Primary Documents - General von Cramon on the Asiago Offensive, June 1916
Tired of having to constantly fend off sustained Italian attacks along the Isonzo River, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf resolved in early 1916 to mount an Austrian offensive through the Trentino mountain passes towards Italy's northern plain, trapping the latter's main forces along the Isonzo and others based in the Carnic Alps.
Disappointed to find that his German allies were unable to offer military assistance - the German Army was under heavy pressure at Verdun - Conrad nonetheless pressed ahead with his offensive (sometimes referred to as the Trentino Offensive) on 15 May 1916.
Although meeting with notable initial success the Italian Army under Luigi Cadorna ultimately regrouped - despatching half a million Italian troops into the Trentino - and expelled the Austrians from Italian territory by the end of the month.
Reproduced below is the report of the official German observer attached to the Austrian forces, General von Cramon. Click here to read the official Italian statement on the offensive; click here to read a summary written by the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page.
Official German Observer General von Cramon's Report on the Asiago Offensive
The attack had originally been planned for the 10th of April. High snow, however, made the realization of this plan impossible. The same occurred on the 20th of April and the 1st of May.
Von Hotzendorf raged; he claimed never to have seen so much snow on the heights of Southern Tyrol as in the spring of that year. Others, however, who also knew the ground well, declared that, even with normal conditions of temperature, the date decided upon would have been premature.
The damage resulting from the constant postponement of the date of attack was naturally great. The assembling of troops in all villages of Southern Tyrol could not be concealed from the enemy. Moreover, a deserter of Italian descent, who went over to the enemy on the plateau of Vielgereuth, made valuable disclosures to the enemy regarding the intentions of the Austrians.
Under such conditions it could not he asserted that the confidence of the Tyrolean leaders was particularly great. The reports of the German officers in charge of communications verified this. Powerful counter-measures on the part of the Italians were to be expected.
When, at the beginning of May, the day of the attack had again been postponed, General von Falkenhayn commissioned me to ask General von Hotzendorf whether it would not be better to dispense altogether with the offensive - which would no longer come as a surprise and would therefore be problematical - and place a portion of the troops stationed in Southern Tyrol at the disposal of the Western Front.
This proposition was somewhat of a surprise to me as Falkenhayn, during the winter, had been averse to utilizing Austro-Hungarian troops on the front in France. Manifestly, this change of opinion was due to the doubtful situation at Verdun.
General von Hotzendorf declined on the ground that the offensive, prepared to the minutest detail, could not he abandoned now, more particularly as the artillery, permanently placed for the attack, could not readily be withdrawn again.
Finally, on May 15th, the avalanche of Vielgereuth-Lafraun was launched, the first attack being made by the corps of the Austrian Crown-prince Charles, to be followed two days later by the army corps of Graz, operating on the eastern wing and commanded by General Krautwald.
The beginning was magnificent. The German-Austrian picked troops of the attacking group recorded a great achievement and within a few days brought in 30,000 prisoners and 300 guns. Asiago was taken. Von Falkenhayn sent a cordial telegram of congratulation to von Hotzendorf, whose acknowledgment was equally hearty.
At Teschen general headquarters everyone was beside himself with delight. The German officers also frankly rejoiced over the victory won by our ally.
On the 24th of May, however, the corps of the Austrian Crown-prince came to a standstill. The enemy meanwhile utilized the situation and brought up all the artillery and infantry that could possibly be placed on the "Terra ferma," covered in every direction by lines of railroad and highways.
I was informed subsequently that the troops of the 20th Army Corps had begged to be permitted to make the leap to the edge of the mountains, without "drawing breath," and before the enemy could recover. But the corps command would not permit this because it believed that the heavy artillery would first have to be brought up. In this way the Italians had been able to gain a footing once more on the Priafora and the towering rocks nearby, thus setting at naught a continuation of the Austrian attacks.
On the other hand it was asserted that the command of the various army groups had so placed in rank the reserve divisions that it was impossible for them to participate at the right time.
It cannot be our purpose here to enter into an investigation as to the accuracy of these charges. It is my opinion, however, that it did not require an entry into the campaign on the part of the Russians in the East to bring the Austrian offensive launched from Southern Tyrol to a standstill. This had already been checked and could only have been continued with new forces, which, however, were not available.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
"Suicide Ditch" was a term used by British soldiers to refer to the front-line trench.
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