Category Archives: Italy

23 OCTOBER, 1918: War And Peace

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.

Italian foreign minister Sidney Sonnino…
… and prime minister Vittorio Orlando were the prime movers forcing the Italian Army into one last offensive.

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.

In Italian, but it’s the least confusing map I could find.

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.

Italian forces march through Trento, 3 November 1918… not looking too triumphant, are they?

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.

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.

30 DECEMBER, 1917: Let’s Drop The Mask

The Great War had just endured its fourth Christmas.  Popular history has reduced wartime seasons of goodwill to one heavily mythologised football match at the end of 1914, and so I’m always tempted to cry humbug at this time of year.  That’s because (in my opinion) the football match trope has come to exert an unfortunate influence on popular thinking about the First World War as a whole.

Sure, the story goes, the whole thing was ghastly, pointless, ill-led and an insult to the humanity of its victims – but at base we were still a more noble breed a century ago, somehow playing war by the rules of gentlemanly conduct. This echoes the kind of homespun machismo spouted across the social spectra in developed nations during the decade before 1914, when the idea that too much peace had diluted humanity’s will to progress helped nourish the political and popular militarism that propelled Europe towards war.  Both ideas are pure poppycock, like anything else based on the nobility of brutal violence, and so let’s commemorate Christmas 1917 with a nod to the First World War’s standard, none too gentlemanly response to the festive season.  That’s right, it’s time for another chat about civilian bombing.

Fighting went on all over the world throughout the Christmas period. Trench warfare persisted along the Western Front, particularly fierce in the areas around the BEF’s recent offensives, while Allenby’s invasion of Palestine engaged in mopping up operations after the capture of Jerusalem. The German guerilla war spat fire across East Africa, violent chaos engulfed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Empire’s collapse, and the global battle for control of the world’s oceans raged unabated. Many of these conflicts caused what we now call collateral damage, bringing suffering and death to civilian populations, but on one European battlefront civilians were being targeted for Christmas.

The war in northeastern Italy had taken a dramatic turn during the autumn.  Driven back in disarray by an Austro-German offensive, Italian forces were holding a line at the River Piave while Allied reinforcements of men and machines were rushed to the front (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  If Austro-Hungarian forces (along with the few German units still attached to the theatre) could break through at the Piave, the rich and heavily-populated plains of eastern Lombardy lay open to invasion, and the run-up to Christmas saw heavy fighting around, on and above the river.  Because the new frontline was so close to Venice and other large Italian towns, they became targets for aerial bombing.

Nice easy map – tricky position if you live near Venice.

Bombing of civilian targets had been a feature of Austro-Hungarian operations on the Italian Front since 1915, but it reached a crescendo as 1918 approached.  The lovely cities of Padua (Padova) and Treviso suffered the most.  Padua was attacked by air raids on the nights of 28, 29 and 30 December, and suffered six more raids in January and February, receiving a total of 718 bombs, while Treviso was attacked 16 times over the same period and took 517 hits. Vicenza, Venice and Ravenna were among the other venerable cities subject to attacks from the air, most of them carried out by the 4th Bomber Squadron of the German Air Force, which was transferred to the Italian Front in December and flew purpose-built Gotha bombers far superior to anything the Austrian air service possessed.

The numbers of bombs involved and their relatively small size highlight the difference in scale between civilian bombing in 1917/18 and its Second World War equivalent.  The early attacks by Austro-Hungarian aircraft had been carried out by small, single-engine machines that inflicted relative pinpricks, and the attacks on northern Italy over the Christmas period were no Blitz, but they were terrifying just the same and caused destruction on a scale that would be considered shocking today.  In total, air raids against Italian cities during the War killed 965 civilians and wounded 1,158, more than four-fifths of them in the regions immediately behind the front, as well as causing significant damage to ancient buildings, civic facilities and works of art.  They also provoked enormous outrage in Italy.

In many ways Italian fury was justified.  Civilian bombing was new and widely regarded as a barbarian practice, and though every air force claimed that its aircraft were aiming at militarily or economically legitimate targets, nobody expected them to be very accurate about it.  In other words collateral damage was inevitable, but the Italian government insisted (long, loud and into the 1920s) that German bombers were targeting non-military buildings on purpose.

This was of course denied, and couldn’t be proved either way, but there is no doubt that German air authorities, like those of every other country carrying out long-range bombing raids, regarded attacks on civilians and civilian culture as intrinsically valuable. Whether deliberate or accidental, the act of raining terror on unprotected populations was seen by strategic bombing theorists as a potentially war-winning tactic, likely to erode a nation’s will to fight and, according to the real enthusiasts on various air staffs, capable of doing so overnight.  Bottom line, and despite the heartfelt regrets expressed by German propaganda, bombers over Italy weren’t discouraged from scattering their loads onto the occasional Renaissance church or triptych, both as a contribution to the war effort and as a test of public reaction (among the victims and at home).

So while Allied propaganda made the most of every opportunity to illustrate enemy barbarism by lamenting its wanton disregard for irreplaceable cultural treasures (check out the film on YouTube), the outraged Italians had a point when they accused the German Air Service of war crimes – but both were fine examples of one-eyed hypocrisy.

Padua suffers…
…and Allied propaganda makes a fuss.

The Allies in general were every bit as excited as their enemies about the potential of massed strategic bombing, and no less comfortable experimenting with the effects of terror bombing on civilians. This was particularly true of the British, who had formed a strategic bombing group to carry out raids on the largest possible scale – but the only country more enthusiastic about strategic bombing than Britain or Germany was Italy.

An Italian air officer, Giulio Douhet, had been the first to propose the theory several years before the War.  He was still thundering its virtues in the Italian press as 1917 came to a close, but in the meantime he had done his best to promote Italian heavy bombing capability, encouraging the designer Gianni Caproni to build his three-engine CA heavy bombers, and then ordering them into large-scale production on his own authority.  Highly controversial at the time, and well above the pay grade of an Army major, Douhet’s initiative reflected the passionate turbulence of Italian military planning and, along with a series of scathing memos criticising his superiors, earned him a court-martial and a prison sentence in 1916. It also gave Italy an early lead in the field of strategic bombing.

Douhet: that moustache says fanatic, and wasn’t far wrong.

