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Background to the war in Italy
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The Risorgimento and the consolidation of Italy

The Italian peninsula in 1860

This page is not intended to be a full description of the First World war in Italy; that information can be found more sensibly, in greater detail and more readily in many places elsewhere.

My purpose is solely to describe a little of my understanding of the background to the war that brought one of my grand-uncles, Lance-Corporal Harry Leonard John Cassini of the 2nd Battalion, Honourable Artillery Company, to Italy where he was killed on the 23rd October 1918, only a few weeks before the ending of the First World War. My paternal grandfather, Harry’s best friend and brother-in-law, and also of the 2nd Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company, had previously been killed at Bullecourt, in France.

The domination of Italian states by foreign powers, notably France and Austria, had established the setting in which nationalism was bound to flourish. This map illustrates the different states within the peninsula around 1860, together with the powerful states that surrounded them.

Italy became a single nation on the 17th March 1861 as a result of the Risorgimento consolidating the different states of the peninsula into the Kingdom of Italy under King Vittorio Emanuele II, previously the King of Sardinia. The Risorgimento continued until the capture of Rome on the 20th September 1870 from the Papal states under the rule of Pope Pius IX. The city became the capital of Italy the following year on the 3rd February 1871.

Following the unification, Italian nationalists continued to press for the inclusion of other areas believed more properly belonging to them than to Austria. Four that particularly held the interests of the nationalist movement, irredentismo italiano, were Trieste, Istria, Zadar and Dalmatia which had been retained by Austria following the Third War of Italian Independence in 1866. These areas were associated with the long history of Venice, its influence on the Adriatic littoral and generally contained a majority of ethnic Italians or Italian-speakers. With varying degrees of entitlement or expectancy, the claims were also extended to Corsica, Malta and Italian-speaking Switzerland.

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Italian soliders firing on Turkish positions at Tripoli, 1911 – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the end of September 1911 Italy declared war and attacked Libya at Tripoli with the stated intent of removing Ottoman administrative control from this neighbouring area of land across the Mediterranean Sea. There was an obvious advantage to Italy in expanding its empire with a valuable economic addition in north Africa as well as playing to internal nationalist interests. France, Britain and Russian provided tacit support to this intervention and the First Treaty of Lausanne, 18th October 1912, confirmed transfer of Libya from the Ottomans to Italy. This part of Africa remained an Italian possession until 1947.

This war against the Ottoman Empire was taken by the member states of the Balkan League – Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia – as an illustration of the weakening of the Ottomans’ hold on their empire. The ensuing First Balkan War of 1912 resulted in the Ottomans losing most of their European territories, and the Balkans becoming an area of territorial and national instability.

The Ottomans, now facing difficulties on many fronts, made the decision to align themselves with Germany, a decision that suited Germany with its interests in the Middle East as much as it did the Ottomans.

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The Treaty of London, 1915

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Italy was aligned with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian under the Triple Alliance, formed in 1882. But increasingly, Italians believed they would never be able to obtain the four territories considered to belong to them. Following secret negotiations, Italy switched its allegiances to the Triple Detente of France, Great Britain and Russia by the Treaty of London on the 26th April 1915. In the event, a number of promises or understandings made in the negotiations were not, were never meant to be, or were unable to be, kept.

There was significant concern when the agreement became public the following month with considerable agitation on the streets. Much of this was a reflection of the common resentment for the ruling classes. The Italian Prime Minister, Antonio Calandra, who had negotiated the agreement resigned but was forced to return to office when a majority against him could not be found. The agreement could not be reversed and Italy, for good or ill, now found itself impelled into an active rôle in the war.

The Armistice, drawing fighting to a close, was signed on the 11th November 1918, but the Treaty of London was later nullified by the Treaty of Versailles, signed on the 28th June 1919, which brought the war officially to an end. The Italians resented some of its terms and considered themselves to have been let down by the British and French, particularly when noting the latter’s colonial gains.

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Readiness for war

A pro-war demonstration in Bologna, 1914 – courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1915 Italy was not prepared for war. Apart from the political and religious factions supporting a preference for neutrality, the state’s finances were poor, it was politically disorganised and, particularly, the military was unprepared for the fighting that was now bound to come. Nevertheless there was a significant portion of the population wanting war. This photograph shows a pro-war demonstration in Bologna, 1914, reflecting a nationalist sentiment that envisaged the further consolidation of Italy along with the reclamation of lands considered to belong to Italy due, for the most part, because of the Italians or Italian speakers living there.

The relatively newly formed Italian state had, at the time of their inclusion within the Triple Detente, thirty-six divisions, though these were under-strength. One of the reasons for this was the strategic difficulties associated with bringing personnel up the length of Italy. There was also an operational problem within the divisions. It was notable that officers tended to be old and patrician and had difficulties understanding the several dialects spoken by their troops. Perhaps more important, the army did not have the weapons needed, nor the capability of producing them in the quantities required. Guns, coal, steel and other necessities of war were shipped to Italy, but there was still the necessity to develop the armament industries capable of matching the pace of the oncoming war.

In order to guard against the probable invasion of Austro-Hungarian troops from the north-east, allied troops were introduced to the region in order to back up the Italian army in its confrontation with the remaining forces of the Triple Alliance. France supplied six divisions, Great Britain four and the United States sent the 332nd Infantry Regiment along with ambulance sections and a base hospital. The British and French troops were for the most part battle hardened and would provide considerable assistance to the national troops.

