WWI Centennial: Allies Triumph In Italy, German Sailors Mutiny
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 322nd installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!
OCTOBER 24-NOVEMBER 3, 1918: ALLIES TRIUMPH IN ITALY, GERMAN SAILORS MUTINY
Italy’s defensive victory at the Second Battle of the Piave in June 1918 raised French and British hopes of an immediate Italian offensive against outnumbered and demoralized Habsburg forces, preventing them from reinforcing Austria Hungary’s ally Germany on the Western Front. However, the new Italian commander, Armando Diaz—determined not to repeat the dramatic failures of his disgraced predecessor, Luigi Cadorna—delayed until it became clear that the Allies were about to win the war on the Western Front, leaving Italy little time to stake its own claims. Ending the war with Habsburg troops still deep inside Italian borders would give Britain and France a perfect excuse to ignore Italian demands in the postwar settlement. To justify annexing formerly Austrian territory, Italy would have to conquer at least some of it.
In October 1918 Diaz was finally moved to action by an angry letter from Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. He was worried that the Allies indeed intended to sideline Italy, especially regarding its claims to lands around the Adriatic Sea (where the Allies had made conflicting promises to Italy and a new confederation of southern Slavs, called “Yugoslavia,” to be created after the war).
According to the plan finalized on October 12, a total of 33 divisions, including British and French units, would attack all along the Italian front. The main offensive would be conducted by the Italian Eighth, Tenth and Twelfth Armies along the Piave, with supporting attacks by the Fourth Army around Mount Grappa.
While the Allies enjoyed major advantages in manpower, artillery, and air power, the offensive got off to a moderately disastrous start—all too typically for the Italian front—due to a combination of inclement weather and poor leadership. The natural obstacles included a seasonal downpour that raised the Piave River to dangerous levels, making crossing the river even more dangerous than usual, as during the Austrian attack at the Second Battle of Piave. Even worse, Diaz failed to implement new tactics, sending the attacking infantry over in regularly spaced lines regardless of terrain—a recipe for bloody defeats in many previous battles on the Italian front as well as in other theaters during the First World War.
The first setback came when the rising level of the Piave led Diaz to revise the order of operations. Instead of launching simultaneous attacks, the Fourth Army would attack the Austrian positions on Mount Grappa on October 24, 1918, in advance of the main offensive across the Piave—hopefully outflanking defenders further east. But obsolete Italian infantry tactics couldn’t dislodge Habsburg troops from strong defensive positions on the mountain, and the Fourth Army failed to make significant progress, suffering 25,000 casualties in exchange for only minor gains by the end of the month (below, an Italian machine gun crew).
After a two-day delay due to the swollen Piave, on October 26 Diaz finally launched the Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth Army attacks—but once again the Allies struggled to make headway, as the raging river washed away the pontoon bridges built by engineering units, leaving a small number of friendly forces stranded on the other side of the river. However, after a punishing artillery bombardment, several British divisions in the Tenth Army finally managed to secure a bridgehead across the Piave as the river began to subside on the morning of October 27, forcing the battered Habsburg defenders to abandon their positions. This immediately triggered a general retreat by their neighboring units, now at risk of being outflanked.
The retreat swiftly turned into a rout, followed by the total collapse of the remaining Habsburg forces. Tens of thousands of troops mutinied and demanded that they be allowed to return to their various homelands in the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire to protect their families and property in case of widespread civil disorder (top and below, Italian troops advancing).
Michael Maximilian Reiter, a Habsburg storm platoon officer, wrote in his diary in October 1918:
“Rumor has it that thousands of soldiers who are heartily sick of the war are going to start demonstrating for their return home. We have now heard that the whole 39th Regiment refused point-blank to go out to training, and demanded to be returned home to Hungary. This mutinous mood is spreading fast, and the soldiers of the whole of one company, ordered to proceed to the Front, refused to obey.”
Reiter later described events that encapsulated the complete breakdown of authority as officers no longer dared to enforce the military hierarchy:
“Events have begun to gather momentum. Tonight, one of the sergeants appeared in the Officers’ Mess dining room at 8 o’clock, while we were in the middle of dinner, and asked us most sincerely to take him and his colleagues home. He promised that all the men would maintain strict discipline, but that they would not go the front. We attempted all manner of persuasion, promising that if the war did not end within a week, we would ourselves go home with them. The sergeant left the room, but returned in half an hour, bearing a message from the soldiers’ spokesman to the effect that their patience was quite exhausted, and that they were not prepared to wait any longer. And indeed, the soldiers were as good as their word and duly mutinied.”
By October 29, 1918 the Italians had reached the town of Vittorio Veneto, which gave its name to the battle, where Habsburg artillery made a half-hearted attempt to cover the massive retreat. Jan Tříska, a Czech gunner still fighting loyally for the Habsburg Army, recalled:
“After a two-hour rest, the men moved to a fork in the road overlooking both the Vittorio Veneto and the Conegliano roads, assembled the guns, readied them, set up an observation post on top of a nearby hill, and fired a few rounds westward at the advancing Italian infantry, over the heads of the masses of Austrian troops retreating in four separate columns on the highway.”
