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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Italy and the Great War

The Italian theater in the Great War.  Trieste is at far right, the Carso
just above it.  The black lines at right depict the Austrian offensive
known by the name of the town, Caporetto.  The offensive ended
with the Italian army pushed back to the River Piave, the red line
at center, just northeast of Venice. 

Rome the Second Time is the first guidebook to take up seriously the historic events leading to and including World War II: the 1922 March on Rome, which installed Mussolini and the Fascists; Hitler’s 1938 visit, which produced the fateful alliance of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; the fighting in the city following the Italian withdrawal from the war and the German occupation in 1943; the deportation of Rome’s Jews to concentration camps; and the bombing in via Rasella and the vicious Nazi retaliation for it at the Fosse Ardeatine in 1944. We included these events—and existing sites that reveal them--because they continue to shape perceptions of what it means to be Italian.

The poet and warmonger Gabriele D'Annunzio, 1918
When we wrote the book we knew much less about Italy’s role in the Great War, now known as World War I, partly because that war took place nearly a century ago, but also because the war didn’t pass through Rome; fighting was restricted to northern and northeastern Italy, to the Trentino, Veneto, Friuli, and a section of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that included the Carso Plateau (close to Trieste), the Bainsizza Plateau, and the hills and mountains on both sides the River Isonzo. Italy was fighting with the Allies (France, Great Britain, Russia, and later the US) and against Austria-Hungary and Germany, but it was in the war only because it hoped to acquire territory, especially the coastal city of Trieste (where there were many Italians) but also the seaboard of the Eastern Adriatic (where the people were mostly Slavic). Italy was the aggressor, led to war by patriotic demagogues—the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and Mussolini among them—who called it “the fourth war for independence.” It was nothing of the sort.

We know something about this conflict now because we’ve just finished Mark Thompson’s remarkable book, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 (New York: Basic Books, 2008); the title best reflects the fighting that took place to the north and east of Lake Garda in the Dolomite Mountains, actually a minor theater.

Oddly, Italy got just about everything it wanted, territorially, from the war. But the methods by which it was fought, the rhythm of the conflict, and Italian demands at the end of the war, made it seem to many like a humiliating defeat, and that perception fueled the rise of Fascism.

The methods? Under its arrogant, thoughtless and stubborn commander, General Luigi Cadorna, the hardly-trained, badly-equipped Italian infantrymen were sent up one steep mountainside after another, into the machine guns of the Austrian army, waiting in trenches behind barbed wire that the Italians had great difficulty cutting or blowing up. The result, concludes Thompson, was a bloodbath even worse than that on the storied Western Front. In the Italian theater—and nowhere else in the entire war—the carnage was so extreme that more than once Austrian defenders, horrified at the slaughter, implored the oncoming Italians to stop and save themselves: “Italians! Go back! We don’t want to massacre you!” By war’s end, some 900,000 Italians had been killed or wounded.

An Italian trench on the Carso plateau, 1917
When soldiers questioned their orders, Cadorna met threats to military discipline, even minor ones, with his own version of military justice, urging his officers to employ the Roman practice of decimation, in which 1 in 10 members of a unit were killed at random, by names drawn out of a hat. No other army did this.

The remains of an Austrian trench on
Monte Sei Busi

 The war went badly for Italy, horrific assault after horrific assault along the Isonzo—eleven by October 1917—but minimal gains in territory. A deadly stalemate. Then things changed. Exploiting a weakness in the Italian defenses and a distracted and inept Cadorna, an Austro-German force poured through a gap in the mountains at the small town of Caporetto (the Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda was serving nearby) and from there out onto the plains of Friuli, the Italian army in a nightmarish retreat—many soldiers throwing away their guns and heading home--that would not end until the River Piave, 70 kilometers to the west and only 25 kilometers from Venice (see map at the top of this post). “No single defeat in battle,” writes Thompson, “had placed Italy in such peril since Hannibal destroyed the Roman legions at Cannae, more than two thousand years before.” The Fascists would spin this defeat their own way, insisting on the integrity and honor of the army while indicting the liberal government in Rome for tolerating defeatists (not unlike the approach the right would take in the 1970s to the Vietnam war). Nonetheless, to this day the word “Caporetto” is a metaphor for scandal, corruption, and defeat; Italian red tape, notes Thompson, might be referred to as an “administrative Caporetto.”  Similarly, the phrase "another Vietnam" means another humiliating defeat, or another quagmire. 

Italian soldier taken prisoner after
the battle of Caporetto
The rest of the story, briefly told: The Austro-German force failed to exploit its advantage, and the Italian line at the Piave held. French and British troops moved in to assist the hapless Italians and the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary. A new Italian commander, General Armando Diaz, restored order, discipline and morale to the Italian ranks. On the other side, the Germans removed their divisions to the Western Front and the remaining Austrian armies began to suffer shortages of food and military supplies.

Because Italy was keeping a lot of Austrian troops away from the all-important Western Front, the Allies were willing to support most of Italy’s war aims. In June 1918, a desperate, failed Austrian army attack at the Piave ended in disaster and retreat, and the Italian army, now bolstered by French and British forces, went on the offensive. By November 4, when the Armistice went into effect, the Austrians were again at the Isonzo, this time in full flight—a “Caporetto in reverse,” as Diaz wrote to his wife. An Italian destroyer had staked the Italian claim to Trieste. “Just when we learned to fight,” went a joke going around the infantry, “the war is over!”

In the negotiations over territory that followed, the Italians overreached, demanding territory to the east, lands occupied by 750,000 Slovenes and Croats; the Dalmatian Islands; and Fiume on the Adriatic, the only port that would have provided the new state of Yugoslavia essential access to the sea and merchant shipping. When Italy did not get all that it wanted—Fiume became a free state, and most of the Dalmatians went to Yugoslavia—right-wing zealots cast the result as a great humiliation and defeat, perpetrated by a soft liberal state. D’Annunzio’s spoke of a “mutilated victory,” and Mussolini’s followers promised revenge for the Great Betrayal. The stage was set for the March on Rome. 


The Fascists made myth of Italy's role in the Great War, constructing more than 40 major monuments
to the dead.  One of the them, the cemetery at Redipuglia, holds the bodies of more than 100,000 Italian
soldiers.  It is constructed as a set of terraces, replicating the army's efforts to scale Friuli's mountains.
Thompson writes that the Redipuglia cemetery and smaller, regimental ones, "became the showpiece of Fascist commemorative architectonics." 

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