THE BALANCE OF POWER
THE breakdown of the strategical offensive of the Entente in the spring of 1917 was almost complete. Russia had gone her own way to military insignificance, France had failed in her far-reaching design of crushing the German front on the Aisne, Haig's victory at the battle of Arras secured merely a tactical advantage, the offensive from Salonika never started, and that from Egypt was held up at the gates of Palestine. In the absence of a combined General Staff for the Entente, it required months of individual thought and interchange of views to elaborate any alternative scheme and to readjust national forces for its execution; and the campaigning season would assuredly close before effect could be given to a fresh plan of campaign. The new Governments in England and France showed no greater foresight than the old, and had made no further progress towards a single strategical mind. Indeed, for the rest of 1917 divergence seemed to grow, and there was no such combined operation as the Somme campaign of 1916. Activity travelled away from the point of liaison, and each ally concentrated its attention more and more on its own particular front. Italy as usual had eyes only for Trieste and Albania, France turned from the Somme and the Oise to the Aisne and Verdun, and England's effort came north towards the Belgian coast. This divergence resulted from the changed view of the military situation imposed upon the Entente by Nivelle's failure. He had believed that the time had come for ambitious objectives; Haig had demurred and clung to the idea of operations limited in their scope like that of the Somme; and Pétain accepted that view when he succeeded Nivelle. There might, of course, have been limited offensives on the upper Somme and the Oise where the two armies joined; but it was here that the Siegfried line most firmly barred the way, and when towards the end of the year a new tactic had been evolved to surmount that barrier, it was applied prematurely and without French co-operation. The unity of the Entente did not extend to community of ideas or simultaneous experiment; and novelties which might have been overwhelming if tried in unison all along the line only achieved a partial success when adopted by one of the Allies on a limited front.
Given, however, the impossibility of another combined strategical plan for 1917, there were urgent motives and sound reasons for the extension of Haig's offensive northwards from Arras to the coast. If it were successful beyond expectation, it would achieve all that Nivelle had hoped to do by a frontal attack, and would compel a general German retreat by turning the enemy's flank as Joffre had tried to turn it in October 1914. But short of such extravagant anticipations it might materially help to win the war by defeating the real German offensive for 1917. That was not a campaign on land at all, but on sea by means of the submarine, and the chief basis of operations was the Belgian coast. Submarines emerged from other lairs, but the German command of the Belgian coast shortened their distance from their objectives by hundreds of miles and correspondingly lengthened their range of operations. Bruges was their headquarters; situated inland, but connected by canal with Zeebrugge and Ostend, it afforded a base immune from any attack save those of aircraft, and Bruges was the real objective of our Flanders campaign. Incidentally, too, the Belgian coast provided harbours whence light German surface craft made occasional raids on British coasts, commerce, and communications, and also for those aeroplane attacks which became a serious nuisance as the year wore on. Apart from these considerations the German hold on Flanders was the bastion of their whole position west of the Meuse; and, but for the natural feelings of Paris, a more strenuous attempt might well have been made earlier in the war to deprive the enemy of its advantages. Obviously in the summer of 1917, if the two Allies were to be left to their own devices, there was none which suited us better than the Flanders campaign, and the official American commentator opined that it held out more fruitful prospects than the battle of the Somme. The drawback was that campaigning in Flanders depended upon the weather: a rainy season turned its flats into seas of mud, and the third quarter of 1917 was one of the wettest on record.
