Italy's Thermopylae, Part 2
|Contributed by Member
Monument at Bassano to "The Boys of 99"
Italy had survived, virtually alone. Winter locked up the highlands, but around Monte Grappa a race for recovery would take place as each side vied for deeper defenses, building up supplies and manpower for the spring offensive everyone knew would come. Italian killed, missing and wounded from la battaglia d'arresto, the exact number will never be known, were around 50,000. Austro-German casualty figures are similarly vague. The Class of 1899, il ragazzi del '99, was called up and after rudimentary training, were placed into the hollow divisions destroyed at Caporetto. Italian casualties from this battle had totaled over 300,000 and these mobilized youth, numbering 260,000, could not have arrived at a better time.
On the 8th of November 1917, Italian commander-in-chief Cadorna, as much a political creature as general, was replaced by General Armando Diaz, whose leadership included applying new tactics and a flexible strategy while ignoring the political intrigues in Rome. He better utilized artillery according to its range and replaced the once vulnerable [indeed solitary] Italian frontline with a system of multiple, interlocking trenches and defensive fires. Cadorna's leadership had featured over-control by an isolated, rigid command. Italian commanders at all levels wasted precious time waiting for direct permission to attack, then halting or retreating could result in summary execution for officers, sergeants and soldiers alike. In contrast, Diaz unified Italy's tactical doctrine, granted subordinate commanders needed flexibility and initiative, and improved dialogue with the Allies. Leaves were greatly increased, a morale building luxury almost unknown under Cadorna. New units of Italian shock troops, the Arditi or "bold ones," were also placed on line. Conceived in mid-1917, by a Captain Barri, their use was not fully understood by the high command. Now it was.
Events elsewhere in Europe affected the situation in Italy. Most of the German units that had been so decisive at Caporetto [and so decimated on Grappa] were withdrawn for "Operation Michael," Field Marshall Ludendorff's first Spring Offensive of 1918. Its rapid success caused six of the British and French divisions in Italy to be withdrawn immediately to help counter this dire threat to the entire Western Front. Two Italian divisions and 60,000 Italian laborers were also sent to France--the infantry going to the frontline immediately, the laborers releasing a similar number of Frenchmen for combat duty. Over ten thousand of these Italian fanti that went to France would never return. They fell in the great summer offensives of 1918, including the Second Battle of the Marne; along side the French, British and now formidable American Army.
Map of Monte Grappa Sector
On the Grappa massif, with the Austrian ability to fight in wintry mountains, Italy's position began worsening again by March of 1918. Regular Kaiserjager and reservist Kaiserschutzen, mountain troops of the Austro-Hungarian army, once again captured Monte Fontanasecca, Monte Pertica and eventually the northwestern slopes of Monte Tomba. The Austrians considered the next few months as preparation for the final deathblow to Italy, who Field-Marshall Conrad compared to a shipwrecked sailor clinging to wreckage. One more hatchet stroke would sever his fingers and Italy would sink to the depths. Germany encouraged Austria to initiate this concluding offensive. With the Italian Front closed, Austrian troops would occupy quiet sectors in France while Germany completed its war. Italian intelligence caught wind of the imposing Austrian plans in late May and instead of pursuing their own offensive operation, prepared for a defense in depth. Although the Austrians were in high spirits, a promise from their high command of "an abundance of booty and good food" in this spring offensive was revealing. Austria was feeling the Allied naval blockade as much as Germany, and troops were being promised food as well as victory. (During the Battle of Caporetto, German units abandoned the attack to raid Italian food/supply depots. Similar events occurred during the great spring offensive of 1918 in France.)
