Primary Documents - G.M. Trevelyan on Austria-Hungary's Exit from the War, October-November 1918

G M Trevelyan Following heavy defeat at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, which heralded the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Army as an effective fighting force, the Austrian government sought and negotiated an armistice; meanwhile simultaneous political turmoil completed the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Reproduced below is an account of the Austro-Hungarian Army's collapse by the head of the British Red Cross in Italy, G. M. Trevelyan.

Click here to read the reaction of Italian Army Chief of Staff Armando Diaz to news of complete victory at Vittorio Veneto and the Austro-Hungarian armistice.  Click here to read Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl I's abdication announcement, published on 11 November 1918. 

G.M. Trevelyan on Austria-Hungary's Exit from the War, October-November 1918

During the autumn the old Austria-Hungary passed quietly away, and by a process more like that of nature's growth than of man's violence, was dissolved into the vigorous and turbulent races of which it had been composed.

But though the Austro-Hungarian State was dead, the Austro-Hungarian army was still alive.  And it was the army alone that had ever given real unity to the Empire.

Men remembered that in 1848, when there had been a similar crisis, the army under Radetzky, having triumphed in Italy, restored the fallen State for another seventy years.  It might, indeed, be hoped that on this occasion the tide of time had set in more strongly against the Dynasts; and it was certain that the British had broken the Hindenburg Line, the enemy's backbone.

But there still stood firm in its positions the Austro-Hungarian army, the epitome of the coercive union of the races who were politically flying asunder.  Until the army was destroyed the old system was still in being.

The battle that was fought and won in the last week of October was to prove how an army will go on fighting just because it is an army; how it will fight well until it suffers a decided reverse, and will then, and only then, go completely to bits for political and moral reasons.

If the Austrians had held the Piave line on October 27-29, 1918, their army would not have disintegrated; and conversely, if the Italians had defeated Radetzky at Custozza, the army might then have broken up for political reasons, and the Emperor Franz-Josef might have reigned a few months instead of seventy years.

In time of revolution the winning or losing of battles counts not less but more than in times of stable government.

In the early days of October Diaz and Badoglio had already made their plan for the destruction of the Austrian forces.  The main breakthrough was to be effected by the crossing of the Middle Piave on both sides of the Montello by the Twelfth, Eighth, and Tenth Italian Armies, the last-named being commanded by Lord Cavan, who brought down the greater part of his three British divisions from the Asiago plateau.

But before the breakthrough on the Piave was attempted, the Fourth Italian Army began, at dawn on October 24th, a furious assault on the enemy's mountain positions on the Grappa massif between the Piave and the Brenta.  This operation, though not itself immediately successful, served as a containing action to help the subsequent attacks across the river.

Similarly, in the Macedonian offensive, the British and Greeks had held the Bulgarians by their fiercely-contested onslaught at Doiran, which enabled the Serbians and French to carry through successfully their magnificent penetration of the line beyond Monastir.

On the Grappa the Austrian army, so far from showing itself already in process of dissolution, resisted with the utmost tenacity.  Some of the heights were captured and recaptured alternately eight times; the Arditi were thrown in again and again; and the Italians stood up day after day to losses as severe as those that their regiments had been accustomed to suffer in the great offensives on the Isonzo.

But the Fourth Army on Grappa was doing what was required of it, and meanwhile all three armies on the Piave succeeded in their objective.  The Twelfth, where the Alpini and the French vied with each other in a fierce rivalry, fought its way up the Piave gorge and cut the communications of the Austrians, who were defending the Grappa massif, so that they too joined the general debandade.

The Eighth Army, working from the Montello, succeeded on October 27th in throwing a division across the Piave on their left, but failed on their right flank next to the British on account of bridging difficulties.

Things for a moment looked serious; but prompt cooperation between the Allies saved the situation.  On the night of October 27th-28th two divisions from the Eighth Army, under General Basso, passed over the British bridges to the south, erected and previously used by Lord Cavan's Tenth Army.