A preliminary obstacle to be overcome was the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge which dominated Ypres and the whole of the line from which an offensive in Flanders could start. Preparations to deal with it had been in progress since early in the year, and heavy guns had also been mounted on our positions near Nieuport. The plan indeed had been in Haig's mind since November 1916, and even earlier than that Sir Herbert Plumer had been training the Second Army for its task; it had had no serious fighting since the second battle of Ypres in April 1916, the battle of the Somme having been fought by the Fourth and Fifth, and that of Arras by the First and Third. The victory, however, was to be largely a triumph of engineering science. For nearly a year and a half tunnelling had been in progress under the ridge, and at dawn on 7 June nineteen huge mines were exploded beneath the enemy's lines in the greatest artificial eruption that had ever shattered the earth's crust. Ten days' surface bombardment had already obliterated much of the German defences, and it says something for the German moral that any resistance was offered at all when our troops advanced over the ruins of the soil. Messines was cleared by New Zealanders by 7 a.m., Wytschaete fell by noon before Ulstermen and Irish Nationalists fighting side by side, and Welshmen captured Oosttaverne a few hours later. The battle could not have have been better staged to exhibit the co-operation of the British Empire and of mechanical science and human valour. A few days later Australians pushed on to Gapaard and La Potterie in the direction of Warneton, and the Germans withdrew from all their positions in the salient. The danger to Ypres which had threatened for over two years and a half and had cost so much in British blood, had at last been exorcised, and from being an almost forlorn hope of defence the Ypres salient became the base of a promising advance (see Map, p. 288).
Yet the operation hardly equalled in positive achievement its spectacular advertisement. Months, if not years, of meticulous preparation in a sector that had not been seriously disturbed by fighting since 1915 had produced an advance of from two to three miles on a front of less than ten. It was a tactical victory of the most limited character; and the strategical value of the ridge was greatly exaggerated. It had never enabled the Germans to master the Ypres salient, and as the autumn showed, its conquest made no serious gap in the strength of the German defences. Neither on the Belgian coast nor on the Lys which protected Lille did the German line budge one inch in three months' strenuous fighting; and the salient created by that campaign between the coast and the Lys melted like wax in the furnace of the German offensive ten months later. Plumer's success might, however, have led to better things but for the untoward circumstances which hampered the Flanders campaign from the start. One of these was its initial delay; seven weeks elapsed before the conquest of the ridge was followed up, and the causes are still obscure. Probably they were political. Belgium, notwithstanding her passion for liberation, cannot have desired the rest of her soil to be restored in the condition of the Wytschaete ridge--a horror of desolation unfit for man or even for nature's growths; and there seemed little prospect of driving the Germans out except by a succession of ruinous tactical victories. Germany, moreover, was playing up to the Stockholm Conference and suggesting restoration without the accompaniment of ruin; and it was clear that if the Entente was to liberate Belgium, it must be done by other methods and at a lesser cost than the total destruction of her soil.
Preparations for other than limited tactical gains were made during June and July. The Third Army under Byng, who had succeeded Allenby, was put in charge of the whole British line from Arras southwards, and Rawlinson's Fourth and Gough's Fifth Armies were brought up to the coast and Ypres respectively, while a French army under Anthoine was located between Gough's and the Belgians on the Yser. The Germans were alarmed by Rawlinson's appearance on the coast, and anticipated a possible attack in that sector by delivering a defensive blow on 10 July against the bridgehead we held north-east of the Yser between Nieuport and the coast. We were apparently not prepared: two battalions were wiped out, part of the bridgehead was lost, and Rawlinson's Fourth Army remained a more or less passive spectator of the subsequent campaign. Its own chance of making a thrust had gone, and it waited in vain for the thrust elsewhere to turn the gate the Germans had barred between the Yser floods and the sea.
This reverse did not tend to expedite the campaign, and when it was finally launched on 31 July the weather interposed a third and fatal impediment. The first attack was successful enough. The French under Anthoine took Het Saas, Steenstrat, and Bixschoote; on their right Gough's Fifth seized Pilckem, St. Julien, Frezenberg, Verlorenhoek, Westhoek, and Hooge, the banks of the Steenbeck and the woods on the Menin road; and below that blood-stained highway Plumer's Second took Klein Zillebeke, Hollebeke, and Basse Ville on the Lys. It was, however, Von Arnim's plan to hold his front lines lightly and rely upon counter-attacks, and before the end of the day we had lost St. Julien, the north-east bank of the Steenbeck, and Westhoek. The key of the German position on the Menin road also remained in Von Arnim's hands, and no means had been found of dealing with his new and effective "pill-boxes." These were concrete huts with walls three feet thick, so sunk in the ground that their existence, or at least their importance, had escaped observation. They were too solid for Tanks to charge or for field guns to batter, and too small for accurate shelling by heavy artillery. Yet, crammed with machine guns and skilfully écheloned in the fighting zone, they presented a fatal bar to the rapid advance on which the success of our plan of campaign depended. Even so, it was not Von Arnim's skill and resource that finally ruined our prospects. Before night fell on the 31st the rain descended in torrents. For four days it continued, and even when it ceased it was followed by darkness worthier of November than of August. The field of battle was turned into a maze of lakes and bogs with endless shell-holes filled and hidden by the muddy water. The bombardment had broken the banks and dammed the streams, and rivers, instead of flowing, overflowed. Tanks became useless, and for men and animals there was as much risk of being drowned as shot.
