A century ago today, one of the First World War’s architects launched his last, unlikely bid for military glory. It went the way of most wartime plans laid by Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, the former chief of staff to the Austro-Hungarian Army and latterly in command of its forces on the Trentino sector of the Italian Front, and its failure ended the war on the Italian Front as a serious contest.
Conrad was only partly responsible for the shambles known to posterity as the Second Battle of the Piave River, and although it served as a fitting epitaph for one of modern history’s great forgotten villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy), it was also a stark illustration of Austria-Hungary’s reduced status as the pawn of a German imperial regime that was ready to sacrifice anything and anyone, on almost any off chance, to prevent its own extinction.
There was nothing new about great powers trying to improve their wartime prospects by sacrificing smaller countries. When the First World War began, land fighting erupted on three main battlefronts, known to posterity as the Western, Eastern and Southern (or Serbian) Fronts. Expansion followed. It began with imperial greed, otherwise known as seizing German colonial territories, but soon developed a more existential edge with the creation of ‘sideshows’.
Sideshows came in more than one form. Some were the product of British and French lateral thinking, as the ghastly conditions on the European fronts encouraged some strategists in both countries to seek alternative routes to victory. The disastrous attempt to attack the Ottoman Empire through the Dardanelles and the shambolic tilt at reaching Austria-Hungary from Salonika fell into this category. Others were essentially accidents. The British invasion of Mesopotamia was in effect a forward defence of oil resources at Basra that got ridiculously out of hand, and the subsequent invasion of Palestine stemmed from a similarly inflated programme for defending Cairo and the Suez Canal, though by that time the British high command had found good strategic reasons for dominating the post-War Middle East.
Two theatres of war regarded by contemporaries as sideshows were genuine wars waiting to happen, conflicts between two would-be aggressors. The war in the Caucasus was a frontier battle between the Russian Empire and the Central Powers. As such it was in many ways an extension of the Eastern Front, but qualified as a sideshow on diplomatic and geographical grounds. Its genesis lay in Germany’s recruitment of Ottoman Turkey as an ally in late 1914, and Germany’s use of that alliance to distract its enemies from other fronts, while the fighting took place in a region that was of secondary strategic importance to both empires involved. The war on the Italian Front was a frontier battle between an increasingly arthritic Austro-Hungarian Empire and a young nation with imperial ambitions. It was geographically central to the strategic interests of several powers, but it was otherwise a classic sideshow.
Once bribed into the War in pursuit of extravagant prizes promised by the Entente powers, Italy became a means of distracting the Central Powers from the main fronts, bullied by the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Russians) into attacking whenever it best suited their wider plans. In the eyes of Anglo-French strategists, the purpose of the Italian Front was to keep Austro-Hungarian strength pinned down and force Germany into diverting forces from the Western Front. So far, so sideshow – and although Italian ambitions were limited to the territories just north of the frontier, the standard sideshow dream ticket was also in play, with some Anglo-French optimists (and journalists) imagining an Italian victory so comprehensive that it knocked Austria-Hungary out of the War and threatened southern Germany.
Like all wartime Allied sideshows except the invasion of Palestine (which was conceived and executed with a thoroughness born of experience, in good fighting conditions against an enemy already close to collapse), the Italian campaign went horribly wrong before it went at all right, and by 1918 the it was looking like a very expensive Allied mistake. An almost continuous series of Italian offensives, many of them ordered in support of Allied operations elsewhere, failed to achieve anything except massive expenditure of lives and resources. Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Army remained largely untroubled in its mountain strongholds, and brought Italy to the brink of defeat whenever it was given enough German support to mount an attack of its own. By the end of 1917 the Allies were diverting resources from the Western Front to shore up Italian defences, while the Central Powers were on the brink of a breakthrough into the Italian heartlands.
Fast forward to the spring of 1918, and the situation has changed. The Italian line at the River Piave has held, thanks to the arrival of troops and equipment from France and Britain, along with a thorough reorganisation of an Italian Army under new command. The Austro-Hungarian Army has meanwhile lost its German reinforcements, withdrawn to fight on the Western Front, leaving it to hold forward positions with levels of manpower, supplies, equipment and morale that reflected the Empire’s crumbling chaos. In other words, the Allies had started taking the Italian Front seriously and Germany, which had followed Austria-Hungary into the War as a coalition ally, was treating it as a sideshow.
