Second Battle of the Piave River
Failed Austro-Hungarian offensive
15 - 23 June 1918
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
During the Second Battle of the Piave River the Austro-Hungarian forces launched a final assault on the Italian positions hoping to defeat the Italians. The battle had the opposite effect: the Austro-Hungarians failed to break the Italian lines and proved to be a decisive blow to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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The Second Battle of the Piave River took place on the Italian Front of World War One. It was a decisive victory for the Italian Army against the forces of Austria-Hungary. Although its effects were not immediately apparent, it soon became clear that it was only a matter of time before the Austro-Hungarian forces would collapse.

The Piave and Trent fronts were relatively quiet during the early part of 1918. Both sides had suffered too much to gather their resources easily for another offensive.

As at Caporetto, the Austrians aimed to incapacitate the enemy batteries with a pinpoint attack, including gas shells. However, their accuracy was poor, due to Entente control of the skies; many of the shells may have been time-expired, and the Italians had been supplied with superior British gas-masks. Too many Austrian guns were deployed in the Trentino, a secondary sector; some heavy batteries had no shells at all; and there was no element of surprise.

The Italians had by now been thoroughly admitted to the inner circle of the Entente. Much effort was expended on improving standards of training and inculcating a working knowledge of the new tactics. Thus Armando Diaz, the Italian Chief of Staff, reorganized his lines to secure defense in depth. He prepared defense works not only on the Piave but also covering the Brenta, Adige and Po rivers. In addition, a leaf was taken out of the Belgian book, in that preparations were made to inundate the floodplains should disaster loom at the hands of the Austrians.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1918, as matters hung in the balance in France, Diaz, determined to give his army time to recover from the Battle of Caporetto, declined to attack until ordered to do so by Premier Orlando in October.

For the Italians it was fortunate that they had prepared their defenses, as the Germans demanded that their Austrian allies launch one last great attack to try and defeat the Italians. The Austrians had recently undergone a change in command, and the new Austrian Chief of Staff, General Arthur Arz von Straussenburg, was also keen to try to finish off the Italians. The offensive commenced, with a two-pronged assault, one into the main Piave defensive positions and the second thrusting down from the Trent front towards the Brenta.

Emperor Karl’s promise to the Germans of a two-pronged offensive flew in the face of warnings that Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević had sent to the high command since the end of March. Karl and his Chief of Staff hoped to make Rome negotiate, and enlarge their spoils when Germany won the war. Boroević did not believe the Central Powers could win. Instead of wasting its strength on needless offensives, his view was that Austria should conserve energy to deal with the turmoil that peace would unleash in the empire. But Karl and the high command were adamant: there must be an offensive.

A Czech NCO, Jan Triska of the 13th Artillery Regiment, recorded the real conditions: the rations had run out during the Caporetto offensive, and matters had grown much worse since then. The army was ordered to provision itself from the occupied territory. This was only possible for a month or two; in February, Boroević told the Army High Command that the situation was critical: the men had been hungry for four weeks, and were ‘no longer moved by incessant empty phrases that the hinterland is starving or that we must hold out’. By late April, the men were starving.

On paper, the Austrian army looked strong enough. With Russia out of the war, most of the 53 divisions, with a further ten in reserve, could be kept in Italy, which was now the empire’s major front. However, the infantry divisions were undermanned. New battalions were at roughly half strength. The industrial capacity of the empire had never been strong; by 1917, output was declining under the double impact of battlefield casualties and the Entente blockade. In 1918, the decline became a slump. This in turn created a series of shortages of vital supplies both at home and on the front.

The Austro-Hungarian force barely outnumbered the Italians, who had a clear advantage in firepower and in the air. The offensive would start on the Piave, where Boroević’s divisions would attack across the river. Conrad von Hötzendorf’s divisions were to follow up by striking from the north.

Addressing his officers, Boroević openly criticized the shortages of men and supplies. Due to Conrad’s stubbornness, he implied, the Piave line was short of ten divisions. After this rare indiscretion, the field marshal did his duty, ordering his battalion commanders to attack and not pause until they reached the River Adige: ‘For this, gentlemen, could well be the last battle. The fate of our monarchy and the survival of the empire depend on your victory and the sacrifice of your men.’

The Italians were augmented by the three British and two French divisions that still remained on the front – and perhaps even more importantly, by their 450 guns. It was a close-run thing all along the line, but the Austrian attacks could not break through. Even when they made small gains, the Italians counterattacked vigorously, and Austrian morale began to crumble as they were left utterly frustrated.

Private Norman Gladden was occupying a defensive position up on the rocky peaks of the Asiago Plateau: ‘Flashes lit up the hills on the far side of the plateau and a roar of artillery rolled along the entire front. A crescendo of sound, and then the storm burst upon us. Screaming shells rushed to earth amidst the wire, and behind us, or further over in the woods. Lumps of rock were hurled about by the explosions. The trench soon became swathed in a cloud of acrid smoke. Coloured lights went up out of the valley. The enemy’s barrage continued unabated, but our own guns remained silent. The shells were dropping with awful regularity about the trench; only the hardness of the ground saved us from being buried. But this protective hardness had a terror of its own, as lumps of rock and stone hailed down into the trench. Over my shoulder, as I crouched, I could see the bursts of incendiary shells, and, as I watched, a tremendous flame rose up as some of the trees caught fire. The flames leapt up like gigantic red seas beating against a breakwater and glowed through the gaunt trees which banked up the hillside above us. It was a terrifying but magnificent sight.’

