"The war against Austria-Hungary which, under the high command of HM the King, supreme leader, the Italian Army, inferior in the number of men and vehicles, began on 24 May 1915 and with unwavering faith and tenacious valour conducted continuously and fiercely for 41 months, has been won. The gigantic battle which began on the 24th of October, and in which fifty-one Italian divisions, three British, two French, one Czechoslovak, and an American regiment took part, against seventy-three Austro-Hungarian divisions, is over. [...] The Austro-Hungarian Army has been annihilated: it suffered enormous losses during the fierce fighting of the first days and, during the chase, lost enormous quantities of material of all sorts and almost the entirety of its warehouses and supplies. So far, some three hundred thousand prisoners have fallen into our hands, along with entire general staffs, and no less than five thousand cannon. The remnant of what was once one of the most powerful armies in the world is now in disarray and hopelessly retreating back up the valleys that it once descended down with proud confidence."
Armando Diaz, Supreme Command, 4 November 1918, 12:00 pm
The Victory Proclamation, issued by Armando Diaz, Chief of Staff of the Italian Army on 4 November 1918, is an integral part of the legend of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. The importance of the final episode of the war fought on the Italian-Austrian front is, in fact, not limited to military events, but also intricately intertwined with the story of the war and, by means of this recounting of events, has entered the collective imagination of the Italian war.
Diaz's Proclamation describes in grandiose language a large-scale military victory against an enemy stronger in terms of number of vehicles and by tradition. The uncritical acceptance of this perspective would for a long time become a constant in the narration of the Italian war, both in the media and in historiography. In reality, the text hides numerous inaccuracies and omits relevant details. There were in fact 58 Austrian divisions that faced the Italian army (and not 73), part of which were undermanned. Furthermore, the nutritional and physical condition of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers bordered on basic survival. If this were not enough, the home front in Austria-Hungary was rocked by extremely strong national tensions, which affected the morale of the troops stationed in the rear.
Historiography on the topic certainly does not help to clarify the event. Some analysts stress the simultaneous collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and describe this battle as an unsurprising victory; moreover, they see the breaching of the Balkan front in September-October 1918 such as to make the Italian contribution to the collapse negligible. Other authors even decline to refer to the advance on Vittorio Veneto as a battle. In this view, the Italian Army simply exploited a spontaneous withdrawal. On the contrary, Italian historiography has, until recently, assessed this battle as the turning point of the Italian war: the victory of Vittorio Veneto counterbalanced the defeat of Caporetto and restored the honour of the army. Many of these assessments represent a strictly national point of view. In reality the dynamics of the battle are much more complex and cannot be understood by any monocausal explanations.
Beginning in September 1918, the political and food conditions of the Habsburg monarchy worsened, although this apparently had no negative impact on the Austro-Hungarian armies deployed along the south-western front. The Italian government and Ferdinand Foch repeatedly requested that Armando Diaz organize an autumn offensive between Monte Pasubio and Asiago to exploit Austria's internal difficulties. According to the Italian Chief of Staff, such an attack would not have brought any strategic changes, as the Italian army did not have enough divisions to carry out an offensive in the mountains. In fact, the Royal Army could count on fifty-seven divisions (including three English, two French, and one Czechoslovak) and 8,900 pieces of artillery, against fifty-eight Austro-Hungarian divisions and 7,000 pieces of artillery. Diaz's doubts were also linked to general assessments: among the allied general staffs there were few who thought that a victory could be achieved before 1919 and, in the Italian Supreme Command it was believed that an offensive could at best lead to a retaking of the provinces lost in 1917.
Opinions such as that of Colonel Tullio Marchetti, head of the information office of the 1st Army, according to whom the Austro-Hungarian army was now "like a pudding with a hard crust of almonds and filled with cream", were isolated in the Italian military. These impressions by contrast were very clear to the Austro-Hungarian generals: Ernst Horsetsky, commander of the XXVI Army Corps that presided over the strategic sector of Monte Grappa, like his colleagues had confidence in the ability of the frontline troops to resist, but deemed it necessary to begin peace negotiations as soon as the imminent Italian attack would have been repulsed, as he considered it impossible to resist to the bitter end.
