It was night on October 23rd, 1918 as a series of rowboats silently dipped their oars in the waters of the Piave river in Italy. The Piave had remained as quiet as the rowboats’ occupants since the Italian defensive victory that summer, halting and then repelling an Austro-Hungarian offensive launched with hopes of knocking Rome out of the war. But the men aboard these boats were neither Italian or Austro-Hungarian, but British, members of the Honourable Artillery Company (an infantry battalion, despite the name) and the Royal Welch Fusiliers. While neither company could be viewed as “special forces,” they were most certainly elite forces of the Crown as the HAC had it’s lineage back to 1087 and it’s Captain-General was officially listed as the King George V.
Their assignment was to secure the series of islands on the Piave river that now constituted no-mans-land, starting with the largest island, Grave di Papadopoli. The HAC and Fusiliers landed with bayonets fixed, sneaking and stabbing their away across the island before the soldiers of the Dual Monarchy were finally able to sound the alarm. In a brief, but tough fight, with Italian diversionary troops even being defeated on the southern part of the island, Grave di Papadopoli was captured by Allied forces. The stage was set for the following morning, the one year anniversary of the Italian army’s humiliating defeat at Caporetto, as 1.4 million Allied troops would throw themselves at 1.8 million Austro-Hungarians. The result would be the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of the 600+ year Habsburg Monarchy.
By late October of 1918, it could be questioned whether or not a battle even needed to take place to bring about the end of Austria-Hungary’s participation in the Great War. The same day as the Germans learned that President Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t mediate an armistice based on his Fourteen Points, at least not without strenuous pre-conditions, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Baron István Burián von Rajecz asked for similar terms from the Allies. As Rajecz made his request, the Allies formally accepted Czechoslovakia into their alliance. Trying to curry favor with the various ethnic groups now striving to break away from the Empire, Emperor Charles I issued an imperial manifesto that days later that would fundamentally changed the Austrian half of the government, giving autonomy to most ethnic states. It wasn’t enough. The literal next day, the Hungarian parliament passed a resolution ending the Austro-Hungarian partnership, despite having just renewed it for two years, and declared independence. The Dual Monarchy was now a singular one (although the formal cancellation of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 wouldn’t happen until the end of the month). What remained was rapidly falling apart.
With the Empire divided and the Balkan Front now reactivated with the defeat of the Bulgarians, Charles I made one last plea directly to the United States to recognize the federal reorientation of the Austrian government. Secretary of State Robert Lansing replied much as President Wilson had to the Germans – the Allies would negotiate any final terms together and had already recognized Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as future states to be made out of the remains of the Habsburg Monarchy. It was the death rattle of Charles I’s Empire and leadership. Even the Austrian Prime Minister concluded the Emperor lacked the means to effectively govern and told him to he needed to step down.
The Austrians still maintained a massive army on the Italian Front alone, with 1.8 million men and over 6,000 pieces of artillery, but the motivation of these men was tepid at best, nonexistent at worst. The Austrian command could only manage to move six reserve divisions towards the town of Vittorio once the battle commenced as Hungarian, Czech, Slovenian and Croatian soldiers refused to obey orders. For all it’s size, the Austrian army in Italy was little more than a paper tiger.
The army across the Piave was in a polar opposite state. Following their defensive victory in June of 1918, the Italians had been repeatedly prodded by Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to adopt Foch’s strategy of constant pressure on all fronts against the Central Powers. To push Italian General Armando Diaz, the Allies had supplied the Italians with 600 aircraft, 3 British divisions, 2 French divisions and both American and Czechoslovak regiments, in addition to massive quantities of munitions and material. But Diaz was not going to repeat the errors of Gen. Luigi Cadorna and heedlessly throw his men into combat. Italian morale was high but could easily be lost again in the mountainous terrain, to say nothing of the logistic difficulties of crossing the Piave under fire. There were not going to be twelve battles along the Piave as there had been along the Isonzo River from 1915 through 1917; Diaz would wait. The time gave Diaz the chance to meticulously plan his attack in hopes of delivering some Italian revenge for Caporetto, which had nearly driven Italy out of the war. The fact that Diaz could launch an offensive to coincide with the one-year anniversary was icing on the crostoli.
The capture of Grave di Papadopoli gave the Italians effective control of the banks of the Piave, albeit under fire from the thousands of Austrian pieces of heavy artillery, but as the main attack began in the dark, early hours of October 24th, 1918, the 7,700 Italian guns at the front lashed out in response. In a week’s time, the Italians would manage to fire nearly 2.5 million rounds. For most of the battle’s first 48 hours, the Italians and Austrians traded artillery shells as Italian and British troops struggled to get across the flooded Piave with it’s deep and strong currents. Men had to be ferried over in motorized boats, making getting sufficient numbers across and resupplied difficult. And as had been seen on so many other fronts, the conduct of the collapsing enemy varied greatly. Some Austrian units (including some ethnic units) fought gallantly, repelling the Allied advance. Others refused to march, yet alone fight.