The Germans were not immune from the weather; their counter-attacks were impeded, and their low-lying pillboxes were often traps for death by drowning. But enforced stagnation inevitably helps the defence, especially when time is the essence of success for the attack. Troops were pouring back from the Russian front; winter was coming to postpone until the spring any hopes of a drier soil, and the land lay low in Belgium all the way beyond the puny ridge of Passchendaele. It would have been wiser to accept the facts of the situation; but bull-dog tenacity has its defects, and that national totem is more remarkable for its persistence than for its discernment. On 3 August we regained St. Julien, on the 10th Westhoek, and on the 16th resumed the general movement. It made little appreciable progress on the right or in the centre, but on the left the French advanced from the Yser canal towards the Martjevaart, and our men took Wijdendrift and Langemarck. For the rest of the month it rained, and it was not till 20 September that the conditions were considered good enough for an attempt on the limited objectives to which our ambition was now reduced. It achieved better success than on 16 August, and the advance made along both sides of the Menin road was through difficult woods; but it nowhere exceeded a mile, the fighting was fearfully costly, and Veldhoek and Zevencote were the only two hamlets gained. On the 26th Haig struck again with similar results: Zonnebeke was captured, the woods cleared up to the outskirts of Reutel, and another advance made on the Menin road.
Fierce German counter-attacks were repulsed during the next few days, and on 4 October our offensive was resumed. Once more the weather played us false, but without the usual effect, and substantial progress was made all along the front. Part of Poelcapelle was taken, Grafenstafel fell into our hands, at Broodeseinde the Australians got a footing on the Passchendaele ridge, Reutel was captured, and Polderhoek château, the hinge of the German position, was stormed--only to be lost and retaken more than once before it was finally left in German possession. The next attack was designed to broaden our salient to the north between the Yser and the Houthulst Forest. It was fixed for 9 October, and rain fell as usual on the 7th and 8th. But once more it failed to stop our advance. The French and the British left between them captured St. Janshoek, Mangelaare, Veldhoek, Koekuit, and the remains ol Poelcapelle, and the Canadians made a further advance on the Passchendaele ridge by way of Nieuemolen and Keerselaarhoek. Another attack on 12 October was countermanded because of the rain, but the painful progress was resumed on 22-26 October. On the 27th the Belgians and French pushed on as far as the Blankaart Lake and the Houthulst Forest, taking Luyghem, Merckem, Kippe, and Aschoop, and on the 30th the Canadians forced their way into the outskirts of Passchendaele. Its capture was completed on 6 November and supplemented in the following days by an advance a few hundred yards along the road towards Staden.
At last the agony came to an end. The campaign was a monument of endurance on the part of the troops engaged, and of obstinacy on the part of their commanders. The misrepresentation of the results achieved in the published communiqués provoked remonstrances from officers in the field, and apparent indifference to the losses involved roused the anger of the Australians--and other troops--against their generals. Among his own men Sir Hubert Gough lost more repute in the Flanders campaign than he did in his later retreat from St. Quentin. It was the costliest of all British advances, and cut the sorriest figure in respect of its strategical results. We had advanced somewhat less than five miles in over three months, and had gained a ridge about fifty feet higher than our original line at Ypres. The strategical gains were negligible, and as an incident in the war of attrition, the campaign cost us far more than it did the Germans. They could hardly have desired a better prelude to their coming offensive on the West than this wastage of first-class British troops. Aided by the weather, Von Arnim had succeeded in his design of yielding the minimum of ground for the maximum of British losses, and the Flanders campaign was to us what Verdun had been to the Germans.
