Italy's Terrific Drive
( Originally Published 1918 )
FOR many months after the great Italian stand on the Piave there was inactivity on both fronts in Italy. The Italians had been re-enforced by troops from France and Great Britain and their own army was now larger than it had been at any other time. On June 15th, about the time when the Germans were being driven back on the Marne and the Oise, the Austrians, urged to action by the Germans, suddenly undertook a great offensive on a front from the Asiago Plateau to the sea, a distance of ninety-seven miles.
From the very start it was plain that the Italians were resisting magnificently. The offensive was not unexpected, either in time or locality, and had been openly discussed in the Italian press. The Italians therefore were not taken by surprise, and moreover since the disaster of Caparetto the Italians had learned by a patient campaign of education what they were fighting for.
On the second day of the battle the Austrian troops made a desperate effort to break through the Italian lines, particularly in the eastern sector of the Asiago Plateau, and crossed the Piave River at two places. They also attacked the French positions between Osteria di Monfenera and Maranzine, but were driven back with heavy loss. At every point where the Austrians were able to advance the Italians initiated vigorous counter attacks. The order to Italy's army was, "Hold at any cost."
On the third day of the battle the Austrian Offensive was being strongly checked. They had established three bridge heads on the Piave, but had not been able to advance. The most notable of these crossings was that in the Montello sector. Montello is of particular importance, because it is the hinge between the mountains and the Piave sectors of the Italian front. If it could be held the Austrians would be in a position to dominate from the flank and rear all the Italian positions defending the line of the Piave in the dead flat plain to the south.
On the Lower Piave the Austrians had made gains and had captured Capo Sile. The Austrians were using a million men and were using liquid fire and gas bombs, but their every move was resisted strongly. Vienna was claiming the capture of 30,000 men, but the Italian re-ports claimed that the Austrian losses were stupendous. Thousands of dead were heaped before the Italian line in the mountain sectors, blocking the mule paths and choking the defiles. No fewer than nine desperate onslaughts upon Monte Grappa, always with fresh reserves, were broken upon Grappa heights, with terrific losses.
On July 19th the dispatches from Rome were emphasizing the Italian counter attacks. Not only were the Italians preventing the enemy from making further gains, but they were beginning to crowd him back at the points where he had crossed the river, and were raining bombs and machine-gun bullets upon the Austrian troops at the bridge head. They were also taking the initiative in the fighting in the mountain sectors.
By June 20th the Austrian defeat was clear. Their forces were backed against the flooded Piave, which had carried away their bridges and left them to the mercy of the Italians. Thousands were being killed and other thou-sands captured. Czecho-Slovak troops, it was reported, had joined in the fighting, and had given their first tribute of blood to the generous principles of freedom and independence for which they were in arms. In the Piave delta the Italians had regained Capo Sile, which had been captured early in the drive, and it was re-ported that all along the Piave line they had won complete control of the air, not a single Austrian machine being still aloft. The spirits of the Austrian troops had been definitely weakened. They were war wearied, and evidence began to accumulate that Austria's drive was a "hunger offensive."
As the battle continued reports began to arrive of the gallant deeds of American airmen, who were helping in the fighting along the front. The airmen were assisting in destroying the bridges that the Austrians were trying to throw across the river. The Piave was now a vast cataract and the bridges which it had not washed down were constantly destroyed by the aviators. The Austrians on the western bank were finding it difficult to obtain supplies and were resorting to hydroplanes for that purpose. On June 24th the Austrian attack had definitely failed and they were fleeing in disorder across the Piave. One hundred and eighty thousand men had already been lost and forty thousand were hemmed in on the western side of the river. The Austrian communications were emphasizing the difficulties they were meeting with through the heavy rains.
The victory of the Italians, which was now apparent, was received all over Italy with great public rejoicing. Italy had been repenting in sackcloth and ashes her defeat of the previous fall. Now they had made amends and were showing what the Italian soldier could really do. In America, and among the Allied Powers, there was great enthusiasm, and Secretary of War Baker sent this congratulatory message to the Italian Minister of War:
Your Excellency: The people of the United States are watching with enthusiasm and admiration the splendid exploits of the great army of Italy in resisting and driving back the enemy forces which recently undertook a major offensive on the Italian front. I take great pleasure in tendering my own hearty congratulations, and would be most happy to have a message of greeting and congratulation transmitted to General Diaz and his brave soldiers.
