Second Battle of the Piave River I THE GREAT WAR Week 204
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Second Battle of the Piave River I THE GREAT WAR Week 204

August 21, 2019


Last fall the Central Powers dealt Italy a
huge defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, and the Italian Front has been quiet since then,
but no more. This week, the Austrians attack! I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week German and Ottoman troops – though
Allies – skirmished in the Caucasus; this is all machinations to get control of the
Baku oil fields. The Battle of Matz began and ended in the
west with a German defeat, and the Austrians were just about to launch a new offensive
in Italy. And as this week began, so did that offensive. On June 15th, 1918 at 0300, the artillery
bombardment for the Second Battle of the Piave River began. It was supposed to go off like at Caporetto
– incapacitating the enemy with pinpoint accuracy and copious amounts of gas shells. Thing is, by now the Italians were equipped
with British gas masks, a real improvement, and the Austrian firing accuracy was pretty
bad since the Allies controlled the air. They also ran short of shells. But the morning still went well for the Austrians,
who managed to get 100,000 men across the River in the rain. However, they couldn’t expand their bridgeheads,
and though in a couple of places they pushed forward 3 or 4 km, like the heights of the
Montello, they were mostly pinned down at the river. On the Asiago, the second prong of the attack,
Italian intelligence knew when things were going to start and pre-empted the Austrian
barrage with a barrage of their own four hours earlier. When General Conrad von Hötzendorf’s troops
attacked toward Monte Grappa, they pushed back the British and French troops opposite
them initially, but the Italian counterattack was a success, since the Italians had developed
an elastic defense system, like the armies on the Western Front. And just a side note – the Italians fielded
52 total divisions in the battle, the British 3, and the French 2. The second day was worse for the Austrians. Conrad was by now retreating and his artillery
batteries, which made up more than a third of all the Austrian big guns in Italy, were
out of action. At the Piave, the rain caused the river to
rise and washed away a lot of the Austrian pontoons, so it was tricky business to even
supply the bridgeheads. The columns of men waiting to cross the river
were easy targets for the Allied planes, and what Austrian artillery there was was nearly
shell-less, while the Allied bombardment was merciless. The Italians sent some reinforcements from
the mountains to the river, and they launched a counterattack there the 19th, but they couldn’t
destroy the Austrian bridgeheads. Field Marshal Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna
didn’t want to just hang around though. He told Austrian Emperor Karl that if they
could secure the Montello, then they could launch a new offensive from there, but if
not, then they should abandon the bridgeheads and really build up their defenses. He figured he would need at least three more
divisions to do the job on the Montello. Well, Karl didn’t get a chance to decide
what to do, because German High Command ordered him to end the offensive because German Quartermaster
General Erich Ludendorff wanted Austria to send its best divisions to the Western Front,
where his offensives had been running out of steam. Karl talked to his Chief of Staff Arz von
Straussenburg, who’d replaced Conrad, and they realized that they would be in no position
in the near future for any offensive action. On the 20th, Karl ordered his men back across
the Piave. I read in “The White War” that Feldmarschall-leutnant
Ludwig Goiginger, the commander of the force that had advanced on the Montello, refused
to obey this order, since he’d taken 12,000 prisoners and 84 guns. Why retreat? He did eventually, though, and the last Austrians
will re-cross the Piave on the 23rd, next week. For the Battle, also known as the Battle of
the Solstice, the Allies lost 45,000 wounded or dead, and 40,000 prisoners. The Austrians had lost a lot more, nearly
120,000 dead, wounded, or captured (White War). One source says that 20,000 Austrians drowned
trying to swim the swollen river under heavy enemy fire. (The Literary Digest History of the World
War, 1919), but I don’t know about that. Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch urged
Italian Army Chief of Staff Armando Diaz to go on the offensive and try to break the Austrian
lines, but he knew his limitations, and he also knew that once across the river he’d
have the same problems as the Austrians did, so he only mounted limited actions to improve
his position for the time being. And while Austrian command was revising its
plans, its Ottoman ally was too. Vehip Pasha is now persona non grata to the
Germans for attacking them last week, so he’s sent back to Constantinople, and a new army
– the 9th Army is formed around Alexandropol under Yakup Shevki Pasha. This army’s supposed task is to fight British
and Bolshevik threats to the Caucasus and northern Persia, but Ottoman Minister of War