On the 15th of June 1918, Austria's final offensive began on three areas of the Italian Front- "Operation Avalanche" at Passo Tonale in the mighty northwestern Alps [actually a diversion], "Operation Radetzky" on the Asiago Altipiano and "Operation Albrecht," centering on the Grappa-Piave area. 100,000 Austrian gas shells, accompanied ten times as many high explosive rounds rained on the Grappa-Piave line in the opening barrage alone. Italy's troops were now equipped with the new "box-type respirator" gas masks, the same used by British and American forces. These masks withstood the gas barrage. Where the Italians caught hell was in their shallow trenches. The fate of Allied troops on the Western Front would befall their Latin brothers. British, French and Italian commanders believed that "deep trenches produced cowards." Austrians and Germans generals held opposite views; some Austrian dugouts had three meters of solid rock overhead. On the Asiago plateau, the Austrian attack focused on British and French forces, considering them the true threat, not "inferior" Italian troops elsewhere along the front line. Austrian success on these highlands would flank the Grappa/ Piave line. A breakthrough onto the lowlands would split the entire front and once again jeopardize Italy's survival. In the spring of 1916 the Italian Army had held the line on the Altipiano, invariably on the last ridge of mountains, holding out until the Russian Brusilov Offensive drew away Austria's attacking forces. In 1918 there would be no Russian threat, but what did occur was a repeat of 1916. The Austrians were once more halted on the very rim of the plateau. This time by an Allied conglomeration of the British 48th and French 23rd divisions, a new Italian sponsored Czech [nationalist] regiment and seven divisions of Bersaglieri, Alpini and regular infantry from across Italy. Although the key town of Asiago was destroyed and captured, the Italian counteroffensive dealt the 24 Austrian divisions a terrible defeat with over 30,000 casualties. The Allies suffered 8,000 killed, wounded and missing--75 percent being Italian.
Austrian Assault Troops, Spring 1918
On the same morning as the Altipiano, the heights of Monte Grappa rang with Austrian gunfire. Three divisions of Austrian storm troops captured the western slopes of the massif and soon occupied the weather-bound heights of Monte Asolone. The two Italian divisions on this flank, men from Bari and Calabria, were no match for the gas, flame and trench mortars the Austrian infantry possessed. These new troops, all 18 years of age save their NCOs and officers, opposed these terrifying new weapons with repeated counter-attacks of cold steel and what little artillery they could muster. It seemed as if their army had forgotten them, as all directives, supplies and communications stopped. The actual cause of the silence was an enormous attack of 25 Austrian Sturm divisions, the true thrust of the "Solstice" offensive, smashing into the Piave line far below. Once again the severe mountain weather of constant fog and driving rain were to the advantage of the Austrian attackers--weather in the Alps generally comes from the northwest. The Abruzzi Division, the only Italian reserve, was thrown into this now downhill struggle. It was on these final southern slopes of Monte Grappa that the Italians unleashed their new weapon--the Arditi. These Italian assault troops were as heavily armed as the Austrian or German Sturmtruppen. They carried numerous light machineguns, dual barrel Villar Perosa sub-machineguns and a few flamethrowers. Their true spirit and success however, was not with their advanced weaponry, but a tactical ferocity with grenade and dagger at close quarters. Their counterattack collapsed the Austrian line, killing nearly half of the now retreating Austrians, halting only because of the dire circumstances on the Piave River far below. [No resupply or reserves could be sent up to Monte Grappa.] The Arditi's sheer fearlessness and extreme brutality made an Italian high command officer who witnessed the attack wonder what would become of these young men after the war, "these people who no longer know the value of human life." Of course we know the answer to this officer's question, in the brutal foundations of Fascism and Nazism. As their military tasks and mission were recognized, the size of the Arditi formations grew. In 1917 these shock troop battalions were attached to regiment and division- by mid-1918 the Arditi were found in their own assault divisions, with attached assets of mortars, combat engineers and trucks for rapid resupply/transport.