Douhet was pardoned thanks to the intervention of a man who was both the incarnation of Italian military passion and a near-fanatical proponent of strategic bombing, the poet and all-round human tornado Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio is worth a paragraph or two of digression because he was, to put it mildly, a colourful character, and because he’ll crop up again as a very noisy wildcard amid the War’s last rites.  A writer by trade, and a fervent nationalist given to political agitation with an oratorical bent, he had quit Italy for France in 1910 to escape personal debt, but returned in May 1915 to add his voice and flair for publicity to the mounting chorus for intervention in the War.

D’Annunzio: that pose says narcissist, and wasn’t far wrong.

Once Italy was at war, D’Annunzio kept his profile high.  He’d turned 52 in March 1915, but gained permission to serve at various times as a cavalry officer, aboard a torpedo boat and as observer in command of a Caproni squadron.  His irrepressible ego and evident personal courage – highlighted by a wound in 1916 that cost him an eye but didn’t prevent him returning to action – had won him a lot of medals and made him an Italian national hero by 1917, with sufficient clout to secure the release of an air theorist he considered a visionary lighting the road to national glory.

Douhet would be rehabilitated as the head of the Italian Army’s Central Aeronautic Bureau in 1918, and would produce the first edition of his internationally influential blueprint for strategic civilian bombing (Il dominio dell’aria) in 1921, but his time in the wilderness had been about personal behaviour rather than his ideas.

Douhet was certainly considered a crank, if not a crackpot, by much of the Italian political and military establishment, but that was the lot of air enthusiasts in all the warring nations, especially those who made extravagant claims about bombers rendering the ground-warfare expertise of their superiors all but obsolete.  Douhet attracted extra opprobrium with his wartime demands for the immediate construction of 500 heavy bombers, a feat way beyond the capacity of Italy’s economy even if the government had been prepared to divert resources from the all-consuming ground campaign on its frontier.

And there’s the rub.  In Britain, France and Germany, desperation to find a way out of the ghastly stalemate meant cranks and crackpots were being given a chance to prove their ideas.  All three economies were capable of producing new aircraft designs for experimental purposes without diluting their efforts on the main battlefronts, and all three empires had plenty of use for heavy bombers, for attacks on both military installations close to the Western Front and the plethora of major civilian targets within range of their airfields.  The Italians not only needed everything they could produce, including ground-support aircraft, to maintain a front-line effort that became increasingly dependent on Allied reinforcement, but because the Alps and the range restrictions of contemporary heavy aircraft put most Austro-Hungarian towns of any size beyond attack from Italy, their heavy aircraft lacked targets for any serious civilian bombing experiment.

That’s enough rambling for one bleary day.  Aside from drip-feeding a bit of relatively obscure information, this particular ramble was aimed at the tendency, in Britain at least, to condemn strategic bombing as something designed and practiced by the bad guys, in our case Germany.  Just as the Blitz of the 1940s is shoved down our collective throats as the exemplar of evil, while the altogether more monstrous and massive bombing of Germany by the RAF is quietly downplayed, so Allied and Italian outrage at the festive bombing or northern Italy in 1917 masked their active desire to do exactly the same thing to their enemies on the grandest possible scale.  Gentlemanly?  Yeah, right…

24 OCTOBER, 1917: This Plan Sucks

When the First World War got started everybody knew it couldn’t last long, because the social and economic effort required to fight a war with the massed armies simply couldn’t be sustained for more than a few weeks, even by the world’s richest and powerful empires. The only person of any military or political significance to doubt this blindingly obvious truth in the late summer of 1914 was British war minister Lord Kitchener, who insisted the war would last for years and cost millions of lives but never explained his views.  Given that Kitchener generally gave off an air of enigmatic mysticism, the more normal movers and shakers felt he could be safely ignored.

We know now that the normal people got it wrong.  Military stalemate spurred every nation at war, and in particular the great empires at the conflict’s heart, to previously unimagined levels of industrialisation and organisation that extended their military lifespan beyond anything thought possible in 1914.  The stresses created by their extraordinary responses to the demands of total war eventually helped destroy the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, permanently diminished the British and French, and wrecked Italy’s self-conscious attempt to join the ranks of what were, until 1914, known as the ‘great powers’.

The strategists guiding them were well aware that the War’s big European players were running their systems too hot, and the repeated failure of military efforts to conjure any kind of decisive victory during 1915 reduced them to the desperate resort of attrition.  Effectively a gamble that the enemy’s war effort would crumble first, war of attrition depended on the efforts of Europe’s two strongest and most industrial economies, Germany and Britain.

Although France was just about capable of surviving the hothouse into 1917, the bloodletting at Verdun had confirmed its inability to win a war of attrition against Germany on its own, while neither Russia nor Italy possessed the economic infrastructure to fight one with more than simple manpower.  All three relied on military and economic aid from Britain’s (once bottomless) well of money and goods, and on Britain to make attrition work.

By late 1916 Berlin’s principal allies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, were only able to fight at all because Germany’s astonishing economy was continuing to provide large-scale military and industrial support.  The Third Supreme Command had come to power well aware that a strategy of attrition depended entirely on Germany, and convinced it was doomed to failure.  From the moment the it chose to provoke US involvement by launching an all-out U-boat offensive, attrition was no longer an option for Germany, but it looked like a guaranteed winner for the Allies, albeit in the medium-to-long term and far too late save the Russian Empire, once the US had entered the War in April 1917.

During the summer of 1917 it became clear to both sides that submarines were not going to knock Britain out of the fight anytime soon.  While the British could choose to keep piling into the Western Front, this time around Ypres, in the knowledge that even if Haig’s big offensive failed attrition was on their side, Germany was now in desperate need of a new game-changer.  Ultimately, only a sweeping victory in France would do the trick, but the only hopes of that lay in distraction at least some Allied strength from the Western Front as a preamble to concentrating all German and Austro-Hungarian strength in the theatre.

The most likely theatre to attract large-scale military aid from Britain and France was the Italian Front.  Italy had been promised substantial Allied reinforcement in the event of a crisis, and after more than two years of almost continuous warfare – most of it unsuccessful, all of it attritional – the Italian war effort appeared volatile and fragile enough to collapse in the face of a major military setback.  Unfortunately from Germany’s point of view the Italian Army’s immediate opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Army, was in grave anger of collapse in its own right, in no condition to mount an offensive and only notionally in a position to plan one.

The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Baron Arz von Straussenberg, had replaced the appalling Conrad the previous March, but had little actual influence over the course of the War.  He functioned as a personal advisor to the earnest, reformist young Kaiser Karl, taking instructions rather than formulating policy, and had little say in the dispositions of Austro-Hungarian armies controlled from Berlin through German military advisors.  He kept himself strategically occupied wit proposals to Berlin for joint operations in Italy, and had no more success than his predecessor until mid-September.  Aware that Austrian positions on the Isonzo had barely survived Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s eleventh offensive in the sector – which was only just slowing to a halt – the Third Supreme Command finally said yes, and committed German forces to an attack on the Italian Front.