But these bridges also gave way before the requisite force had crossed. General Basso, however, once across, turned northwards, and without reckoning his numbers or his isolated position, "with soldierly instinct," as Lord Cavan writes, attacked the enemy, and cleared the front of the Eighth Army, from which he had been detached.  That army was thus enabled to cross the river and race forward over hill and dale to Vittorio, thence to cut the Valmarino communications of the enemy.

Meanwhile the Tenth Army, under Lord Cavan, the right wing of the whole attack, had enjoyed an even more rapid success.  Lord Cavan's forces consisted of the 14th British Army Corps on the north, and on the south the 11th Italian Army Corps, with which our Unit was serving.

In the Tenth Army sector, as indeed in front of the whole line of attack, the bed of the Piave was a mile and a half broad, consisting of islands of shingle and brushwood, divided by half a dozen or more channels of the river flowing "ten miles an hour in time of flood," and "three and a half miles an hour at summer level."

If, therefore, it rained heavily for many hours in the mountains above, the crossing would be impossible.  And it was late in October!  There was very little of "foregone conclusion" about the battle when it began.

On the night of October 23rd-24th, by a brilliant preliminary operation, the northern part of the largest island, the Grave di Papadopoli, was captured by the British infantry, who crossed the swirling flood in flat-bottomed boats, rowed by pontieri of the Italian genio.  The way was thus prepared for the great attack by the English and the Italian corps of the Tenth Army on the night of October 26th-27th.

The preliminary bombardment began half an hour before midnight, and with it began the rain.  It was an anxious business waiting by the river bank for the attack at dawn, knowing that if the rain did not stop - and why should it stop in November? - the whole scheme must miscarry.

But stop it did, when the attack began, and it never rained again anywhere where I was till I had been a fortnight in Trieste, except for half an hour's drizzle on the morning of October 29th.  The weather-god, like every one else, had begun to Wilsoneggiare, as the Italian papers called the prevailing political tendency in Europe.

At 6.45 a.m., October 27th, the British and the Italians, under Lord Cavan's orders, moved to the attack, to capture the remaining part of the system of islands and the farther shore.  A fair number of Italian and Austrian wounded were carried back across the river to our ambulances in the first twenty-four hours.  But we saw less of this battle than of others at which we had assisted, because the infantry went right over the islands, through the swift channels that took their toll of them, and away across country beyond the river, leaving miles behind them every wheeled vehicle - artillery, supplies, and ambulances - unable to cross the channels until the bridges were made.

The British bridges, as already recorded, broke down on the night of October 27th-28th; and the Italian bridges for carrying wheeled traffic, which were our concern, were only completed to the farther shore after dusk on the evening of October 28th.

On the afternoon of the 27th I had walked over to the farther bank by footbridges, passing on the Islands a few corpses and many piles of Boche helmets thrown away wherever the Austrians had fled from the Italian attack.  The infantry were already far forward, out of sight even from the farther bank.

On the morning of the 28th I walked into San Polo, a village two miles beyond the farther bank, and found all the Italians there in high spirits, though very hungry, captured Austrian cannon still facing down the street, and all the signs of recent fighting.  But the line was somewhere far ahead.

In fact, the back of the business had been broken, as far as the Tenth Army was concerned, in the short, fierce struggle on the 27th, when the Austrians proved incapable of standing up to our men.  They put up their last serious rearguard action on the evening of the 29th, after which, as Lord Cavan writes, "the defeat became a rout."

From this moment forward we had but few wounded to carry; but even so, the ambulances found it hard work merely to keep in touch with the Bersaglieri of the 23rd and the infantry of the 37th Divisions in their wild rush to the Tagliamento and beyond.

Our difficulty was every one's difficulty, the fact that the retiring Austrians had blown up the bridges over the series of rivers, though happily, in their haste, not quite all of them.

Both British and Italian troops suffered severely from want of food, especially in the early days of the crossing, because the wheeled traffic could not keep up with the infantry any faster than the pontoons could be slung over the rivers.  One began, by hard experience, to understand many of the minor but all-important reasons why the enemy had followed up so slowly over the same ground a year before; and then it had been pouring and the rivers flooded, whereas now the weather at least was perfect.