There was a more satisfactory proportion of gains to losses in the more limited operations which characterized Pétain's substitution for Nivelle as French commander-in-chief. After Nivelle's comprehensive disappointment on the Chemin des Dames and Moronvillers heights in April, Pétain restricted the field of his attacks and took ample time to prepare them. It was not until August that the first was launched, and for a sphere of action Pétain reverted once more to Verdun. The victories of October and December 1916 were commonly represented as having recovered all that the Germans had won in the spring of that year; in fact they were confined to the right bank of the Meuse. No attempt had been made to wrest from the enemy his gains to the left of the river; and his line ran in August 1917 precisely where it had run twelve months before, a German gain at the Col de Pommerieux on 28 June having been recovered by the French on 17 July. Pétain was, however, a past-master in the art of limited offensives; his aims were less ambitious than those which Nivelle or even Haig had set before themselves, but he achieved them with scientific precision and without the devastating losses which had attended the larger and less successful projects. The terrain he selected was less affected by the vagaries of the weather, and either he was better served by his meteorological experts or was singularly favoured by fortune. His main object was not the tactical gains he secured, but the restoration of the confidence of French soldiers in their offensive capacity which had been severely shaken in April. During June and July they had been mainly engaged in repelling German attacks on the Chemin des Dames, though Gouraud, who succeeded Anthoine in the Champagne command, secured some valuable local gains on the Moronvillers heights.
The attack at Verdun was entrusted to Guillaumat, and his bombardment began on 17 August. The Germans anticipated an offensive on the left bank of the Meuse, but not the extension which Guillaumat had planned on the right bank as well. The weather was as fair at Verdun as it was foul in Flanders, and while Haig's men floundered in seas of mud, the worst against which Pétain's had to contend was clouds of dust. Their artillery had destroyed the German defences on Mort Homme, and when the infantry advanced on the 20th they carried it, the Avocourt wood, the Bois de Cumières, and the Bois des Corbeaux, in a few hours with little loss. Simultaneously on the right bank of the river they captured Talou Hill, Champneuville, Mormont farm, and part of the Bois des Fosses. On the following day the Cote de l'Oie and Regnéville fell on the left bank, and Samogneux on the right. On the 24th the French took Camard wood and Hill 304 and advanced to the south bank of the Forges brook, which remained their line until the American attack in October 1918, while further progress was made east of the Meuse on the 25th until the outskirts of Beaumont were reached. A fortnight later another slight advance was made between Beaumont and Ornes, and on both banks of the Meuse the line was at length restored to almost its position before the great German offensive of 21 February 1916. But Brabant-sur-Meuse, Haumont, Beaumont, and Ornes remained in German hands, and no attempt had been made to recover the line the French had then held on the road to Étain (see Map, p. 194). Verdun might now have been thought quite secure but for the fact that equal success on the Chemin des Dames in October did not save it from the Germans seven months later.
This second of Pétain's limited offensives was carried out by Maistre and led to a more extended German retirement. But the attack was only on a four miles' front eastward from Laffaux in the angle made by the German retreat in the spring between the Forest of St. Gobain and the Chemin des Dames (see Map, p. 67). It was preceded by a week's intense bombardment which, as at Verdun, destroyed the German defences; and although it was made in fog and rain the high ground did not suffer like Flanders from the effects, and the French attack was immediately and completely successful. Allemant, Vaudesson, Malmaison, and Chavignon, with 8000 prisoners, were taken on 23 October, and by the 27th the French had captured Pinon, Pargny, and Filain, and pressed through the Pinon forest to the banks of the Ailette and the Oise and Aisne canal. This advance turned the line which the Germans still held on the Chemin des Dames, and they found it untenable. On 2 November they withdrew down the slopes to the north bank of the Ailette, and the French occupied without resistance Courteçon, Cerny, Allies, and Chevreux, which they had vainly with thousands of casualties endeavoured to seize in April and May. The Chemin des Dames was now really won, and the contrast was pointed between the two methods and their success. Pétain's more limited offensive secured the greater strategical gains. But the French rather forgot the ease with which they finally won the Chemin des Dames in the losses their earlier efforts had cost them, and were to lose it once more because they thought it impregnable.