The attack was launched a century ago today, and is known as either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Caporetto Offensive.  Like so many efficiently conceived and executed German offensive operations in a war defined by victory’s mirage, this one began with a flourish and promised the Earth but couldn’t quite deliver.

The Austrians had proposed a repeat of their 1916 near miss in the Trentino valley, but were overruled by German planners, who prepared a limited offensive intended to buy the Austro-Hungarian Army a breathing space for reconstruction.  Nine Austrian divisions were reinforced by six German divisions drawn from General von Hutier’s highly successful army around Riga, to form the German Fourteenth Army.   Commanded by General Otto von Bülow – not the Karl von Bülow who messed up the invasion of France in 1914 –it concentrated against a lightly defended 25km stretch of the Italian line north of Gorizia, in front of the town of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) .

This one needs a map. Here’s a map.

Well informed of German movements by spies and deserters, Cadorna and the Italian high command reacted to the long-feared news that the Germans were finally coming to the theatre by suspending all offensive operations on the Isonzo – but no attempt was made to take up superior defensive positions in preparation for an attack.  Italian armies merely stopped where they were and adopted a generally defensive posture.

While history has never doubted that this was a mistake, explaining it has been harder.  Cadorna probably underestimated German strength and overestimated the fighting capability of his exhausted troops.  He also seems to have assumed that Italian numerical superiority over the whole front (41 divisions against 35) provided sufficient protection against attack, and ignored the fact that enemy concentration had left Italian forces heavily outnumbered in the Caporetto area.  Defensive preparations weren’t helped when the commander of the Caporetto sector, an inveterate maverick by the name of General Luigi Capello, ignored orders to withdraw his artillery to safe positions across the river and instead deployed his best units for an attack on Bülow’s east flank.

General Cadorna had a good view of the situation – but didn’t see it.

If the Italians were ill-prepared to meet attack, they certainly weren’t ready for General Hutier’s new ‘infiltration tactics’ (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The main German advance in the centre of the position took Italian defenders by surprise on the morning of 24 October, broke through the lines almost immediately and had stormed forward some 25km by the end of day.  Secondary attacks on either flank were held off by defenders, as was an Austro-Hungarian attempt to push south from positions near the coast, but the collapse at the centre threatened to leave the majority of Capello’s army cut off at the River Tagliamento.

Capello wanted to retreat at the end of the first day, but Cadorna ordered counterattacks in the centre.  They lasted for another six days, and although they failed to block the central gap they did give most Italian troops time to get back across the Tagliamento. German attempts to take a bridgehead beyond the river began on 2 November, prompting Cadorna to order a further retreat to the fast-flowing River Piave, less than 30km north of Venice.

The Italian retreat from Caporetto, not quite headlong but very miserable…

By the time the retreat was complete, on 10 November, the shock of defeat had reverberated around Western Europe.  The somewhat inert liberal government of Paolo Boselli, in power in Italy since June 1916 and already under pressure as the economy lurched into crisis, was voted out of office on 25 October.  New premier Vittorio Orlando, the former interior minister, wasted no time appealing to Britain and France for emergency help, meeting British PM Lloyd George and French premier Painlevé at the north-west Italian port of Rapallo on 5 November.

In line with contingency plans laid out during the spring, Italy’s allies agreed to reverse the recall of heavy artillery lent from the Western Front for Cadorna’s last Italian offensive, and to provide substantial ground and air reinforcements to help stabilise the Italian line at the Piave.  Rapallo also saw the dismissal of Cadorna – on 7 November, at the insistence of the Allies – and creation of the Supreme War Council, originally comprising (as its military representatives) new Italian c-in-c General Diaz, French General Foch and British General Wilson.  Established as a means of curtailing the independence of Italian field commanders, and as such a classic case of shutting the stable door, the Council would eventually mature into a fully unified Allied military command, led by Foch.

Six French and five British divisions from the Western Front reached the Italian front line in early December, but by then the Austro-German offensive had run out of steam.  An attack by two Austrian armies in the Trentino area had opened on 12 November, but was short on reserves and made little progress.  Further east, attacks between the upper Piave and the River Brenta resumed on 13 November, but were held off during five days of heavy fighting.  The battle dragged on into late December, with attacks steadily diminishing in scale, before bad weather and the withdrawal of German units from the theatre halted major operations for the winter.

Although the German high command had orchestrated a stunning victory, it had lacked the resources to complete the job, and had exhausted the last offensive gasp of an enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Army, which would never again mount a successful offensive.  In strategic terms, the transfer of Allied troops from France could be called a minor German success, but in the end it made much less difference to the balance of power on the Western Front than it did on the Italian.

The Italian Army lost 300,000 men at Caporetto, all but 30,000 of them as prisoners, as well as most of its artillery, but it survived and would be strengthened from now on by Allied involvement in the theatre, which brought both a continuous stream of reinforcements and a major reorganisation programme.  What’s more the threat of invasion silenced the rising crescendo of popular pacifism in Italy, as public opinion reacted as it had done at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive in 1916, uniting behind the government and military in time of national crisis.  So the Third Supreme Command’s best-laid plans, intended to knock Italy out of the conflict, had instead breathed new life into a failing Italian war effort.

If there’s a point to this story it’s that even the most careful plans for war – about its size, its length or its strategic direction, not to mention its tactical details and aftermaths – are never much more than blind guesswork.  History, particularly heritage history, inevitably draws on the rationalisations of participants to give war a coherent narrative, to make its outcomes look planned, but war is always a time of chaos and none of the plans has ever worked.

14 MAY, 1917: One Track, Two Minds…

I seem to be running a little late – often a problem with world wars – so this may be a brief trip to northern Italy.  A hundred years ago, as the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo got underway, no trip to northern Italy could have been brief enough, because conditions for troops on the Italian front were at least as bad, and in many ways worse, than those on the Western Front.

All the familiar horrors of trench warfare were in place, replete with hideous ways to be killed, maimed or driven to madness, but the armies involved were poorly fed and equipped by Western Front standards. They were also required to fight in a less hospitable climate, sweltering through hot summers and freezing through Alpine winters, and if anything they were even more familiar with the role of cannon fodder than their Western Front counterparts.