I’ve talked before about the extent to which Austria-Hungary’s war effort had come to depend on Germany (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), and about the Empire’s internal disintegration under wartime pressures (24 January, 1918: All We Are Saying…). By the time its spring offensive on the Western Front was being prepared in early 1918, the German Third Supreme Command recognised that Austria-Hungary was probably doomed to extinction and certainly offered no positive help as an ally. Its response, bang in character, was to treat Vienna as a chattel, and Austria-Hungary – like Greece, Portugal, Romania or any other country abused by belligerents as a sideshow chattel – soon found itself hung out to dry for the benefit of its masters.
The Third Supreme Command had been pushing for an Austro-Hungarian offensive in Italy since February 1918, in the hope of diverting Allied (and particularly arriving US) forces away from its planned spring offensive on the Western Front. Austro-Hungarian Army chief of staff Arz von Straussenberg was well aware that apparent superiority in divisional numbers on the Italian front masked the shrunken condition of most units, and that the Italian Army was drawn up in good defensive positions at the Piave. He might conceivably have refused to comply with German demands – because it was obviously the sensible thing to do – but that would have meant his certain dismissal in favour of someone more cooperative. It would also have brought down the wrath of his own front commanders, Field Marshal Boroevic at the Piave and, commanding the Trentino sector to the west, Conrad.
Conrad, his enthusiasm undimmed for attack as the best form of everything, had been lobbying for reinforcements to mount an offensive ever since the previous autumn’s Caporetto Offensive had ground to a halt. Boroevic, whose relationship with Conrad was rivalrous and hostile, was at first against any form of attacking strategy but seems to have changed his mind and demanded reinforcements for his own sector as a matter of personal honour. Arz von Straussenberg responded by agreeing to mount an attack, committing virtually every available soldier to the operation and dividing his strength for a two-pronged strike. This was a fine idea given the necessary resources, as demonstrated by the early successes of the very similar German operation in France. Given the actual condition of the attacking forces it was a form of dramatic suicide akin to the Franco-Spanish decision to send their battered old fleets out to face Nelson at Trafalgar.
Planned at the usual ponderous pace – slow, even by First World War standards – the Austro-Hungarian offensive was eventually ready to rumble in June. By that time, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to exploit its early successes, the German Army’s hopes of a game-changing victory in France were fading, and with them the Third Supreme Command’s hopes of securing (at the very least) a negotiated, conditional end to hostilities. Even the major Austro-Hungarian success envisaged by blinkered optimists like Conrad, and to a lesser extent Arz von Straussenberg, wasn’t going to change that narrative.
And so, on 10 June, Boroevic sent his Fifth and Sixth Armies across the Paive near the coast. They advanced a few kilometres before Italian counterattacks forced them into retreat on 19 June. Conrad launched the second phase of the offensive in the Trentino on 15 June, but made no significant gains, became bogged down around the town of Asiago and lost 40,000 men in a week. Meanwhile a botched attempt to re-cross the river exposed the Fifth and Sixth Armies to strong flank attacks, and their losses had passed 150,000 by the time they eventually reached relative safety on 22 June.
When fighting died down next day, the offensive had achieved none of its aims and had no discernible effect on Allied Western Front operations. Its abject failure dealt another blow to Emperor Karl’s floundering attempt to hold his empire together, and from 23 June 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Army ceased to exist as an effective fighting force. Desertions went unchecked, many commanders simply went home and the skeleton force facing well-equipped Allied units across the Piave wasn’t fooling anyone. Italian c-in-c Diaz simply had to decide when to brush it aside, and he decided to wait for the relative cool of the autumn.
Pointless, doomed from the start and mounted at the behest of serial gamblers blind to even the longest odds… if you’re looking for donkeys to blame, or another good reason to revile the legacy of swivel-eyed militarists like Ludendorff and Conrad, look no further than the ritual sacrifice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last military adventure.