Italy has a very long littoral with a relatively short border at its north. But that part of Italy’s border is heavily mountainous, significantly constraining movement of any sort, with those movements being readily defined. One benefit this had is that the Italian mountain troops had become very familiar with the difficult territory in which they operated, and were well-disciplined and capable.

But the mountains still presented significant difficulties for an attacking force, suggesting to the Italians that the lower reaches of their border were more suited to successful advances, having the advantage of opening access to the Austro-Hungarian flank as well as south to Trieste and the Dalmatian coast.

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First initiatives

Chief of the General Staff, Luigi Cadorna, inspecting front line troops in 1915 – courtesy of the Italian Army website

In May 1915, the Italian army made their first engagement of the Austro-Hungarian troops situated to its east with intent of breaking through the Austro-Hungarian flank, exposing the Dalmatian coast. The attack was made across the length of the Isonzo river, see below.

The Italian army also engaged Austro-Hungarian forces in the Trentino, when, a year later in May 1916, Austro-Hungarian forces attacked along a broad front, breaking through in the centre. The battle required Italian reinforcements to be sent immediately in order to protect the Veneto and Venice. Fortunately Russian activity in Galicia threatened Austrian soil and troops had to be moved west to counter the Russian initiatives, thus relieving the Veneto. This quickly became an entrenched war, similar to that which had brought the war in France to a virtual standstill. Italy was defending around five hundred miles of frontier, much of it along the mountainous regions to its north and east.

To the east the Austro-Hungarian forces were generally entrenched along the upper areas of the region in a line of their selection – the photograph below shows the Austro-Hungarian ground occupied to the right overlooking the town of Gorizia with the rail bridge across the river Isonzo below destroyed. Well dug in and protected by barbed wire the Austro-Hungarian troops were able to defend against a vulnerable enemy having literally to fight an uphill battle.

more to be written…

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The Isonzo river

A view of the destroyed rail crossing of the Isonzo river at Gorizia, 1917 – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Isonzo river delineated part of the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the east of Italy. It enters the Adriatic near Monfalcone and is characterised as being swift-flowing bordered by steep terrain for much of its northern length. It was the setting for a series of twelve battles between May 1915 and November 1917.

The first battle of the Isonzo river took place between the 23rd June and 7th July 1915. More detail of this and the other battles can be found by turning to the relevant Wikipedia pages and elsewhere. Here it is just important to note that the Italian attacks were readily repulsed by the Austro-Hungarian troops who were more experienced and better placed in well protected, uphill defensive positions.

The battles of the Isonzo river had disastrous consequences on the Italian and Austro-Hungarian states. The character of the land over which the battles were fought, and of the fighting saw Italy lose around 300,000 dead while the Austro-Hungarians lost 200,000 in these battles along the river.

more to be written…

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German assault troops resting at the battle of Caporetto – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Chief of the General Staff, Luigi Cadorna, believed that any attack by Habsburg troops was most likely to be fifty miles south of the Isonzo, on the Carso plateau. While those forces were taking considerable care to mask their build-up of troops for the planned attack, there were a series of warnings that an attack was to be expected. These were ignored by Cadorna who, in mid-May went on holiday to Venice. Compounding this, General Capello had left some of his troops east of the Isonzo river and not withdrawn them to better defensive positions.

On the 24th October 1917, nine Austro-Hungarian and six German divisions attacked the Italian Second Army, commanded by General Luigi Capello with twenty-four divisions, at Caporetto, also referred to as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo. This well-organised and planned attack overwhelmed the Italian forces, inflicting an overwhelming defeat on them. The Habsburg forces continued their advance west, reaching the Piave river by the 12th November 1917.

However, the attack had been carried out on extended supply lines and without sufficient assistance from Germany whose forces were needed in the north for battles on the Western Front. By the same token, Germany was relying upon Austro-Hungarian forces to suck in British and French forces needed for fighting in the north. Incidentally, the term ‘Caporetto’ is still used in Italian to suggest a disaster of overwhelming proportions.

Provisional Italian trenches near Case Ruei following the retreat from Caporetto – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With significant antipathy between the now disgraced General Capello and his commander, General Cadorna, the Italian Second army retreated west as did the Third army under the Duke D’Aosta which had been holding the line between the Second and the Adriatic, in order to avoid being outflanked. At the insistence of the French and British, Cadorna was dismissed and General Armando Diaz appointed Chief of General Staff.

Italy had lost 305,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead and 265,000 taken prisoner. This compares with the 70,000 German and Austro-Hungarian casualties including dead and wounded. The Italian First, Third and Fourth armies now established defensive positions on the west side of the Isonzo river, and the Second army was pulled further west in order to regroup.

There were significant desertions by the Italian troops due to a combination of the severity of the Austro-Hungarian attack and the lack of leadership by the Italian officers. Cadorna, an unimaginative authoritarian, had a number of officers from units retreating at Caporetto executed and it is notable that around 750 Italian soldiers were executed during the war.

In order to assist in protecting the north of Italy from the Habsburg advances, reinforcements of British and French forces were moved to the north of Italy, France supplying six divisions, Britain four while the United States a small supporting force.

One of the British divisions included elements of the Honourable Artillery Company, essentially a territorial company that had, nevertheless been required to fight abroad. In fact it had gained significant experience since arriving in France in 1915 though, by the same token, significant casualties.

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