Under pressure from the other Allies, and amid news of the progressive breakdown of the Austrian home front, Diaz consequently planned an offensive in September-October along the Piave River, where it was much more advantageous to place troops. In fact, between Vidor and Grave di Papadopoli, it was possible to deploy twenty Italian divisions and 4,130 pieces of artillery against twelve Austro-Hungarian divisions and 1,000 pieces of artillery. Moreover, a successful attack in this area would allow the Italian army to cut off the supply lines of the sixth Austrian army and the Belluno Army Group. Bad weather conditions forced the Supreme Command to postpone the offensive until 24 October. On the other side of the front, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna (1856-1920), field marshal at the head of the troops who controlled the area from the Piave to the sea, despite being worried by the news coming from within the Empire, believed that the troops deployed on the front line were reliable and capable of putting up resistance: although the soldiers were exhausted due to the lack of food, the spirit of the Frontkämpfer seemed good. In any case, he could count on ten reserve divisions stationed behind the front line. These troops, however, unlike the soldiers on the front, were affected by the reports coming from the hinterland.
Since the flooding of the Piave River gave no indication of abating, on 24 October, Diaz ordered the 4th Army to attack the Austro-Hungarian lines on Monte Grappa. After two days of hard fighting that achieved only marginal gains, the Austro-Hungarians counterattacked, demonstrating a good capacity for resistance. Consequently, Diaz ordered the start of the offensive on the Piave, where the ratio of forces was more favourable: the objective of the 12th, 8th and 10th Army was to create three bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the river near Valdobbiadene, Sernaglia and Grave di Papadopoli. Except for the Honvéd 11th Cavalry division near Sernaglia, which refused to fight, the other Austro-Hungarian troops maintained their discipline and halted the Italian advance just across the river. It was only below Grave di Papadopoli that the 10th Italian Army - composed of two English and two Italian divisions - was able to create a small but significant breakthrough in the Austrian lines.
The turning point of the battle came with the decision taken on the evening of 27 October by Enrico Caviglia to exploit this small bridgehead, moving two divisions from the 8th to the 10th Army, in order to cut the communication lines between the Austrian 6th Army and Boroević's Isonzo Army. Meanwhile, Boroević tried to move the reserve divisions up to the front, but the unreliability of these troops prevented him from stopping the advance of the Italian 10th Army: most of the Hungarian, Czech, Slovenian and Croatian soldiers of the reserve troops refused to obey orders. Thus, after the failure of the counterattack on 28 October, the Austrian defensive situation worsened and other reserve units decided to abandon the front, while the units on the front line, exhausted and short of supplies, began to yield.
In the end, the Austro-Hungarian high command ordered a general retreat and organized an armistice committee, which contacted the Italian Army on 29 October. Meanwhile, the 8th Italian army took advantage of the bridgehead created by the 10th Army and advanced in the direction of Vittorio Veneto, reaching the city on 30 October. At that point the Austro-Hungarian army was divided in two and in retreat and the Italian Supreme Command then ordered a frontal attack along other sectors of the front, to exploit the withdrawal. On the afternoon of 3 November, Italian troops reached Trento and Trieste and, at 3:20 pm, at Villa Giusti, the armistice was signed, which would take effect twenty-four hours later, at 3:00 pm on 4 November 1918.
In conclusion, the battle of Vittorio Veneto cannot be described as a spontaneous withdrawal of the Austrian army, at least until 30 October. The Austro-Hungarian troops deployed along the front line had fought fiercely, especially on Mount Grappa, where Italians deaths numbered 28,000 in six days. Moreover, the Italian and Austrian generals did not expect a collapse of the Austrian army before the battle and the response of the Habsburg troops in the first days of fighting shows that the confidence placed in the morale of the front line soldiers was generally well deserved, although there were issues of ethnic loyalty to the Habsburgs.
Nevertheless, the exaggerated emphasis the Victory Proclamation placed on the differences in terms of potential between the two armies and the military dimensions of the victory conceals other considerations. The Austrian reserve units experienced the effects of the internal situation in the Austrian state and in many cases refused to obey orders, preventing a successful counterattack at Grave di Papadopoli. This factor proved decisive in allowing the 8th Italian Army to reach Vittorio Veneto and split the Austrian army in two. Additionally, the fierce resistance of the Habsburg army troops was destined to wane rapidly due to the lack of supplies, insufficient food and the lack of fresh troops. Despite the absence of large-scale defections or mutiny among the Austro-Hungarian front-line units, the defensive ability of these troops was already limited at the outset.
In conclusion, the battle of Vittorio Veneto was the final result of a war of attrition and was significantly affected by the internal tensions that ravaged the Empire and the breakdown of the Balkan front. The order of battle was well planned, but the key element that allowed the Italian Army to transform a local advance into a strategic advance may also be found in the reluctance of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers - in particular the reserve divisions - to sacrifice their lives for a cause that they no longer perceived as their own.