Primary Documents - G.M. Trevelyan on the Battle of the Piave River, 15-22 June 1918

G M Trevelyan 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 report written by the official German observer during the battle, Max Osborn.  In his report Osborn attributed the Austro-Hungarian failure more to ill-luck - viz, severe adverse weather - than other factors.

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 the report by the commander of British forces in Italy, Earl Cavan.

G. M. Trevelyan on the Battle of the Piave River

Between the middle of April and the middle of June the Italian army began to be affected by a new idea - namely, that the enemy's morale was worse than their own, and that Austria-Hungary was politically in process of dissolution.

The Pact of Rome, concluded early in April between the Italian and Jugo-Slav leaders, was the prelude to a systematic propaganda among the enemy forces, ably organized by Italian Intelligence officers, and zealously carried out by ex-prisoners belonging to the oppressed races of Austria-Hungary.

In No Man's Land, musical Czechs serenaded their compatriots with Bohemian songs, and set gramophones going instead of machine guns.  The Czecho-Slovaks, in Italian uniform, with the Bohemian national colours of white and red in their Alpino hats, became a common and favourite sight upon the roads.

This new way of envisaging the war went well with the ever-increasing importance of America in the mind's eye of the Italian soldier.  The new National Internationalism of Mr. Wilson and his Fourteen Points vaguely adumbrated a broader outlook and a brighter age ahead, beginning with a better chance of winning the war.

There seemed a new tide in the world's affairs, and Giuseppe vaguely felt that he was a part of it, while the enemy was fighting against the future.  By the time that the Austrians tardily launched their great offensive, the Italian soldiers had an idea that their own morale was at least as good as the enemy's.  And in military morale there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

When the Austrian blow fell at last there was no half measure about it.  Although the internal condition of the Empire, political and economic, was even worse than we knew, the authorities believed that they could win such a victory as would relieve their almost desperate situation.  But for this purpose the victory must this time be decisive.

Their generals planned and their army confidently expected to go straight through at the first rush to Treviso, where they had allotted houses for the different regiments and officers.  After that they believed that Italy's resistance would collapse.

The offensive was launched with equal fury along an unbroken line of attack stretching from the Asiago front opposite the British, right round by Grappa, the Montello, and the course of the Piave down to the sea.  At dawn on June 15th it began along this great stretch of ground with a bombardment of terrible efficiency.

Some of the British officers told me they had never seen better shooting or a hotter barrage in France.  The result was that early that morning the Austrians carried with little resistance almost the whole front line of the Allies from Asiago to the marshes at the Piave mouth.

But their success on the mountains was short lived.  The British, furious at losing any ground to the Austrians, drove them out again with fearful slaughter, and pursued them into their own lines, where all resistance ceased.

The reaction of the French and Italians on the mountain front was also very rapid.  Between Piave and Brenta, on the Grappa massif, the Austrians had begun by storming positions which commanded Bassano and threatened the whole line.  But Diaz now knew that the proper reply to the new Ludendorff tactics of "infiltration" was instant counter-attacks, and these were carried out with magnificent vigour and success.

By the end of the second day all was well over in the mountain area.  But on the low, long "mound" of the Montello and in the plain of the Piave the battle continued for another week of desperate and uncertain fighting.  On the morning of the 15th the Austrians had crossed the Piave.  In the north they had taken and held nearly half the Montello, and again farther down the course of the river, on both sides of Ponte di Piave and Santa Dona, they had securely lodged themselves on the further shore, and had pushed on from two to four miles, threatening to break through to Treviso.

It was an anxious affair, because the enemy's tactics of "infiltration" had the immense advantage that no one could see clearly more than twenty yards in front of him in that garden-like plain, where rows of vines and fruit trees in full leaf, all running from north to south, parallel with the fighting line, formed a series of low screens, ten or twenty yards apart.

Except down the roads and the railway there were no avenues of vision.  Neither were the Italians fighting in prepared lines of defence, as they had lost their first line on the river bank when the battle began, and were never driven back as far as their second.  Both sides had equally little advantage of ground, and fought behind dyke banks, in ditches and drains, or in improvised trenches scratched in the soft soil.

Naturally under these conditions the battle was always swaying to and fro in rushes and rallies.  The cry was perpetually being raised of an enemy "infiltration" in such and such a part of the blind garden battle; and on these occasions the danger was of panic.  After the Caporetto experience the divisional, brigade, and regimental officers were all keenly on the lookout to stop the slightest sign of it, and I saw more than one incipient panic, due to an enemy "infiltration," very promptly and ably dealt with.

Above all, the reserves were well handled, here locally as well as by Diaz on the grand scale.  The Bersaglieri ciclisti were hurried up on their "push bikes" along the lanes to the threatened spot time after time, and never in vain.

The Austrians had brought a few light cannon across the Piave, but generally speaking their excellent artillery had had to stay on the farther shore.  And since they had lost the mastery of the air, thanks not a little to the British airmen in the spring, they could not get sufficient information as to how to direct their fire in accordance with the changing phases of the battle on the Italian side of the river.

They adopted the policy of plumping big shells on the country lanes, of which they had the accurate range, thereby often blocking them for a time.  But the Italians, always careful of their road communications, were quick to fill up the holes.  As compared with San Gabriele or Vodice, it was a battle of machine gun and rifle wounds, at least for the Italians.

Thus, though the river had been crossed by the Austrian infantry, it was still the Italians' great defence.  The mid-summer rain fell, the river rose, and the footbridges, always under the fire of the Italian artillery and of aeroplanes, Italian and British, became each day a more precarious means of sending over men, food, and rifle ammunition.

Towards the end of the week the enemy prisoners complained of hunger and eagerly ate the loaves shared with them by their kindly captors.  As the Italians held their ground more firmly than ever, the Austrians, eight days after they had crossed the river, slipped back across it under cover of night.

Then we all knew that Italy had been saved, and we rejoiced together.  But we did not know that Austro-Hungary had no less surely been doomed, and must now disappear from the category of States.

Diaz's defensive victory of June, 1918, may be added to the long list of "decisive battles of the world."

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

'White Star' was a German mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas, so-named on account of the identification marking painted on the delivery shell casing.

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