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The Allies Strike Back 1916

The Fall of Vienna 

A Sequel to Invasion 1915

By David Atwell




On 18th May 1915, with Constantinople in the hands of the Australians, the Ottoman government had had enough…

The conclusion to Gallipoli 1915



Stalemate would be the word used to describe the situation in Europe in mid 1915. Even so, it was still the campaign season, considering it was summer, & thus great battles were to be had. In Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force, would try to smash their way through the German lines around the Belgium town of Ypres. Elsewhere, centred around the French stronghold of Verdun, the French would try the same thing against the enemy. In both incidences, however,  the British & French would fail in their respective attacks.

In a similar manner, on the Eastern Front, the Russians, after much promise the year before, only to be pushed back to their start line, once again went on a massive attack employing several armies. Numbering close to one million men, the Russians were able to punch several holes in the German & Austro-Hungarian defences. Stubborn defence, though, by the Germans quickly slowed down the Russian advances & then, after reinforcements arrived from the Western Front, the Germans were able to win several great victories, forcing the Russians to, once more, retreat forgoing all the territory recently won.

The only great news for the Allies so far was the defeat of the Ottoman Empire & the entry of Italy into the Great War on the side of the Allies. But, like elsewhere, the Italians soon discovered that there was little glory in war. Instead, the Italians soon discovered that they, like their allies, got nowhere against the Austro-Hungarian armies to the north.  And, like their allies, ‘stalemate’ soon came to be a common word within the Italian army.

Plans & Developments

Thus the only army, which the Allies had left, & a victorious one at that, the ANZAC Army was reforming its ranks around Constantinople. This city & European Turkish province of Thrace had surrendered to the Allies, whilst the rest of the Ottoman Empire surrendered a week or so later. Having said that, the Central Powers had not collapsed, due to the surrender of the Ottoman Empire, & appeared to be as strong as ever. Furthermore, Bulgaria had joined the Germans &, along with Austro-Hungary, overrun much of Serbia in the process. As a result, the Allies were concerned, not only about the plight of Serbia, but Greece could be invaded as well.

Due to this situation, the French, more so than the British, decided to act on behalf of both Serbia & Greece, whether they wanted any help or not. Hence, instead of any reinforcements going to the ANZAC Army in Thrace, the French landed these reinforcements at Salonika, located in northern Greece, on 22nd June. The Greeks were far from impressed by this landing, considering it to be nothing more than an invasion, yet even though the Greek Army had two divisions within a days march of Salonika, the Greeks did little about it. This had to do with the fact that the Greek government was split on the issue. The King supported the Allies, whilst the Greek Prime Minister supported the Germans. Thus, with the Greek government in political loggerheads, nothing inevitably was done.

As 1915 went on, the Allied Salonika Army was enlarged to just under 100 000 troops by October. But, for all it was worth to the Allies, it might as well not arrived in the first place. For while sitting on their backsides in Salonika, during the first six months of operations, the Central Powers took advantage of the situation. As the last of the Allied reinforcements disembarked at Salonika, the Austrians & Bulgarians launched a large scale offensive against the Serbs. Ironic as things would develop, this offensive would work, in the end, to the advantage of the Allies, or more importantly the ANZAC Army in Thrace. But, for the Serbs at the time, they were far from impressed by the actions of their allies.

However, before anyone even tried to do anything for the Serbians, the Serbs soon found themselves in headlong retreat. Having held off the Austrians for an entire year, little Serbia could no longer offer the same defence, now that it was fighting on several fronts at once. 200 000 Serbian troops were under danger of being crushed. By the end of October the Serbs had to be evacuated by the Royal & French Navies. Although it would mean giving up Serbia, 200 000 more troops would become available to the Allied Army at Salonika.

Yet before the Serbs could get back into the fight, the ANZAC Army got its marching orders. General Birdwood, commander of the ANZAC Army, had had a mixed time since the fall of Constantinople.  Although he had gained much fame, not to mention a promotion, he, nevertheless since June, saw much of his army striped away to join the Allied forces at Salonika. By September, all he had left were the 1st & 2nd Australian Divisions, 1st & 2nd ANZAC Divisions, the Indian Division, the 2nd French Division, the 43rd & 52nd British Divisions, & finally the ANZAC Mounted Division. Whilst this may have appeared to be an impressive force, much of it had dug in along the border facing Bulgaria since the Armistice with the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, Birdwood did not believe that he had enough troops to go over to the offensive.

