neither side had made any allowances for the appalling conditions as troops were ordered forward in circumstances in which they had minimal chances of success.

The Italians had faltered when the Germans had briefly intervened during the Battle of Caporetto, but in the end they had re-established the defensive line along the Piave through their own efforts before moving forward with British and French assistance to achieve victory.

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto meant something to Italians that cannot be found in a summary of operations. It brought the balm of victory and the promise of peace. Piero Pieri, the war veteran and historian, would hail it as a masterly breakthrough, ‘our purest glory’. The Italians had defeated an Austrian army in a straight fight.