Italy in World War One: Death in the Snow

In all the slaughter of the First World War none was more senseless than the campaign waged by the Italian army on its north-eastern frontier against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was brutal, bloody, frightening and murderous achieved virtually nothing and is now largely forgotten – and in the tradition of wars down the ages it never needed to be fought.

Prior to the outbreak of war Italy had been a signatory along with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Triple Alliance. When hostilities began however at the end of July she wisely decided to remain neutral claiming the Alliance was designed only for defence and declaring that Austria following its ultimatum to and attack upon Serbia had acted as the aggressor. She remained open to offers, however.

Despite their being little enthusiasm for war in the country as a whole there was a loud and vocal minority of influential ultra-nationalists such as the poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio and the artist and leading member of the Futurist Movement which claimed to revere technology, the martial spirit of youth, and the redemptive power of violence Giuseppe Mazzini who passionately advocated it.

By October 1914, the Editor of the Socialist journal Avanti! Benito Mussolini, who had earlier towed the Party line and written that Italy should remain neutral, now also declared that she must be involved as a matter of national honour. He asked: “Do you want to be spectators in a great drama, or its fighters?”

The Socialist Party removed him from his post as Editor.

The campaign for entry into the war also had considerable support amongst members of the Liberal Party within Parliament but the majority of socialists and conservatives continued to oppose entry.

The Prime Minister Alessandro Salandra and King Victor Emmanuel III were however in favour and with such powerful backers the majority counted for little and for many months Britain and France had been courting Italy to open a second front on the Allies behalf in southern Europe.

After long and often torturous negotiations on 26 April 1915, Italy signed the Treaty of London. In it they were promised considerable territorial gains in Istria, Trieste, the Austrian Tyrol and Dalmatia if it mobilised its armies in support of the Allies. Just under a month later on 23 May 1915, to equal amounts of joy and trepidation, Italy declared war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was as Salandra put it – a matter of Sacred Egoism.

But Italy was ill-prepared for war especially on such an industrial scale. Certainly, it could put a lot of men in the field even without conscription being able to mobilise 36 Divisions and 875,000 men but it could provide only 120 modern artillery pieces for the entire army. Also, having only been a unified nation since 1871 many Italians felt a greater loyalty to their own town or region than they did to their country and patriotism did not come easy.

The Government had also given little thought to how exactly they would supply such a large force. But the rush to war was now on.

Fortunately for the Italians their primary opponents the Austro-Hungarian Army had more than enough problems of their own. Facing a Russian Army 3,000,000 strong in the East they were only ever able to field a limited force on their border with Italy and they were often outnumbered by as many as two to one.

Their army was also made up of many different nationalities – Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Ruthenes, Croats and Bosnians as well as Austrians and Hungarians which not only provided a logistical nightmare but many of the troops viewed their own Government as little better than an occupying force.

Even worse, the Austrian dominated Officer Corps had been decimated in the opening months of the war losing more than 40% of its total strength. These were men who could not be easily replaced and over time the army was to become increasingly dependent upon its German ally for leadership and support.

The Austro-Hungarian Army, large and ponderous would in time prove to be a paper tiger but given its myriad problems it probably performed as well as could have been expected even if one German Officer likened their alliance as being tethered to a corpse.

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The Italian Army was led by the 64 year old General Luigi Cadorna, a brutal martinet of limited ability who still believed that in the age of the machine gun the full-frontal assault was the most effective form of attack and that if this strategy failed then it was no fault of his own but that of his men who lacked the necessary fighting spirit in which case they must be punished. One in seventeen of all Italian troops would face disciplinary charges at some time or other and Cadorna also reintroduced the old Roman practice of decimation, or the killing of every tenth man in any unit deemed to have failed in combat. He would also arbitrarily order the execution of any Officer whose command had retreated contrary to orders.

In total more than 750 Italian soldiers were shot by their own side, more than any other combatant in the war.

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The area chosen for the Italian campaign would be the Soca Valley and the Isonzo River that runs through it from the Trenta Valley in modern day Slovenia to the Adriatic Sea at the north-eastern Italian town of Manfalcone.

