The French in Italy, 1917-1918
Le corps expéditionnaire en 1917
The Treaty of London, signed on 26 April 1915, committed Italy to joining World War I on the side of the Allies. Italy declared war against Austria-Hungary on 23 May the same year and Germany over a year later on 23 August 1916. The Italian theatres of operations saw fighting in the Dolomites and in Frioul, on the Piave, on the Isonzo and on the Asiago plateau.
Against attacks from the Germans and the Austrian-Hungarian troops, the front fell in Caporetto on 24 October 1917. The breach allowed the enemy to advance 28 kilometres on the first day and conquer General Cadorna’s 2nd and 3rd Royal Armies.
1917. From a passageway, French and Italian soldiers keep watch over the Piave. Source: Library of Congress.
In light of the gravity of the situation, and to comply with the mutual aid agreements signed with the Allies, General Pétain, Commander-in-Chief of the French army, sent reinforcements to the Italian Front on 27 October. They were under the command of General Duchêne with the commander of the 10th regiment. The 31st CA (army corps) supported by the 64th and 65th ID (infantry division), the 46th and 47th Alpine ID, and 17 artillery groups including six mountain regiments and seven squadrons travelled to Italy via the Maurienne Valley.
On 31 October, the first troops reached Italy.
General Duchêne. Source: Le Petit journal illustré, 18 February 1917.
On 1 November, General Foch arrived in Italy before leaving for the Italian General Headquarters in Padua where he stayed until 23 November. A French base was set up in Milan to ensure the provision of supplies to the expeditionary corps. On 20 November, another army corps, the 12th, arrived as backup under General Fayolle, who took the helm of the French troops under tragic circumstances: the enemy forces had breached the Tagliamento and reached the Piave where the Italians – whose 2nd army had been destroyed – had been taken out. Britain also sent five divisions to support General Diaz who had replaced General Cadorna.
The enemy planned an offensive led by the group of armies under Conrad to break the Italian positions along the Piave River. His breakthrough would bring down the defensive troops, from Bassano to Treviso, threatening Padua through the Brenta Valley. Total victory was within the Central Empires’ reach while, for Italy, the battles of Asiago and Mount Grappa were critical, marked with a spirit of absolute sacrifice.
Mount Tomba, 1917. Source: Fritz Jung: Die Goslarer Jäger im Weltkriege - Hildesheim, Buchdruckerei Lax, 1933.
The attacks raged and Mount Tomba was conquered by the enemy who, exhausted, was unable to progress further.
Patriotic publication from 1918. Source: Public domain.
On 4 December, the French units joined the front line. The Alpine Hunters of the 47th Alpine Infantry Division (DIA) reached Mount Tomba on 30 December. Infantrymen, hunters, artillerymen and firefighters held their sectors until March 1918. Foch recalled the 10th French Army Corps to the Western Front, with the exception of the 12th AC, which was renamed the FFI (French Forces in Italy) under the command of General Graziani.
Castelfranco, Veneto, prisoners captured on Mount Tomba arriving to the camp. January 1918. Source: ECPAD. Photo: Maurice Boulay.
The offensive of 1918
On the Asiago plateau, the observation balloon is carefully concealed in the hollows of the land. Photo, Corporal Julien Naboulet of the 108th IR. Source: 1914-1918.
The 12th AC relieved the Italians on Asiago plateau on 25 March. In June, its units fought in the battles of Capitello-Pennar, Meltar, Il Prunno and Cima Echar where the Austrians were pushed back.
Asiago Plateau, 17 June 1918, during the Austrian offensive. Source: Public domain.
The final offensive by the Austrian troops was broken in Val Turcio by the 23rd and 24th infantry divisions. The Comando Supremo decorated the following French units: the 78th Infantry Regiment (RI), the 2nd Batallion of the 108th IR, the 12th Engineers Company, the 2nd Group of the 1st MAR and the 2nd Group of the 112th Heavy Artillery Regiment.
On 24 October, Generalissimo Diaz launched his liberating offensive. His seven armies attacked Asiago by sea. Leading the offensive, with Feltre as their objective, was the 12th Royal Army under French General Graziani with his FFI.
