The Armistice of Villa Giusti 1918

The following text is reproduced from the English translation of the noted Austrian historian Edmund von Glaise-Horstenau's The Collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire* published in 1930. The extract deals with the confused situation that led to the capture of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers in November 1918. The ranks of Austro-Hungarian officers have been rendered in the correct German form.

The disorderly retreat from South Tyrol and Venetia was naturally accompanied by excesses and rapine. At the stations as well as along the line, groups of infuriated soldiers waited to storm passing trains. Seen from a distance each train looked like a madly rushing swarm of bees. Roofs, platforms, buffers, steps of carriages, even the engines themselves, swarmed with soldiers. Their wild hurry to get home as quickly as possible  brought death to hundreds of men - in tunnels and beneath bridges. Rifles were fired into the air and hand-grenades recklessly thrown in all directions. It is, however, worthy of emphasis that no assaults were made upon their officers by the troops returning from the Italian front. Here and there in violently revolutionary detachments the officers were deprived of their commands, and a German colonel replaced by a Slav lieutenant. Nevertheless, the former officers were not molested and in many cases were looked up to and obeyed until the end.

The state of the army made it imperative for army headquarters to use every means to secure an immediate armistice. On 28 October, the Armistice Commission, which had met for the first time on 5 and 12 October, reassembled at Trient under the chairmanship of General der Infanterie Viktor Weber Edler von Webenau. Generaloberst Arthur Freiherr Arz von Straussenburg had loyally informed Hindenburg of what had taken place, and had invited him to send a German officer as representative on the commission. An officer was indeed sent, but his presence was objected to by the Italians. A member of the Commission, Hauptmann Ruggiera, managed on 29 October, although not without danger, to reach the Italian divisional headquarters in the valley of the Etsch. For various reasons he was sent back by enemy headquarters after being informed that the Italian army did not intend to let itself be disturbed in the prosecution of its campaign by any negotiations. It was not until the evening of 30 October that General von Weber was enabled for the first time to pass the Italian outposts. After lengthy delays at various divisional headquarters, the Commission was finally conveyed in closed motor cars by way of Verona to Padua, and thence to the villa of Senator Giusti, which was serving as Italian headquarters. The reason for the very careful manner in which the Austro-Hungarian officers were concealed from the eyes of the Italian soldiers would seem to have lain in the anxiety of the Italian headquarters lest the very slight warlike enthusiasm of their troops should suffer any diminution.

On the morning of 1 November, a rough draft of the armistice conditions granted to Austria-Hungary by the Supreme War Council at Versailles reached Padua. On the same day at ten a.m. these conditions were communicated to the seven members of the Austro-Hungarian Armistice Commission by General Badoglio, the Assistant Chief of the Italian General Staff, who was chairman of the Italian Armistice Commission. The drafting of this document had proved a task of some difficulty to the Supreme War Council at Versailles. As far as the enemy was concerned, they very soon reached an agreement. It was decided to demand of Austria-Hungary that she should reduce her army to a total of twenty divisions on a peace footing, hand over half her artillery, release all prisoners of war without any undertaking on the part of the Entente to release Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, insist upon the removal of all German officers and troops from Austrian soil, and give other similar securities that she would cease to wage war. Nor was it difficult for the Supreme War Council to determine the frontiers to be assigned to German-Austria, that is to say, in South Tyrol and in Carinthia, where Austria was to surrender all her territory up to the Brenner, the Pustertal as far as Toblach, and the Tarvis basin. Further to the east, however, difficulties began to present themselves in view of the long-standing rivalries between the Italians and the Southern Slavs, the Serbians and the Rumanians, as well as on account of the internal disputes among the Southern Slavs themselves. These difficulties were resolved by allowing the Italians to occupy the territories promised to them in the Treaty of London 1915: the valley of the Isonzo, Istria including Trieste, Western Carniola, Northern Dalmatia with islands belonging to it. It was agreed that the old south-eastern frontier of Austria-Hungary was to be retained for the present. This agreement was, however, not to be interpreted as preventing Foch from attacking Germany in the rear, if necessary by way of Austrian territory. For this possibility was still included in Foch's calculations. Hence the Entente reserved to themselves the right to occupy any portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in case strategic or political reasons should necessitate their doing so. The conditions meted out to the Austro-Hungarian navy were exceptionally severe; and were dictated by regard for Yugoslavia. In return for the acceptance of their demands the Entente offered in Article One of the draft agreement "immediate suspension of hostilities." On the presentation of these conditions to the Austro-Hungarian Armistice Commission it was emphasized that, while they only amounted to a rough draft of an agreement, the definitive text would not differ in its import. 