The situation for the ANZAC Army would, however, change. Although he would get no more French or British units, he did get an influx of Australian & New Zealand reinforcements in late September. This also meant, though, that Birdwood would have to reorganise his army. As a result, the Australian Divisions were expanded to five, numbering consecutively from 1 to 5, a New Zealand Division was created & the ANZAC Mounted division was split to make the Australian Light Horse Division & the Mounted Division, which was made up of the New Zealanders & a brigade of Indian horsemen. Now happy with these new arrangements with his army, Birdwood had orders to attack.

The Bulgarians

On the day the last Serb soldier was evacuated in mid October 1915, the ANZAC Army went on the attack against Bulgaria. The Bulgarians were caught unbalanced & were thus in trouble from the very beginning. Having said that, the Bulgarians were not stupid. They realised that, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, that their border with Turkey was a weakness. As a result, they had stationed four divisions along that border in defence.

The biggest problem for Bulgaria, however, was its commitments to the other Central Powers. Austria, in fighting with Serbia, desperately needed help. And Bulgaria was asked to provide that help. Hence much of the Bulgarian Army, especially its best troops, were sent to war against Serbia. As things played out, the Bulgarians did well against the Serbs & it should be credited to the Bulgarians that victory over Serbia took place thanks to them.

As a result, though, of Bulgaria’s commitment to the defeat of Serbia, the country had no reserve, just in case something went wrong. The only troops of significance, that Bulgaria had, were already posted to the border with Thrace. Ironic as it seems, even though Birdwood could have attacked in July, as a matter of fact, could have been able to push his way deep into Bulgarian territory. Yet, if he had done so, the full weight of the Bulgarian Army would have come against the ANZAC Army &, like elsewhere, stalemate would have been the case. But because of Birdwood’s demand for reinforcements, & waiting a while to reorganise his army, the ANZAC Army would  be spared the heaviest of fighting.

Initially, even with fewer enemy troops to deal with, Birdwood’s attack was met with tough resistance. The Australian 2nd Division, on the third day however, managed to punch a hole in the Bulgarian defences & immediately the Light Horse & Mounted Divisions went onto the attack. But instead of a wild dash to Sofia, reminiscent to the dash to Constantinople, the Light Horse turned left, whilst the Mounted Division turned right. The result of this manoeuvre resulted in a “rolling up the line” of the Bulgarian defences. Within a day, the border areas had been taken, & the bulk of the ANZAC Army were advancing on a wide front.

At this point, when news reached Sofia of the defeat of their border troops, the Bulgarians panicked. The Bulgarian leadership knew full well that there was little to stop the ANZAC Army from reaching Sofia within a week. Maybe two at most. Urgent messages were thus sent out to the Bulgarian Army in Serbia & it soon became a race against time for the Bulgarians. The biggest problem, though, for the Bulgarians, was the deployment of their forces in Serbia. Considering their invasion points, the Bulgarians were in the south of Serbia, near the border with Greece. As a result, they were not in the best position if they were to intercept the ANZAC Army advancing on their Capital city.

Birdwood, however, knowing that a large part of the Bulgarian Army was in southern Serbia, had made deliberate plans in dealing with it. Having divided the ANZAC Army into several corps, he sent the 2nd French, the 43rd & 52nd British Divisions, off to his left in an effort to cut off the Bulgarian Army. This, the French & British were able to do with much success along the Struma River, although the fighting which took place was harsh. So harsh, in fact, that Birdwood had to send the New Zealand & Indian Divisions to reinforce the Anglo-French Corps.

Nevertheless, with the Struma River Front holding,  the Australians entered Sofia after some hard fighting on 23rd October. Unfortunately, for the Australians,  sever street fighting would continue for a week. By then, the Light Horse & Mounted Divisions were able to isolate the city & Bulgaria finally surrendered on 1st November 1915. If, however, Birdwood thought that his army was to get some well deserved rest, he was mistaken as, although the Bulgarian Army observed their country’s surrender, the Austrians had not & were already invading Bulgaria, from across the Serbian border, to the north of Sofia.