Posterity’s classic image of warfare on the Western Front? Welcome to northern Italy, May 1917…

Through nine previous Italian assaults on Austro-Hungarian positions northwest of Venice, around the River Isonzo, and one major Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Trentino region, the only other part of the front line geographically suited to large-scale infantry attacks, nothing significant had been gained by either side in the theatre since the outbreak of hostilities two years earlier. Hundreds of thousands of lives had meanwhile been lost, and the launch of yet another Isonzo offensive on 14 May 1917 begs two obvious questions. Why hadn’t the leaders of Italy and Austria-Hungary bowed to the stalemate and ended the fight? And why hadn’t the Italian or Austro-Hungarian armies behaved like the Russian or French armies, and simply refused to fight?

The leadership question has some straightforward answers. The government and military leadership of Austria-Hungary did whatever the Germans wanted, or faced economic, military and political collapse, in that order and in short order. Germany wanted the Allies kept as busy as possible on as many fronts as possible while the Third Supreme Command pursued more creative ways to win the War, so the Austro-Hungarian Army remained in position on the north Italian frontier, diminished and dug in for defence but ready to fight any Italian advance.

The Italian position was little more complex, but not much. Italy had joined the War for gain, hoping to acquire the lands it was invading to the north and pick up a number of bonus territories promised by the Allies in return for joining their side in 1915.  Gain was still on the table if the Central Powers could be beaten, and with the USA due to shift the balance of military power some time relatively soon this was no time to let the Allies off the hook.  At the same time Italy couldn’t hope to maintain its military campaign, or indeed its socio-political stability, without Allied military and economic aid, so the Italian leadership generally tried to do whatever the British and French wanted. Most of Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s offensives so far had been conceived and timed in support of Allied attacks on the Western Front, and the latest was no exception, designed to draw German forces away from the Allied Nivelle Offensive in France.

The Nivelle Offensive was already grinding down to failure by the time Cadorna launched his attack, but you couldn’t really call off a major offensive during the First World War. Preparations had taken weeks if not months, such was the weight of manpower and equipment needed for 1917 conditions, and they could hardly take place in secret. With a lot of eggs in one very visible basket, sending them all back where they came from without a battle to show for it would be an invitation to the enemy to exploit yet more weeks of logistic upheaval.

It would also be a propaganda disaster, a major blow to the morale of civilians and troops that might destabilise a nation’s entire war effort. Fear of social and political breakdown, of mass refusal to fight and potential revolution, had been a factor in every European government’s approach to warfare since long before 1914. Almost three years of unproductive mass slaughter had only sharpened the fear, and by May 1917 the revolution in Russia had the fear digging into the psyche of every member of the elite classes in every belligerent country.

So cancelling the offensive at the last minute would have risked sending a potentially fatal shockwave through the Italian political system, but not just because Italian civilians or troops were sick of the slaughter (of course they were). Italian unity and morale were still being sustained by a fervent national desire for victory through military aggression. Since the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive a year earlier, which had briefly threatened to turn into a successful invasion of northern Italy, the young nation’s relatively simple greed for territory and glory had been overtaken by fear, anger and a desire for revenge on the battlefield that was obvious to anyone reading the Italian press. Even if the latest longshot on the Isonzo could have been called off, few people in Italy wanted it cancelled.

That pretty much deals with why Italian soldiers were still ready to fight, despite being prey to all the same socialist and pacifist agitation available to French or Russian troops. As for the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Italian Front, German influence and attachés undoubtedly played some part in keeping discipline fairly intact, but so did circumstances. When your troops are dug into secure and superior defensive positions, able to pick off attackers from height and distance, and in no danger of being ordered into an offensive of their own, they can probably think of better times to mutiny.

Austro-Hungarian troops, nicely perched on the high ground.

Fourteen Austro-Hungarian divisions were in position along the whole front in mid-May, but they were heavily outnumbered. Cadorna, always a master of logistics, had dug deep into dwindling Italian manpower reserves to muster 38 divisions and concentrate most of them for a breakthrough attempt along a 40km front running west from the coast. After a two-day preliminary bombardment of enemy lines, the infantry attack began on 14 May and at first swept all before it, driving the line back to within 15km of Trieste by the end of the month.

Just so you know…

The unfamiliar scent of victory soon faded away. Like so many breakthrough attempts on the Western and Eastern Fronts, this one couldn’t sustain momentum once it outstripped immediate contact with supply lines and supporting artillery. Austro-Hungarian forces concentrated for a counter-attack on 3 June that quickly pushed the stalled Italian offensive back to where it had started, and virtually all the ground gained had been lost by the time Cadorna called off the operation on 8 June.

The offensive had gained nothing at a cost of more than 150,000 Italian casualties (against about half as many Austro-Hungarian), and its failure triggered exactly the kind of reaction that its cancellation might have provoked. Disappointment fuelled a surge of popular fury at the government and high command, and the national unity promoted by fear of invasion began to fall apart.

Food and fuel had been in desperately short supply since the start of the year, particularly in major cities, while pacifist and socialist agitation had been feeding on Russian revolution and the winter’s failed peace initiatives. Now the bread queues began to riot and strikes began to mushroom out of control, reaching a climax in August when a worker’s uprising in Turin had to be put down by the Army. With Cadorna already scraping the manpower barrel in preparation for yet another attack on the Isonzo – intended to finish off the Austro-Hungarians while the Eastern Front was still keeping potential German reinforcements occupied – there was a logic to conscripting the uprising’s ringleaders, but the punishment’s most significant effect was to plant experienced agitators in military units already showing alarming signs of disaffection.

The tenth Isonzo offensive and its fallout offer a snapshot of how Italy was permanently maimed by the First World War. The nation’s pre-War thirst for adventure and glory may have been dangerously teenage (geopolitically speaking), but for good or ill it was sure of itself. During its first two years at war, failure in attacking an enemy, followed by the spectre of invasion and an another, even greater attacking failure, all accompanied by hunger, weariness, bereavement and fear, split what I’ll risk calling the Italian political personality.

Italian society had learned to turn on itself and play the blame game. It had rediscovered a swaggering unity in the face of shared danger, but had tumbled back into introversion after this latest failure. It would flip again before the end of the year; it would keep flipping in the aftermath of the War; and it’s fair to say that, pace Il Duce, it has been flipping ever since. Italy would somehow stumble through to the Armistice in one piece, but by 1917 it had already been permanently damaged, infected by a strain of War-induced volatility that still hasn’t gone away.

