14 MAY, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!

First of all, apologies for the condition of Poppycock’s brain last week. Foreign travel, sport and associated misdemeanours left it addled and exhausted by the time it came to contemplate the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and with hindsight I’m not too impressed with its work. Ah well, at least a spell of feeble-minded lassitude sets the right tone for today’s foray into folly, because it’s time to check in on the shambles that was Austria-Hungary in 1916.

A century ago today, Austro-Hungarian forces launched their first offensive on the Italian Front.  Known as the Trentino Offensive, or sometimes as the Asiago Offensive, after the town near the centre of the heaviest fighting, it was planned by Austrian chief of staff Conrad, a man whose obsessive militarism and blind optimism made him one of the First World War’s great unsung villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy).  The operation was intended to fulfil his longstanding fantasy of cutting off the Italian armies that had been attacking Austrian positions further east, on the River Isonzo, since June 1915.  Here’s the theatre map, by way of a reminder.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915. 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo Front.
Action areas on the Italian Front: 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo.

Conrad was in some ways a very lucky commander. For one thing, he was still in his job after almost two years of expensive military failure, thanks largely to lack of serious competition in a command corps that had long since fossilised around an ageing Emperor’s courtly appointments.  What’s more, German support had saved the Empire from the immediate consequences of Conrad’s strategic and organisational blunders.  Most of these followed from an unshakable faith in launching offensives, followed by more offensives, regardless of his armies’ actual capacities at any given moment, backed by a fixed belief, based on no evidence obvious to anyone else, that each would bring total victory.

In spite of Conrad and the general inefficiency of Austro-Hungarian military action, German help meant the conquest of Serbia was complete by the spring of 1916, and an essentially positive position of stability had been achieved on the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile on the Italian Front, where Imperial forces had successfully defended their lines without German aid, the comprehensive failure of the latest Italian Isonzo Offensive, in March, brought a lull in the fighting.  This, at last, was a chance for the Empire to pause for much-needed recuperation, reorganisation and reinforcement.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s need for a pause was even more urgent than that of its theoretical peers.  Without the industrial strength in depth, infrastructural and bureaucratic organisation, national unity or autocratic leeway that, in various combinations, helped Germany, France, Britain and Russia respond to the demands of total war, Austria-Hungary (pictured below) had been in crisis when the War began and was in danger of disintegrating before it ended.

Austro_Hungary_1000

Quite apart from the territorial disputes with Russia, Serbia and Italy that took Vienna to war (not to mention a squabble between Hungary and Romania over part of Transylvania that would later extend it), the Empire had faced major internal problems in 1914. Separatist movements were gathering strength among the Empire’s Poles, Slovaks, Slavs and Czechs, while all was far from well between Austria and Hungary.  The Hungarian government opposed Vienna’s plans for military expansion, and was working to increase industrial Austria’s already considerable dependence on Hungarian agricultural produce.

These problems had temporarily evaporated amid the bellicose euphoria of August 1914, and the Empire’s ruling elites had, like their German counterparts, watched in happy amazement as a multiracial population (Bosnians aside) rushed to mobilise in a noisy display of national unity– but other weaknesses remained.

A clumsy bureaucracy and command structure, easily dominated from a faction-ridden centre, was no more equipped for the sudden demands of modern, industrial warfare than a supply system that evolved into something like the German model, but without the efficiency provided by Germany’s War Materials Department (the KRA). Run by and for Austria’s major landed and industrial interests, central associations formed to control individual resources and commodities unbalanced the impact of war on the economy, concentrating vast profits in a few hands while leaving small or medium-sized businesses out of the equation.

Meanwhile tension between Austria and Hungary mounted steadily as the War progressed from optimism through disappointment to stalemate and hardship.  A poor harvest in 1914, devastation of grain belts on the Eastern Front and Hungarian premier Count Tisza’s national approach to food resources had already combined to create food shortages in urban Austria by early 1915.  Later that year, Tisza ended customs union and restricted food exports to occasional surpluses, while Allied blockade began to stifle overseas imports and overland trade with Italy ceased – but the government in Vienna was never sufficiently organised to impose a centralised food policy or systematic rationing.

So by the time the Empire’s three fronts all went quiet in 1916, the civilian population was hungry and poor, the Army had been bled white and was short of supplies across the board, and cracks were starting to appear in the surprisingly durable loyalty of soldiers from ethnic groups, especially Slavs and Czechs.  Something needed to be done while the going was, if not good, at least steady – but it was entirely typical of Conrad that he treated the breathing space as an opportunity to fling every available unit into one more shot at the big time.  Letting him get on with it was equally characteristic of the regime he served.

Though refused German support for his offensive, because chief of staff Falkenhayn was still pouring everything he had into the mincing machine at Verdun, Conrad massed 18 divisions of troops and some 2,000 guns (including several gigantic Schlanke Emma howitzers) in the Trentino sector during early May.  Meanwhile the Italian chief of staff, General Cadorna, helped Conrad’s cause by sticking with his own offensive obsessions, ignoring obvious Austrian preparations, keeping most of his troops on the Isonzo sector, ordering them to maintain offensive positions, and ordering General Brussati’s relatively small Italian First Army in the Trentino area to do the same.

Austrian forces outnumbered their opponents 4-1 in men and guns when the attack began on 14 May.  Advancing down into the Trentino Valley along a 70km front, they forced the centre of the Italian line back 8km by 22 May, and two days later a renewed push drove Brussati’s central divisions another 10km south, beyond Asiago, which was evacuated on 29 May. By the static standards of the Italian Front this was startling progress, but the offensive, like so many during First World War, soon fell victim to its own success.

The Italian line had bulged but not broken, so the defenders’ internal communications remained intact, and northern Italy’s good railway system allowed Cadorna to rush 400,000 troops to the critical front during the next few days.  They brought Austrian advances to a halt on the plains south of Asiago, and casualties on both sides were mounting fast when, from 10 June, a major Russian offensive on the Eastern Front forced Conrad to start transferring troops away from the Trentino.

I’ll talk in detail about the Russian Brusilov Offensive another day, but for now it meant the end of Austrian ambitions in Italy.  With the Italians preparing strong counterattacks on the flanks of the new bulge (or ‘salient’), Conrad ordered theatre commander Archduke Eugen to withdraw to a line about 5km south of the offensive’s starting point.  There the front stabilised, leaving the Austro-Hungarian Army shorn of some 150,000 men, and the Italian Army about 147,000, for territorial returns that could only be called trivial.

The Offensive’s side effects were more momentous.  In Italy, the spectre of invasion sparked a public sense of crisis and urgency that brought down the Salandra government on 12 June, and forced an almost immediate resumption of offensive operations on the Isonzo in defiance of the Army’s debilitated condition.  For Vienna, the military consequences of Conrad’s cavalier optimism were terminal. The Austro-Hungarian Army went on to suffer huge losses to the Brusilov Offensive, and would never again mount an offensive of its own, on any front, relying on German command and reinforcement until the Armistice.

At best, Conrad’s Trentino Offensive was a desperate, long odds gamble; at worst it was a prime example of blind folly that cost 300,000 casualties, achieved nothing of value and further weakened an Empire that was already falling apart.  It might be going too far to suggest that, given a chance to rebuild its war effort in early 1916, Austria-Hungary might have survived, or even survived a little longer – but thanks to Conrad and his inert masters we’ll never know for sure.

This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.
This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.

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