British Troops in Italy.
Italy had two main reasons for declaring war upon Austria. First, she was alarmed by the latter's designs upon Serbia and the cast coast of the Adriatic; the success of these would naturally gravely impair Italian influence in the Mediterranean. Secondly, she was anxious to recover Italian lands, held by the Austrians, such as the Trentino in South Tirol, and Trieste and Istria north-east of the Adriatic. In the spring of 1915, Austria made certain vague offers which were regarded as quite insufficient, and on 23rd May, 1915, after further indecisive parleyings, Italy declared war. The Trentino projects into Italy in a great salient, so that the danger of the Austrians secretly collecting troops for a sudden attack had to be guarded against. Fortunately the frontier around this salient and to the east lies along the crests of the Alps, which are crossed by only a few passes. The Italians were satisfied with containing, by frequent local attacks, a number of the enemy in this part, while they made their chief attacks through open country on the east towards the Isonzo. During 1915 no fewer than five great assaults were launched in this direction. In June, 1916, an Austrian counter-offensive from the Trentino, which at first seemed very threatening, was driven back, and in August the attacks upon the Isonzo were resumed, with the result that Gorizia was taken, and the line carried forward across the Carso plateau south of the town. A further advance there and across the Bainsizza plateau north of the town in May, 1917, was checked by the Austrians, but the attack, in which a few British heavy batteries assisted, was resumed later with some success.
Towards the end of October, 1917, the Austrians, aided by Germans, attacked the Italian 2nd Army near Caporetto to the north of Gorizia. The defence, war-weary and much discouraged by troubles amongst the civil population, offered little resistance, and on the 26th, in order to ensure the safety of the rest of the line, a general retreat was ordered. This continued until 12th November when the river Piave was reached. The Italians lost 200,000 men and 2,000 guns, and their gains in the Trentino and near the Isonzo, as well as a district, at least 100 miles deep and of the same breadth, out of their own territory. In their extremity they turned to the Allies for assistance, and five British divisions, the 5th, 7th, 23rd, 41st and 48th, under Sir Henry Plumer, in addition to French divisions under French generals were sent. The Hue of the Piave was fiercely attacked during November but remained firm, and the enemy, content with their gains, at length broke off the engagement. About this time General Diaz succeeded General Cadorna as Itahan commander-in-chief.
The spring of 1918 was quiet, but on 15th June the Austrians resumed the offensive with an attack upon the British 23rd and 48th Divisions on the Asiago plateau, immediately west of the river Brenta. The attack did not succeed, for the positions lost by us were promptly regained by counter-attacks. Attacks upon the Italian lines along the Piave were at first more promising, for crossings were forced at several points. Reinforcements, however, were brought up, and these, aided by a sudden rise of the river which seriously hampered the Austrian lines of transport, retook the lost positions.
During the autumn, signs of a loss of moral among the Austrians began to be noted, and General Diaz, although his forces were fewer in number, decided to attempt a break through. He first ordered an attack up the valley of the Brenta and, when the enemy's reserves were thoroughly engaged in that sector, directed a general attack to the east. As part of this the Earl of Cavan, now commanding the 10th Italian Army which included the 7th and 23rd British Divisions, was ordered to cross the Piave. The river, on the front of attack, was over a mile wide, but it was broken up by numerous islands, the chief of which, the Grave di Papadopoh, was three miles long by one broad.
On the night of 23rd/24th October, the 2nd H.A.C. and the 1st R. Welch Fusiliers, crossing in small boats, surprised the garrison and captured part of the island ; next night the conquest was completed by the 7th and an Italian division. On the 27th, the 7th and 23rd Divisions, under cover of a heavy bombardment, attacked the enemy on the farther bank of the river. Bridges to connect our hues with Papadopoli had been constructed, but, beyond the island, the troops had to use fords. These were often five feet deep, and, as the river was in flood and the currents strong, many men were swept away and drowned. After a stout resistance, the passage was forced, the bridges were carried forward across the river, and the advance was continued. On the British left the. 8th Italian Army was held up, and, for a time, that flank was in some danger. However, the river, still higher up, was crossed by other Italian troops, and eventually the district between us and them was cleared, and on the 28th the 8th Italian Army was able to complete its crossing. On the 29th it reached Vittorio, a very important point in the Austrian lines of communication, while the 10th Army reached the Monticano. A great wedge had thus been driven into the Austrian front, completely dividing the troops in the plains from those in the hill country to the north. The retreat rapidly degenerated into a rout, the enemy abandoning all stores, and surrendering in great numbers, often by whole units at a time. By 4th November Cavan had crossed the Tagliamento, the 6th Army, which included the British 48th Division, was on the outskirts of Trent, and Trieste had been occupied from the sea.
The Austrians had now lost at least 300,000 prisoners and 5,000 guns, most of the nations which formed their straggling empire were in a state of revolution, and further resistance was hopeless. Under an armistice, concluded on 4th November, they demobilised their army, surrendered half their artillery, the bulk of their navy, and all prisoners of war, and, leaving in position all military and railway equipment, evacuated all invaded territory, as well as strips of what, till then, had formed part of their own country.
Sergeant G. Burnett (H.A.C., Educ.) was awarded the M.M. for bravery in action at Papadopoli, and Sergeant A. P. Paveley (R.F.A., Asylums) for bravery in action at Cesuna.
During 1917 Harry Carben (R.A.M.C, Tram.) died at Taranto of dysentery on 20th July, and during 1918 Charles Gristwood (R.F.A., Tram.) died of rupture on 24th January, Capt. R. P. Buxton (4th Oxf. and Bucks L.I., Educ.) was killed in action on the Asiago plateau on 15th June, and V. E. T. Sahnon (2nd H.A.C., Educ.) died on 3rd November of influenza.
The British 7th and 23rd Divisions alone captured 28,000 prisoners and 219 guns, and the 48th Division at least 20,000 prisoners and 500 guns.