Austrians Deploy Hundreds of Guns on Trentino Front.

Terrible Toll at Verdun as Battle Drags On.

Special to The Great War Project

(14-17 May) During these days in May a century ago, the Germans are building up their defenses on the Western Front.

The major fighting for the Central Powers is the launch of a massive Austrian offensive on the Trentino Front, in the mountains between Italy and Austria.

It’s an area, writes historian Michael Neiberg, “with many ethnic Germans whom the Austro-Hungarians hoped might help them to win a major victory.”

Italians scale Alpine peaks to defend their lines, date uncertain.

Italians scale Alpine peaks to defend their lines, date uncertain.

“The offensive began well for the Austro-Hungarians,” Neiberg reports.

The massive Austrian offensive on the Trentino Front involved “400 guns participating in the opening bombardment,” according to historian Martin Gilbert. The Austrian goal is to break out of the mountains and onto the Venetian plain and knock Italy (one of the allied powers) out of the war.

That might have happened if the Germans helped their Austrian allies. But the Germans do not provide the support the Austrians need. The goal of the Austrians — to cut off the Italians on the slopes of the Isonzo mountains — might have worked if the Germans were inclined to support the Austrians.

They offer no such help, observes historian Norman Stone. “Still the Austrians persist. It was a very bold plan…including hauling heavy guns with ski-lift cable cars.”

“After a fierce resistance the Italians were driven off the mountain peaks,”

…writes historian Gilbert. “Heavy snow nine days after the offensive began forced it to a halt…within a week the offensive was resumed, and one by one the peaks and passes fell.”

Snow and ice a big factor on Italian Fronts.

Snow and ice a big factor on Italian Fronts.

The Austrians capture 30,000 Italian soldiers. “But the advance across mountainous craggy terrain exhausts the attackers. A gain of twelve miles, so small an area on the map, was for those who had carried it out, a major success.”

“This was the only “might-have-been in the war,” reports Stone. If the Germans support the Austrians…then Italy “could easily have been knocked out altogether with dramatic consequences for the other fronts.”

“The option was never seriously considered.”

On the Western Front, the battle at Verdun in northern France is still raging. It begins in February 1916 a century ago, and it quickly bogs down in the horrible stalemate that is so characteristic of the war on the Western Front.

By this time at Verdun, casualties for both the Germans and the French each numbered some 100,000 killed and wounded. And there is no end in view for the Verdun battle. It grinds on with deadly persistence.

French soldiers, victims of German bombardment, spring 1916.

French soldiers, victims of German bombardment at Verdun, spring 1916.