As the offensive worked into it’s fourth day, it appeared that the attack was devolving into the same sort of grinding slaughter that had defined the Great War. The Italian and Allies were making progress, but at a painfully slow rate, having gained 2 miles at a high cost. The goal of securing a bridgehead over the Piave and taking the town of Vittorio was far from materializing and despite capturing a decent number of soldiers early in the fight, the Austrians looked intact. Diaz’s careful planning and coordination appeared to be only gaining the Allies a minor tactical victory at best.
Much like with the Strafexpedition campaign in 1916, Italian fortunes were turned by events far from the battlefield. The dissolution of the Dual Monarchy had been decades in the making, but once Hungary announced the end of their union, the cascade of ethnic nation states became a tidal wave that toppled the government. On October 28th, Bohemia announced they were leaving Austria to join the new Czechoslovakia. The next day, the Southern Slavs (the future Yugoslavia) did the same. The lack of political cohesion had reached the trenches and the Austrian High Command issued a general retreat. It turned into a route.
The Italians were now over the Piave, thanks in no small part due to the Arditi Corps, the Caimani del Piave (“Caimans of the Piave”), which had swimmers brave the icy Piave for 16 hours at a time armed with only a knife and two grenades. The Arditi Corps secured the bridgeheads over the river, freeing up any available boats to get other infantry across. Vittorio (renamed shortly after the war as Vittorio Veneto; the name given to the battle later), was captured on October 30th with the prized port city of Trieste a few days later. Nothing now stood between the Italians and the Austrian plain. Vienna didn’t know how to react.
Emperor Charles I would not follow in the footsteps of Enver Pasha or Tsar Ferdinand and leave in the name of trying to secure better terms from the Allies – at least, not yet. Instead, the Austrians attempted to unilaterally end the war, telling their troops to cease hostilities on November 3rd, 1918 and asking the Italians to halt while negotiating the terms of the armistice. The Italians had no such intention. The Italians were now driving north, into Tyrol to attempt to seize territory they hoped to hold after the war, and to strike at southern Germany. Thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers, confused as to what to do, surrendered rather than fight or retreat. 448,000 troops of the Dual Monarchy would fall prisoner in the Empire’s final week of existence. With their armies now effectively destroyed, their empire carved into a handful of new states and even their homeland now being invaded by the Allies, the Austrians hurriedly agreed to what amounted to an unconditional surrender.
Watching the events unfold with their last remaining ally, Germany now found themselves alone. Erich Ludendorff complained that Austria-Hungary’s collapse was “dragging Germany in its fall,” once again blaming others for Germany’s crumbling position.
Emperor Charles I would not formally abdicate the throne. As the armistice between Germany and the Allies was announced on November 11th, 1918, Charles I proclaimed he had “relinquish[ed] every participation in the administration of the [Austrian] State,” making a similar announcement the next day in Hungary. Charles I would move his family out of the Imperial Palace, but barely even left Vienna, moving into a resplendent castle east of the capitol city. The Emperor carefully worded his pronouncements – he still viewed himself as the active and rightful monarch of the Austrian and Hungarian crowns. His people disagreed. The Austrian parliament would pass the “Habsburg Law,” banning titles of nobility and banishing all members of the Habsburg Line from the country. Charles I would be escorted out of the country by the British to Switzerland, as much for Charles I’s safety as that of the fledgling Austrian government.
Attempts to secure the Hungarian crown were no more successful as Charles I worked with Hungarian royalists to sneak him into the country in the mistaken belief that the re-established Kingdom of Hungary and it’s regent, Miklós Horthy, would align themselves with the old Habsburg Order. It was a bizarre structure for the government – the Allies had been clear that Hungary could have no King, so the nation had a constitutional monarchy with a regent, but no monarch. Instead, Charles I was reduced to ambushing Horthy at dinner in his home, pleading to be installed on the farcical Hungarian throne.
After two attempts to gain the Hungarian crown, the Allies had decided that exile under guard was the only solution. Charles I and his family would find themselves on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1921, living in relative poverty. Charles I would catch a cold that developed into severe pneumonia, straining him to the point of two heart attacks. He would die in 1922 at only 34 years of age. The man entrusted to safeguard six centuries of tradition and power, despite never being groomed for the role of Emperor, had lost everything. Not even his family’s persistent final wishes to allow him burial in his homeland would ever be fulfilled.