The War was almost done, everybody knew that, so why keep fighting? Why not just stop it now and cut to the peace conference? It was a good question, and by late October 1918 it had been relevant for weeks, but convincing answers weren’t too hard to find.
Granted, any logic that had once inspired the war for East Africa was by now a distant memory, and both sides kept on fighting for fighting’s sake, but on the Western Front the Americans were only just getting fully involved and in no mood to stop until they’d won their spurs, while their leaders shared the view of British, French and German strategists that every yard gained or lost affected the dynamic of future peace talks. The same imperative guided the continuation of naval and airborne operations at an intense level until the War’s last moment.
In Russia, revolution and counter-revolution made good causes for battle, as did the Western democracies’ fear of Bolshevism and Japan’s thirst for territorial expansion, an appetite that also spurred the British into continued action in the Middle East, faced as they were by competition for future control from their Arab Revolt allies. On the other hand, Allied armies from the Salonika Front had no real reason to keep fighting. A disintegrating Austria-Hungary’s position around the peace process was irrelevant, and the territories it still controlled weren’t available for acquisition by predatory empires, so Allied armies on the Austrian frontier indulged in an informal and sensible truce while they awaited Vienna’s next move and cleared the last enemy troops from areas already overrun.
In theory, the same applied the Italian Front. Some of the Italian Army was busy occupying Albania in the aftermath of the advance from Salonika, but most of it had spent the autumn stationed, exhausted and demoralised, opposite even less coherent Austro-Hungarian forces in positions along Italy’s northern frontier. With no danger of any aggressive move from the Austro-Hungarian remnant, and no likelihood of any future territorial gains as a result of last-minute military shifts, Italian c-in-c General Diaz saw no reason to sacrifice more lives, regarded his positions as sustainable only as long as no German forces returned to the theatre and feared his exhausted, demoralised troops would anyway refuse to fight. So why, on 23 October 1918, did Diaz launch the full-scale attack that came to be known as the Vittorio Veneto Offensive?
Diaz was certainly under pressure from France, Britain and the US to mount an operation in support of their Western Front offensives, but Allied demands for action had been a constant chorus for more than three years and Italian leaders were good at resisting them. What Diaz couldn’t resist, though he held out for most of October, was the Italian government’s insistence on an offensive, a position that reflected both its own weakness and the shambolic state of the nation.
A young society still excited by its recent unification, Italy had entered the First World War in May 1915 on a wave of nationalist opportunism. Led by political and popular elements bent on establishing the nation among the great imperial powers, many Italians had clamoured for a chance to share in the spoils that would surely fall to the winners of what was seen as a gigantic European reshuffle. Things hadn’t gone well. Locked into a ghastly military stalemate on the northern frontier, the country was close to social, economic and political breakdown by 1918.
The year had begun with the Italian Army in terrible condition, pinned back behind the River Piave and reliant on support from its allies – but no longer threatened with the comprehensive defeat that had seemed likely the previous autumn (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks). Opponents of Italian participation, having lost a very loud public argument in 1915 and been a thorn in the government’s side whenever the country wasn’t in immediate jeopardy, resumed their attacks on the government with renewed force. They found plenty to complain about.
While critical manpower shortages were forcing the Army to deploy raw eighteen year-olds at the front, and the Navy was all but paralysed by lack of fuel, the Russian Provisional Government’s revelation of secret Allied treaties made public the fact that Italy had gone to war on the basis of promises that could never be kept. At the same time another poor harvest saw serious famine in Italian cities far from the front – notably Naples, Palermo and Messina – and it became evident that the bulk of aid from the USA, desperately needed in a country dependent on imports for fuel and industrial raw materials, was being given to Britain and France.
Amid galloping inflation, the government had attempted to mobilise resources by establishing a National Exchange Commission, with control over exports and power to requisition and redistribute supplies. The Commission was never able to square the circle of endemic shortages and made itself very unpopular in the process, so that by the middle of the year day-to-day economic survival was dependent on Allied food aid and credits obtained by treasury minister and economic supremo Francesco Nitti.
The enduring popularity of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points programme among Italian peasants and working classes put the relatively moderate political class as a whole under further pressure. Wilson specifically forbade the imperial expansionism that had been Italy’s principal reason for entering the War, and remained the government’s guiding ambition, its best hope for post-War political stability and its only hope for short- or medium-term political survival.
Hope was looking very fragile in a stormy political landscape that was becoming increasingly radicalised to both left and right – until, in June, the Austro-Hungarian Army’s manifest disintegration in the aftermath of failure at the Paive parted the clouds (15 June, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice). If the government could force Diaz to exploit the opportunity, it might at last bask in the glory of a decisive victory, while silencing the pacifists and appeasing the imperialists by occupying great swathes of former Austrian territory. Ministers were not naive enough to believe that the Allies would allow Italy to keep anything like enough territory to satisfy public demand (or indeed treaty obligations), but the government was savvy enough to exploit the naivety of a spectacularly volatile body politic.
By the time Diaz eventually succumbed to political pressure, he could put 57 divisions in the field, including two British and three French, against a nominal 51 Austro-Hungarian divisions, along with some 7,700 artillery pieces, all of which added up to overwhelming superiority of force. His battle plan opened with a diversionary attack northwest into the Monte Grappa sector, at the join between the two Austro-Hungarian army groups. This convinced Austrian commanders Archduke Josef and Field Marshal Boroevic to transfer the few defensive reserves available away from the main Italian attack, an advance by four armies across the Piave towards the town of Vittorio Veneto, about halfway to the River Tagliamento.
Attackers met some resistance while crossing the river, but it soon dwindled and operation turned into another walkover. The Italian armies took Vittorio Veneto on 30 October, after which Austro-Hungarian defence disintegrated completely and the offensive became a triumphant procession. It had reached the Tagliamento in the east and Trento in the west when a ceasefire was agreed on 4 November, by which time the Italian Army had captured 300,000 prisoners in ten days and suffered 38,000 casualties of its own.
They were of course pointless casualties, unless a short-term boost for the incumbent Italian government and a shot in the arm for Italian public morale amount to valid points, because their significance to the wider picture – by which I mean the geopolitical fallout from the War as arranged in Paris – was a mirage. The mirage would soon evaporate, and Italy would emerge from the War a lot less inflated than its self-image, leaving the government high and dry, the Italian public in a fever of nationalist outrage and the Italian political system ready to explode.
More on the explosion another day, but for now this has been a salute to the one great Italian victory of the First World War, and a much less respectful gesture to the men who forced it to happen. Cynical, self-interested exploitation of naive nationalism is nothing new.