One of the officers of the Armistice Commission, Oberst Karl Schneller, immediately left for Trient from whence he telegraphed the Italian conditions late in the evening to Baden. Both at Baden and at Schönbrunn the worst had been expected, but the bitter truth surpassed all fears. What the Italians demanded was in fact not an armistice but an unconditional surrender. In accordance with the instructions received from Versailles, Badoglio refused to enter into negotiations and placed before Austria-Hungary the simple choice of acceptance or rejection, and this deepened the depression induced by the actual conditions. Apart from the occupation of German South Tyrol, the ambiguously worded yet clearly recognizable demand for a free passage for the Entente armies through Austro-Hungarian territory - a demand directed against Germany - aroused the greatest bitterness.

On 29 October the Emperor Karl had dispatched to his imperial ally a telegram in which he declared that, in the event of a threat to Bavaria on the part of the enemy in the Tyrol, he would place himself at the head of his German-Austrians across the enemy's path. He added that the troops belonging to the other nationalities were no longer under his command. A somewhat condescending reply from Potsdam had not yet arrived when the army headquarters were forced to inform the German Government that in the meanwhile the power of resistance of the German-Austrian troops had seriously diminished. Alarming reports from the front followed each other in close succession. On the morning of 2 November, Oberst Schneller at Trient, as well as the army headquarters at Bozen, declared that an unconditional acceptance of the Italian demand was the only possible way of escape from a terrible disaster that might have incalculable consequences. The Tyrolese National Assembly had expressed a similar opinion on the previous day, and had addressed itself directly to Italian headquarters. Hence it was to little purpose that a naval member of the Austrian Armistice Commission, Fregattenkapitän Johann Prinz von und zu Liechtenstein, proposed from Padua that the Italian demands should be met with corresponding counter-demands. The prince's plan for persuading Admiral Horthy to escape to Spain with the fleet had been rendered impossible of execution by the course of events.  At the same time certain very important information received from the prince did not meet with the attention it deserved at Baden and Schönbrunn in these anxious hours. On the previous day General Badoglio had mentioned to another member of the Austrian Armistice Commission, Oberstleutnant Viktor Freiherr von Seiller, that the Italian General Staff was only now commencing to consider, in addition to several other articles of the draft agreement, the determination of the period within which hostilities should be suspended. General von Weber's remonstrance that the firing should first of all be stopped, and that everything else could be discussed afterwards, was described by General Badoglio as a very humanitarian sentiment, but a military impossibility. A few hours later the Italian headquarters issued an ultimatum that the armistice conditions must be accepted by midnight, 3-4 November or else hostilities would continue.

If any further inducement had been necessary to compel the acceptance of the Italian conditions, Hungary would have provided it. There Károlyi was at work in violent haste to realise a plan he had in mind for several weeks. He wished to gain the sympathy of the whole world for the new and democratic Hungarian State by the disarmament of its entire army. Moreover the success of the revolution would be rendered more secure were the troops to be deprived of arms. The knowledge of this fact strengthened his determination to carry out his plan; and he found in the new Minister for War, Béla Linder, a willing instrument ready to his hand. This officer had for long past been initiated into Károlyi's conspiracy, and had entered upon his office as head of the army administration with the remarkable exclamation: "I don't want to see any more soldiers." Late in the evening of 1 November, Linder, without having been in any way legally authorised to do so, issued orders to all the commanders on the two main fronts, and in the Ukraine, that the Hungarian troops wherever they might be were immediately to lay down their arms. Linder's telegram was actually passed on to the south-western front by the telegraph office of the army headquarters at Baden. Generaloberst von Arz, who was with the emperor at Schönbrunn, only learnt of this order on the morning of 2 November; and soon afterwards he began to receive infuriated protests against it from the army commands. Just before midday, as the result of a telephone conversation, the Hungariam Minister for War agreed that the Hungarian troops should first lay down their arms on their arrival at the old frontiers of the empire. At the same time Generaloberst Arz informed the army commands that they were to ignore Linder's order. Thereupon Linder remonstrated by telephone with Arz, foretold the most appalling consequences if effect were not given to his order, demanded to speak with the empress, and generally behaved like a lunatic. He had in any case very little reason to be angry in view of the fact that his order had reached the front without the permission of the army headquarters.