But Tříska and his comrades soon heard news that swiftly undermined their determination to keep fighting:
“From the weary, hungry, and parched soldiers trudging down the road, the men of the battery gathered alarming pieces of information—were they rumors?—that in several areas the front-line Austrian infantry, sick and tired of the war, was giving up and surrendering en masse … The retreating men were cursing the ‘incompetent’ emperor, his ‘high-living’ court, and the ‘coterie of elite officers’ who had ‘betrayed’ those who fought in the front ranks of the war.”
By the following day it was clear that Austria-Hungary had suffered a decisive defeat, leaving Tříska and his comrades trying to figure out what would come next:
“The evening was cold and rainy, and the men built fires, outdoors as well as indoors. They gathered in groups to talk, to listen, to argue, to try to understand what was happening and, most important of all, to try to guess what would happen to them. What were the practical consequences of losing a war? What effect would it have on the combatants, on the people at home, on the Empire? The questions were many, the answers few.”
Tříska noted that Austrian and Hungarian officers took the highly unusual step of asking the men what they thought, with a bizarre vote to see what form of government they favored—a republic or the continuation of the monarchy—which they later ignored:
“The fact was that the men—including many of the German-speaking Austrians and the Hungarians—knew little about the actual social, economic, and political conditions in their respective national homelands, and what they knew was not good. Finally, the officers dismissed the men, who were now more confused than ever. What did the vote mean? Why was it taken? What was the motive of the officers taking it? The men talked far into the night.”
Unfortunately for tens of thousands of ordinary Austro-Hungarian soldiers, the dying Habsburg dynasty would demonstrate its incompetence and neglect one last time: It managed to bungle the surrender. On November 3, 1918, Italian and Austro-Hungarian representatives agreed to an armistice whose conditions included the withdrawal of all Austro-Hungarian troops to an armistice line extending beyond the pre-war border in many places—putting Italian boots on the ground in Habsburg territory, as the Italian government had hoped. However, Austro-Hungarian officials neglected to tell their troops that the armistice would only take effect after 24 hours; as a result, the Italians continued advancing and capturing Habsburg troops who had already thrown down their weapons, thinking the fighting was over (above, Habsburg POWs). Altogether the Italians captured around 350,000 prisoners on the last day of “fighting,” which probably resulted in the needless deaths of many POWs from disease, starvation, or exposure in the months that followed. Tříska recorded the final indignity:
“Representatives of the two belligerents had apparently signed the armistice agreement on that very day, November 3. Why, then, did the Italians continue their offensive? Had no one told them that the war was over? Austrian ‘parliamentarians,’ non-coms mounted on horses and on motorcycles, rode toward the advancing Italian troops and waved white flags, but without much success.”
Meanwhile, to the east, an Italian naval expedition occupied the city of Trieste, one of the main goals of Italian nationalists who pressured the country into joining the Allies in 1915. (After the war the Italians were allowed to keep Trieste, but not the rest of the Adriatic coast, fueling the grievances of ultra-nationalists like Benito Mussolini, who felt that Italy had been robbed by its own allies.)
Whatever their feelings about the collapse of the empire they had been born in, the end of the war probably brought relief for most Habsburg soldiers who escaped captivity. They streamed back to their ethnic homelands—now in the process of becoming new nation-states, including independent republics in Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia—by the tens of thousands. However, the return journey remained perilous, as noted by Reiter, who had a surprisingly pleasant end of the war:
“It was a depressing sight for a professional soldier to observe the remnants of a fine Army clinging on to any and every vehicle, even riding of the roofs of trains, from which many were swept to their death when the train rushed through the tunnels of the Austrian Alps. I myself, in the company of one of my friends, rode happily on bicycles through the Alps for about 10 days, in glorious autumn weather, until we eventually came upon a train and were able to get seats to our home town.”
GERMAN SAILORS MUTINY
As Austria-Hungary was carried away by the tide of history, to the north the Second German Reich was entering its death throes, which would soon see the toppling of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the abdication and flight of Wilhelm II, the end of the German empire, and the founding of a republic. Most historians date the beginning of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 to October 27, 1918, with an uprising by sailors in the northern ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, who mutinied rather than carry out a suicidal, purely symbolic last-minute attack by the German High Seas Fleet against superior Allied navies.
The mutinies spread swiftly over the next few days, and by November 3 had assumed the character of a rebellion, as thousands of civilian residents of Kiel took to the streets in solidarity with the sailors, resulting in a number of deaths as police broke up the protests. On November 5 the national Social Democratic Party called for a general strike in support of the sailors. Soviet-style “councils” of workers and soldiers sprang up across Germany, while sailors and civilians took control of northern Germany, including the main ports of Bremen and Hamburg. On November 7 sailors occupied Cologne, while the socialist journalist Kurt Eisner declared a socialist “Free State” in the southern German province of Bavaria.
