Battle of the Piave River
Battle of Piave River (1809)"Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Piave River
partof=the Italian Front (First World War)
June 15- June 23, 1918
Piave River, Italy
result=Decisive Italian victory
flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
Arthur Arz von Straussenburg
strength1=58 Italian divisions,
3 British divisions,
2 French divisions
United States Army Air Serviceaircraft
casualties1=80,000 dead or wounded
25,000 capturedThe Battle of the Piave River, known in Italy as Battaglia del Solstizio (Battle of the Solstice), Battaglia di Mezzo Giugno (Battle of Middle June), or Seconda Battaglia del Piave (Second Battle of the Piave River, as the last part of the
Battle of Caporettois considered to be the first), was a decisive victory for the Italian Army during World War I. The defeat directly led to the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Army.
With the exit of Russia from the war in 1917, Austria-Hungary was now able to devote significant forces to the Italian Front and to receive reinforcements from their German allies. At the
Battle of Caporettoand Battle of Longaronethe Germans and Austrians had defeated the Italians who fell back to the Piave River.
Italy's defeat at Caporetto led to General
Luigi Cadorna's dismissal and General Armando Diazreplaced him as Chief of Staff of the Italian Army. Diaz set up a strong defense line along Piave River. Up until this point in the war, Italian army had been fighting alone against the Central Powers; With the defeat at Caporetto, Franceand Britain sent reinforcements on the Italian front. These, apart for accounting for less than a tenth of the Italian forces in theater, had however to be redirected for the major part to the Western Front as soon as the German Spring Offensivebegan on March 1918.
The Austro-Hungarian Army had also recently undergone a change in command, and the new Austrian Chief of Staff,
Arthur Arz von Straussenburg, wished to finish off the Italians. Straussenberg's army groupcommanders, Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf(the former Austrian Chief of Staff) and Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, both wished to make a decisive assault, counter the Italians, but not agree about the location of the attack, as Conrad wanted an attack on the AsiagoPlateaux between the Asticoand the Brentarivers, directed to Vicenza, while Boroević preferred an attack along the Piave River, and Straussenburg himself was in favour of an attack on the western part of the front (the "Giudicarie" sector) leading to Brescia. Conrad and Boroević had a dislike for each other, and Straussenburg, unable to decide between these two strong personalities, divided the army equally between them, reserving only a small part of the forces for a diversive action on the Giudicarie sector. The preparation of the offensive began on February 1918, after a meeting in Bolzanobetween Austrians and Germans high commands and was strongly recommended by the Germans, as Ludendorff hoped that it could force the increasing American forces in France to be diverted on the Italian front, so Straussenberg modeled the attack after Erich Ludendorff's offensive on the Western Front.
The Austrians, differently from their previous success at Caporetto and from the subsequent attempts to breakthrough on
Mount Grappa, didn't prepare the attack as a pinpoint one, but as an all-out frontal attack, employing the entire residual strength of their army all along the front. The Austro-Hungarian formations were trained to employ the tactics developed by the Germans on the Western Front for the Operation Michael as Austrian officials, returning from the Eastern Front, were extensively trained alongside their German counterparts. There were also innovations on the Italian side. Analyzing the defeat of Caporetto, the staff of Armando Diaz concluded that the main tactical causes of it were the lack of mobility of Italian units, caught in a too rigid defensive scheme, the too centralized command and control system, and the lack of depth of Italian defences, where too many soldiers were simply stuck on the frontline. The new schemes prepared for the battle led to the abolition of the continuous entrenchment and in the development of a highly mobile defence system, in which even the smaller units were allowed to freely move between previously recognized strongpoints, independently decide to retreat or counterattack, or directly call the support of the artillery. Moreover, 13 divisions, equipped with 6000 trucks, were organized in a central reserve, ready to be send where it was needed.
General Diaz learned the exact timing of the Austrian attack: 3:00am on 15 June, so, at 2:30am, the Italian artillery opened fire all along their front, on the crowded enemy trenches, inflicting heavy casualties. In some sector the artillery barrage had the effect to delay or stop the attack, as Austrian soldiers began to revert to the defensive positions, believing to have to face an unexpected Italian attack, but on the great part of the frontline the Austrians still attacked. Boroević launched the first assault, moving South along the Adriatic Coast and in the middle course of the Piave River. The Austrians were able to cross the Piave and gained ground against the Italians in the face of heavy resistance, before Boroević was finally stopped and forced to order a retreat. On the subsequent days Boroević renewed the assaults, but the artillery barrage destroyed many of the river's bridges and the Austrian formations that crossed the river were unable to receive reinforcement and supplies. On 19 June Diaz counterattacked and hit Boroević in the flank inflicting heavy casualties. By 23 June the Italians recaptured all territory south of the Piave and the battle was over. In the meantime Conrad attacked along the Italian lines west of Boroević, on the Asiago Plateaux, on the 15th, with the objective of capturing
Vicenza. Little came of Conrad's assaults except a further 40,000 casualties to the Austrian total. In the aftermath, Boroević was particularly critical about the behaviour of Conrad that, after the complete failure of the first attack, preferred to continue the assaults in the subsequent days, but with much minor strength, rather than to send reinforcements on the Piave sector.
After the Austrian retreat Diaz was pressed by the allies, particularly by General
Ferdinand Foch, to not stop the action, and to try an assault to break the Austrian defences and gain a decisive victory over the Empire, but the Italian General recognized that the same tactic, that proved so effective on defence, prevented an immediate offence, as the Italian formations, at that time, were too scattered and mixed up to be effectively coordinated in a decisive assault. Moreover, once crossed the river, they'd have to face the same logistic problems of the Austrians. For these reasons, in the subsequent days, only limited actions were done, to gain better start positions for the future decisive assault.On the other side, the Battle of the Piave River was the last great military offensive of Austria-Hungary. The battle signalled the end of its army as an effective fighting unit, which was finished off at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, four months later.
Still today, to the Italian public two mottos recall the battle: those written upon broken walls of destroyed rural houses: "E' meglio vivere un giorno da leone che cent'anni da pecora" ("(It is) Better to live one single day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep") and "Tutti eroi! O il Piave o tutti accoppati" ("Everyone a hero! Either (we reach) the Piave, or let all of us get killed"). The two pieces of wall are preserved in the military shrine of
Fagaré della Battaglia, a frazioneof San Biagio di Callalta.
La Leggenda del Piave, a popular song written by E. A. Marioduring the battle
*Tucker, Spencer "The Great War:1914-18" (1998)
* [http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/piaveriver.htm Battles: The Battle of the Piave River, 1918]
* [http://cronologia.leonardo.it/2003cron.htm Cronologia: il "Secolo Breve" dal 1914 al 2000] (in Italian)
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