Young American Red Cross volunteer Ernest Hemingway also witnessed these battles on Monte Grappa and the Piave. Wounded while carrying rations to Italian troops, he wrote home of the battle's ferocity, plush hospitals and the ground being "black with dead Austrians." The Battle of the Solstice was "a great victory and showed the world what wonderful fighters the Italians are." The battle along the Piave River, the primary effort of the Austrian attack, was a disaster. Despite being outnumbered two to one, the Italian line held. Intercepted radio messages revealed the coming attack and Italian artillery pounded the Austro-Hungarian assembly areas. On the 17th of June 1918, a bridgehead across the Piave seven kilometers deep and twenty wide was lost as the river flooded due to heavy rains in the mountains. In this area alone, 24,000 Austrians were cut off from retreat and captured. The storms that had led to initial Austro-Hungarian success on Monte Grappa were concluding with catastrophe on the floodplains below. Italian and Canadian aircraft destroyed enemy pontoon bridges attempting a rescue. After hearing of Austria's Solstice disaster, the German foreign secretary told his government not to expect an end to the war by military means alone. The Germans had placed great faith in this offensive. Victory in the Alps might broker a better peace treaty with the Allies, an option being seriously considered in Berlin and Vienna. Austrian losses were close to 180,000 including over 35,000 atop Grappa. Italian casualties totaled nearly 85,000 with 14,000 on the mountain. The one French and two British divisions that participated on the Piave suffered over 3,000 killed, missing or wounded. The Allied commander Foch urged Diaz to exploit his victory with a counteroffensive. Diaz refused, replying an Italian counterattack would be as costly as the Austrians had just suffered. In late 1917 Italy had survived one of the greatest offensives of the war and now held the line during a second onslaught, both battles centering on the Grappa massif. The mighty peak would now witness Italy's greatest victory.
Vittorio Veneto, the concluding battle of this front and war, began on Monte Grappa. The mountain phase of this Italian attack became a sacrificial diversion for the main Italian push on the upper Piave River, the offensive that would eliminate the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early morning of the 24th of October 1918, exactly one year after the battle of Caporetto began, 1600 cannons, 500 trench mortars and nine Italian infantry divisions attacked into the clouds and Austrians trenches atop the Grappa massif. Within two days Austrian forces grew from nine divisions to fifteen, including the elite Edelweiss [mountain] Division. Again the battle was insane within the perpetual fog and storm. As positions shifted, artillery became for the most part useless. Trench warfare's terrible tactics would prevail atop this rock bound cluster of peaks and ridges. The Austrian command considered the attack at Grappa the key movement of the Italian Army. Indeed many of Italy's best units were in combat atop the peak: the King's Own Regiment, the highly decorated Aosta Brigade, an entire division of Alpini and several battalions of Arditi. The effects of Austrian counter-attacks on the Italians are described in Italian histories as "a heavy sacrifice of human life." The Aosta, Udine, Firenze and Abruzzi brigades suffered over fifty percent casualties, but held their new line on the peaks of Asolone, Pertica and Tomba.
Italian Trench, Monte Grappa
Far below Monte Grappa on the 27th of October 1918, the main Italian offensive began with bridgeheads established by Ardti units and the Sassari Brigade. Thirty-one Italian, two British and one French division crossed the Piave River. The American 332nd regiment accompanied them, the United States Army's lone unit on the Italian Front. This combined Allied effort was supported by over 6000 pieces of artillery, including 450 Anglo-French guns. At first the Austrian resistance was formidable. Their defensive belts were well constructed and deep, taking into account nearly a year of continuous preparation and constant improvement. Austrian engineers had moved the Isonzo's deadly wire, trenches and bunkers forward. Every Italian veteran understood the serious implications of the renewed offensive. At first the Piave was a battle of attrition, despite three bridgeheads and massive Italian air support. The Battle of Vittorio Veneto was witness to what must be considered the first successful resupply by air of four Italian divisions cut off by flooding and lost pontoon bridges. Critically short of ammunition and food, Italian aircraft supplied tons of material via parachute and airdrop to the beleaguered troops.
What accelerated the collapse of the Austrian defenses occurred to the rear of the Piave line on the 28th of October. On the Grappa massif's eastern hills, regrouped Italian forces [assumed destroyed by both sides] broke out into the lowlands. This move transformed the battle into a complete Italian rout. It was not until this final week of the war that the Emperor's army fell apart, when Austrian troops could not rely on the Empire's "other" races. Along the entire front, the Empire's once loyal subjects of Czechs, Hungarians, Croatians and Poles now realized their people back home were setting up provisional or independent governments and laid down their arms, often motivated by Italian pleas via propaganda leaflets. Loyal Austrian units fearing entrapment began a full retreat. The battle soon turned into a pursuit. From Passo Tonale to the Adriatic similar events took place as the Piave line collapsed. It was now up to Italian cavalry units to cut off the retreating Austrian armies. The attack from Monte Grappa had succeeded at a high cost, especially to the Class of 1899. 24,000 Italians were killed, missing or wounded atop Monte Grappa, two thirds of Italy's losses in the war's final battle. Over 4,000 Anglo-French troops were casualties. One hundred thousand Austrian were killed, missing or wounded during the battle and retreat. Four hundred thousand Austrians were captured before their nation surrendered on November 4th, as well as massive amounts of arms and stores.