General Jean César Graziani. Source: Le Pays de France, 31 October 1918.
Just prior, the 126th IR took Mount Sisemol. During the night of the 26th, the French broke across the Piave, at Molinetto de Pederobba. The 3rd battalion of the 107th IR crossed by boat then, under the protection of the firefighters and infantrymen, formed a bridge of boats across the river in spate. The two other battalions then managed to cross the water.
Throughout the day of the 27th, the 107th battalion, cut off following the bridge collapsing under enemy fire, fought for their lives, clinging to the San Vito cliffs to maintain their small and fragile bridgehead. That night, the 138th IR, sent as reinforcements, crossed a bridge built over the tumultuous waters. On the 28th, supported by the Italian units, the French expanded their enclave and seized Mount Perto and Mount Piannar. On the third night, the 78th IR joined the attacks with the batteries of the 1st Mountain AR. On the 29th and 30th, the forces broke through the enemy line which gradually collapsed. The 23rd ID under General Bonfait, covered by the 52nd Royal ID, mounted the high valley of the Piave while the Italians entered at Valdobbiadene.
The advance continued against an enemy in full retreat. The 3rd, 8th and 10th Army Corps took Vittorio, Conegliano and Oderzo. The 8th Royal Battalion broke through the Austrian front, separating the troops in Trentino from those in Venice. Some 300,000 prisoners and 5,000 cannons were captured by the time the Armistice was signed in Padua on 3 November.
The Asiago plateau destroyed in Autumn 1918. Source: Public domain.
With the application of the 1915 Treaty of London, Trentino and Istria were returned to Italy; the town of Fiume was reunited with its mother country, causing disagreement with Serbia which claimed to own Istria and the Dalmatian Coast, with the exception of Trieste.
The French Forces returned to France between March and July 1919.
Sites of remembrance
Pederobba. French military graveyard. Source: davetto.altervista.org
It was the association of French war veterans in Italy that came up with the idea to bury the dead from the Piave front on one site. Georges Gayrand, French consul in Venice, chose a plot of land in Pederobba for the gravesite. On 10 December 1935, in Rome, a French-Italian committee approved the plans for a remembrance monument consisting of a 100-metre-long wall, 10 metres high and 6 metres wide, symbolising the Italian feat of stopping the Austrian offensive.
Detail of monument. Source : montegrappa.org
Created by Camille Montagné, and decorated with statues sculpted by Louis Leygue, the wall holds 1,000 bodies (994 identified, six unknown) of French soldiers exhumed from several military cemeteries within its cavities.
Detail of monument. Source : montegrappa.org
The graveyard was inaugurated on 27 June 1937 by General Ceci during a French-Italian ceremony in the presence of civilian and military authorities, a crowd of veteran soldiers and their families. Honours were awarded by a company of the 5th Alpini (mountain troops) and by a company of the Chambéry 13th Army Corps Battalion.
The monument in Pederobba. Source: L’Illustration, 3 July 1937.
The principle French military graves where soldiers from the Great War lay:
1- Castrignano del Capo: 22 bodies
2- Livorno: 55 bodies
3- Milan: 50 bodies
4- Rome: 19 bodies
5- Sciacco: 19 bodies
6- Tarente: 166 bodies
7- Venice: 19 bodies
Map. Source: MINDEF/SGA/DMPA
In the village of Pederobba, two kilometres from the graveyard, a 3.5m-high obelisk commemorates the crossing of the Piave in October 1918 by the 23rd French ID and the 52nd Italian ID. It was opened in June 1972 by the French veterans in Italy association.
Monument erected on 11 June 1972 by the French war veterans in Italy association, 1917-1918. Source: Dott. Pizzaia sind-le Bordays arch. - A. Bresolin Cost
At the summit of Mount Tomba, a chapel is dedicated to the soldiers killed in these battles. Inside, an ex voto plaque is an homage to the memory of the dead: the Alpine hunters, infantrymen, artillerymen, engineers and other soldiers in the French units who fought in the sector.