ASIAGO, BATTLE OF, 1916. The Asiago plateau was the scene of various battles on the Italian front during the World War (q.v.) ; but the more distinctive name of the battle of Asiago was given to the fighting which took place on the Trentino front during the Austrian offensive of 1916.
An attack from the Trentino with the object of cutting the Italian communications with the Julian front, and so bottling Cadorna's main force in what Krauss (in his book Die Ursachen unserer Niederlage) calls "the Venetian sack," was an operation which could not but commend itself to the Austrian general staff. Even Falkenhayn, who refused his co-operation to the proposal made by Conrad von Hotzendorff in Dec. 1915, admits that "it was very inviting." He did not, however, agree with Conrad and with Krauss, then chief of the staff to the archduke Eugene, that a completely successful attack would have a decisive effect. He doubted the possibility of collecting the force he considered necessary for the enterprise (25 divisions) , and did not think that the railway communications were adequate to supply such a force. He was, moreover, anxious about the Russian front. Conrad's plan was to attack through the Asiago and Arsiero uplands, in the direction of Vicenza and Bassano, and when he failed to convince Falkenhayn that the effort should be a joint one, he determined to attack independently.
When Cadorna went to visit the lines in person, at the end of April, he found that while the front lines, in many cases unsuitable for prolonged resistance, had been elaborately fortified, in various sectors the reserve lines which he had indicated as the "battle positions" were almost untouched. Cadorna ordered the positions to be modified, and the work of preparation was hastened on ; but the enemy attack seemed imminent, and it was impossible to set about a complete reorganization under the immediate threat. On May 8 Brusati was replaced by Gen. Pecori-Giraldi, the com mander of the 7th Corps (3rd Army), and within a week the Austrian offensive was launched.
To meet the attack, Pecori-Giraldi had in line and immediate reserve, between Lake Garda and the Val Cismon (north of the Val Sugana), 13o regular battalions, seven battalions of Customs Guards and 45 battalions of Territorial Militia, the latter at very low strength and of small fighting value. But his centre was weak, for 28 battalions of regular troops were in the Val Sugana sector, and on the actual front of attack he had only 90 regular battalions. Another division was concentrating at Desenzano, and five more were on the Tagliamento ready to be sent in support in case of need. The artillery strength consisted of 851 guns, of which 348 were of heavy or medium calibre and 259 were light guns of posi tion. Dankl had, initially, a big superiority in infantry, but his great advantage lay in his preponderance of artillery strength. Be tween the Val Lagarina and the Val Sugana were concentrated some 2,00o guns, of which nearly half were of heavy or medium calibre, including 4o 305-mm. howitzers, four 380's and two or three German 420's.
For a time everything went well with the attack. The Italians were driven back from their ill-chosen front lines, losing many prisoners and guns, and by May 19 their position was very grave all along the line from the Vallarsa to the Astico. The retiring troops had failed to make a prolonged stand on the insufficiently prepared battle positions. On the left Monte Pasubio, the key position, was only lightly held by reserves, which had been hurried up in the nick of time, and in the centre the Austrians had driven the defenders off the main line of defence, which ran from Monte Maggio by Campomolon to Spitz Tonezza. The 37th Division, which had held this line, had been forced back beyond the Posina and the Astico, and there were gaps both to right and left of it. The Austrian right was pressing hard on the Italian main positions west of the Vallarsa (Coni Zugna and Passo Buole), and was col lecting forces to attack Pasubio. There was breathing space for a moment in the centre, but the Austrian left now came into action, Krautwald von Annan's 3rd (Graz) Corps being launched against the Italian 34th Division. Ample Italian reserves were now on the move, but it was a race. Krauss blames the archduke Charles for waiting with his loth Corps until the guns could be brought up to support a new attack, instead of driving through at once to Arsiero with all available troops. The risk was not taken, and the short respite gave time to close the door in the face of the invader.
The course of the battle, with the necessity of bringing up re serve divisions, led to a reorganization of the attacking forces, Kovess taking command of the left wing and Dankl of the right. In the Vallarsa and Pasubio sector the attack developed strongly, but without success. Farther north the archduke Charles was wait ing for his guns and reserves, and between his left and the 3rd Corps, Kirchbach's 1st Corps was coming into action. The 3rd Corps was hammering against the Italian 34th Division, which was not to resist for long.