NEWTON D. BAKER,
Secretary of War of the United States.
In announcing to his victorious army the re-pulse of the Austrians General Diaz, the Italian Commander-in-Chief, said: "The enemy who, with furious impetuosity, used all means to penetrate our territory has been repulsed at all points. His losses are very heavy. His pride is broken. Glory to all commands, all soldiers, all sailors."
On the 26th of June the Italian troops, having forced the last rear guard of the retreating Austrians to surrender and completely occupied the west bank of the Piave, began an offensive on the mountain front in the Monte Grappe sector. They gained more than 3,000 prisoners, and considerable territory. On the southern part of the Piave front they were carrying on a vigorous offensive against the Austrian positions within the Piave delta. The Austrian troops, at that point, were being pre-vented from retreat by the high water, and suffered terrible losses. On July 6th the Italians drove the last of the enemy from the delta.
The campaign in Italy now languished, until on October 27th Italy began her last terrible drive. The great Italian Offensive was made not only by their own forces and the French and British troops, which had assisted them the previous June, but during the intervening period a large force of Americans had arrived in Italy. On June 27th Secretary Baker had made the announcement that General Pershing had been instructed to send into Italy a regiment that was then in training in France. The regiment thus sent was augmented considerably later. The purpose of sending troops to Italy, Mr. Baker explained, was rather political than military. It was desired to demonstrate again that the Allied nations and the United States were one in their purposes on all fronts, and to extend the intercourse between the troops of all the powers at war with Germany.
On the second day of the Italian offensive their success increased. More than nine thou-sand Austrians were taken prisoners and fifty-one guns were captured, The Piave River had been crossed, and the Italians had advanced four miles to its east. The attacks in the mountain region were being more bitterly con-tested, and counter attacks had enabled the enemy to regain some of their lost positions.
On October 80th the Italian advance was continuing. The Austrian front appeared to be breaking under the heavy blows of the Allied troops. Dispatches indicated striking successes, not only on the Italian front but at the points where the British and the French were holding the line. The Americans were being held in reserve, but American airplanes were actively participating in the work at the front. By this time the last lines of the Austro-Hungarian resistance on the central positions along the Piave River had been broken, and more than fifteen thousand prisoners been taken. The Austrians, however, had been desperately resisting, and their artillery fire at many points was very effective, especially that which had been directed at the pontoon bridges thrown across the Piave.
King Victor Emanuel had been present in person during the crossing, and was often under the fire of the Austrian guns. On October 30th, 33,000 Austrians had been captured and the Italians had reached Vittorio. Americans had now joined in the fighting.
The Austrian retreat reached the proportion of a rout. They were still fighting, especially in the mountain region, but in the plains east of the Piave they were in full flight. Taking into consideration the numbers of troops in the Austrian lines and their apparently plentiful supplies, it began to seem probable that their break was due more to political maneuvers than to military force. The Austrians at this time were making a great peace drive, and the dissatisfaction at home had effected the morale of the troops at the front. The conditions in Italy were in close resemblance to those in Bulgaria just before Bulgaria applied for an armistice.
On the 1st of November the Austrians were completely routed, and were streaming in con-fusion down the valleys of the Alpine foothills, and fleeing northward for the Piave. Reports from Austria indicated riots at Vienna and Budapest. In Vienna people were parading the streets, shouting "Down with the Hapsburgs!" On October 29th, the Austrians asked for an armistice. Their announcement read as follows:
The High Command of the armies, early Tuesday, by means of a Parliamentaire, established communication with the Italian army command. Every effort is to be made for the avoidance of further useless sacrifice of blood, for the cessation of hostilities, and the conclusion of an armistice. Toward this step which is animated by the best intentions the Italian High Command at first assumed an attitude of unmistakable refusal, and it was only on the evening of Wednesday that, in accord with the Italian High Command, General Weber, accompanied by a deputation, was permitted to cross the fighting line for preliminary pourparlers.