7 JANUARY, 1917: Back Door Man

If you thought 2016 was bad – and let’s face it most people did – cheer yourself up by imagining how ghastly the world looked at the end of 1916.  Feeling better?  Good, now get past the heritage notion that everyone running the world a century ago was stupid, and think about how a smart person like you, equipped with a hundred years of hindsight, might have changed things at the start of 1917.

It’s a tricky one.  You could take an extreme pacifist position and walk away at all costs, forcing peace for its own sake, but only by betraying every clarion call and sacrifice since 1914, and only by leaving the enmities of 1914 unresolved, primed to start another war.  This was morally and politically impossible for anyone in a position of power in any of the main belligerent nations.

Perhaps you could parley for peace, persuade the warring empires to swap compromises in the face of escalating slaughter and socio-economic mayhem – but both the German Chancellor and the President of the United States had just tried that, only to discover that neither side was ready or willing to give an inch.  Given that the Allies had framed their entire case for war as an outraged mission to save civilisation, and that only total victory could save the regime directing the Central Powers, you might as well forget about the spirit of compromise.

So you’re going to have to keep fighting this war, and aiming for final victory, but surely an intelligent, open-minded leader can find a quicker and less costly route to goal than the hideous attrition of the Western Front, or for that matter the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Well, the British and French have tried this before, only to land in trouble at Gallipoli and strategic quicksand at Salonika.  Meanwhile the British Empire, the only Allied state with any resources to spare elsewhere, is already busy fighting sideshow wars in the Middle East, in Africa and across the world’s oceans, and any day now the German Third Supreme Command is going to bet its collective shirt on the almighty short-cut of all-out submarine warfare.  In other words, you’ll struggle to find any viable new route to victory, let alone one you can get past the combined scepticism of military and political forces still fixated on the main European fronts.

Generations of intelligently applied hindsight have failed come up with a convincing alternative to the ‘keep marching to the light’ approach adopted by leadership on both sides during the second half of the War, so it’s no wonder that even the most creative British statesperson of modern times couldn’t crack the problem.  Newly installed as British Prime Minister, at the very peak of his political power and influence, David Lloyd George gave it a characteristically bold try, but by the time the Rome Conference of Allied leaders ended on 7 January 1917, he knew he had failed.

I’m a big fan of Lloyd George. I’m not planning to go into details here, but few people with his energy, pragmatism, vision, boldness and cunning get to achieve much in modern politics while keeping their ideals on the side of the angels. Despite a list of personal flaws to match his gifts, Lloyd George entered office on the back of a brilliant record as both a reformer of British society and its prime organiser for total war. Though the War years burned him out politically, and his career never fully recovered from association with the universally unloved post-War peace settlement, he was a fearless and confident figure throughout the conflict, and at the end of 1916 he was determined to force it to a swift, victorious conclusion.

Ruthlessly effective at streamlining government and bureaucracy to meet wartime needs, Lloyd George was equally adept at shaping press and popular opinion – but though his work on the home front established a platform upon which victory could be built, persuading the military to complete the task his way presented an altogether more formidable challenge.  Broadly speaking the Army, led by Chief of Staff Robertson and BEF commander Haig, was absolutely committed to maintaining maximum focus on the Western Front, and sure the War would be won or lost in France, while Lloyd George was equally sure that victory could be achieved more quickly and less painfully by attacking the Central Powers through a back door.

The trouble was, as mentioned earlier, most of the back doors had been tried and found locked, or at least extremely difficult to open, and though the prospect of an attack on the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire still beckoned in the Middle East, nobody expected it to defeat Germany.  Given the abject performance of Allied forces in Salonika, it was clear that nothing the British Army could do was likely to have much effect on the Eastern Front’s overall picture, and that left Lloyd George with few new options for lateral thinking except the unlikely scenario he came up with: an attack into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Italy.

In military terms, it wasn’t a great idea. Lloyd George wasn’t far wrong in thinking that Vienna’s empire was ripe for collapse, but the Italian Army was going to need a lot of reinforcement and the Italian Alps were still a blood-soaked nightmare for offensive operations. That didn’t stop Lloyd George suggesting the transfer of British and French heavy artillery to Italy within a week of taking office, and he took the idea further at a meeting of Anglo-French leaders on Boxing Day, when delegates accepted his proposal for a summit between the British, French and Italian high commands to discuss overall strategic priorities. Robertson and Haig were unimpressed, and were placing obstacles and objections in the path of any serious military aid to Italy within a matter of days. This was to be expected, but might be overcome if the combined weight of French and Italian opinion could be convinced to swing behind Lloyd George.

The summit convened as the Rome Conference on 5 January. Lloyd George asked delegates to consider increasing military aid to Russia and increasing the strength of Allied forces in Salonika. He also urged the development of joint offensive strategies on the Italian Front, supported by the transfer of Anglo-French artillery and infantry to the theatre. The Italian high command had no problem with the latter idea, and Italian Army c-in-c Cadorna agreed to mount a major offensive provided the Allies added at least 300 heavy guns to his artillery. At first the British and French military commands, neither of which had any official advance warning of the proposal, made it clear they had no guns or troops to spare for the Italian Front, but under pressure they agreed to loan the Italian Army some heavy artillery – only for the French to qualify the offer by insisting on the return of the guns by April. Cadorna pointed out, quite rightly, that Italy couldn’t possibly mount an offensive in the Alps before April, and the conference broke up on 7 January without any firm arrangements on the table, let alone agreed.

When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.
When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.

Lloyd George had been thwarted by the military on both sides of the Channel, had received no substantial support from the French government and, with a characteristic disregard for military realities, declared himself let down by Cadorna’s refusal of a bad offer. His battle against Robertson and Haig was far from over, and the rest of the year would see him manoeuvring to curb their control over strategic direction, but the cross-Channel military solidarity displayed at the Rome Conference set a pattern that precluded any fundamental change in military priorities. From the other perspective, Italian delegates at the Conference came away confirmed in their view that Britain and France were serious about wanting a major offensive into southern Austria-Hungary, but weren’t prepared to pay for it.

The Rome Conference was a failure, but is worth remembering as a nod to the largely forgotten efforts of those trying to alter the character of the First World War at what seemed its hour of deepest gloom. It also merits commemoration as the start of something, because despite Italian scepticism the Conference forced Anglo-French military leaders to at least examine the position on the Italian Front. New French c-in-c Nivelle visited the front in February; Robertson followed in March. What they saw convinced them that the Italian Army, operating far less sophisticated defence systems than those in use on the Western Front, might well need reinforcement, if not for an offensive then for credible defence against any major attack by Austrian or German forces. British and French commanders began formulating plans for the rapid transfer of guns and troops to Italy in the event of a crisis, and these would prove extremely valuable when crisis came the following autumn.