Fighting on Four Fronts

 fourfronts.jpg (210242 bytes)

If the Austro-Hungarians thought that they were going to be able to push the ANZAC Army out of Bulgaria then they were in for one rude shock. With autumn making its presence felt, it began to become cold. Furthermore, with the surrender of Bulgaria, on rather generous terms, all five Australian divisions, not to mention the Light Horse & Mounted Divisions, were soon heading north & stopped the Austrian advance.

The next day, after the Austrians were stopped in the north, they tried to advance from the west of Sofia in an effort to get behind the Australian lines. This advance was also stopped, not far from its starting point, by the Anglo-France Corps. Furthermore, Birdwood still had the New Zealand & Indian Divisions uncommitted which meant to say that he could attack the Austrians any time he wanted. Birdwood, however, after being informed by the Bulgarians that it was better to get ready for winter, rather than launch any major offensive, decided to take their advice. And, as if by magic, Birdwood received orders from Britain to consolidate his gains made thus far & to prepare for a coordinated offensive early next year.

The Austrians, however, had no intension of waiting until 1916 to recommence the war. They were determined to attack the ANZAC Army now & push it out of Bulgaria. As a result, the Austrians launched their ‘winter offensive’ all around Sofia in a manner similar to the previous year against the Serbs around Belgrade. The results, though, were far from encouraging. Not only were the Australians, French & British able to hold their ground against all Austrian attacks, but, when reinforcements were required, the New Zealanders or Indians were on call to ensure that the Austrians never succeeded. By Christmas 1915, the Austrians had given up on their offensive after suffering close to 50 000 casualties for no gain whatsoever.

In the aftermath of the Austrian winter offensive, all sides remained quiet throughout January 1916. Both sides waited for the winter to lift before recommencing their war efforts. The Allies had spent the time productively getting ready for their major offensives. The Western Front, for once, would go quiet from the Allied point of view. Having said that, the Germans would launch a massive attack at Verdun in France. As events would progress, this would keep the Germans & French preoccupied for most of 1916. Similarly, the Russians & the Central Powers would fight it out, which would ensure that the real Allied offensive would benefit most of all.

Known as the “Four Fronts” Offensive, the Allies would attack, as the name suggests, on four fronts. First the Italians would attack Austria along their shared border. Next, the Italians, once again, would attack the Austrians in northern Albania, which had been taken by Austria after the collapse of Serbia. At the same time as these attacks by the Italians were taking place, the Salonika Army, made up now of French, British & 200 000 Serbs, would attack north from Salonika into southern occupied Serbia. And finally, the ANZAC Army would push the Austrians out of Bulgaria & advance into northern Serbia. It was an offensive designed to push Austro-Hungarian Empire to breaking point.

Thus in mid February the ‘Four Fronts’ Offensive began. Alas for the Italians, they got no where fast. The Austrians, defending their own territory, were more than up to the task of keeping the Italian Army in Italy. Only a few kilometres were gained in an Italian effort that included over 250 000 troops. Similarly, in Albania, the Italians were held back by a determined Austrian defence. Having said that, the operations in Albania never amounted to numbers anywhere more than 15 000 or so troops by either side. It was considered by both sides as a small affair.

The same could not be said for the other two fronts. The Salonika Front was a mixed affair. Attacks by the French forces were checked, but nevertheless successful insofar as it ensured that the Serbs were able to advance into southern Serbia with little effort on their behalf. The British part of the initial offensive was called off due to a misunderstanding in the orders from the overall French commander. Furthermore, a split began to emerge in the Salonkia Army, whereby the Serbs, having been successful, were ordered to hold their advance until the French attacks succeeded. Needless to say, the Serbs were less than impressed by their allies & ignored the French order.

The only real success story, coming out of the initial stages of the ‘Four Fronts’ offensive, was that of the ANZAC Army. Their Austrian counterparts had not been reinforced since their ‘winter offensive’. Thus the ANZAC Army faced little opposition when it attacked in mid February along with the other Allied Armies. As a result, even though Birdwood had planed a rather elaborate attack, using the Anglo-French Corps to hold the Austrian right flank down as the five Australian Divisions attacked, it was soon discovered that this was unnecessary.  Hence the entire ANZAC Army was advancing on all fronts, ensuring the safety of Sofia, whilst it took less than another week for all of Bulgaria to be free of Austrian forces.  

