WWI Centennial: Allies Triumph In Italy, German Sailors Mutiny

Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi, Due Secoli di Guerre, Vol. 7, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5
Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi, Due Secoli di Guerre, Vol. 7, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

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.

Map of the Vittoria Veneto battle of World War I
Erik Sass

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.

Italian machine guns on Mount Grappa, World War I
Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi, Due Secoli di Guerre, Vol. 7, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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).

Battle of the Vittorio Veneto in Italy, World War I
Italian Army, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

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.

Map of the Vittoria Veneto battle, World War I
Erik Sass

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).

Italian soldiers marching at the end of World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.”

Austro-Hungarian POWs after the Vittorio Veneto battle, World War I
Italian Army, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

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.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English

Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base
Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base

If asked to name a pirate from history, many people will mention Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd. If pressed to name a female pirate, they might mention Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean alongside Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham in the early 18th century. Anne Bonny, however, was far from the only female pirate to terrorize the seas. More than a century before Bonny's birth, another woman ruled the waves, debated with Queen Elizabeth I, and sat at the head of a prosperous pirate empire. She was Grace O'Malley, Pirate Queen.

Grace With the Cropped Hair

Known in Gaelic as Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace was born in Ireland sometime around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, ruler of the territory of Umhall and the lord of an ancient, powerful dynasty in the province of Connaught. The Ó Máille family's money came from the seas, raised in the form of taxes levied on anyone who fished off their stretch of the Irish coast. The family were also shrewd traders and merchants, trading (and sometimes plundering) as far away as Spain. Ó Máille castles also dominated the southwest coastline of County Mayo, providing protection from invasion for the wealthy lord's territory. At a time when the Tudors in England were ramping up their conquest of Ireland, such defensive measures were vital.

The folklore of Grace O'Malley begins in her childhood, when she supposedly begged her father to let her join him on a trade mission to Spain. When he refused his daughter's request on the grounds that her long hair would be hazardous on the rolling deck of a ship, she hacked off her mane, earning herself the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or "Grace with cropped hair."

Though little is known of Grace's early life, when she was about 16 she made a political marriage to Dónal Ó Flaithbheartaigh, heir to the lands of Ó Flaithbheartaigh. It was an excellent dynastic match, but despite bearing her husband three children, Grace wasn't made for housewifery. She had more ambitious plans.

Soon Grace was the driving force in the marriage, masterminding a trading network to Spain and Portugal and leading raids on the vessels that dared to sail close to her shores. When her husband was killed in an ambush by a rival clan around 1565, Grace retreated to Clare Island, and established a base of operations with a band of followers. According to legend, she also fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—and for a time life was happy. But when her lover was murdered by a member of the neighboring MacMahon family, Grace led a brutal assault on the MacMahon castle at Doona and slaughtered his killers. Her actions earned her infamy as the Pirate Queen of Connaught.

Though Grace remarried for the sake of expanding her political clout, she wasn't about to become a dutiful wife. Within a year she was divorced, though pregnant, and living at Rockfleet Castle, which she'd gained in the marriage and which became her center of operations. According to legend, the day after giving birth to to her ex-husband’s son aboard a ship, she leapt from her bed and vanquished attacking corsairs

Grace continued to lead raiding parties from the coast and seized English vessels and their cargo, all of which did little to endear her to the Tudors. She was known for her aggression in battle, and it's said that when her sons appeared to be shirking, she shamed them into action with a cry of "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?"—which roughly translates as "Are you trying to hide in my arse, where you came out of?"

In 1574 an English expedition sailed for Ireland with the aim of putting an end to her exploits once and for all. Though they besieged Rockfleet Castle, no one knew the coastline better than Grace, and she repulsed them with the might of her own ships.

But Grace made history in 1593 after her son was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught. Appointed in 1584, Bingham had taken office as part of English efforts to tighten their hold on Ireland, and in 1586 his men had been responsible for the death of one of Grace's sons. Bingham also took cattle and land from Grace, which only served to increase her thirst for revenge. Yet she was a politician as much as a warrior, and knew that she couldn't hope to beat Bingham and the forces of the English government single-handedly.

Instead, she took the diplomatic route and traveled to England, where she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to discuss the release of her son and the seizure of her lands. In addition, she challenged Gaelic law that denied her income from her husband's land and demanded that she receive appropriate recompense. She argued that the tumult reigning in Connacht had compelled her to "take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past." Bingham urged the queen to refuse the audience, claiming that Grace was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years," but Elizabeth ignored his entreaties. Perhaps the monarch was intrigued by this remarkable woman, because Grace's request was granted, and the two women met in September 1593.

A Meeting With the Queen

An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
Anthologia Hibernica volume II, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Grace's Greenwich Palace summit with the queen has become legendary. She supposedly wouldn't bow to Elizabeth, whom she didn't recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Though dressed in a magnificent gown that befit her status, she also carried a dagger, which she refused to relinquish. The queen, however, was happy to receive her visitor—dagger and all. The summit was conducted in Latin, supposedly the only tongue the two women shared. Ignoring the fact that they were virtually the same age, Elizabeth decided that there was only "pity to be had of this aged woman" whom she believed "will fight in our quarrel with all the world."

By the end of the long meeting, an agreement had been reached. Bingham would be instructed to return Grace's lands, pay her the funds she had demanded, and free her son. In return, Grace would withdraw her support of the Irish rebellion and attack only England's enemies.

Yet the victory was short-lived. Though her son was freed, Bingham's censure was brief, and Grace received back none of the territory she had lost. Grace was furious, and she soon withdrew from public life.

The last years of Grace O’Malley are shrouded in mystery. It’s believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603—the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. Her memory lives on, not least in the Irish ballads, which remember her with these verses:

In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude
She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Additional Sources: Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley; Pirate Queen; Anecdotes of the Aristocracy; "The day the Virgin Queen bowed to the pirate queen," Times of London; A Forgotten Part of Ireland; "Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend," History Ireland.

When Germany Planned to Airdrop Fake Money to Take Down Great Britain in World War II

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Nothing looks particularly remarkable about the World War II-era printing plate at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It displays the text and serial numbers you would expect to find on British banknotes from the time, but this artifact didn't come from the British government—as the video from Atlas Obscura below explains. The plate was a tool used by Nazi Germany in an attempt to delegitimize the economy of Great Britain.

When they weren't combating troops on the battlefield, Germany was devising ways to bring down other European nations using spy tactics. One of these strategies was called Operation Bernhard. By printing 130 million pounds of fake British currency and slipping it into Britain via airdrop, Germany hoped to cripple the nation's economy.

To make the banknotes, Nazis relied on forced labor from artists, bankers, and known forgers being held captive in concentration camps. Details from the authentic bills—including watermarks, serial numbers, and the type of paper used to make them—were replicated in the forged documents.

Despite the effort put into the project, the fake banknotes never made it into British circulation. The Luftwaffe, the airfleet Germany had planned to use to drop the bills over Britain, had sustained too many losses by the time the plan was ready to be set in motion. Germany may have used some of the counterfeit cash to launder money and pay off spies working for the army, but by the end of World War II, any remaining evidence of the scheme was disposed of in a lake in Austria.

Years later, those artifacts were recovered, and the Spy Museum recently added the pound notes and a forged printing plate to its collection. According the museum, the plate is the only known surviving printing plate created by Nazi Germany for Operation Bernhard.

To see the artifacts and learn more about them, check out the video from Atlas Obscura below.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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