15 JUNE, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug

A month or so back (14 May 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), I wrote about the Austro-Hungarian Army’s Trentino Offensive on the Italian Front.  My focus then was on Austrian chief of staff Conrad’s fatally optimistic (and typical) decision to exploit respite elsewhere for one more grand attack rather than for the reconstruction and recovery the Austro-Hungarian war effort so desperately needed.  I did also mention that the initial success of the offensive – which had caught the Italian Army off guard and forced a retreat into Italian territory – triggered the resignation of Italy’s beleaguered Salandra government on 12 June.  Three days later, on 15 June, the appointment of veteran Liberal politician Paolo Boselli as prime minister of a new coalition reflected an extraordinary and ultimately momentous shift in the Italian political landscape.  Let’s talk about that.

Since the country’s formation in the 1860s, two decades of Fascism aside, Italian politics have been a byword for instability.  Coalition governments have come and gone with bewildering frequency, plagued by bipolar divisions between left- and right-wing factions, while the industrialised north and the agricultural, less developed south have behaved like separate, often mutually hostile nations. This familiar pattern had been reflected in furiously divided attitudes to the outbreak of war in August 1914, to Italian intervention on the Allied side the following May, and to subsequent Italian conduct of its war against Austria-Hungary.

By the spring of 1916, Italy was in the grip of rampant industrial unrest from the left, fuelled by the usual antagonism between those working or dying for a war and those profiting from it, while its government faced furious criticism from the right for its conduct of a war that had so far brought only repeated military failure and heavy casualties.  Food shortages in the north meanwhile bred resentment of the well-fed south, which in turn resented its loss of lives to a ‘northern’ war, and everyone was learning to resent Allied failure to provide the promised military or economic aid.  Basically, Italy was a cauldron of bickering discontent, still locked into a fundamental debate about its commitment to war… until Trentino.

Trentino transformed the popular and political mood in Italy.  The spectre of invasion shoved aside internal divisions, unleashing the one thing common to all strains of Italian political and popular thinking – patriotism – and with it an outburst of universal nationalism and belligerence comparable with the those in Britain, France or Germany at the height of war fever in August 1914.

Nationalism, as the twentieth century demonstrated to spine-chilling and murderous effect, can be a powerful and very dangerous force, apt to promote appalling human behaviour, catastrophic geopolitical chauvinism and chaotic socioeconomic chain reactions. First though, and usually by exploiting fear of a dangerous common enemy, it creates an understandably attractive illusion of national unity.  In the wake of Trentino the whole of Italy appeared united in determination to drive out the invader, and that noisy illusion brought Boselli to power.

A political ‘fixer’ in his mid-seventies,  Boselli’s career dated back to the national struggle for independence of the 1860s, and he had emerged from semi-retirement in August 1914 as a committed supporter of intervention alongside the Entente powers.  His strong association with both the war effort and the golden age of national unity made him an obvious candidate to replace Salandra, and maintenance of both were his priorities on entering office.

What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes... shame about the cabinet.
What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes… shame about the cabinet.

While the Italian Army was thrown into a sixth offensive on the River Isonzo, by way of satisfying the national thirst for action, Boselli attempted to seize the moment by appointing a large cabinet designed to keep all sides on board the unity bandwagon.  It included the leaders of the pro-War, moderate socialist faction (Bisoletti) and of the church party, along with staunchly pro-War interior minister Orlando, while the aggressively expansionist (and hugely unpopular) Sonnino, representing the extreme nationalism of the political right, kept his post as foreign minister.  It didn’t work.

The illusion of Italian national unity soon faded.  Under Boselli’s largely inert leadership, the cabinet turned into a cockpit for the usual disputes and the influential Sonnino retained effective control of a war effort that again lost momentum after failure of the sixth Isonzo offensive in August.  Italy’s war also remained subject to remote control by its allies, who demanded and got a belated declaration of war against Germany in August, a move that worsened the country’s economic woes and increased the danger of German intervention on the Italian Front.

Meanwhile left and centre political elements railed against Sonnino’s conduct of the war, the right blamed Boselli for failure to censor an increasingly hostile press or suppress a new wave of strikes, and the serious food shortages that followed 1916’s poor harvest fuelled rising popular discontent.   It is a measure of Italy’s rapid return to the political paralysis of internal conflict that the old man clung to office until a combination of economic chaos and military defeat finally saw him replaced by Orlando in October 1917.

On the surface, Boselli’s government changed nothing.  Italian politics and Italy’s conduct of the War staggered along the same old path with barely a pause to drink in the nectar of nationalist unity. But once experienced, the illusion of tribal togetherness against a common foe takes some shifting from the psyche, and while the fervour of August 1914 (or June 1916) could be absorbed into the political orthodoxies of long-established nations like Britain and France, it could warp the basic fabric of younger, less socially integrated or secure states like Germany or Italy.  Through the pain and disappointment of the next few years, to the end of the War and the peace that followed, Italian politics carried the imprint of June 1916, and recovery of national unity became a guiding principle for many Italians.

Boselli, who stayed alive until 1932, was a case in point.  He retained his parliamentary seat until 1921, when he moved to the upper house and took on the role of spokesman for a rising political leader whose brand of aggressive nationalism was designed to bind all Italians to a struggle against the rest of the world – Benito Mussolini.  Boselli was, as the world knows all too well, not alone.

So although there may not be much reason to commemorate Italy’s change of government a century ago, it seems to me we could do worse than pause to remember the mass psychology behind it, particularly at a time when nationalism’s illusions are poised to wreak havoc in Britain.

14 MAY, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!

First of all, apologies for the condition of Poppycock’s brain last week. Foreign travel, sport and associated misdemeanours left it addled and exhausted by the time it came to contemplate the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and with hindsight I’m not too impressed with its work. Ah well, at least a spell of feeble-minded lassitude sets the right tone for today’s foray into folly, because it’s time to check in on the shambles that was Austria-Hungary in 1916.

A century ago today, Austro-Hungarian forces launched their first offensive on the Italian Front.  Known as the Trentino Offensive, or sometimes as the Asiago Offensive, after the town near the centre of the heaviest fighting, it was planned by Austrian chief of staff Conrad, a man whose obsessive militarism and blind optimism made him one of the First World War’s great unsung villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy).  The operation was intended to fulfil his longstanding fantasy of cutting off the Italian armies that had been attacking Austrian positions further east, on the River Isonzo, since June 1915.  Here’s the theatre map, by way of a reminder.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915. 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo Front.
Action areas on the Italian Front: 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo.