Actions in Serbia

Although the Austrians had been pushed out of Bulgaria, elsewhere their army was holding. The only other place where the Austrians were in trouble was in the south of Serbia, where the Serbian army had crossed the border & was moving towards the occupied city of Veles. But it was far from certain that the Serbs would even get to Veles, as the French were still being held up at the border by the Austrians whilst the two British Divisions were still to enter the fight. As a result, the Serbs could be surrounded, if they were not careful, & destroyed as a result. And the Austrians could read the same maps as everyone else & were fully aware of the danger that the Serbs had placed themselves. Thus, it came as no surprise that the Austrians began to move, whatever they could spare, to the region around Veles. A trap had been organised wherein the Serbs would have to fight a battle almost surrounded should they continue to advance. And continue they did.

The Battle of Veles  was not necessarily the most important battle to take place, during the ‘Four Fronts’ offensive, but it was important enough. It would pit 200 000 Serbs in a desperate battle against 180 000 Austro-Hungarian troops. Yet it would be the commitment of these Austrian troops that would see a great victory take place, eventually, over the Austrians. For as drastic as a battle it was, it ensured that all Austrian reserves in the region had been committed to one place, thus allowing an easier time for other Allied attacks elsewhere.

The Battle of Veles began with a sudden artillery barrage. The forward units of the Serb Army came under Austrian attack. Soon, as the Serb Army began to spread out, forming up for battle, it soon became apparent to the Serbs that the Austrians were, not only to their front, but were positioned on their flanks as well. But instead of withdrawing, the Serbs decided to make a stand, even if that stand meant they were more or less surrounded. It is hard to comprehend the Serbians thoughts, considering the circumstances, but the Serbs falsely believed that they were only facing, at most, a division of Austrians. It was not until later that day, that the Serbs realised their true situation. Nonetheless, they were determined not to withdraw.

At first there seemed to be no effect on the Austrians by getting themselves involved with the Battle of Veles. They were still holding back the French & Italians, whilst the ANZAC Army seemed happy to remain in Bulgaria. This was soon to change. Although completely independent of the Serbs movements leading up to & including the Battle of Veles, the day after that battle started, the ANZAC Army launched its invasion of Northern Serbia. This caught the Austrians out & foolishly, with the chance to crush the Serbs, the Austrians had withdrawn all their reserves throughout Serbia.

The result of such action meant that, if the Allies had broken through on one of the other fronts, there would be nothing further to stop a determined advance. And so was the situation that the ANZAC Army discovered quite by accident. Having said that, it is not as if the ANZAC Army had an easy time achieving a breakthrough in the Austrian lines. Quite the contrary. The Austrians fought hard repelling several attacks until the Australian 5th Division achieved success on the forth day of heavy fighting.

The breakthrough, however, was enough. The Austrians, knowing that they had no reserve to speak of, began to fall back across the entire front line in an effort to establish a new line along the Morava River in central Serbia. The ANZAC Army, though, quickly followed the Austrian retreat, but several rearguard encounters with the Austrians ensured that the ANZAC Army was slowed enough to ensure that the Austrians had established their new defences along the Morava River. 

Unfortunately for the Austrians at Veles, the success of the ANZAC Army, meant that they no longer enjoyed a complete advantage over the Serbs who had endured a week of constant attacks. Furthermore, the Allies had acted, albeit slowly, when it became apparent that the Serbian Army could be surrounded & destroyed. On the forth day of the Battle of Veles the two uncommitted British Divisions had arrived & positioned themselves on the Serbian flanks. As a result, it was now impossible for the Austrians to envelop the Serbs & this was besides the fact that the Austrians discovered that they did not have enough men to carry out an envelopment anyway.

Nonetheless, the Serbs had carved out a salient for themselves in a manner not too dissimilar to what the British had done at Ypres in Belgium. Unlike at Ypres, however, the Austrians, now well outnumbered, thanks to the arrival of the two British divisions, were soon under attack by the same army they tried to destroy. Furthermore, considering the changes in the circumstances, their own forces holding up the French, on the border with Greece, were now in threat of being surrounded themselves.