In spite of experience the Entente was slow in learning not to underestimate the military resourcefulness of the Germans, and Pétain's victories, coupled with the failure of the Germans to react, provoked a jubilation which was not justified. To the German Higher Command the loss of a few square miles at Verdun and the Chemin des Dames was a mere matter of detail compared with the ambitious strategy it now had in mind. Situated as the Germans were between two fronts, they were quicker to grasp the significance of events in the East than were Western Powers; and the collapse of Russia had already inspired Ludendorff with the idea and hopes of a final and victorious offensive on the West in the spring of 1918. It must come soon, or the advent of American armies would make it too late. Even the French and British forces were serious enough, and an obvious preliminary would be to weaken the enemy line in France by a diversion. The Germans knew enough about Italy to be confident that a staggering blow would not be difficult to deal, and that if it were dealt it would compel France and Great Britain to go to the rescue of their distressful ally. Italy had all along been inviting some such blow by her concentration on Trieste, a divergent quest after booty which led away from the enemy's vital parts; for the Adriatic was already closed to the Central Empires by the French and British fleets, and the fall of Trieste, however gratifying it might be to Irredentists--though Trieste had never belonged to Italy or Italian rulers--would have no appreciable effect upon the issue of the war. That quest, moreover, left the Italian flank, upon which its front entirely depended, exposed at Caporetto. It was not, indeed, probable that the Italians would have advanced very far had they set their faces towards Vienna; but if their front had faced in that direction, they would not have provoked the disastrous collapse of their whole campaign in the last week of October 1917. Hitherto Russia had prevented the Central Empires from seizing the opportunity which Italy offered; but the triumph of Bolshevism removed that protection and also supplied the Germans with political means for advancing their military ends. Not a few Italian troops had succumbed to propaganda, and when the crisis came they imitated Russian examples in a way which provoked Cadorna--in a censored message--to speak of their "naked treason."
The valour which other Italian troops had shown during the summer and their success on the Bainsizza plateau had not prepared Italy or her Allies for so great a reversal of fortune in the autumn. The attempt after the fall of Gorizia in August 1916 to force a way to Trieste had been checked by the formidable bastion of Mount Hermada, and in May 1917 Cadorna turned to the other great obstacle to his eastward advance, the Selva di Ternova with its peaks M. San Gabriele and M. San Daniele, which dominated the valley of the Vippacco and the railway to Trieste running along it. But these peaks could not be taken by a frontal attack, and an effort was made to outflank them from the north by seizing the Bainsizza plateau and the Chiapovano valley behind it. A week from 14 May was spent in the preliminary operation of extending the Italian hold over the east bank of the Isonzo above and below Plava, and in seizing the westerly edge of the Bainsizza plateau with its two peaks, M. Kuk and M. Vodice. This advance over difficult country required great endurance and valour, but it fell short of anticipations, and on the 23rd Cadorna struck another blow in the direction of the Hermada. Hudi Log, Jamiano, Flondar, and San Giovanni were captured, and for a moment a footing was gained in Kostanjevica and on the lower slopes of Hermada; but an Austrian counter-attack on 5 June recovered Flondar and drove the Italians off the Hermada.
