Battle of the Piave River

On June 16, 1918, the Battle of the Piave River rages on the Italian front, marking the last major attack by the Austro-Hungarian army in Italy of World War I.

After turmoil-plagued Russia bowed out of the war effort in early 1918, Germany began to pressure its ally, Austria-Hungary, to devote more resources to combating Italy. Specifically, the Germans advocated a major new offensive along the Piave River, located just a few kilometers from such important Italian urban centers as Venice, Padua and Verona. In addition to striking on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal, the offensive was intended as a follow-up to the spectacular success of the German-aided operations at Caporetto in the autumn of 1917.

By June 1918, however, Austria-Hungary’s troops were in a radically different condition than they had been at Caporetto. Supplies were low, as was morale, while the Italians had bulked up their numbers along the Piave and received new shipments of arms from Allied munitions factories. Nevertheless, both commanders in the region–former Commander-in-Chief Conrad von Hotzendorff and Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna–favored an attack. Preparations were laid to divide their two forces and carry out the offensive in a pincer-like motion, with Conrad taking the main task of reaching the city of Verona and Boroevic attempting to cross the Piave and aim for Padua and the Adige Valley.

After some diversionary attacks, the main Austrian offensive was launched on June 15. Conrad’s 10th and 11th Armies made limited progress, and their advance was checked the following day by the forceful counterattack of the Italian 4th and 6th Armies, fortified by British and French troops. Within a week, the Austrians had suffered over 40,000 casualties. Meanwhile, Boroevic’s 5th and 6th Armies, which had crossed the Piave River along the Italian coast on June 10, gained slightly more territory–some three miles along a 15-mile front–but was also forced to give up those gains and retreat on June 19 under the Italian counterattack by the 3rd and 8th Armies. The Austrian troops stalled in their attempt to cross back over the rapid-flowing Piave, however, and the Italians were able to attack their flank; by the time they finally reached the other shore, a total of 150,000 of Boroevic’s men had been killed or wounded.

Though the cautious Italian commander in chief, General Armando Diaz, chose not to pursue the fleeing enemy troops across the river, the offensive ended in dismal failure. It was a fateful blow for Austria-Hungary’s presence on the Italian front. In the months that followed, the depleted, demoralized army ceased to exist as a cohesive force, a destruction that was completed by the Italians during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in late October 1918, just days before the end of World War I.

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