As a consequence the emperor and his principal advisers agreed that no alternative was left to them but unconditional acceptance of the Italian conditions. It was agreed, however, that the representatives of German-Austria should be consulted before any action was taken in the matter, since their country was the one which would be most affected by the ensuing armistice. They were summoned in the afternoon to Schönbrunn, and they declared through their spokesman, Viktor Adler, that they had not been responsible for beginning the war and that therefore it was not their task to end it. But on the emperor's declaring that he too had no share in the responsibility for the war they were forced to agree with him. The reserve thus displayed by the National Assembly was due to its quite natural fear of being branded from the outset as the legal successor of the ancien régime. Unfortunately this fear does not seem to have been given sufficiently emphatic expression. If it had, the emperor would probably not have subsequently wasted time in renewed endeavour to secure the approval of German-Austria for the acceptance of the armistice.

Meanwhile the army commands, and the leading staff officers, were entreating the army headquarters to make an end to the cruel delay by an unconditional acceptance of the conditions. Oberst Schneller described the condition of the army at Trient in the very darkest colours, and did not hesitate to give expression to the gloomiest forebodings. "Let those who hesitate" - he wrote - "consider what it means to bring a crowd of 100,000 armed men of whom the majority have already lost all sense of discipline through the valley of the Etsch. Let them have confidence in a sober military judgment that sees in this very fact the greatest dangers."

In the evening the emperor presided over a Crown Council at Schönbrunn at which were present Graf Andrássy, Spitzmüller, Generals von Arz and Stöger-Steiner, the Austrian Prime Minister, and Generalmajor Zeidler-Sterneck. Complete unanimity of opinion reigned as to the acceptance in principle of the armistice conditions. The Hungarian Minister for War had in the meantime addressed himself to the emperor personally, with the result that at ten o'clock that evening Arz issued an order that Linder's order might now be obeyed. There was no longer anything to be saved. The Crown Council endeavoured to find a formula in which to protest against the advance of the Entente troops across Austria for the purpose of attacking Germany in the rear. A formula was indeed eventually found, but no member of the council believed in its success with the Entente. The emperor, who presided over the council with a grave dignity, himself wrote the instructions for General von Weber. As to what now followed, the accounts are in part contradictory. According to an account published by Spitzmüller, Generaloberst von Arz is said to have gone to the telephone immediately after the instructions to the Armistice Commission had been drawn up, to have rung up Baden, and to have spoken with his second-in-command as follows: "Waldstätten, be careful to note what I am saying. The Entente armistice conditions are accepted. All hostilities on land and in the air are to be immediately suspended." Spitzmüller declares in his account that he at once protested against this immediate suspension of hostilities before the signature of the agreement, and that Andrássy answered his protest by saying: "Leave it alone. That is not our business. Is the slaughter to go on for ever?" Generaloberst von Arz, on the other hand, states that he did no more than forward the instructions for Weber, which did not say anything as to a suspension of hostilities, and that he then at the emperor's desire drove down to the Parliament with Lammasch to make a further attempt to secure the consent of the German-Austrian Council of State for the action that had been taken. He further declares that it was only when he was in the Parliament that he was rung up by Waldstätten, who begged him in view of the state of the army to give him permission to add the following sentence to the instructions for General Weber: "The Austro-Hungarian troops have therefore already received orders to suspend hostilities immediately." Arz assented on the understanding that Waldstätten first obtained the emperor's consent through the medium of Zeidler-Sterneck. "Waldstätten's opinion," wrote Arz in his memoirs, "was that the urgently needed armistice would not be obtained so speedily on the account of the instructions given to Weber. Under the influence of the reports pouring in from the front, he believed it to be absolutely necessary to state expressly in the instructions for Weber that a suspension of hostilities was unavoidable."

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Prime Minister next spoke with the leaders of the Social Democrats, Seitz and Bauer. Both declared themselves unable to accept any responsibility for the action that had been taken. And even the next morning the German-Austrian Council of State refused to do more than take cognizance of the acceptance of the armistice conditions.

