The campaign in Italy

Background

This is a complex campaign and much of it did not involve British forces. For an excellent account of the overall campaign, I suggest reading Mark Thompson’s “The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919“.

From the British Official History of Military Operations. Italy volume. My highlights. Italy entered the Great War on the allied side when declaring war against Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915. Throughouit the next three years it faced the Austrian-Hungarian (and later Bulgarian) Armies in its northern Alpine border in the Trentino region, in the mountainous area of the Isonzo river (today in Slovenia) and down towards the Adriatic. The Isonzo front saw numerous battles with no decisive result until an attack made by in late October 1917, in which the enemy side was strongly reinforced by the German Army: the Battle of Caporetto. This attack made a deep advance into the ground held by Italy, caused enormous damage to its armies and threatened to take Italy out of the war altogether. Britain’s military commitment was stepped up as a result of inter-allied decisions taken to reinforce the theatre. The two highlights mark geographic features that would become key to the British element of the campaign: in the mountainous north west around Asiago, and along the valley of the broad River Piave.
Imperial War Museum photograph Q65126. With thanks. Italian troops on Asiago front near Magnaboschi, resting and on the move. The Italian forces sustained enormous numbers of casualties in the period 1915-1917, notably in mishandled efforts to break the enemy on the Izonzo front.

First British deployment

British troops were employed in Italy long before Caporetto. In April 1917 numbers 94 and 95 Heavy Artillery Groups, comprising ten batteries, were sent in reponse to a request by the Italian command. The Italians were short of modern heavy artillery, and, when it is considered that the British had only 152 such batteries in France, sending ten to Italy was a considerable commitment.​ This was especially so at a time when it was deeply engaged in the Battle of Arras.

Also in April 1917, a small mission under Brigadier-General J. H. V. Crowe of the Royal Artillery travelled to make a preliminary study of the transport and communications implications for the move of six British divisions to northern Italy.

More heavy artillery was sent in July 1917.

One of the first groups to go, 94 Heavy Artillery Group, was sent to the area of Faiti and Volkovniak, which is today in Slovenia, to join the Italian Third Army. When the Caporetto attack fell on the Italian Second Army, the Third Army which was to its south was also obliged to withdraw westwards. The guns remained in position until 27 October 1917 when they commenced to pull out. On 29 October the batteries crossed the River Tagliamento and next day passed through Portogruaro.

94 Heavy Artillery Group had been placed under command of the Italian Third Army and was located north east of Monfalcone and south of Gorizia when the Caporetto attack began.

British reinforcement

A decision was made to send five British divisions from France and Flanders, together with the support and lines of communications troops needed. The 5th, 7th, 23rd, 41st and 48th (South Midland) Divisions were sent in November 1917.

British Official History. The areas in which the British forces assembled after the rail journey from France. The Italian railway system struggled to cope with the large and sudden volume of trafiic.
British Official History. The British divisions deploy and hold a portion of the front line along the River Piave, dominated by a height known as the Montello.
Imperial War Museum Q26585. A working party of the 1st Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment (91st Infantry Brigade, 7th Division) digging trenches over a mountain side at Crespano del Grappa. The town of Possagno can be seen in the distance.

Asiago

In March 1918, the British force was redeuced with the return of the 5th and 41st Divisions to France. The force, which was now the single XIV Corps (under the Earl of Cavan), was moved westwards to over part of the front line on the edge of a plateau south of Asiago. The 23rd Division received its orders on 19 March, with 7th and 48th (South Midland) Divisions beginning their move soon afterwards. They immediately began active patrolling and carried out a number of raids on enemy positions.

On 15 June 1918 the British force came under attack, in one of four offensive operations carried out simultaneously by the Austrians on the Italian front.

From the British Official History. The 23rd and 48th (South Midland) divisions were holding the Asiago front when Austrian forces made a large-scale attack on 15-16 June 1918. I have highlighted the key locations of Asiago, Granezza and Magnaboschi. The assault was defeated and proved to be the last time of significance when British forces were under attack in the Italian theatre.

All of the Austrian offsenives had met with a similar result. The effects were disastrous: desertion began to escalate, the Austrian de facto Commander-in-Chief was removed, and the political situation at home descended into chaos.

British Official History. On 8-9 August 1918, the 7th and 48th (South Midland) Divisions carried out a number of successful raids (some of a larger size than is normally implied by the term, being whole battalion actions) across the Ghelpac valley. The Austrians showed a distinct unwillingness to engage and withdrew their line.