Until the very last moment, Private Gladden and his comrades were confident that this was just a demonstration by the Austrian artillery: ‘Through the din, which had certainly lessened, we heard whistle blasts and were puzzled. Suddenly there was a shout from a watcher on the firestep to our right. “Stand to! He is coming over!” A chill trickled down my spine. My first impulse was to deny the possibility. The enemy to come all that way across the plateau to attack us: that was an absurd idea! We grasped our weapons and rushed pell-mell to the firestep. The barrage was lifting. More coloured lights went up – despairingly, it seemed – and the hollow crash of bombs punctuated the rattle of musketry. A stiff fight was being put up by our advance posts. Then I saw khaki figures running back, followed closely by grey lines of the enemy, moving more methodically, while reinforcements continued to stream across the plateau.’

In the fighting that followed, Private Gladden and his team had a close escape: ‘The attackers, appearing to enjoy charmed lives, then put something into the wire and ran back quickly. The bomb or torpedo exploded with considerable concussion, blowing a complete section of the wire into the air and clearing a passage through the belt. It was an amazing feat. A party of the enemy then rushed the gap under cover of the dense smoke from the explosion, and were in the trench in a matter of seconds. Almost simultaneously a stooping figure appeared above the brow about twenty five yards in front of us, an enemy soldier bowed down with the weight of some infernal contrivance, a flame-thrower as we subsequently discovered. The trench belched fire from end to end and the poor brave devil fell forward on the skyline riddled by dozens of bullets. With one’s knowledge of the possibilities of this fiery weapon, who can say how near to success this lone attacker had come?’

The Austrian artillery guns lengthened their fire to strike the Italian rear lines and reserves. The pontoons were dragged out from behind the gravel islands near the river’s eastern shore. The Italian riverbank was still wreathed in gas fumes when the assault teams jumped ashore, quickly taking the Italian forward positions amid the chatter of machine guns. The morning went well; the Austrians moved 100,000 men across the river under heavy rain.

For the Austrians, enlarging the bridgeheads that they had created proved difficult. Progress was made on the Montello and around San Donà, near the sea. Elsewhere, the attackers were pinned down near the river. Further north, Conrad’s divisions attacked from Asiago towards Mount Grappa. Slight initial gains could not be held. The Emperor sent Boroević a desperate telegram: ‘Hold your positions, I implore you in the name of the monarchy!’ The answer was curt: ‘We shall do our best.’

Progress on the second day was no easier. Conrad was in retreat; his batteries were out of the fight. Boroević ordered his commanders to hunker down while forces were transferred from the north. Meanwhile the Piave rose again, washing away many of the pontoons. Supplying the bridgeheads across the torrent became even more dangerous. The Austrians were too close to exhaustion and their supplies too uncertain for a sustained battle to run in their favor. An Italian counterattack made the Austrian positions across the river untenable.

Conrad’s divisions were too hard pressed to transfer men to the Piave. In fact, the opposite happened: the Italians transferred forces from the mountains to the river. When these reinforcements arrived, the Italians counterattacked along the Piave. They failed to crack the bridgeheads, but the Austrian position was untenable.

Boroević told the Emperor that if the Montello could be secured, it should be the springboard for a new offensive. Securing it would need at least three more divisions, including artillery. If the high command did not intend to renew the offensive from the Montello, it was pointless to retain the bridgeheads; they should be abandoned and all efforts dedicated to strengthening the defenses east of the river. As Karl wondered what to do, the German high command stepped in, ordering a cessation of hostilities so that the Austrians could dispatch their six strongest divisions to the Western Front.

Karl consulted his commanders in the field, who echoed Boroević’s stark choice: either reinforce or withdraw. Then he consulted his Chief of the General Staff, General Arthur Arz von Straussenburg. They agreed that a new offensive within a few weeks was not a realistic prospect.

Emperor Karl ordered the right bank of the Piave to be abandoned. Both sides were exhausted, and the maneuver was completed without much fighting. Early in July, Italian units capped the achievement by seizing the swampy delta at the mouth of the Piave which the Austrians had held since Caporetto. The rejoicing was widespread and spontaneous.

The Italians had lost around 10,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and more than 40,000 prisoners, against 118,000 Austrian dead, wounded, sick, captured and missing.

The Austrian Army’s endurance is more striking because the erosion of morale was unstoppable. A battalion commander on Mount Grappa explained the pressures on his men in a stoical letter of 1 July: ‘We have been officially notified to expect that men of the [Entente] Czechoslovak brigade will dress in Austrian uniforms and attack our positions – this, when half our regiment is Czech. I won’t go into the miserable state of our position except to mention some key words: 8 degrees Centigrade, heat and light forbidden, no water, ice-cold food, no caves, no shelter etc. – repeated desertions, countless Italian propaganda leaflets, but no press reports of our own.’

For a period all remained calm, but behind the lines Diaz was preparing for an offensive against the increasingly demoralized Austrians. As the Germans began to collapse on the Western Front, this left the Austrians distraught, all their hopes for victory having been pinned on the Germans. Alone, they were all but helpless by late 1918.

For many soldiers, the Battle of the Piave cleansed the stain of Caporetto. Ferruccio Parri, a much-decorated veteran who became a leading anti fascist, said at the end of his long life that the battle was ‘the only proper national battle of which our country can truly be proud’.

For the Entente, two things were clear: the Italians were a fighting force again, and the Austro-Hungarian army was still dangerous: its morale had not collapsed. The view inside Boroević’s army was different; to their eyes, the civilian system had let them down. They were still better soldiers than the Italians, but what could they do without food or munitions?

Looking confidently ahead after Caporetto, the Austrian High Command had proposed that the post-war border between Austria and Italy should run along the River Tagliamento. Boroević mooted an even more vengeful settlement: the border should be pushed back to the line of the rivers Adige and Mincio, restoring all the Veneto to Austria, undoing the 1866 war of unification. By July 1918, these ambitions had gone up in smoke.