Meanwhile the army headquarters at Baden had not only ordered Oberst Schneller to return to Padua, but had issued orders to the armies that hostilities were to be suspended immediately on the entire front. At the same hour the emperor - possibly under the influence of his energetic wife - began to entertain doubts. When Arz returned from the Parliament, and reported the failure of his mission, the emperor sought to revoke the order for the immediate suspension of hostilities. While it was possible to stop Schneller before he had passed beyond the front line, the new order had to be concealed from the knowledge of the troops. The order for the suspension of hostilities had already become too widely known, although another twelve hours had to elapse before it was a matter of common knowledge. That night the emperor relinquished the supreme command of his disintegrating army. At first he entrusted the command in chief to Generaloberst von Arz, then on his recommendation he appointed Feldmarschall Baron Kövess. Until Kövess arrived, Arz was to act as his substitute.

The morning of the day following - All Soul's Day - dawned grey and dark. Yet the worst seemed to be over, for the shedding of blood had been stopped, when at midday a report arrived from the Villa Giusti stating that the Italian headquarters had informed General von Weber that a suspension of hostilities would not take place until twenty-four hours after the ratification of the agreement. In view of the order already issued this intelligence was of an exceedingly serious nature, A further report arrived late that night which stated that the Italian Commander-in-Chief had signed the agreement at three o'clock that afternoon, and that consequently the armistice took effect from three o'clock on the afternoon of 4 November, i.e. precisely thirty-six hours later than the Austrian headquarters had issued their order for the immediate suspension of hostilities.

On receiving the first report the army headquarters immediately instructed Weber to protest against the capture of Austro-Hungarian troops after the morning of 3 November, and to secure their release. But an enemy greedy for victory turned a deaf ear to this and other protests. Strictly speaking, the Italian headquarters were quite within their rights. An agreement does not become binding until it has been signed by both contracting parties. The first draft had indeed been sent as a "proof," and Weber had been expressly informed that the hour at which the suspension of hostilities was to take place had still to be determined. Moreover, the Italian headquarters could further point out that the very notion of "immediate suspension of hostilities" presumed an agreement had been reached as to a fixed hour in view of the technical difficulties involved in communicating the news to a front that extended over three hundred kilometres. AT the same time it is impossible not to recognise that Austro-Hungarian precipitancy, and the resulting confusion, were not unwelcome to the Italian headquarters. They could very easily have accommodated themselves to the changed situation. As it was, they held to their word with the most pedantic exactness. In spite of Weber's protest, they gave precise orders to all the Italian armies engaged in the pursuit not to allow themselves to be checked by either the astonishment or indignation of the Austro-Hungarian troops. All Austro-Hungarian troops that fell into their hands up to three o'clock on the afternoon of 4 November were to be taken prisoners. For up to then not enough prisoners and munitions of war had been captured to satisfy the Italian appetite. Surely in the whole history of war no other army had such a superb opportunity offered to it of acquiring enormous quantities of booty at practically no risk as that which now presented itself to Italy. It was impossible for the Italian headquarters, after all the disappointments which the war had hitherto brought in its train, to resist this temptation. "Sacro egoismo" once more triumphed - triumphed over the chivalry that had been displayed in earlier wars. It is impossible to avoid laying emphasis upon this fact, even when all the sacrifices are remembered that Italy made for the sake of her national aspirations during four years of bloody warfare, and even when the difficult situation in regard to her allies and her own people, which confronted her at the end of the war, is called to mind.

Of all the Austro-Hungarian armies, the army of the Isonzo was the most successful in extricating itself from the difficulties. It is true that on the afternoon of 3 November hundreds of Bersaglieri were able to march into Trieste without having struck a blow, but they hesitated to make the best use of the opportunity that presented itself. Preserving a close formation, regardless of Slovenian hostility and the breakdown in communications, and virtually unmolested by the enemy, the division under the command of General von Wurm continued its retreat into Carniola, where for the first time the troops dispersed, some going towards the north, others to the north-east and east, and thereby causing the loss of a goodly store of arms. The task of the armies retreating over the mountain passes was a far more difficult one. The Italians had ample opportunity for overtaking the Austro-Hungarian troops with cavalry, cyclists, and armoured cars, and were thus enabled triumphantly to take many of them prisoners. This was the fate among others of the 34th and 44th Divisions in the Val Canale. Sometimes it happened that the Austro-Hungarian troops cut their way to freedom through the cautiously advancing Italians, but very frequently officers and soldiers, tired out and having lost their way, and taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of the Italians, resigned themselves to their fate without even a show of resistance. Moreover, many an officer wished to spare his men and avoid further bloodshed - all the more so because it was generally believed that captivity could only last for a few days.