In September 1918, the British divisions in Italy were reduced from four battalions in each infantry brigade to three (as had taken place in France earlier in the year). During that month and early October, the British force was split up: the 48th (South Midland) Division remained on the Asiago front, while the 7th and 23rd moved to join the Italian Tenth Army on the River Piave front. The Earl of Cavan was given command of that army (it included the British XIV and Italian XI Corps) and Major-General Babington, (who had commanded 23rd Division since its formation) was promoted to command of XIV Corps.

Imperial War Museum Q25809. General Frederick Lambart (10th Earl of Cavan) commanding British troops on the Italian Front, addressing troops of the 48th (South Midland) Division at Granezza in September 1918.

The Piave front and the Battle of Vittorio Veneto

British Official History. My highlights. Decisions were taken in mid-October 1918 to carry out a major offensive, striking north on the Monte Grappa front and north east across the Piave. The Asiago front would hold fast, although the 1/4th Gloucestershire Regiment of 48th Division carried out a most successful raid on the night 23-24 October..

The British force faced a most difficult crossing of the Piave, a very wide, fast-flowing river. In front of them lay Papadopoli Island.

Imperial War Museum Q26704. Men of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (20th Infantry Brigade, 7th Division) escorting Austro-Hungarian prisoners across a pontoon bridge over the River Piave near Salettuol, November 1918. This is obviously at a date after the British advance across the river, but the photograph illustrates the formidable nature of this geographic feature that had to be confronted by the offensive.

The Tenth Army was ordered as part of the offensive to cross the Piave and rapidy advance twelve miles to the Rover Livenza. In its path lay the enemy’s front line on the eastern bank of the Piave with outposts forward on Papadopoli, and behind it lay a 1.5-mile deep defensive zone known as the Kaiserzone. Halfway to the Livenza was another river, the smaller Monticano, behind which was a secondary defensive system known as the Königzone. The initial assault would need to be made in phases: the surprise initial capture of Papadopoli and then the advance to the eastern bank and beyond under cover of artillery fire.

At 8.15pm on 23 October 1918, the 7th Division’s 22nd Infantry Brigade began to carry out it orders to cross the river and advance onto Papadopoli. It’s first unit, the 2/1st Honourable Artillery Company (Infantry), did so on a fleet of flat-bottomed boats that could carry, at most, 12 men each. Two of the twelve boats were swept off course by the rapid currents, but the rest landed the men on the island. Nearby, two footbridges were quickly erected by an Italian bridgiung company assisted by 101st Field Company of the Royal Engineers. The majority of the 7th Division’s force deployed for the assault reached the island by these bridges. By 5am on 24 October, in a night of heavy rain and mist, 300 Hungarian troops were captured at small cost in British casualties, and all objectives were secured. But there the position remained through an equally wet day, with the force beginning to come under enemy shellfire. Plans to begn the main advance to the eastern bank were postponed, for the river level rose fast with the rain, making boat crossing and bridge construction hazardous. No enemy counter-attack took place. On 25 October, the remainder of the island was captured and the 23rd Division began its operations to join 7th Division in final preparation for the main advance. The postponement had a benefit in that it gave a chance to build up two more days of supply for the XIV Corps on the Piave bank north of Maserada.

British Official History. The attack on Papadopoli Island and the seizing of the bund and the eastern bank bridgehead.

The attack began at 6.45am on 27 October after 20 minutes of artillery bombardment (said to have been accurate but very thin, certainly by Western Front standards). The rain had stopped. On the left, the men of 23rd Division crossed the river on foot, wading across in shallow areas, until the advance had made progress and bridging could be erected. The infantry quickly penetrated the gaps in barbed wire and went into Austro-Hungarian front line trenches on the raised embankment bund. They then used infiltration tactics to bypass points of resistance and envelop them from behind, capturing and killing many enemy in the trenches and dugouts. Soon after 7am it was reported that the bund was in the division’s grasp. On the right, the 7th Division appears to have encountered more determined resistance but also achieved its intial objectives. The left and right of XIV Corps, Italian units had in general failed to cross the river but it began to be reported that elements of 37th Division on the right were finally on the eastern bank.

British Official History. My highlights. The British advance beyond the Piave to the Rivers Monticano and Livenza.

Desite the fact that XIV Corps was largely on its own, a decision was quickly made to press on and at 7.10am the advance recommenced. The story of the next days is essentially told by the map above. The bridgehead was deepened and broadened on 27 October; the Italians began to advance on either flank; localised and sometimes determined defence was everywhere overcome and the Livenza was reached by 31 October. The Kaiserzone and Königzone defensive systems had been broken and the fighting against a collapsing enemy was now open warfare across the plains of Vittorio Veneto.