Germany faced a long period of political chaos, defined by internecine conflict approaching civil war between far-right and far-left paramilitaries. In the short term, however, the top priority was overthrowing the kaiser’s authoritarian regime, which had become a military dictatorship under the top generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Georges Connes, a French POW held captive in eastern Germany, described the sudden reversal of roles within the ranks of the German military at the prison camp:
“A second-class navy man from the Baltic Fleet presented himself at the gate with a revolver in each hand. When he appeared, as if it was an agreed upon signal; The entire station crew hurried out, throwing down the imperial insignia and saluting the republic … Still with revolvers in hand and followed by several men, the sailor went up to the command post, where officers appear to have shown no resistance. He soon came back out, dragging them along with no epaulettes … and marched them to the police station … If you haven’t witnessed, as I have, the insult inflicted upon German officers; If you haven’t seen them stripped of their insignia of rank and power and dragged behind the victors, you cannot comprehend the real depth of the German revolution.”
Unsurprisingly, rumors of mutiny and revolution at home proved fatal to the morale of German soldiers already retreating on the Western Front. Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, wrote in his diary on November 3, 1918:
“Any comment on these wholly crazy items of news is superfluous, for no words can express what is going on now in the heart of every soldier: despair, anger and indignation in the highest degree … The Austrians are supposed to have been attacking their own soldiers and officers and tearing the imperial and royal badge off their caps. They’re said to be flying the [republican] tricolor in Vienna, and what’s happening to us?”
Yet the desperate fighting still continued, with heavy casualties on both sides, up to the last moment. Richard Derby, an American division surgeon, described the renewed American attack in the Argonne:
“At 4 o’clock on the morning of November 1 a bombardment broke loose that must have carried terror to the heart of the Hun. Every ravine within seven kilometers of the Front belched fire. The noise was terrific, and the effect must have been deadly … And yet the pounding went relentlessly on, gaining and volume and magnitude as at 6 o’clock the infantry began its advance.”
On November 5, Sulzbach wrote of a harrowing retreat:
“The withdrawal proceeds the following night, starting at the delightful march-off time of 1 a.m. We ride through the pitch-black night; You can’t see your hand in front of your face! The roads are soft after 24 hours of rain. The French are firing into the area with the vilest low-trajectory guns you could imagine, and at quite irregular intervals they put down sweeping fire with these heavy-caliber guns on all roads in the rear area. With our columns and our guns, however, we can’t keep off the roads at all, and have to push on through this curtain fire; it was really dreadful, because our nerves were so bad … worse than they’ve been all these years.”
Two days later, to the west, the British soldier John Jackson described crossing a canal under heavy fire in Flanders:
“At dawn on [November 7] the attack on Droninghem commenced to the accompaniment of a hail of devastating artillery fire. Light guns, field guns, and heavy batteries poured their shells on Jerry’s concrete defenses and gun emplacements, while throughout the general pandemonium of noises could be distinguished the sharp persistent rattles of Maxims and Lewis guns, which belched forth death and destruction in a storm of bullets. First, and not the least of the obstacles confronting us, was the problem of crossing the intervening canal, not by any means a simple matter in the face of enemy machine-gun fire, and his general determined resistance to our advance. As soon as our object was perceived, the Germans opened a raking fire on us, and took a heavy toll, as rafts were swamped, and wounded men drowned in the canal… The price we paid was heavy, and dear, but we got over in the end.”
Another British soldier, Ivor Hanson, described now-familiar scenes of horror in his diary entry on November 5, 1918:
“This morning, seated with the gunners on the limbers, I saw the frightful havoc wrought by German machine guns. In the distance a particular expanse of land looked like a turnip field, but when we drew near we found the objects were not turnips. There the tragic, lifeless corpses lay, the price of our advance … The German dead were dragged unceremoniously from the road to the pavements for us to proceed. Their faces are lurid, amber-colored, and the bodies stiff like waxworks models. Disgusting, disturbing sights. How cheap human life can become.”
As always, many more men were wounded than killed, with grievous wounds bringing a horror all their own. Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, was shaken by an encounter with a badly wounded German, whose leg was amputated without anesthesia in a small cottage on October 31, 1918:
“While I was waiting outside I heard a terrible scream from within. I rushed inside but was too late to see the cause of the scream—an amputation without ether of a young Boche’s leg. Never in my life have I seen anything which could compare to the pain and anguish in the face and every muscle of the body of that German. As we lifted him into the ambulance his huddled body expressed far better than words his—I know not what—could I describe what I saw there I would be a writer—I only know that I saw something trajic [sic]—more than trajic something I cannot put into words.”