Conrad was in some ways a very lucky commander. For one thing, he was still in his job after almost two years of expensive military failure, thanks largely to lack of serious competition in a command corps that had long since fossilised around an ageing Emperor’s courtly appointments.  What’s more, German support had saved the Empire from the immediate consequences of Conrad’s strategic and organisational blunders.  Most of these followed from an unshakable faith in launching offensives, followed by more offensives, regardless of his armies’ actual capacities at any given moment, backed by a fixed belief, based on no evidence obvious to anyone else, that each would bring total victory.

In spite of Conrad and the general inefficiency of Austro-Hungarian military action, German help meant the conquest of Serbia was complete by the spring of 1916, and an essentially positive position of stability had been achieved on the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile on the Italian Front, where Imperial forces had successfully defended their lines without German aid, the comprehensive failure of the latest Italian Isonzo Offensive, in March, brought a lull in the fighting.  This, at last, was a chance for the Empire to pause for much-needed recuperation, reorganisation and reinforcement.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s need for a pause was even more urgent than that of its theoretical peers.  Without the industrial strength in depth, infrastructural and bureaucratic organisation, national unity or autocratic leeway that, in various combinations, helped Germany, France, Britain and Russia respond to the demands of total war, Austria-Hungary (pictured below) had been in crisis when the War began and was in danger of disintegrating before it ended.

Austro_Hungary_1000

Quite apart from the territorial disputes with Russia, Serbia and Italy that took Vienna to war (not to mention a squabble between Hungary and Romania over part of Transylvania that would later extend it), the Empire had faced major internal problems in 1914. Separatist movements were gathering strength among the Empire’s Poles, Slovaks, Slavs and Czechs, while all was far from well between Austria and Hungary.  The Hungarian government opposed Vienna’s plans for military expansion, and was working to increase industrial Austria’s already considerable dependence on Hungarian agricultural produce.

These problems had temporarily evaporated amid the bellicose euphoria of August 1914, and the Empire’s ruling elites had, like their German counterparts, watched in happy amazement as a multiracial population (Bosnians aside) rushed to mobilise in a noisy display of national unity– but other weaknesses remained.

A clumsy bureaucracy and command structure, easily dominated from a faction-ridden centre, was no more equipped for the sudden demands of modern, industrial warfare than a supply system that evolved into something like the German model, but without the efficiency provided by Germany’s War Materials Department (the KRA). Run by and for Austria’s major landed and industrial interests, central associations formed to control individual resources and commodities unbalanced the impact of war on the economy, concentrating vast profits in a few hands while leaving small or medium-sized businesses out of the equation.

Meanwhile tension between Austria and Hungary mounted steadily as the War progressed from optimism through disappointment to stalemate and hardship.  A poor harvest in 1914, devastation of grain belts on the Eastern Front and Hungarian premier Count Tisza’s national approach to food resources had already combined to create food shortages in urban Austria by early 1915.  Later that year, Tisza ended customs union and restricted food exports to occasional surpluses, while Allied blockade began to stifle overseas imports and overland trade with Italy ceased – but the government in Vienna was never sufficiently organised to impose a centralised food policy or systematic rationing.

So by the time the Empire’s three fronts all went quiet in 1916, the civilian population was hungry and poor, the Army had been bled white and was short of supplies across the board, and cracks were starting to appear in the surprisingly durable loyalty of soldiers from ethnic groups, especially Slavs and Czechs.  Something needed to be done while the going was, if not good, at least steady – but it was entirely typical of Conrad that he treated the breathing space as an opportunity to fling every available unit into one more shot at the big time.  Letting him get on with it was equally characteristic of the regime he served.

Though refused German support for his offensive, because chief of staff Falkenhayn was still pouring everything he had into the mincing machine at Verdun, Conrad massed 18 divisions of troops and some 2,000 guns (including several gigantic Schlanke Emma howitzers) in the Trentino sector during early May.  Meanwhile the Italian chief of staff, General Cadorna, helped Conrad’s cause by sticking with his own offensive obsessions, ignoring obvious Austrian preparations, keeping most of his troops on the Isonzo sector, ordering them to maintain offensive positions, and ordering General Brussati’s relatively small Italian First Army in the Trentino area to do the same.

Austrian forces outnumbered their opponents 4-1 in men and guns when the attack began on 14 May.  Advancing down into the Trentino Valley along a 70km front, they forced the centre of the Italian line back 8km by 22 May, and two days later a renewed push drove Brussati’s central divisions another 10km south, beyond Asiago, which was evacuated on 29 May. By the static standards of the Italian Front this was startling progress, but the offensive, like so many during First World War, soon fell victim to its own success.

The Italian line had bulged but not broken, so the defenders’ internal communications remained intact, and northern Italy’s good railway system allowed Cadorna to rush 400,000 troops to the critical front during the next few days.  They brought Austrian advances to a halt on the plains south of Asiago, and casualties on both sides were mounting fast when, from 10 June, a major Russian offensive on the Eastern Front forced Conrad to start transferring troops away from the Trentino.

I’ll talk in detail about the Russian Brusilov Offensive another day, but for now it meant the end of Austrian ambitions in Italy.  With the Italians preparing strong counterattacks on the flanks of the new bulge (or ‘salient’), Conrad ordered theatre commander Archduke Eugen to withdraw to a line about 5km south of the offensive’s starting point.  There the front stabilised, leaving the Austro-Hungarian Army shorn of some 150,000 men, and the Italian Army about 147,000, for territorial returns that could only be called trivial.

The Offensive’s side effects were more momentous.  In Italy, the spectre of invasion sparked a public sense of crisis and urgency that brought down the Salandra government on 12 June, and forced an almost immediate resumption of offensive operations on the Isonzo in defiance of the Army’s debilitated condition.  For Vienna, the military consequences of Conrad’s cavalier optimism were terminal. The Austro-Hungarian Army went on to suffer huge losses to the Brusilov Offensive, and would never again mount an offensive of its own, on any front, relying on German command and reinforcement until the Armistice.

At best, Conrad’s Trentino Offensive was a desperate, long odds gamble; at worst it was a prime example of blind folly that cost 300,000 casualties, achieved nothing of value and further weakened an Empire that was already falling apart.  It might be going too far to suggest that, given a chance to rebuild its war effort in early 1916, Austria-Hungary might have survived, or even survived a little longer – but thanks to Conrad and his inert masters we’ll never know for sure.