As much as Verdun or Gallipoli, the attrition on Monte Grappa embodies the Great War. But this rarely mentioned battlefield has another quality that makes its story additionally dramatic. Imagine the Somme with a two thousand foot elevation gain for every mile. Or imagine Ypres having forty-degree rock slopes with trenches chiseled out of solid stone. Extreme effort and high casualties were always expected during First World War attacks. Imagine, however, advancing up mountain slopes, over barren rock, in dense cloud and howling wind or in a horizontal blizzard of sleet or snow. The incredible resiliency and tactical effectiveness of the Italian infantryman and his stalwart enemy, the troops of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empirestands out amongst the fighters of the Great War.
Italian Dead, Monte Grappa
Italy as a nation, survived the dire situation on these wild Alpine slopes and found vindication. It was the Italy's Army that prevailed at Monte Grappa. An army whose officers and troops transcended the restrictions of an underdeveloped economy with limited resources and a government in turmoil, aloof to their suffering. Considering the horrendous conditions of logistics and survival in an alpine environment and battlefield, the performance of soldato in these battles reflects Italians at their best. Monte Grappa was a rallying point and watershed for the Italian army and population, who had once considered the war a hopeless stalemate or a provincial, far away, almost foreign battle. Along the entire 650-kilometer Alpine frontier the Austrians had held the high ground of mountain peak and ridge, yet in the end Italy was victorious.
For the Italian Class of 1899 [and 1900] there would be no divine intervention in their government's Abraham-like sacrifice at this modern Thermopylae. Across Italy there are statues to the men lost in la Grande Guerra, and il ragazzi del '99--the nation's tragic metaphor of the Great War. The "Boys of '99" would be Italy's contribution to this war's "Lost Generation." Nowhere is it more poignant than outside the town of Bassano, where a single bronze soldier implores the passersby to remember them and the peak so obvious behind him. Atop Monte Grappa is the frozen stone crypt of thousands of mountain warriors and a view that still defies description, of how critical the situation was for Italy in late 1917 and how fierce men are when faced with a nation's survival and the ends of the earth.
Monte Grappa Today
I found four books indispensable to the writing of this article. After reviewing close to twenty atlases and general histories of the Great War, I found three that actually mentioned Monte Grappa ["Monte Graspa" in one text]. Martin Gilbert's The First World War, published in 1994, not only mentions this great battle, but also includes Italy's participation in the war in unusual depth for histories in the English language. The same can be said for coverage of all fronts and nations. The text enhances well-written military history with excerpts of personal accounts, poetry and documents.
In Italian, two books stand out- L'Invasione Del Grappa a cooperative effort by Heinz von Lichem, Alessandro Massignami, Marcello Maltauro and Enrico Acerbi. Its accounts of the battles in November and December of 1917 utilize oral history and diary as well as aerial photographs and maps to enhance each author's account of the battle. Carlo Meregalli's Grande Guerra-Tappe della Vittoria covers Italy's major battles in WW1 with map, photograph and precise descriptions. The statistical information is nothing short of amazing. For anyone studying the Italian Army's efforts in the war this book is a must.
The three-volume history Gebirgskrieg by Heinz von Lichem is perhaps the essential study of World War One in the Alps. From the soaring northwestern frontier to the traumatic Isonzo Front, this book documents all aspects of the war. Although I am slow in German [and Italian] von Lichem's use of battle dispatches, oral histories, art and statistics are all worth the effort. The emphasis is Austro-Hungarian, but well done and complete.
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