The young soldiers born in 1899 had their baptism of fire. Their behaviour was magnificent. (...) They went to the front line singing. I saw them return in small numbers. They were still singing.
(Daily report signed by General Armando Diaz on 18 November 1917)
The great battle in Veneto started by the Austro-Hungarian army with the last of its forces, but also with the firm will to achieve victory, had ended with a failure very similar to a real defeat.
(Concluding remarks of the official Austrian Report on the Second Battle of the Piave River)
In reality the enemy did not neglect anything to achieve the positive outcome that was vital for him, neither momentum, tenacity or valour - which were, moreover, usual and had been witnessed in so many previous battles - were lacking.
(Concluding remarks of the official Italian Report on the Second Battle of the Piave River)
To fully understand the importance of the Second Battle of the Piave River - the battle that even more than Vittorio Veneto sanctioned the final Italian victory - we need to take a step back to the early morning hours of 24 October 1917, when Austrian and German troops broke through the Italian lines between Bovec and Tolmin and forced the Royal Italian Army into a disastrous retreat through Friuli and Veneto, where they took up positions on the Piave. The great extent of the victory was primarily astonishing to the Austrian and German commanders, who had certainly planned for a large attack but did not foresee a deep penetration and continuation of the offensive.
On 9 November 1917, Diaz took over as the supreme commander. He found a disorganized army, whose ranks were depleted and, according to Cadorna, was greatly demoralized. It was soon discovered that the warnings about the alleged morale crisis were unfounded. Even after the traumatic defeat of Caporetto the soldiers were still capable of fighting properly, and the reports of cowardice and easy surrender were largely false, to the extent that during the days of the advance the Austro-Germans suffered about 70,000 dead and wounded. However, the troops available were too few: the front between the Stelvio and Asiago, although not engaged by the offensive, could not be left undefended, as it was under threat of attack by the Austrian 11th Army in Trentino. The new positions behind which the Italian army had entrenched - on Mount Grappa and along the Piave - could count on seven divisions of the 4th Army withdrawn from Cadore (Gen. Di Robilant) and on the eight divisions of the 3rd Army (Duke of Aosta), which had arrived from the Karst. Overall the troops were still in fairly decent fighting condition, but they had lost most of their heavy equipment (medium and heavy artillery, plus cannons) during the retreat. On the Veneto plain, on the other hand, the 2nd Army and the 5th Army were being reorganized, having been ordered to fill their ranks with stragglers from Caporetto, and there was an influx of six French and five British divisions, comprising 240,000 men in total.
Despite the lack of pre-established plans, the Austrian and German commanders were determined to continue an offensive that would lead to a new victory against the exhausted Italians. Thus it was that on 13 November 1917 Austrian troops launched an attack against the precarious lines of the Piave, Monte Grappa and the Asiago plateau: the deadlock engagement had begun. On the Piave, the Austrian and German forces, despite counting on their overwhelming superiority, were unsuccessful in their attempts to take the right bank due to stiff Italian resistance and a providential swelling of the river. In the Vidor bridges sector, attempts by the German divisions to force the Italian defences failed under heavy losses, and the Austrian offensives further south had no better luck. The battle of Mount Grappa, which raged for over a month, was longer and more uncertain. Here the Austrian and German troops achieved some initial successes, taking Mount Tomba and the Monfanera ridge overlooking the Veneto plain. However, again here the Italians firmly held the dominant positions and repulsed all attacks. The battle came to a halt in December due to the exhaustion of the Austrian and German troops and the influx of French reinforcements, which recaptured the Tomba-Monfanera ridge on the 30th of the month. Attempts made by the Austro-Hungarian forces under Conrad on the Asiago plateau, which initially managed to occupy the plateau, but failed in the attempt to reach the plain of Vicenza, ended in the same manner.
The reasons for the defensive victory on the Piave and Monte Grappa, as well as the tenacious and at times heroic resistance of the Italian troops - which only a few weeks before had been overwhelmed at Caporetto - are various. On a psychological level, there was unquestionably the (positive) effect of having to stand with one's "back against the wall" to face an enemy perceived as being unscrupulous and unmerciful, and at the same time the influx of the new recruits born in 1899 infused "new life" into the exhausted troops. As well, the rapid reorganization of the forces of the 3rd and 4th Armies and the strong defences placed on Monte Grappa from the time of the Battle of Asiago should not be overlooked. The contribution of the 11 Allied divisions, first held in reserve and then thrown into the fray when the battle was all but over, was indeed modest. If therefore the Allies' direct contribution to the engagement was of secondary importance, on the contrary, their indirect contribution proved essential, since their presence allowed Diaz to send all available Italian units into battle.