The Collapse of the Austrian Army

The end of March 1916 was far from a great picture for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the beginning of the year, everything appeared to favour the Austrians, although in actual fact that was a mirage. Now that significant military pressure had been brought to bare against the Austrians, things soon changed. Having said that, the Austrians were still holding back the Italians on two different fronts, but the same could not be said elsewhere. And things were about to get worse.

Whilst the struggle for Veles continued, the Austrians were finally forced to give way to the French around Lake Doiran. This struggle had been going on since mid February, but as the situation around Veles began to favour, more & more, the Allies, the Austrians had little choice other than withdraw. Far more importantly for the Austrians, it meant that they would have more troops than the Serbs & British at Veles since the battle there had started.

Such movements of Austrian troops may have helped the situation at Veles, but they were still in trouble against the ANZAC Army. Having pushed the Austrians back some 50 kilometres, the Austrians were able to establish their defence line along the shores of the Morava River in central Serbia. This was of a significant natural feature & a problem for the ANZAC Army to cross whilst defended. The Austrians, however, had kept open the bridges that crossed the river at the Serbian city of Nis. Considering Birdwood had little other choice, he decided to concentrate his efforts there.

The Battle of Nis would become a street brawl, such was the intense house to house fighting that eventuated. The Austrians had kept the city as a bridgehead just in case they could counterattack the ANZAC Army at some future date. Birdwood, on the other hand, was after the bridges & as a result had to take on the Austrians defending the city. For three days, the five Australian Divisions were committed to the fighting. Finally, on 14th  March 1916, the Australians were able to take the city &, far more importantly, the bridges over the Morava River. Furthermore, the ANZAC Army went immediately onto the attack, with the Light Horse & Mounted Divisions, exploiting the gap thus created in the Austrian defences.

Again the Austro-Hungarian Army was in retreat, but this time their southern forces were threatened with envelopment from the north by the ANZAC Army. Still, the Austrians retreating from the Morava River line tried to make several stands, but none of these were successful. Either the Allied horsemen were too fast, & quickly overwhelmed the defenders, or they were surrounded & forced to surrender. Either way, it meant the situation for the Austrians at Veles, even though they may have had, for once, outnumbered the Serbs & British fighting there, was now far too precarious for them to remain & began their retreat.

Alas for the Austrians, the rot had set in. Now in danger of coming under heavy attack, from several directions, all discipline in the Austrian Army began to dissolve. The withdrawal soon became a rout as the ANZAC Army advanced from the east & the Serbian Army, now free of the Austrian defence around Veles, was advancing quickly from the south. In support, all the while, the French & British Salonikan forces followed the Serbs.

By the beginning of April 1916, Serbia,  Montenegro &Albania had been cleared of the Austrians. Even the small Austro-Hungarian Army in Albania had to flee before being surrounded by the Allied armies swarming across Serbia to the Adriatic Sea. But even so the Allies were successful, the war was still ragging elsewhere, & the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still in the war. Furthermore, summer had merely begun. There was still at least four more months of good weather left. Needless to say, it was decided to continue the ‘Four Fronts’ offensive to the walls of Vienna itself.

The March on Vienna

The decision in mid-April to march on Vienna was not an easy one. The Allies, especially the Serbs, had mixed affairs of their own. The French were neck deep with the huge German offensive at Verdun; the British had begun a large offensive against the German Invasion Army still lodged on home soil; whilst the Serbs were busy consolidating their return to their country. Only the ANZAC Army seemed to be free to offer any attack against the Austrians, & even though the Austro-Hungarian Army was a mess, it was still enough to hold back the ANZAC Army.

Quickly, however, events took place which would change Allied thinking. The first was the successful British attack on the German Invasion Army.  Having gained few supplies, since the beginning of 1916, the Germans had basically been starved out & forced to surrender. This, in turn, meant that well over 350 000 British troops were now free to serve on other fronts.  And inevitably that meant against Austria. The French, too, were beginning to get the measure of the Germans at Verdun. Although they could not release any more troops, for operations against Austria, it did mean that the 70 000 troops already in Serbia could stay.