British Official History. The advance continues, reaching the next major river, the Tagliamente, on 3 November.
British Newspaper Archive. With thanks. “Daily Mirror” headline 1 November 1918.

At 3am on 4 November 1918, XIV Corps learned that the enemy had signed an armistice which would come into effect at 3pm. Operations continued to ensure that the Tagliamento was crossed and a bridgehead secured as a base from whcih they could be continued should the armistice break down. The enemy was everywhere in broken chaos and the overall Italian Comando Supremo reported that in the final 36 hours of action, some 300,000 enemy troops came into captivity. Total British losses since 24 October had been just over 1,600 killed, wounded and missing.

Imperial War Museum Q26724. British horse drawn transport and Italian motor ambulance crossing a temporary bridge constructed by pioneers of the 70th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Division at Sacile, late October/ early November 1918. My note: the men on the left may be of the recently arrived United States’ 332nd Regiment.

Final action in the Asiago front

Although the enemy continued to successfully defend the Monte Grappa sector, the breakthrough on the Piave front gradually led to a general withdrawal from other areas. British patrols of 48th (South Midland) Division detected on 29-30 October that the enemy had withdrawn from its position on the Asiago front. It had actually made this move on 28 October, occupying a prepared winterstellung defensive position in the area of Monte Catz, Bosco and Camporovere. Over the next days, with signs that the enemy was about to make a much deeper withdrawal, British outpost line was advanced through the north of Asiago.

On 1 November, the French 24th Division and elements of the 48th (South Midland) commenced an attack on the enemy’s new position. It broke the defences after overcoming initially stiff resistance and captured 400 prisoners and 15 guns. Over the next two days, the advance continued through the Val d’Assa area with thousands more enemy troops falling into captivity. 143rd Infantry Brigade had the honour of being first to cross into Austrian sovereign territory when it advanced across the border at Osteria del Termine.

British losses

The British Official History reports the following casualties in the entire campaign in Italy: the figures should be put in context that the average strength of troops (exclduing the lines of communication) in the theatre was 78,477 at any one time, peaking at 113,759 in January 1918.

  • Killed or died of wounds 1,288
  • Missing in action 66
  • Lost as prisoners of war 278
  • Died of sickness or non-wound injury 759 (of which 481 influenza cases)
  • Wounded 4,689
  • Sick or non-wound injured 50,552 (of which 11,514 influenza cases)
  • Total of all above causes 55,241

British Order of Battle at December 1917

General Staff
Commander-in-Chief: General Sir Herbert Plumer
Major-General, General Staff: Major-General Sir Charles Harington
GSO1: Lieutenant-Colonel C. Mitchell
DAG: Major-General W. Western
DQMG: Major-General A. Chichester
Dg Transportation: Major-General W. Grey
CRA: Major-General C. Buckle
Chief Engineer: Major-General F. Glubb
Commander RFC: Brigadier-General T. Webb-Bowen
Liaison Officer with CIGS: Brigadier-General J. Crowe
DAAG: Major M. Webb

Army Troops
Field Artillery
XIV Brigade RHA, LXXII, LXXVI and CLXXV Brigades RFA

Heavy Artillery
XV, XXIV, LXXX, XCIV and CXL Heavy Artillery Groups RGA
19, 90, 155 and 1/1st Warwickshire Heavy Batteries RGA
105, 137, 171, 172, 176, 181, 197, 229, 240, 247, 289, 293, 302, 307, 315, 316, 317, 390, 391 and 438 Siege Batteries RGA

Anti Aircraft Artillery
No 4 Groups (Lovat’s Scouts) Yeomanry, S Battery RGA, 23, 60, 63, 135 and 136 AA Sections RGA, 80 and 81 Searchlight Sections RE

Motor Machine Guns
12th Motor Battery MGC

Royal Engineers
285 and 290 Army Troops Companies RE
6 Field Survey Company RE
Detachment, Meteorological Section RE
No 5 Pontoon Park RE
No 2 Boring Section RE

Royal Flying Corps
VII Brigade RFC (14th and 51st Wings, comprising 28, 34, 42, 45 and 66 Squadrons; 7th Aircraft Park; Aeroplane Supply Depot; 7, 22, 24 and 33 Kite Balloon Sections, 4 and 9 Balloon Wings, 20th Balloon Company)

