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The Battle of Vittorio Veneto 1918
Synopsis: British forces lead the way in dramatic advance across the River Piave
The Allies were disappointed and angered at the Italians inability to counterattack against the Austrians following their defeat at Asiago and along the Piave in June 1918. Both Foch, newly appointed Generalissimo, and Lord Cavan, Commanding British forces in Italy, attempted to persuade the Italians to action. However, no definite assurances were received from Diaz (Italian Commander-in-Chief succeeding Cadorna) until October 6th. During the long pause in serious operations, the French and British Allies carried out sustained raiding and patrol activity. For example, in July the British fired an average of 14,000 shells a day on the Asiago alone. The German Army suffered a serious defeat on the Western Front in August, and the Austrians were left in no doubt that they could no longer count on German assistance: on the contrary they were asked how many Divisions they could send to France. This had a crushing effect in Austria, and confidence melted away. On 4th October 1918, Austria associated herself with the German appeal to President Wilson, for an armistice. Diaz reorganised and formed two new armies. The Tenth, under the command of Lord Cavan, included XIV Corps (7th and 23rd Divisions), and the Italian XI Corps of two Divisions. The Twelfth, under the French General Graziani, included no British units. The 48th Division came under Italian XII Corps. By October, the Allies had 60 Divisions with 7,700 guns, facing 61 and 6,030. The overall battle plan was for Allied forces to break through across the Piave, separating the Austrian armies in the mountains from those on the Vittorio Veneto plain, and then to wheel westwards. The first phase would be for the Tenth and Eighth Armies to attack at the junction of the Austrians Isonzo and Sixth Armies, between the Montello and Papadopoli Island. This would be preceded by an advance to capture Papadopoli itself, which was garrisoned by Hungarian units.
Where the battle took place:
The River Piave flows in a generally north-west to south-east direction, joining the sea to the east of Venice. North-West of Treviso - which is itself north of Venice, it loops around a hilly area called the Montello. The river from this point to the sea is very broad, some 800 yards in places, but fast-flowing. South-east of the Montello a series of islands lies in the river, of which the largest is the 4-mile long Papadopoli. The land on either side is flat, giving those in occupation of the Montello an excellent observation advantage.The land beyond the next river, the Monticano, is densely-populated and agricultural.
The clearing of Papadopoli Island at 8.15pm on 23rd October 1918, the 22nd Brigade of 7th Division began to cross the dangerous Piave on 12 flat-bottomed boats. The first platoons landed safely, before the Austrian artillery were alerted. Casualties were suffered, but no boat was hit, and the crossings continued. Once bridgeheads were secured, Italian Pontieri engineers built footbridges, and the rest of the Division crossed by this means. By 5am on the 24th, the Papadopoli objectives had been achieved, at small loss. The Hungarians put up poor resistance and did not counterattack. However, the weather worsened and although more units crossed to the island ready for the next days main assault, conditions slowed progress, to the point where the attack was postponed. Next day, the weather improved: the island was cleared, and a pontoon bridge constructed after much effort.The BundThe next phase of attack was to clear the Bund (the Austrian front line on the east bank), and advance into the plain beyond. Zero hour was 6.45am on the 27th October. Both Divisions of XIV Corps would attack. The infantry crossed the rest of the river on foot; some men were drowned in the attempt. The thin bombardment had destroyed little of the wire, and enemy machine-gun fire was intense. However, by rush and bravery, the Bund objective was captured by 7am. 'The appearance of the British (at the Bund) created universal terror' (Austrian Official History). Further objectives were reached after overcoming resistance from fortified villages and isolated farms. XIV Corps was the only attacking formation to achieve all of its objectives on the day. In so doing it captured 2,500 prisoners and 54 guns, and advanced 3000 yards from the river.The River MonticanoOn the 28th, all three Allied bridgeheads on the east bank were consolidated and expanded. Again, units of XIV Corps achieved all objectives and by nightfall were nearing the high banks of the next river barrier, the Monticano. This position was strongly held by the Austrians, and resistance proved much harder on the 29th. However, in most places the British achieved their first objective and crossed the Monticano. The Austrians were by now in general retreat, and the way was open to the Vittorio Veneto plain, but by now the troops were tired, and out-running their supplies. The British were also way ahead of the Italian units on either flank. The River LivenzaBoth the 7th and 23rd Divisions pushed forward their reserve Brigades, and mounted and cyclist troops continued the advance as fast as could be achieved. Enemey resistance was sporadic indeed, but increased as the Livenza was neared. General Shoubridge of the 7th Division: 'You have only to march like Hell and the war is won'. Unfortuantely, ammunition supply was by now so low, and the columns coming up from the Piave so delayed, that a halt was ordered for the 31st.The advance continued on the 1st November, where little resistance was encountered. It continued until 4th November, crossing the Tagliamento, until halted by the Austrians signing the Armistice.
British open-warfare offensive tactics won the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, as did incredible bravery and feats of engineering in gaining Papadopoli Island and the Bund. However, artillery support was light, and logistics constrained by the bridging capacity at the rivers.
The Allies - and without question the two British Divisions of XIV Corps led the way - utterly defeated two Austrian Armies on this front. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George strongly believed that it was possible to defeat Germany through attacking its neighbours elsewhere, particularly in Italy. While this proved not to be the case, there is no doubt that the defeat of the Austrians at Vittorio Veneto contributed to German anxiety and the signing of the Armistice at Compiegne.