It was clear that Italy unaided could not achieve even the limited objective of Trieste on which she had set her heart, and in July Cadorna appealed for help to Great Britain and France. The former sent and the latter promised some batteries of artillery, but no infantry could be spared in view of our commitment to the Flanders campaign and of French caution after the failure on the Chemin des Dames; and in August Cadorna resumed his attack alone. It was dictated by political rather than military motives; for there was discontent in Italy which the most rigorous censorship could not conceal, and the reference in the Pope's peace note of August to "useless slaughter" evoked serious echoes in a public mind which found inadequate compensation for the meagre and costly results of the Italian campaign in its splendid advertisement by the Italian Government. Italy needed a victory, and Cadorna achieved enough to keep up the illusion of triumphant progress. The bombardment began on 18 August and the infantry attack on the 19th over an extended front of thirty miles from Lom to the north of the Bainsizza plateau to the Hermada and the shores of the Adriatic. Most of the Bainsizza plateau was overrun, Monte Santo at its southern extremity was captured, and the Italians recovered a footing on the Hermada. A terrific and bloody battle was waged early in September for the key-position at M. San Gabriele, but heavy Austrian reinforcements from Russia prevented the Italians from mastering the crest. On the 5th they were again driven back from the Hermada and San Giovanni, while away in the north they failed to take the heights of Lom. This held up their further advance across the Bainsizza plateau, and its eastern half, containing peaks a thousand feet higher than any the Italians had conquered, remained in Austrian hands. No real progress had been made, the partial occupation of the Bainsizza plateau proved useless, the losses had been tremendous, and at the end of September Cadorna reported that his main operations were at an end. Eleven of the sixteen British batteries were recalled, the French were countermanded, and the ball was left at Ludendorff's feet.
He had begun his preparations in August when Otto von Buelow was transferred from the West to the Italian front and given an army composed of six German and seven Austrian divisions. The control of the campaign was taken over by the German Higher Command, and the troops had been trained in the new tactics which were tried by Von Hutier at Riga in the first week in September and were to be used to more serious purpose at Caporetto in October and on the Western front in 1918. Time was of the essence of Ludendorff's strategy; he could not afford, with the American peril in prospect, to prolong the war by fighting in trenches and merely defending the Hindenburg lines. Nor could he even afford that deliberate method of progress favoured by Haig and Pétain, which consisted in rapid advances on limited fronts to limited objectives, or in snail-like movements over wider areas. The strategy which by intense bombardment drove the enemy back a mile or two at the cost of so devastating the ground as to make one's own advance impossible for weeks, could not achieve a decision within the time at Ludendorff's disposal. Some means must be found of reviving the war of movement and repeating in a more decisive form the German march of August 1914. The bombardment of devastation must therefore be sacrificed in the interests of the pursuing troops, and its place be taken by gas shells; and the enemy line must be broken by the superiority of picked battalions and greater concentration of machine guns and other portable weapons. The line once broken, the advantage must be followed up by a series of fresh divisions passing through and beyond the others like successive waves, maintaining the continuity of the flowing tide. The Eastern front was used as a training ground for these new tactics, which served Ludendorff better than any advance into Russia could have done; and they came as a complete surprise at Caporetto.
That was not, indeed, particularly good terrain for the experiment, and in order to hoodwink the Italians more effectively Von Buelow did not select for his attack any sector indicated by the principal Austrian lines of communication. But these defects of Alpine country were counterbalanced by the weak moral of the troops opposed to him. One symptom of Italian instability had been outbreaks during the summer at Turin in which soldiers had fraternized with the rioters, and the mutinous regiments were sent as a penance to that sector of the front which Von Buelow was well-informed enough to select for his offensive. But the nervousness was general: Italians had never yet met German troops in battle, save perhaps in small encounters with diminutive units in Macedonia, and some consternation was created when, about the middle of October, it was ascertained that there were German divisions on the Italian front; and presently popular imagination magnified Von Buelow's thirteen divisions into the combined weight of the Central Empires, with Mackensen at its head as a bogey-man. That was at least a more acceptable explanation than the real one of the disaster which overtook the Italian Army. But it is impossible to gauge with any exactness the extent or effect of German intrigue and Bolshevist propaganda upon the Italian situation. Bolshevist envoys had been received with open arms at Turin, and Orlando, then Minister of the Interior, had refrained on principle from hampering their activities. More singular was the coincidence of Von Buelow's offensive with a Parliamentary crisis which precipitated the fall of the Boselli Ministry.