Enver Pasha had not given up his pan-Turanian plans or his Army of Islam. See, now he also organizes armed forces of
Tatars within Azerbaijan, based at the town of Ganja along the Tiflis-Baku railway, and
the 5th Caucasian Division of the Ottoman army march across Armenia, whether they like
it or not, and arrive in Ganja June 20th. Enver’s half-brother Nuri Pasha will soon
arrive to take command of this army, which is about 6,000 Ottoman regulars and 10-12,000
volunteers and militia. The Ottomans are now in a position to advance
on Baku and its oilfields without German objection since they are not going to use Georgian territory
or Georgian railways. They were, though, going to continue the massacre
of Armenians, which had been escalating in the region for the past couple of weeks. There was another change in Central Powers
leadership this week. Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov and his cabinet
resign in Bulgaria. He was popularly blamed for Bulgaria’s failure
to get control of all of Northern Dobruja in the Treaty of Bucharest. Part of it went under joint Central Powers
administration. He was also seen by many as a German puppet. Tsar Ferdinand calls on Aleksandar Malinov
to form a new government. Malinov won’t get the government he wants
since Ferdinand won’t release Agrarian Party members from prison, and he immediately tries
to pursue peace negotiations with the Allies. This is unsuccessful, and his real motive
behind it was to persuade Germany to give Bulgaria some much-needed economic aid. That doesn’t happen either and civilian
unrest like bread riots continues. There is even a change in the Allied command
in that part of the world. Adolphe Guillaumat is recalled to Paris where
he will become the military governor of the city. His replacement as Commander of the multi-national
Army of the Orient on the Macedonian Front is Franchet D–’Espérey, AKA Desperate
Frankie. There had been some turbulence between the
national forces there, and Serbian Army Chief of Staff Petar Bojovic had resigned as protest
to Guillaumat’s plans to expand the Serbian sector of the front in opposition to Serbian
plans. Field Marshal Zivojin Misic is the new Serbian
Chief of Staff and Bojovic takes up his old post as Commander of the First Serbian Army. Also, this week, a secret agreement came to
light. A treaty between Russian Bolshevik leadership
and Germany is published in “Nation’s Voice” in Krakow (Chronology). It’s from a few months ago, and its terms:
Polish policy to be conducted by Germany Russian government will not interfere in the
organization of Poland Bolshevik government will remain in contact
with Polish revolutionary organizations and give Germany the names of agitators
Bolsheviks not to send any of their own agitators to Germany or Austria
Bolshevik government to prevent Russian investment in Polish industry
That’s the general idea. It’s for Germany to control Poland. So let me summarize the week: the Germans
are ordering the Austrians around, the Ottomans are trying to go around the German orders,
the Bulgarians have a new guy who’s not a German puppet, and tries to make peace to
get help from the Germans, who don’t order him around. The Italians won’t let the French order
them around, but a new French guy comes to order all the Allies in the Balkans around,
and the Russians will not order the Polish around so that the Germans can. Simple, right? Also this week, on June 15th, “Futility”,
a poem by Wilfred Owen, appeared in “The Nation”. I think I’ll close with that: Move him into the sun-
Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields half-sown,
Always it woke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow. If anything might rouse him now,
The kind old sun will know. Think how it wakes the seeds-
Woke once the clays of a cold star. Are limbs, so dear achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall? – O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all? If you actually want to learn more about the
Piave front in Italy, we went there last year and explored the Central Powers occupation. You can click right here for that. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Margret
Start – if you want more maps, and more animations, please consider supporting us at patreon.com/thegreatwar Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
week.

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  1. who’s ordering who around?!
    love it! on par with abbot and costello’s ‘who’s on first, what’s on second’!

  2. If one doesn't take anything else away, hear this:
    Key to victory lay in two factors: speed and deception. Later, the Soviets call it "Маскировка". The assault one-half hour before zero stunned enemy troops and staging areas, throwing their planning/training astray. It shifted advamtage to Diaz considerably, and then the idiotic mis-distribution of artillery shells (Von Hötzendorff was out on Day 2) helped as well. The Arditi, most importantly, dominating the mobile defense reserves, achieved some of the most admirable counterattacks of the war that helped Giardino to command the 4th Army to victory at Monte Grappa.

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