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The Battle of Asiago, also known as the Battle of the Plateaux, the Trentino Offensive, the (Austro-Hungarian) Spring Offensive, or the “Strafexpedition” (“punitive expedition”), was the largest offensive attempted by Austria-Hungary on the Italian Front before October 1917. The operation was planned by Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf: an attack on the Asiago Plateau, located in the Vicentine Alps on the border between south-eastern Trentino (then part of Austria-Hungary) and the Venetian provinces of Vicenza and Verona, with the aim of breaking through the Italian lines and steamrolling into the Venetian plain, capturing nearby Venice and trapping the Italian 2nd, 3rd and 4th (the former two deployed on the Isonzo Front, the latter in the Dolomites Front) in a huge pocket. If successful, this plan may well have knocked Italy out of the war – the majority of the Italian Army would have been destroyed, and once in the Venetian plain, there wouldn’t be many obstacles left preventing the Austro-Hungarians from advancing towards the industrial cities in the Po Plain.
After requesting, without success, German participation in the offensive, Austria-Hungary resolved to carry out the operation with its own forces. 300 battalions and 2,000 guns, belonging to the 3rd and 11th Armies (under the command of Generals Viktor Dankl and Hermann Kövess, respectively) were assembled for the attack; facing them were 172 battalions and 850 guns of the Italian 1st Army (General Roberto Brusati). While Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna, the supreme commander of the Italian Army, did not believe the stories of an impending offensive coming from Austro-Hungarian deserters, he visited the Asiago Plateau and realized that the deployment of Italian troops on that front was dangerous in case of enemy attacks, as the frontline troops were excessively spread out in advanced positions. He therefore ordered General Roberto Brusati, in command of the 1st Army, to withdraw from some of the most advanced positions and to consolidate the defenses on a shorter front; Brusati disobeyed, preferring to strenghten the advanced positions, and for this was fired by Cadorna and replaced by Pecori Giraldi on 8 May. But before the advanced troops could be withdrawn to safer positions, on 15 May, the Austro-Hungarians started their offensive.
After a massive artillery barrage, the Austro-Hungarians started their advance; as expected, the advanced Italian positions were cut off and destroyed, and much of the plateau was captured. The town of Asiago, completely destroyed by the shelling, was captured on 28 May. The Austro-Hungarians approached the southern edge of the plateau, but the Italian troops holding the mountains on the edge – mounts Pasubio, Zugna, Novegno and Lemerle, Buole Pass, the mountains overlooking the Astico Valley –, the last bulwark between the attackers and the Venetian plain, held their ground and repelled all attacks. The Italian Supreme Command, meanwhile, undertook a series of measures aimed at fixing the situation: 120 battalions were quickly transferred by train from the Isonzo Front, seven new divisions were raised with new recruits and troops repatriated from Libya and Albania; a new Army, the 5th Army (General Pietro Frugoni), was created and deployed between Vicenza, Padova and Treviso in order to defend the Venetian plain in case the Austro-Hungarians would manage to overcome the mountains on the southern edge of the Asiago Plateau. Straggling and isolated units were withdrawn and saved, several commanders, whom had shown their inadequacy, were replaced. Stiffening Italian resistance and overextended supply lines took their toll; the Austro-Hungarian advance gradually lost steam and came to a stop, and on 2 June the Italian Army started it counteroffensive and slowly started to regain ground. Cadorna, in the meantime, had informed the Russian high commands that the Austro-Hungarians had weakened their lines on the Eastern Front, as much of the troops used in the Trentino Offensive had been drawn from there; on 4 June, the Russians took advantage of this and launched the Brusilov Offensive, which forced Hötzendorf to withdraw part of his troops in Trentino and transfer them to the East. With his flanks threatened by the Italian advance, Hötzendorf abandoned some of his most advanced positions and withdrew the troops to a new defensive line. By mid June, the battle was essentially over, although some minor Italian counterattacks continued till 27 June; the Trentino Offensive had failed, as the new frontline was only a few kilometres from the previous one. Casualties on both sides amounted to 230,000 men.