Just as importantly, the Italians agreed to enlarge their “Albanian Army” to 100 000 troops & allow it to be seconded to Allied efforts against the Austrians. Furthermore, the Italians also agreed to open a new offensive against the Austrians in the north of Italy. And finally, the Russians sent 50 000 troops to join the Salonika Army which meant that the Salonkia Army, although made up of troops from three different nations, had 320 000 troops at its disposal.

Thus, on 15th May 1916, the largest offensive to take place on the southern front, witnessed four Allied armies, numbering nearly one million troops, attack Austro-Hungarian territory for the first time. From the Italian border to east of Belgrade, the Allies attacked en mass. The Austrians had little answer in several areas, except along the Italian front line, where massive defences, built up since 1914, saw the Italians repealed after several horrendous attacks.

Similarly, the Serbs around Belgrade were not overly successful either, even though they threw close to 200 000 troops into the initial attacks for little gain. The Salonika & ANZAC Armies, though, in the centre of this long front, supported by the Italian Albanian Army, were far more successful in their attacks. Using massed artillery, the cannons from all three armies smashed the Austrian defences to pieces. Well over 500 000 allied troops then advanced overwhelming the 80 000 Austrian defenders. Soon, within a week, the three Allied armies had advanced over 100 kilometres with little resistance.

This, however, was about to change as the Allied Armies began to approach Zagreb. The local Croatians,  being long term subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were still somewhat loyal to their masters. This also included the armed forces, of whom many gladly fought therein. As a result, stiff opposition took place that slowed up the Allied advance. Yet, regardless how brave or stubborn the Croatian soldiers tried to be, there were far too many Allied soldiers to stop. Where there was one strong point to deal with, the Allies simply moved around it & staved the Croatian soldiers out. As a result, by early June, Zagreb was peacefully taken as the governor of the city feared that any resistance would result in its destruction.

Not long after taking Zargreb, the Allied armies were once more on the move. The Italian Albanian Army was more or less left behind to garrison the area, but it was soon on the move in order to take advantage of the situation. Moving east, its objective was to reach the Italian border &, in doing, open up a direct route from Italy to the Allied operational areas throughout the Balkans. The Austrians, fearing being surrounded, helped the Italians in this endeavour, by withdrawing voluntarily from Trieste. As it was, the Austrians seemed to have given up fighting, now that large Allied Armies were free to operate throughout their Empire.

Yet if the Austrians thought that they could use their troops to stop the Allied advance on Vienna, they were mistaken. Having said that, it was not at all easy for the Allies as the Salonika Army soon found itself in a massive engagement to the north of Klagenfurt just within Austria proper. A large Austro-German army had been formed in order to protect the Austro-Hungarian Empire from being overrun. Furthermore, instead of only facing Austrians, the Salonika Army also discovered that a large German commitment was also present. As a result, the Salonika Army was well & truly stopped, with little hope of further success.

Alas for the Austrians & Germans, their commitment to stopping the Salonika Army also meant that the ANZAC Army was allowed to advance unimpeded. For as the Salonika Army was engaged around Klagenfurt, the ANZAC Army was able to, via the right flank, enter Austria proper via Graz & continue to Vienna, arriving on the outskirts on 29th June. Immediately, an defence was offered to the ANZAC Army, but after a brief exchange, the Austrian forces soon withdrew rather than have their beloved city destroyed as the result of heavy combat.


The surrender of Vienna, however, did not mean the Austro-Hungarian Empire had likewise done the same, even though it was obvious to everyone that its days were numbered. Still, the Great War was at its height & appeared to be far from over. Now that the Germans themselves had joined in the fighting on the southern front, it was now possible that the armies of Austro-Hungry may be able to hold on long enough for the allies to lose their momentum.

Furthermore, with the loss of Vienna, the armies of the Empire might find renewed vigour & energy, not to mention find the motivation in a war which they had clearly believed that they had lost. There were still one million soldiers that Austro-Hungary could muster, & when well led, they were far from useless. The Austrians had held back the Italians & likewise done reasonably well against the Russians. Now that the Germans were coming to their aid in the south, there was no reason why Vienna could not be recaptured from the ANZAC Army, & the Allies pushed out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire altogether.

Needless to say, the war was about to get worse.



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