Signal Service
32, 34 and 9 (Motor) Airline Sections RE
N, WS and WT Cable Sections RE
2nd Signal Construction Company RE
5 and 25 Motor Wireless Sections RE
7th Army Wireless Observation Group RE
15, 24, 80, 94 and 104 Heavy Artillery Group Signal Sections RGA
70, 71, 72, 73 and 74 Horse-drawn pigeon lofts

Army Service Corps
360 (MT) Company ASC (4th Pontoon Park)
Army Troops Supply Column (MT) ASC
443rd and 1047th Army Auxiliary (HT) Companies ASC
93 Company ASC (1st Mobile Repair Unit)
654 and 1037 (MT) Companies ASC, attached RGA
369, 370, 374, 375, 377, 380, 383 and 398 (MT) Sections ASC
No 2 Section AA Workshop

Royal Army Medical Corps
26, 36 and 41 Motor Ambulance Convoys
9, 24, 37, 38 and 39 Casualty Clearing Stations
32 and 33 Advanced Depots (Medical Stores)
36, 57, 73, 75 and 84 Sanitary Sections

Royal Army Ordnance Corps
3rd (Light) and 11th (Medium) Mobile Workshops

XI Corps (arrived Italy 1 December 1917)
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant- General Sir Richard Haking
Corps Troops
1/1st King Edward’s Horse
HQ Corps Heavy Artillery RGA
11th Cyclist Battalion ACC
Corps Topographical Section RE
Signal Troops RE (L Corps Signal Company; 27 (Motor) Airline Section; R and LC Cable Sections, Corps Heavy Artillery Signal Section RGA)
Corps Siege Park ASC
Corps Ammunition Park (345 (MT) Company (25 Ammunition Sub-Park) ASC)
491 (MT) Company ASC, attached Corps Heavy Artillery
5th (Light) Mobile Workshop AOC
Area Employment Company
Corps School

XIV Corps (arrived Italy 5 November 1917)
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant- General Earl of Cavan
Corps Troops
1/1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry
14th Cyclist Battalion ACC
Corps Topographical Section RE
Signal Troops RE (J Corps Signal Company; 54 (Motor) Airline Section; AS, M and BU Cable Sections)
Corps Supply Column ASC (391 (MT) Company – Corps Troops; 498 (MT) Company – 17th Divisional; 494 (MT) Company – 41st Divisional)
Corps Ammunition Park (600 and 607 (MT) Companies; 509 and 62 Ammunition Sub-Parks)
7th (Light) and 4th (Medium) Mobile Workshops AOC
273 Area Employment Company
Corps School

Divisions
5th Division
7th Division
23rd Division
41st Division
48th (South Midland) Division TF
Lines of Communication
Base, two General Base Depots, Large Rest Camp, XI Corps Reinforcement Camp, XIV Reinforcement Camp

Royal Engineers
8th (Monmouth) Army Troops Company, half 32 Base Park Company, detachment Special Works Company

Signal Service
Detachment Signal Company, detachment LofC Signal Company, No 1 Telegraph Construction Company

Infantry
Two Infantry Base Depots, three Companies of 1st Garrison Bn, the Royal Munster Fusiliers

Army Service Corps
Branch Requisition Office
1046 Company (2nd Base Depot)
Base Horsed Transport Depot
1034 Company (Base Motor Transport Depot)
1045 Company (6th Advanced Horsed Transport Depot)
6 and 32 LofC Supply Companies
24 and 25 Field Bakeries
11 and 20 Field Butcheries
7, 39, 52, 62, 63 and 64 Railhead Supply Detachments
1035 (82nd Petrol) and 1036 (83rd Petrol) Auxiliary Companies
HQ Remount Depot, and 10, 19 and 33 Remount Squadrons

Royal Army Medical Corps
1, 4 and 14 Sanitary Sections
11, 60 and 62 General Hospitals
Base Depot Medical Stores
7 and 14 Bacteriological Laboratories
15 and 23 Hygiene Laboratories
15, 18, 21 and 26 Ambulance Trains

Army Veterinary Corps
1 and 22 Veterinary Hospitals
No 6 Base Depot Veterinary Stores

Army Ordnance Corps
4, 68, 79 and 83 Companies
Base Provision Office, Medium Mobile Workshop, railhead Ammunition and Ordnance Detachments

Army Pay Corps
Base Pay Unit

Labour
4, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11th Bns, the British West Indies Regiment
16, 172 and 195 Companies, the Labour Corps

Other
Base Post Office, Censor Section
Claims Commission Office
Printing & Stationery Depot
Convalescent Depot
Graves Registration Office

Read about it

Review of “Allies are a tiresome lot: the British Army in Italy in the First World War”

Links

Other British battles and engagements