Finally, there was a series of errors and weaknesses in the Austrian and German forces that must be clearly taken into account. They were in fact dispersed over a vast front, thus lacking numerical superiority in the decisive sectors. The heavy artillery had been left behind during the advance (some of the German guns had already been redeployed to France). There were also enormous difficulties in supplying the divisions caused by the extending of the supply chain, and the high morale of the troops did not compensate for the lack of the surprise effect.
The following months on the Italian front were essentially a stalemate. The Austro-Hungarian army, though freed from the pressures of the Eastern Front, was going through a profound crisis. The 500,000 former prisoners repatriated from Russia could not be quickly re-employed and in some cases represented a problematic critical mass that spread pacifist, Bolshevik and nationalist ideas in the quarters. On 1 February 1918, sailors at the Kotor naval base mutinied as food shortages grew worse, provoking rebellions among troops in the rear, strikes in factories and cities, as well as centrifugal independence-minded forces among an increasing number of subjects of the multi-ethnic empire. In contrast to this, on the other side of the line, the Italian army could count on a country that was for the most part solidly behind the war effort and on a constantly strengthening military apparatus, from both a morale and a material point of view.
Nevertheless, the Austro-Hungarian army deployed on the Italian front could count on substantial forces that had not yet given any sign of collapse, equipped with numerous artillery pieces abundantly supplied with ammunition. The repeated peace soundings made by Emperor Karl failed, and in light of the serious internal situation of the country, the only viable path was the one that would lead to a clear victory on the field against the centuries-old Italian foes. The new offensive on the Piave in June 1918 was planned by the Austrian high command with the imperative that it could not and must not fail. A total of 58 divisions were organized in the Tyrol Army Group under the command of Marshal Conrad and in the Piave Army Group of Marshal Borojević. As had happened in the previous deadlock battle, once again the Austro-Hungarian commanders were guilty of excessive optimism, convinced that a concentrated attack of all their forces would be sufficient to break through the Italian line. In the first place the attack was not a pinpoint one, but rather an all-out frontal attack along the front from Asiago to the sea, thus wasting the advantage of numerical superiority in crucial sectors. Another problem was that of the rations for the troops, which were too scant to maintain them through long fights. However, this element paradoxically contributed to further galvanize the soldiers, convinced that they would seize a decisive victory and a large amount of booty.
The Austrian offensive started on 13 June at the Tonale Pass and on 15 June from the Asiago plateau to the Adriatic, achieving partial and ephemeral successes. The Italian information service was perfectly aware of the offensive and the high command had already placed ample reserves in the rear and made massive use of the artillery, to such an extent that in the Asiago sector it was used effectively even before the start of the offensive. At first the Austro-Hungarian troops, full of vigour, gained possession of the so-called "three mountains" (Col del Rosso, Col d'Ecchele, and Monte Valbella) and of the sector between the Brenta river and Monte Grappa, however, by the end of June all of the positions taken had already been reconquered.
Greater concerns were caused by the operations along the Piave, where the Italian defenses were less strong. Despite having to deal with a new swelling of the river, the Austrians at first managed to cross it at multiple points, taking possession of the Montello and a strip of land between the Grave di Papadopoli and the Adriatic. However - once again - the timely use of artillery and aviation first halted the advance, and then destroyed the pontoon boats over which the Austrian troops and supplies crossed, making further advances unsustainable. The subsequent influx of Italian reserves ultimately allowed the lost ground to be regained.
Despite the great valour of the Austro-Hungarian troops, which in some places seriously threatened the resistance of the front, and despite some lacks of efficiency in Diaz' supreme command, the Second Battle of the Piave ended in a clear Italian victory. Among the ranks of the Royal Italian Army there were 86,600 dead, injured and missing, compared to more than 118,000 for the Austro-Hungarians. In Italy, the victory in the Second Battle of the Piave echoed strongly, even entering into "national mythology" thanks in particular to a very popular song written by the composer E. A. Mario La leggenda del Piave. Propaganda heralded it as the sacred river of Italy, behind which to prepare the final comeback.
For the Austro-Hungarian army the defeat was burdensome - beyond the point of view of material losses - especially in light of the consequences to the morale and the unity of the troops and the home front. The upper military and political spheres of the dual-monarchy were in fact aware that they would not be able to launch a new large offensive against Italy. The Second Battle of the Piave was the last chance for the Austrians to turn the tide of the war to their advantage. Its failure at such a heavy cost, coupled with the disastrous social and economic conditions the Empire was experiencing, in fact signified the beginning of the end, which would come four months later at Vittorio Veneto. The words of General Baj-Macario illustrate this: "The Austro-Hungarians went through it all: in addition to the churning of the earth and the sky and our insistent counterattacks, they knew the torment of hunger and thirst, and the worry of the swollen river at their backs. The waters of the canals and the Piave which conveyed and dismembered the corpses were polluted, yellowish in colour and hazardous to drink. Our tents, houses, farmhouses, and shelters had been thoroughly searched in the frantic search for food. They ate unripe fruit and green corn to alleviate their hunger."