This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.
This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.

AUGUST 20, 1915: Harbinger

Just a quick note to remind anybody not paying attention that, a hundred years ago today, Russian aircraft bombed the Topkaneh arsenal in Constantinople. So what? So the Russian Army Air Service performed most of the tasks carried out by First World War air forces with borrowed or inferior aircraft, and was generally more characterised by bravery that effectiveness, but it was way ahead of the rest of the world in one, dark aspect of aerial warfare. I’m talking about strategic heavy bombing, possibly the most gruesome of all the terrible legacies left us by the First World War, and a hideous blight on human history ever since.

While the western pioneers of powered flight were scrambling to design faster, more manoeuvrable single- or two-seaters for interception and ground support work, and while the theorists of heavy bombing as a war-winning strategy awaited machines capable of the task, one Russian engineer was producing bombers of the future by the time the War broke out. By 1915 the Russian Air Force was using them as fleets to deliver heavy, long-range attacks on enemy targets, setting an example to be followed by strategic bombing believers all the way to Hiroshima and ‘Shock and Awe’.

The designer in question was Igor Sikorski. A genius destined to become the greatest name in Russian aviation, he had built the world’s first four-engined aircraft, ‘Le Grand’, in 1913, and by the following February his improved ‘Ilya Mourometz’ model entered service as a passenger aircraft. Named after a mythical Russian hero, the IM was an astonishingly advanced machine, featuring twin tailfins and an enclosed cockpit, and when war broke out the Russian Army began ordering the ‘flying ships’ as bombers.

Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution halted production, a total of 73 IMs were built for the Russian Air Service, and they carried out more than four hundred heavy bombing missions, most of them against targets along the Eastern Front, in Germany or in Austria-Hungary. Heavily armed and reliable, they were steadily refined during the course of the War, so that later models could carry bomb loads of up to 700kg and featured a machine-gun turret in the tail. Thanks to their deadly array of well-positioned guns and because interceptors couldn’t fly through the backdraft from their four big engines, they proved almost impossible to shoot down. Only one IM was lost to enemy attack, along with two to mechanical failure, and they went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.

The raid on the Turkish arsenal was, like all Russian heavy bomber attacks, conducted on a relatively small scale using primitive bombs. It came on the same day that Italy belatedly declared war against the Ottoman Empire, a useful coincidence because you can’t talk about the early days of heavy bombing without mentioning Italy.

The theory that massed heavy bombing of its homeland would bring an enemy to its knees was pioneered by an Italian theorist, Douhet, and was well known throughout the West by 1914, but nobody had a Sikorski. By the later years of the War, two-and four-engined German, British, Italian and French designs would be able to deliver long-range attacks, using purpose-designed aerial bombs capable of causing serious damage to buildings and installations – but they were never available in sufficient numbers to carry out the kind of devastating attacks envisaged by strategic bombing theorists.

In any case, the theorists were never going to get their way.  Despite the enthusiasm of men like RFC commander Trenchard and his protégé, Harris, the barbaric practice of attacking civilians with vast amounts of ordnance was never seriously considered in the relatively civilised atmosphere of the First World War. That gruesome, doomed experiment would get fully underway in its aftermath.

30 JULY, 1915: A Voice from the Past

A century ago today, the papacy made one of its periodic efforts to change the course of history, when Pope Benedict XV sent a letter to the heads of all belligerent states appealing for peace and outlining the principles upon which it should be based. In truth this was a token gesture because nobody, including the Vatican, expected it to have any effect at all. It was duly ignored, subsequent efforts would meet the same fate, and it’s fair to say the papacy has been a powerless footnote in the face of warfare ever since.

So why bother mentioning the letter of 30 July 1915? Well, unaccustomed as I am to being nice about organised religion, it seems to me the papacy has been given a bit of a bad press by heritage commentators – or rather no press at all, so that its reputation around modern warfare rests on the much-deplored performance of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. Without for one moment suggesting that the Vatican was much use to a world engulfed by the ego-driven madness of secular states, its First World War incarnation does merit some sympathy and a pat on the back for trying.

The War had started badly for the papacy. The incumbent pontiff, Pius X, died on 20 August 1914, throwing the Vatican into the turmoil of a hasty selection process that saw Giacomo della Chiesa elected as Benedict XV on 3 September. A cardinal for only four months but regarded as an able diplomat, Benedict’s first attempt to act as a conduit for peace was a proposal for a general truce at Christmas 1914. Delivered at a moment when a direct appeal from God would probably have fallen on deaf ears, it met with predictable silence from all sides, and from early the following year the Vatican’s international influence was drastically undermined by its unavoidable attachment to Italy.

As pro-War factions took the ascendancy, papal peace mongering was viewed with increasing suspicion by the political class in Italy, and attitudes were hardened by Benedict’s role in promoting talks between Rome and Vienna aimed at avoiding war. When signing up to enter the War on the side of the Entente powers, the Italian government persuaded its new allies to agree, by a clause in the secret Treaty of London, to ignore any future peace proposals from the Vatican. Meanwhile in Germany, and above all in Protestant Prussia, the Pope was being denounced as a pawn of the Entente, his diplomatic approaches to Vienna dismissed as a cunning plan to weaken Germany’s alliance structure.

While repeatedly announcing its strict neutrality in the face of accusations from both sides, the Vatican could only perform minor charitable works for victims of the War, and make a show of fulfilling its global obligations to the faithful in the face of utter disdain from the Christian states at war. The letter of July 1915 functioned primarily as a reminder to neutral audiences that the Pope still wanted peace, and that the Vatican still refused to fall into either warring camp.

Two years down the line, with war-weariness on his side, Benedict would make a second, more concerted attempt to broker peace, but his proposals would again be brushed aside by European powers, and dismissed by US President Wilson as an endorsement of the pre-War status quo. Despite the Vatican’s claim to a major role in the post-War peace process the Pope would not receive an invitation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and Benedict would go on to issue several denunciations of the punitive Versailles Treaty in the years before his death in 1922.

So the big story about the Papacy during the First World War is that it never managed to become a big story, and the sub-plot tells us that, for once, failure to exert any significant influence over the dogs of war wasn’t the Vatican’s fault. Like so much else we dismiss as evidence of human and institutional culpability during the First World War, the papacy was trapped into impotence by the circumstances of the times.