There would also be heavy fighting in the Alps and Dolomite Mountains in the region of Trentino and around the town of Bolzano.

Though the Isonzo River ran mostly through Austro-Hungarian territory it effectively formed the border between the two countries. Mountains scarred the western and eastern sides but a narrow corridor ran between them through the Vipara Valley and it was this corridor that Cadorna pinpointed as the key that would unlock the door to victory.

As a proponent of the charge bayonets fixed he dreamed of penetrating the Austrian defences in overwhelming force, taking Ljubljana and sweeping on unopposed to Vienna. But there was little room to manoeuvre and the restricted space permitted the Austrians to concentrate their forces and build formidable lines of defence.

It was also not uncommon for the Isonzo River to flood, not that this geographical anomaly deterred Cadorna from pursuing his chosen strategy with a blind almost obsessive determination. As neither did the Austrians holding the high ground way above the valley below nestled in dug-outs of rock and steel.

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Determined to take the initiative the First Battle of the Isonzo began on 23 June 1915, barely a month after Italy’s entry into the war. Preparations had been made in haste but her troops were enthusiastic and full of fighting spirit and attacking uphill they made a number of gains early on and almost took the town of Gorizia before finally being repulsed.

The battle had cost them 14,947 casualties but their short-lived success encouraged Cadorna to try again just over a week later.

It was reported that the Italian troops still fired up fought like furies with much of the fighting involving vicious hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, knives, and clubs. Even so, by the end of the battle there was little to show for the 43,000 casualties incurred.

The Austrians suffered even more casualties, unusual for an army defending an entrenched position, but it is perhaps indicative of the ferociousness of the fighting.

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The Second Battle of the Isonzo had been fought with great courage on both sides but over the next three years there were to be ten more and the enthusiasm for war amongst the Italian troops soon began to wane as it became increasingly apparent that Cadorna had no alternative strategy to sacrificing his troops in ever greater numbers seeking to capture the same old objectives.

Life at the front was also miserable in the extreme, the weather in the mountains was harsh and the troops cold suffered greatly from frost-bite of which some 40,000 of them were to die. They were frequently hungry due to problems of supply and there were always shortages of ammunition. There was also the constant danger of avalanche and some 60,000 Italians were to lose their life to the so-called “White Death” including 20,000 over a two day period in December 1916, alone.

The rocky terrain also meant that the detonation of artillery shells would invariably break of shards of rock that acted as a particularly deadly form of shrapnel.

The harsh discipline imposed on the army by Cadorna also did much to undermine morale and the blame culture that prevailed every time an assault failed sapped the will to fight.

By the time of the 11th Battle of the Isonzo on 18 August 1917, both sides were exhausted.

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Even so, the attack went ahead in the same old way and with the same old results – 148,000 Italian casualties, 105,000 Austrians with little gained by either side as once again the Italian troops risked avalanche as they advanced through the valley and imminent death as they scaled the heights.

The Austrian Army however was close to breaking point and one more assault might well have made the breakthrough that had been so long sought but the Italians were also overstretched and their centre particularly weak.

In a far worse state however, the Austrians in their desperation approached their German ally for assistance.

Realising just how close the Austrian Army was to imploding and being forced to abandon its positions they effectively took over command of operations deciding to take the war to the Italians with the 12th and final Battle of the Isonzo the only major Austrian advance on the Italian front nearly turning out to be the decisive one.

The Battle of Caporetto began on 24 October, 1917.

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Following a short but well targeted artillery barrage and extensive use of poison gas specially trained German Infiltration Units armed with flame-throwers and hand-grenades tore holes in the Italian lines which were quickly exploited by the mass of the Austrian Army following close behind. Despite both flanks of the Italian line holding its ground the centre collapsed completely and General von Below’s German troops advanced an astonishing 16 miles in a single day.

Ignoring repeated requests to do so Cadorna refused to order a withdrawal of his forces, and it wasn’t until 30 October that he finally relented by which time most of his army had been effectively routed.

It also now became apparent that he had made no provision for such a contingency and there were no reserves with which to plug the gap. It seemed as if the Italian Army was close to meltdown.