General Diaz, the Italian Commander, had referred the Austrian request to the Versailles Conference, and had acted in accordance with their direction. In proposing the armistice the Austrians had also expressed their resolve to bring about peace and to evacuate the occupied territory of Italy. This was the beginning of the end.
The northern part of Italy is bounded by the Alps, and between those lofty ranges and the deep valleys there had been constant fighting. In this fighting, both on mountain and in valley, there were the most extraordinary deeds of individual heroism, constantly exhibited.
The Alpine regiments, known in Italy as the Alpini, were men of extraordinary physical powers, accustomed to mountain climbing, and filled with courage and patriotism. Owing to the nature of the territory in such contests, only a limited number of men could be used at one time, and the fighting went on over masses of snow or solid rock. Guns were hauled up precipices and dugouts excavated in the rock itself. The Italian troops, clothed in white overalls to prevent their being seen, moved with great rapidity from point to point, and forced their enemy to keep constantly on the alert. In the great Italian drive just described the most bitter fighting was that which occurred in these mountainous regions.
The work of the Italian aviators is also worthy of special attention. They not only se-cured entire command of the air, but by flying low they often threw into confusion with their machine guns the Austrian infantry. Their wonderful work in bringing in military in-formation, and in bombing expeditions, was not excelled, if it was equaled, by the airmen of any other country. The Italian airplanes themselves were engineering triumphs. The inventive genius so notable in these days in Italy found expression in their development. Some of their machines were the biggest made during the whole war, and the long journeys made by such machines deserve special mention. The most interesting feat of this kind was performed on August 9th by the famous poet, Captain Gabrielle D'Annunzio. Accompanied by eight Italian machines, he flew to the city of Vienna, a total distance of 620 miles, and dropped copies of an Allied manifesto over the city. They crossed the Alps in a great wind storm at a height of ten thousand feet, and all but one returned safely. The manifesto, which was written by D'Annunzio reads as follows:
People of Vienna, you are fated to know the Italians. We are flying over Vienna and could drop tons of bombs. On the contrary we leave a salutation and the flag with its colors of liberty. We Italians do not make war on children, the aged and women. We make war on your government, which is the enemy of the liberty of nations,—on your blind, wanton, cruel government, which gives you neither peace nor bread, and nurtures you on hatred and delusions. People of Vienna, you have the reputation of being intelligent, why then do you wear the Prussian uniform? Now you see the entire world is against you, do you wish to continue the war? Keep on, then, but it will be your suicide. What can you hope from the victory promised to you by the Prussian generals? Their decisive victory is like the bread of
the Ukraine,—one dies while, awaiting it. People of Vienna, think of your dear ones, awake ! Long live Italy, Liberty and the Entente !
It was said that copies of this proclamation in Vienna had a value of fifty dollars a copy. D'Annunzio's great fame had seized upon the popular imagination. His career in the war would have been interesting in itself, but when one recognizes that he was already a world figure, the greatest modern Italian dramatist and novelist, his life seems almost like a fairy story. Before the war began he made addresses all over his country, urging Italy's participation in the war, and when war was declared, to him, as much as to any other man, was due the credit. He entered the Navy, and has written some fascinating descriptions of his life on board ship. Later he joined the airplane corps, and now was showering down upon the gaping populace of Vienna appeals to rise against its Hapsburg masters. D'Annunzio was extraordinary in his literary career. He had been the poet of passion, a writer of novels and plays, which although artistic in the highest degree, showed him to be an egotist and a decadent. But long before the war he had tired of his erotic productions and had begun to write the praises of Nature and of heroes. He had been singing the praises of his country. "La Nave" symbolizes the glory of Venice. He had become more wholesome. War was making him not only a man but a hero.
Of course D'Annunzio was not the only great literary man who had left the study for the battlefield. AEschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis; Ariosto put down a rebellion for his prince between composition of cantos of Orlando Furioso; Sir Philip Sydney was scholar, poet and soldier, and many a soldier when his wars were over has turned to the labors of the pen. Yet it is not without surprise that one sees D'Annunzio join this distinguished company, and one's admiration grows as it becomes plain that he was not a mere poseur. He was a poet, but he was a soldier too. Not every great poet could drive an airplane to Vienna.