The situation in the centre was critical, and Cadorna considered that if the Austrians were able to concentrate on the weak spot and keep up the impetus of their attack they might succeed in breaking through to the plain. On May 20 he went to Udine, and after consultation with the duke of Aosta and Frugoni gave orders for the concentration of a reserve army in the Venetian plain. The first four corps of this reserve army (the 5th), which were made up of units drawn from the 2nd and 3rd Armies, were ready on June 2.
Meanwhile the Austrians were continuing their advance in the centre, but they could gain no ground against the Italian left. By May 22 Bertotti's 44th Division, sent up from Desenzano, was in solid possession of both sides of the Vallarsa road and of Pasubio, and in touch with Ricci-Armani's 37th Division on his left. It was in this sector that the Austrian offensive met its fate. Owing to the steadfast resistance of the troops under Ricci-Armani and Bertotti, Dankl could never secure a sufficient width of front for his ad vance. If the Zugna ridge had fallen, the effect upon the Pasubio position, already a salient, would have been more than serious, and upon the holding of the Pasubio lines depended the maintenance of the positions to the eastward. If Pasubio went, the line south of the Posina was turned, and the Austrians had a new route to the plain by the Valli dei Signori, as well as the opening they were now making for, by the Lower Astico. Till May 3o the attacks on the Zugna ridge were continuous, but no progress was made. The at tempts upon Pasubio were as incessant, and lasted longer. The Austrian infantry advanced along the great ridge from Col Santo ; they came up from Anghebeni and Chiesa in the Vallarsa and from the Val Terragnolo by the Borcola Pass. All efforts were in vain.
North-east of Pasubio, along all the rest of the mountain front to the rim of the Val Sugana, the Austrians gained notable suc cesses. Kovess drove back the Italians across the Val d'Assa, and thence still farther east, across the parallel valleys of Nos and Campomolon. To the south-west Dankl's left crossed the Astico, and after heavy fighting pushed the Italians back across the Val Canaglia, while his centre gained ground across the Posina, south of Arsiero. At the end of May the Italian position still seemed critical, and Cadorna gave orders for the withdrawal of stores and heavy guns from the Isonzo front to beyond the Sile, south of Treviso. He believed he had the measure of the Austrians, but he omitted no precautions. His confidence, in fact, was justified. The impetus of the Austrian attack was dwindling. Losses had been very heavy ; the attacking divisions were beginning to lose their offensive value, and the reserves were insufficient. Already on May 27 Conrad had been compelled to ask Falkenhayn to send a division of the Austrian 12th Corps, which belonged to Prince Leopold's Army Group. And Cadorna's 5th Army was practically ready in the plain.
On June 4 Brusilov broke through at Luck. The first news of the Russian attack did not perturb Austrian headquarters, for Conrad thought that his line in the east was firmly held. In a few days the situation was changed altogether. But even before the news of the disaster had reached Bozen it was clear that the offensive against Italy had failed. Kovess was to gain a little more ground. By June 8 the Austrians were only three miles from Val stagna, low down in the Brenta valley, but they had shot their bolt. South of Asiago and south of the Posina the attack was continued for ten more days. Here were the shortest routes to the plain and here the Austrians had been able to bring up their guns in sufficient numbers. Kirchbach made a great effort against the Monte Lemerle-Monte Magnaboschi line, while the archduke Charles strove hard to win room south of Arsiero by incessant attacks in the Novegno sector. No further ground was gained.
The Austrian Retreat.—By the middle of the month Cadorna had begun the first move of a counter-attack, but the Austrians were now getting ready to go out of the salient and back to a strong line which they had already selected. Attacking on May 25, all along the line, the Italians found the invaders in retreat. It was too late to develop the counter-offensive which was to have been directed against the two sides of the Austrian salient, and Cadorna relinquished the idea of a big attack as soon as he found a re sistance which could only be overcome by long preparation and the use of artillery in mass.
Casualties on both sides were very heavy, and indicate the severity of the fighting. The Austrian losses were estimated at over Ioo,000; the Italian figures, up to the end of the counter movement, were 35,00o killed and 75,00o wounded, with 45,000 prisoners, many of whom should be reckoned among the wounded. The Austrian attempt to break through ended in definite failure but the attack was well planned and conducted with skill and de termination. Failure was due to the fact that Conrad met with a resistance which went beyond his calculation. Falkenhayn and Cadorna had summed up the situation rightly.