Over the three weeks of the Caporetto campaign the German and Austrian Armies advanced more than 63 miles and got to within 20 miles of Venice.

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The Italians had lost only 11,000 killed but more than 265,000 had surrendered and many of these had laid down their arms willingly and greeted their captors as liberators, even singing the German National Anthem. Tens of thousands of others simply fled the front, deserted the army, and went home.

Estimates put the Italian losses as high as 400,000 and they also lost 3,000 artillery pieces, 3,000 machine guns, and 2,000 mortars. The Italian soldier after almost three years of meaningless slaughter had simply had enough.

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Panic swept through the country and Cadorna was replaced by the more pragmatic and less brutal General Armando Diaz who with the assistance of French and British troops was able to stabilise the line along the natural barrier of the River Piave. The Germans and Austrians made repeated attempts to break through but were unable to do so.

The Battle of Caporetto was a national humiliation for Italy, but it also served as a rallying cry.

The Italian people had never fully embraced the war and they sent their sons to fight only reluctantly with letters to the front indicating just how they simply wanted their sons to desert the army and come home. They also hoarded food and hid their livestock to try and prevent it being requisitioned for military purposes.

The relentless and seemingly pointless attacks on the Isonzo Front and the ever increasing casualty lists posted in every town only served to sap morale even further but Caporetto was to change all this. Having come so close to losing their only recently won independence and to their ancestral enemy they at last rallied behind the war effort and now with British and French troops involved they no longer felt they were fighting on their own.

At least the war at sea went better for the Italians.

Though there were no major naval engagements between the Italian and Austrian fleets, both having effectively bottled each other up in the Adriatic, it nonetheless set the stage for acts of great drama and daring.

On 10 June 1918, the Austrian Dreadnought Szent Istvan was sent to the bottom following an attack by Italian Motor Torpedo Boats, an incident dramatically captured on newsreel.

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Five months later on 1 November, two Italian frogmen Rafaelle Rossetti and Rafaelle Paolucci attached mines in Pola Harbour to the Battleship Viribus Unitus and the Coastal Defence Vessel Wien, sinking both.

They became great national heroes and even if such acts of courage had little strategic value they did serve to distract the Italian people from the relentless slaughter in the north – it read well in the papers.

Under General Diaz the attacks on the Isonzo ceased and the harsh code of discipline imposed by Cadorna relaxed and over time the morale of the troops was restored. The advance of the Allied Armies on the Western Front now encouraged General Diaz to take the initiative once more however, and plans were laid to attack the main concentration of Austrian forces around the town of Vittorio Veneto.

The battle began on 24 October 1918 and for four days the fighting was as intense as ever and little progress was made. But the Austro-Hungarian Empire was already beginning to disintegrate. On 28 October, the Czechs declared their independence, the following day the South Slavs did the same. On 30 October, Hungary abandoned its Union with Austria. As if there was nothing left to fight for on 3 November, without warning, the entire Austrian Army laid down its arms. They had lost 35,000 men in those final frantic few days of fighting and more than 300,000 others now went into Italian captivity.

After years of interminable attrition, countless advances and retreats, and the endless casualties for the cost just 5,500 troops killed and wounded the Austro-Hungarian Empire had not only been defeated it had ceased to exist – the humiliation of Caporetto had been avenged.

The Austro-Hungarian Army had paid a high price in defeat with more than 400,000 men killed and the end of Empire but the cost of victory was no less high. Italy had lost 620,000 of its young men killed and a further 947,000 wounded for the sake of Sacred Egoism.

There had also been many civilian casualties and the economy had been brought close to collapse. Yet the rewards it reaped for its sacrifice were minimal.

At the post-war Versailles Conference they received few of the territorial gains they had been promised, most of them instead going to the newly-created South Slav State of Yugoslavia.

Ignored and humiliated the Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando was reduced to tears and forced to abandon the Conference in a state of some distress and the “mutilated peace” as it was known became a valuable tool which the Far-Right in Italy used to discredit liberal democracy.

It would ultimately help bring Mussolini and his fascist Blackshirts to power.

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