Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The course of the war 1917–1918: Face-to-face with imminent downfall

It was now becoming ever more obvious that the Austro-Hungarian army could only function with massive German assistance. Politically this chained the Danube Monarchy even more firmly to Germany and left it even less freedom to make its own decisions.

Even when he ascended the throne, Emperor Karl knew that Austria could not win the war. As he saw it, the only chance to avoid the imminent downfall of the multi-national Monarchy was to seek peace as swiftly as possible. However, he was soon forced to recognize that his scope for action was very limited.

Vienna was now giving its German ally ever clearer signals of the total exhaustion of the Habsburg Monarchy. However, exploratory peace talks with the Entente Powers failed because of Berlin’s refusal to give up Alsace-Lorraine, which was one of the Allies’ basic demands; nor, it must be said, was Austria-Hungary prepared to give up certain Habsburg territories, in particular in Italy, Poland and the Balkans. There then followed a confusing sequence of secret negotiations and war aim talks that were characterized by a constant oscillation between minimal and maximal variants with regards to territory to be ceded, with the variants being determined by the course of the war at the relevant point in time.

At the end of 1917 the Central Powers found themselves in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, they were not only succeeding in holding their military positions but were sometimes even making territorial gains. On the other hand, however, their economic and military resources were massively depleted and their supply situation was becomingly increasingly precarious.  

The Entente Powers suffered a severe blow in the loss of their Russian war ally after the peace of Brest-Litovsk in December 1917. In the winter of 1916/17 they also had setbacks on the Western Front, when their large-scale offensives were successfully repelled by German forces. For a short period the French army was even on the brink of breaking down.

Nor, at this point in time, was the Habsburg Monarchy so far from breakdown, both moral and material. It had to bring its very last reserves into action even just to maintain the status quo. This is vividly demonstrated by statistics for the Austro-Hungarian army at the end of 1917. Since 1914, of the 8,420,000 men who had been called up, 780,000 had been killed and 1,600,000 taken prisoner; in addition, 500,000 had been wounded to the point of invalidity and a further 130,000 had been retired from military service on account of age.

The Austrian army’s principal theatre of action was the Italian front, where its generals sought to maintain a certain independence vis-à-vis the otherwise omnipotent German high command. Nevertheless, it was initially unable to make any major breakthrough. The challenge of fighting high up in the Alpine mountains confronted the leadership with hitherto inconceivable problems. As in the French theatre of war, both in the Isonzo area and in the Dolomites there was a deadlock between the two fronts with both sides suffering huge losses. 

In the autumn of 1917 the weakened Austro-Hungarian army achieved a breakthrough on the Isonzo front at Flitsch-Tolmein (Bovec-Tolmin in present-day Slovenia), not least through the large-scale use of poison gas. Only on the banks of the river Piave shortly before Venice did Italian and British troops succeed in halting the advance. In this surprising success the Austrian army raised its head for one last time before a rapid deterioration set in at the beginning of 1918, when there was no longer any hiding the depletion of its military strength. In the hinterland the political situation was unstable and the supply situation catastrophic. Now even the Austrian generals had to admit that there was no sense in continuing the war.

Translation: Peter John Nicholson


Bihl, Wolfdieter: Der Erste Weltkrieg 1914–1918. Chronik – Daten – Fakten, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2010

Hanisch, Ernst: Der lange Schatten des Staates. Österreichische Gesellschaftsgeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert [Österreichische Geschichte 1890–1990, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005

Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg. Aktualisierte und erweiterte Studienausgabe, Paderborn/Wien [u.a.] 2009        

Rauchensteiner, Manfried: Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburgermonarchie 1914–1918, Wien u. a. 2013

Contents related to this chapter


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Event

    Start of 12th Battle of Isonzo

    German and Austro-Hungarian troops achieved a breakthrough at Flitsch [Bovec] and Tolmein [Tolmin] and advanced as far as southern Friaul [Friuli].


  • Development

    Austria-Hungary and Germany: complicated relations

    Vienna and Berlin became closely associated following the Dual Alliance of 1879, although the Habsburg Monarchy was the junior partner. Its dependence in terms of foreign policy became all the more clear after the political unification of Germany in 1871 made it the dominant power in Central Europe. In domestic policy as well, dependence on the Hohenzollern empire made the German element predominant in the multi-ethnic state. The German-speaking populations were split in their identification with Austria and Germany.