The Austrian armies were now everywhere in flight and dissolution.  The enemy's divisions in line had mostly fought well, but the Czechs and Poles in reserve scarcely fired a shot, and surrendered wholesale on being dispatched to relieve the broken divisions.

Once the retreat set in, morale gave way throughout, except among some of the German-Austrians.  Even the Magyars wished only to get back to defend their new independent State.

The fairly won military success of the Twelfth, Eighth, and Tenth Armies, operating on the political situation, had cleared an almost unopposed field of advance in mountain and plain for all the other armies of Italy.  The way to Trent and Trieste was open.

They were wonderful and happy days for every one, those days of the great deliverance, with the barbarian once more fleeing from the soil sacred through the centuries to the Latin race.  But only we who had traversed the same roads in such bitterness of spirit twelve months before could feel it to the full.

"O giornate del nostro riscatto!"  The inhabitants of Veneto and Friuli, after their year of servitude, were going about in happy crowds, hundreds together, men, women, and children, unable to do anything but laugh and talk with their liberators, who, themselves radiant with delight, were many of them wearing evergreen branches in token of victory.

Every day, as we advanced, we met ever longer columns of weedy prisoners, their hands deep in their grey overcoat pockets, shepherded in thousands at a time by two or three cheerful Tommies, or two or three majestic mounted Carabinieri.

Many, I think, had "bowed the head for bread" rather than remain with a starving army or return to a starving land.  On the side of every road and in every market town stood the yellow cannon and lorries, and all the deserted gear of the disbanding hosts.  And in the ditches along every high road and lane between the Piave islands and Trieste the soldiers had thrown away their "Dolly Varden" Boche helmets; sometimes sooner, sometimes later in the flight each man had divested himself of that heavy badge of servitude.

So it was given us to see "proud Austria rammed to wreck."

On the night of November 2nd it chanced that I had a long way to walk back beyond the Piave, not wishing to take the car hack over the bridge.  I was walking under the stars through the scenes of our June battle, ghostly in the starlight.

As I went, I became aware of a singing and cheering all around for miles away.  I was quite alone, and could only guess its significance; but when at last I struck our old Treviso main road, I asked the first group of soldiers I met what was the meaning of the still-continued, universal shout.

They told me that the Austrians had sent a general to the Comando Supremo to ask for an armistice.  I shall never forget the distant and continuous noise of a whole army scattered over the plain, shouting all night in its joy under the glistening winter stars because their warfare was accomplished, and Europe at last was free.

During these days, for the first time since I had been in Italy, I heard that Austrian prisoners had been insulted, though never injured.  This new feeling of personal anger against the Austrian soldiery as human beings did not last long among their good-natured captors.

It was entirely due to the tales told by the liberated populations of robbery and ill-treatment.  The stories of the inhabitants, of which I heard many, were all of the same tenor.  All their cattle and all the food that they produced had been taken and never paid for, while they themselves had been kept on a very low ration.

Again, as in Shelley's day, the peasant of the Venetian plain had

"heaped his grain
In the garner of his foe."

Everything movable of any value had been packed up and sent off into Austria-Hungary.  The robbery of the whole countryside for the benefit of the conquerors had been organized and official; but there had not been a systematized destruction of what could not be taken off, such as the Germans had carried out in France.

As to personal treatment, they all spoke of their year's taskmasters as brutte bestie.  They had no other word for them in any village between Piave and Isonzo.  They all said the Magyars ("Ungaresi") were the worst brutes, which, from what I heard and saw in Serbia in 1914, did not surprise me.

The Croats, Bohemians, and even German-Austrian privates had as a rule behaved tolerably.  The worst tyranny had come from the officers, especially the higher officers, and, most of all, the allied officers of Germany proper, who had always urged harsh treatment.

God grant that that type of "higher officer" may now disappear out of Austria and out of Europe.  It has caused enough misery for one planet in one aeon.

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

A 'Gearsman' was a tank crew member responsible for managing the gears.

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