The German attack began on 24 October amid rain and snow, which never deterred the Germans, and on this occasion even assisted them by increasing the element of surprise. The infected front of the Second Army between Zaga and Auzza broke with such celerity that by dawn of the 25th Von Buelow's men had crossed the Isonzo, scaled Mount Matajur, 5000 feet high, and were pouring across the Italian frontier; and the gains of twenty-nine months were lost in as many hours. Elsewhere Italian troops fought with splendid determination, and the garrison of M. Nero held out for days and died to a man, while their comrades at Caporetto greeted the enemy with white flags, and reserves withheld their assistance. Gallantry to the left and right availed nothing against poltroonery in the centre: the Bainsizza plateau was lost, and the Third Army on the Carso was in dire peril of being cut off from its retreat. Nothing but retreat, and perhaps not even that, was open to the other armies, with the Second in the centre fleeing like a rabble and Von Buelow threatening the left and right in the rear. On the 27th Cividale, on the 28th Gorizia, and on the 29th Udine, twelve miles within the Italian frontier, fell, and Von Buelow had taken 100,000 prisoners and 700 guns. The Third Army escaped by the skin of its teeth, the excellence of its discipline, and the sacrifice of its rearguards and 500 guns at the crossing of the Tagliamento at Latisana on 1 November. Then the rain came down, and no believer in Jupiter Pluvius as a German god could maintain that that river had been turned into a roaring torrent in the interests of the German pursuit.
The Tagliamento could, however, be easily turned from the north, and the Italian retreat continued across the Livenza and the Piave where Cadorna stood on 10 November. The Adige farther south was considered by many to be Italy's real strategic frontier, but the abandonment of the Piave would surrender Venice to the enemy, and Venice was Italy's one naval base in the northern Adriatic. It must be retained, or the Italian Fleet would have to withdraw to Brindisi and leave the Adriatic and Italy's eastern coast open to incursion from Pola. But if the Piave was to be held, the German threat to turn it by a descent from the Alps down either side of the Brenta valley must be defeated; and it was here that the Caporetto campaign was fought to a standstill in November and December. Fortunately Ludendorff had not been prepared for the magnitude of his own success, and Von Buelow's thirteen divisions had not been cast for the part of destroying the Italian armies. Their object had been twofold, firstly to compel France and Great Britain to weaken their front by sending aid to Italy, and secondly, to secure plunder in the shape of guns, munitions, and corn-growing territory. The Kaiser boasted that his armies had been set up for some time by this Italian success, and Italy's two Allies had no choice but to send divisions to her assistance, the French under Fayolle and the British under Plumer. With that the Germans were content, and although the Austrians continued their efforts to force the Piave and turn its flank down the Brenta valley, Von Buelow's six German divisions took little part in the fighting and were soon with their general sent back to the Western front.
No light task remained for the shattered Italian armies, for the Austrians had been greatly reinvigorated by their success, and continual reinforcements were arriving from the Russian front. Italy had never been a match unaided for her hereditary foes, and the prospect of British and French assistance was needed to stem the torrent of invasion descending from the mountains. The Italians fought well, and politically the nation pulled itself together; but one by one the Austrians captured in November the heights between the Piave and the Brenta which protected the Venetian plain, and it was not until 4 December that the French and British were able to relieve the pressure by taking up their respective quarters on the two cardinal positions of M. Grappa and the Montello. Even so the Austrian advance continued, while a bridgehead was secured across the Piave at Zenson. After a four days' battle on 11-15 December the Austrians reached the limits of their invasion at M. Asolone and M. Tomba on the east, and M. Melago on the west, of the Brenta valley; and before the end of the year the Italians were recovering slopes on M. Asolone and the French those of M. Tomba, while the bridgehead at Zenson was destroyed. Fighting went on well into 1918 without much material change in the situation until Austria was called upon to take her part in the final enemy onslaught in June. Nevertheless the Central Empires had achieved the most brilliant of their strategical triumphs. At slight cost to themselves they had bitten deep into Italian territory, taken a quarter of a million prisoners, 1800 guns, and vast quantities of munitions and stores, and had imposed a greatly increased strain upon the Allies who alone stood between them and victory on that Western front which Ludendorff had selected for the final test of war.