The worst fate of all was that meted out to the Tyrolese troops. When on 3 November the Italian flag was simultaneously hoisted in Trient and Trieste, the mountains to the east and south-west of Trient were still crowded with Austro-Hungarian troops. But the Italians were not satisfied with this booty; and they found means for capturing, within the next twenty-four hours, all the Austro-Hungarian divisions between Trient and Bozen which were escaping northwards. Among their numbers were many German-Austrian troops. During the fateful thirty-six hours given to the Italians by Austria's earlier suspension of hostilities these troops were all take n prisoner. Among the prisoners thus secured by the Italians were three corps commanders, ten divisional and twenty-one brigade staffs, and twenty four generals. The Italians claimed to have captured 427,000 prisoners, and at least 350,000 of these they owed to the unfortunate "misunderstanding." Italy was entirely unprepared for the reception of this enormous number of prisoners. Many hardships awaited the Austro-Hungarian officers and men in the ill-equipped prisoner-of-war camps. Hunger, cold and disease claimed thousands of victims and the populace at home held the members of the army staffs responsible for these misfortunes. Immediately after the revolution the National Assembly appointed a committee to investigate into the degree of responsibility among these officers. On the conclusion of their inquiry the committee reported that no "serious neglect of their official duties" had been proved against any one of them. The evidence given before the committee which was chiefly composed of civilians, by General von Waldstätten, produced a profound effect. He gave a moving account of events, and of the impressions he received, on that memorable All Souls' Day.

While hundreds of thousands of Austrian soldiers were carried off southwards into captivity, hundreds of thousands were struggling homewards through the Pustertal, over the Brenner, and across the Reschenscheideck. Trains were filled to overflowing and the roads were crowded with motor-cars piled up with passengers and luggage. The shops were emptied and, if the stores could not be dragged away, they were set on fire. Public officials and the local inhabitants frequently joined in robbing the army. Everywhere business in army property was thriving and supplies exceeded the demand. Articles of all kinds were offered for sale at cut-throat prices, yet thousands of horses died and thousands of carts and hundreds of motor-cars were left abandoned by the roadside. The "rapid demobilisation," which was subsequently to be lauded by the Socialist Under-Secretary for War in Vienna, entailed in fact the loss of millions. What was worst of all was the fear that existed for several days that Austria was about to be destroyed in bloody anarchy. Why this did not in fact happen must always remain one of the mysteries of history. The soil of German-Austria was threatened temporarily by the approach of a misfortune that it had hitherto been spared: it threatened to become a battlefield. Troops of all nationalities of the vanishing empire passing through the valley of the Inn on their way to Salzburg encountered the Bavarian regiments commanded by General Krafft von Delmensingen, formerly the renowned commander of the Bavarian Alpine Corps, which were on their way to the Brenner and the Tauern Mountains. The German-Austrian Council of State found itself confronted with a peculiarly delicate situation. The further co-operation of German-Austrian troops with the Bavarian regiments was out of the question, no matter how friendly might be the sentiments entertained by Austria for her German ally. On 3 November - that is, on the day on which the armistice had been brought to their notice - the Council of State had issued the following proclamation: "German-Austria has no army of her own. Her troops are divided up among divisions in which the Slav-Hungarian soldiers. who are in the majority will no longer fight. Hence German-Austria can no longer continue the fight alone." This proclamation was an understatement of facts. Even had the German-Austrian troops not intermingled with the Slavs and the Hungarians, it would have been impossible for the Council of State to have taken upon itself the responsibility for a continuance of the war; especially a continuance of the war within their own country. The truth of this fact was demonstrated by the arrival of protests against the advance of the Bavarians from the National Assemblies in Salzburg and Tyrol. The situation resolved itself with the space of twenty-four hours. At Innsbruck the Bavarians had already donned the red cockade, and on the Brenner rebellion had broken out. A revolution in Munich recalled the Bavarian troops, and they returned home more quickly than they had departed. Their place was soon taken by several Italian detachments, who seized certain strategic vantage points in North Tyrol. Their arrival was not followed by greater forces, since the collapse of Germany caused Marshal Foch to abandon his plan to advance on Berlin from the south.

* The Collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Edmund von Glaise-Horstenau, J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., London and Toronto and E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc., New York

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