Primary Documents - Lord Cavan on the Battle of the Piave River, September 1918
Comprising the final Austro-Hungarian attack on the Italian Front during the First World War, the Battle of the Piave River proved a disastrous failure and virtually heralded the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian army.
Launched by Austria-Hungary in the face of sustained German demands to launch an offensive across the Piave River (nearby to several key Italian cities), the battle was fought from 15-22 June 1918. With its army demoralised and equipment and other supplies perilously low, and with army unit strengths depleted, the outcome of the attack proved a great contrast to the previous autumn's spectacularly effective success at Caporetto.
The comprehensive failure of the Austro-Hungarians served merely to hasten the disintegration of the army, which effectively ceased to exist as a single cohesive force. Its dismantling was finalised by the Italians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto some four months later.
Reproduced below is an extract from the official report written by Lord Cavan, commander of British forces in Italy. Cavan's report concentrated upon the part played in the largely Italian success by British forces under his command.
Click here to read Conrad von Hotzendorf's official address given as encouragement to his forces on the eve of the battle. Click here to read the official French observer's report on the course of the battle. Click here to read the report written by the official German observer, Max Osborn. Click here to read an account of the battle given by G.M. Trevelyan, head of the British Red Cross in Italy.
Lord Cavan's Official Report of the Battle of the Piave River, September 1918
It had for some time been decided that the British troops should, during the summer months, occupy some portion of the mountain sector. The exact front selected was that lying between Asiago and Canove. By March 29th the relief of the Italian troops in this sector was concluded.
In twelve months in Italy, the British claimed that they had destroyed 386 enemy aeroplanes and twenty-seven balloons, besides thirty-three machines driven down out of control. This is a large proportion of the not very great Austrian total of aircraft. The British official loss for the year was forty-seven machines missing and three balloons destroyed.
During April signs continued to accumulate that the enemy contemplated an offensive astride the Brenta, but it was not until the middle of May that it appeared probable that this operation would be combined with an attack across the Piave.
By the end of May the general plan of the enemy for their forthcoming attack could be clearly foreseen. Subsequent events proved that the Italian High Command had made a forecast correct in nearly every detail.
Early on the morning of June 15th, after a short but violent bombardment, in which smoke and gas were freely employed, the Austrian attack was launched. The fronts of attack extended from S. Dona di Piave to the Montello on the plains, and from Grappa to Canove in the mountains, fronts of twenty-five and eighteen miles respectively. The whole of the British sector was involved.
The British front was attacked by four Austrian divisions. It was held by the 23rd Division on the right and the 48th Division on the left. On the front of the 23rd Division the attack was completely repulsed. On the front of the 48th Division the enemy succeeded in occupying our front trench for a length of some 3,000 yards, and subsequently penetrated to a depth of about 1,000 yards.
Here he was contained by a series of switches which had been constructed to meet this eventuality. On the morning of June 16th the 48th Division launched a counter-attack to clear the enemy from the pocket he had gained; this attack was completely successful, and the entire line was re-established by 9 a.m.
Acting with great vigour during the 16th, both divisions took advantage of the disorder in the enemy's ranks, and temporarily occupied certain posts in the Asiago Plateau without much opposition. Several hundred prisoners and many machine guns and two mountain howitzers were brought back in broad daylight without interference.
As soon as "No Man's Land" had been fully cleared of the enemy we withdrew to our original line.
The enemy suffered very heavy losses in their unsuccessful attack. In addition we captured 1,060 prisoners, 7 mountain guns, 72 machine guns, 20 flammenwerfer, and one trench mortar.
I wish here to place on record the prompt and generous assistance in both artillery and infantry given to me by General Monesi, Commanding the 12th Italian Division. As soon as it was discovered that the enemy had penetrated the front of the 48th Division, General Monesi placed all his available reserves at my disposal, and thus appreciably improved the situation.
Elsewhere the enemy had made progress at a number of points, but in no single instance up to his expectations. Everywhere he found himself faced with the most determined resistance. The Italian High Command had ample reserves available, and handled the situation with coolness and decision. Steps were at once taken to deprive the enemy of the gains which he had made.
Torrential rains brought the Piave down in flood, and added to the embarrassments of the enemy. Many of his bridges were washed away, and those which remained were constantly bombed by British and Italian aviators. By means of a succession of vigorous counter-attacks the enemy was gradually pressed back again both on the Piave and the mountain fronts.
As a result, not only was the original front line entirely re-established, but that portion of the right bank of the Piave, between the Piave and the Side Rivers, which had been in Austrian hands since November, 1917, was cleared of the enemy.
Captured orders and documents proved beyond doubt that the enemy's plans were extremely ambitious, and aimed, in fact, at the final defeat of the Allied forces in Italy. The result was a complete and disastrous defeat for Austria.
The work of the Royal Air Force, under Colonel P. B. Joubert, D.S.O., has been consistently brilliant, and the results obtained have, I believe, in proportion to the strength employed, exceeded those obtained in any other theatre of war. Between March 10th and the present date 294 enemy aeroplanes and nine hostile balloons have been destroyed, and this with a loss of twenty-four machines.
Much useful work in cooperation with the artillery has been carried out, and frequent and successful long-distance reconnaissances accomplished.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A 'Tracer' was a phosphorescent machine-gun bullet which glowed in flight, indicating course as an aid to artillery.
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