Italy and World War I

I’ve not posted in a very long time and I am sorry about that. I just needed a little break. But now I’m back and, to celebrate, we’re going to have another history lesson! Oh boy oh boy.

Last year, World War I was much in the news on account of it being 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist set off a chain of threats and mobilization orders that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914. Italy’s involvement in World War I is a pretty interesting story and, as in Germany, it laid the groundwork for what was to come a generation later.

But let’s back up a bit. In 1882, Italy joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Each of the three countries promised to help each other in the event of an attack by a great power or, in the case of Germany and Italy, by France, which I don’t really understand because France was a great power. At least until it turned into a nation of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Anyway, when the war started Italy said to the other two, “Hey, we ‘support’ you but we’re not going to war because the Alliance is a defensive pact and you guys started this mess.” What was really going on was that Italy was holding out to see which side would give her the most stuff for coming on board with them. By stuff, I mean territory, and by territory I mean Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia and Zara, all Austrian possessions inhabited by ethnic Italians (making it unlikely that Alliance would support Italy’s thirst for lebensraum, a concept that became known as spazio vitale under Fascism). The Triple Entente (England, France and Russia) wanted Italy in the war so that they could open up a third front, spreading the Central Powers more thinly.

Growing Italian nationalism and expansionist aspirations fanned the flames of pro-war sentiment, helped along by lots of impassioned speeches from people like Gabriele D’Annunzio. I recently started reading a biography of D’Annunzio and man, that guy was nuts. As it happens, one of my very first posts on this blog was about D’Annunzio. Here it is if you’d care to have a look. I’ll wait right here. Or if you’d rather not, here’s the short version: D’Annunzio was a novelist, playwright, poet, aviator and sailor, war hero, narcissist, drug addict, orator and debt-evader. He was short, ugly, bald and skinny with extremely bad teeth but that didn’t stop him from being a notorious womanizer, apparently driving more than one of his rejected paramours to attempt suicide.

D'Annunzio looking dapper.

D’Annunzio looking dapper.


And in his army outfit.

In April, 1915, Italian customs officers at the Italian-Austrian border suffered casualties when they got into a fight with Austrian soldiers who were trying to burn down a nearby bridge. Her honour besmirched, D’Annunzio leapt into action and started giving lots of haranguing speeches urging Italy to enter the war. Here’s a bit of one of them: “The cannon roars. The earth smokes…blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow…We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.” Meanwhile, Mussolini was engaging in similar theatrics in his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, which he established with French money after he was kicked out of the Socialist Party for preaching war.

Italy signed the secret Treaty of London with the Triple Entente (which promised her everything she wanted) and declared war on her former allies on 23 May 1915. Always one to exaggerate, D’Annunzio ended up serving in the army, the navy and the air force, at one point losing an eye in a plane crash (but even that didn’t slow him down for long).

Italy was not at all prepared for large-scale warfare. The country was not yet industrialized and it only had enough equipment for about half of the 1.2 million soldiers that were recruited to fight. Luigi Cadorna, who hailed from the Upstairs Vegetarian’s ancestral home of Pallanza on Lago Maggiore, was the chief of staff of the Italian army when Italy entered the war. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. During the course of the war the haughty and autocratic Cadorna dismissed over 200 officers, and ordered the execution of any officers whose units retreated. About 750 soldiers were executed for one reason or another under his leadership.

Luigi Cadorna

Luigi Cadorna

Over the next two years, Cadorna’s troops engaged Austro-Hungarian troops in 12 battles along the Isonzo River on the Italian-Austrian border. They made very little ground: the terrain was snowy and mountainous and the river prone to flooding. The last battle — at Caporetto in October 1917 — was a total rout thanks to the intervention of German reinforcements with some fancy new battle tactics. French and British troops had to come rescue what was left of the Italian army. The one-sided battle resulted in 10 000 Italian soldiers being killed, 30 000 wounded and 265 00 captured. Cadorna — who had been on vacation for most of October and fled to Padua during the battle — was given the sack. Bouncing back quickly, he was named the Italian representative to the Allied Supreme War Council in Versailles and awarded the title of Field Marshal (Maresciallo d’Italia) in 1924 after Mussolini came to power. That was apparently a very big deal.

In other how badly do you have to screw up before there are repercussions news, our old pal Pietro Badoglio also led forces at Caporetto. Although he wasn’t found guilty of anything by the military commission that examined him after the war, he did  get himself promoted to positions in the army that allowed him to change all the documents finding him at fault. Sound familiar Silvio? Badoglio was named Chief of Staff of the army in 1925 and became Marshall of Italy in 1926. He employed chemical warfare during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. He’s also the guy that was named Prime Minister in July 1943 when Mussolini was fired by the Fascist Council and who ran away to Pescara with the Italian King, Vittorio Emmanuele, when the Germans entered Rome in September of the same year. Jerk.

Pietro Badoglio

Pietro Badoglio. If you ask me, these guys all look pretty much the same.

Anyway, getting back to Caporetto. The retreat brought massive shame and humiliation to Italians. To make matters worse, Italy received few of the territories she had been promised in the Treaty of London, British and French leaders feeling she had not really pulled her weight in the war. That seems a bit unfair: by the end of the war, 600,000 Italians were dead, 950,000 were wounded and 250,000 were crippled for life. Mortified and heavily in debt, Italy was primed for the rise of Mussolini, who soon came along promising to restore Italy to glory and rebuild the Roman Empire of yore.


2 responses to “Italy and World War I

  1. Thanks for this memorabl lesson – fits in nicely with our recent discussion on The Italians by John Hooper!

  2. i saw a photo exhibit here in Rome a few years ago on the trenches dug in the Italian alps during WW 1 that can still be seen today.

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