Category Archives: Italy

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

Thanks to extraordinary military conditions, underpinned by equally unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals, a war that couldn’t possibly last for more than a few weeks was still raging out of control nine months later.  It seemed reasonable to assume – no, it was reasonable to assume that it couldn’t last much longer, so when the main belligerents contemplated their big moves in spring 1915 they did so in a spirit of military optimism.  Whether pouring resources into existing fronts, widening their military horizons to take in less direct routes to victory or experimenting with new weapons and tactics, strategists everywhere operated in the understandable belief that one big push in the right place must bring an end to the War’s unnatural life, and planned accordingly.

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the exception to the rule, Serbia, which had survived three invasions in 1914 but had been completely exhausted by the effort, and was still deep in the process of licking its wounds and reorganising what was left of its army.  Quite incapable of any aggression and surrounded by enemies intent on its demise, Serbia was focused only on survival.

Serbia’s most powerful enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wasn’t really focused at all.  Struggling to replace huge manpower losses during unsuccessful campaigns on two fronts, and facing a third on its Italian frontiers, the Empire was showing ominous signs of internal collapse.  As well as rising nationalist discontent among subject populations, especially Czechs and Slovaks, shambolic infrastructural management and Hungarian reluctance to share food supplies had left Vienna close to starvation.  Increasingly reliant on Germany to shore up its military position, and required to focus economic effort on its well-developed arms industry in accordance with German needs, the Austrian high command was nevertheless ignoring reality in favour of what might be called endgame optimism.  Having just abandoned a disastrous offensive in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front, Vienna was planning towards a renewed invasion of Serbia and offering support for further German offensives in the east.

At least Vienna planned to stick on good defensive positions against the Italians in the Alps. Italy, on the other hand, was preparing to ignore the depleted condition of its armed forces (after a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911–12), its desperate wartime supply shortages of everything from ammunition to food, and the tactical realities of alpine warfare to launch attack after costly attack on those positions. The Ottoman Empire, under attack in modern Iraq, at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus, was meanwhile facing internal breakdown of supplies and sliding into dependence on German aid, but was planning a new offensive in the Causasus and further attacks on depleted British positions around Suez.

A similar disdain for reality infected planners in St. Petersburg. Having held off the Austrian spring offensive in the Carpathians and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus, they could call on all the manpower they needed but precious little else, not least because Russia possessed none of the state mechanisms that enabled its western allies to wage ‘total war’.   Designed by a general staff (Stavka) specialised in factional squabbling, Russian strategy in spring 1915 lacked coherence, took a very long time to get from drawing board to action, and ignored any lessons from recent failures.  The result was scattergun optimism, with massed offensives planned for both the northern and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.  Forces were being slowly built up for these as May got underway, a process that depleted defences in the centre of the front and weakened Russian armies in the Caucasus, where the need for a defensive posture, though unavoidable in the short term, was seen as no more than a temporary delay on the road to Constantinople and the Mediterranean.

You couldn’t accuse the French war effort of lacking focus in 1915. A single-minded national commitment to victory on the Western Front was backed by an economy capable of delivering total war (at least for the time being), and fuelled by the conviction that enough firepower, properly concentrated and deployed with sufficient offensive spirit, would soon drive the enemy from the gates. This had been the basis of all French military thinking since the autumn of 1914, and nothing had changed by the following spring, so C-in-C Joffre and his staff were simply planning bigger, more concentrated and more dashing attacks all along the front line until the predicted ‘breakthrough’ came to pass.

The British believed in breakthrough and, despite minor tactical differences, were following the French lead on the Western Front, but Britain controlled enough resources to indulge in plenty of aggressive optimism elsewhere. While men and materiel were still being poured into France, the Royal Navy was pursuing victory through blockade, an ill-conceived, under-resourced and ill-led attempt at decisive intervention was stuttering towards disaster at Gallipoli, and British Indian forces in Mesopotamia were advancing into serious trouble on the long road to Baghdad.  All these, along with a fistful of minor campaigns all over the Empire, combined to disperse and dilute the British war effort, and none of them came close to unlocking the stalemate in 1915, but within twelve months the British would be at it again in Salonika and Palestine

Like most other belligerents, even Austria-Hungary, the British had a choice about dividing their resources, but Germany was stuck with it.  Both its principal allies were in constant and growing need of economic, military and technical support, and it faced enormous demand for resources in both the War’s principal theatres.  The spring season of 1915 presented the High Command with a genuine dilemma: should Germany seek all-out victory on the Western Front and merely hold its own on the Eastern Front, or vice versa?  Chief of staff Falkenhayn wanted to concentrate on the west, but the need to support Austria and Turkey on other fronts, along with the combination of extravagant promises and relentless propaganda coming from the Eastern Front command team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded him to take the less expensive option, a major offensive against depleted Russian defences along the central sector of the Eastern Front.

Eight German divisions were moved east from France and two were transferred south from the Carpathians.  Equipped to western Front standards, they became the Eleventh Army under General Mackensen.  Supported by eight Austro-Hungarian divisions, and preceded by a four-hour artillery bombardment far bigger than anything yet seen in the east, they attacked along the Gorlice-Tarnow sector of the front on 2 May.  Russian defenders, outnumbered six to one, desperately short of even the most basic equipment and denied reinforcements while offensives were prepared elsewhere, simply ran away.  By 10 May a chaotic Russian retreat, punctuated by feeble counterattacks, had fallen back to the River San with losses of more than 200,000 men, almost three-quarters of them as prisoners, and by early June the central section of the Russian line was retreating towards Lvov.  The offensive eventually halted to consider future strategy in the last week of June, by which time Austro-German forces had occupied all of Galicia, crossed the River Dneister, taken almost a quarter of a million prisoners and captured 224 big guns for a total loss of 90,000 men.

Gorlice-Tarnow was a German victory, no doubt about that, and on a scale that very nearly matched Ludendorff’s sales pitch, but it completely failed to achieve the prime objective of every major offensive conceived and carried out that spring because it didn’t end, shrink or even noticeably shorten the War.  Russia wasn’t knocked out of the fight, the two things it had lost in large measure – men and territory – were the things it could most afford to lose, and the main practical effect of the success was to extend Austro-German supply lines for further operations.

In failing to end the War, much of the season’s military endeavour was ruined by flawed planning, refusal to recognise reality or command incompetence, but even when the optimists of 1915 avoided all those pitfalls – as Gorlice-Tarnow did – their hopes were wrecked by a historical coincidence of military, technological and social conditions that rendered outright victory all but impossible. Deride First World War leaders for their efforts if you will, join me in condemning the egoists and fantasists among them, but they were dealing with a world that defied all contemporary logic in sustaining a conflict it lacked the technology to end.

26 APRIL, 1915: Secrets and Lies

I think we’re all aware that the Gallipoli land campaign kicked off a century ago, and it would be hard not to notice the human sacrifice involved. On the whole, the heritage story is also doing a pretty good job of pointing out the campaign’s international significance, giving great weight to ANZAC matters, managing to mention that much of the ground force committed came from various outposts of the British and French Empires, and even giving a nod to the impact of a hard-won Ottoman victory on the future of an independent Turkey. On the other hand, from a British perspective, you’d have to say the commemorative industry could be doing a whole lot better.

You can hunt down a documentary or dig deep in the broadsheet press, but if you stick to the mass-consumption side of the media you might not even notice that the entire campaign was a fiasco from start to finish. Perhaps national love for Winnie explains populist reluctance to roundly condemn Churchill’s bombastic role as the plan’s principal political promoter. Perhaps unwillingness to remind us of Churchill’s reckless streak has contributed to tabloid reticence when it comes to mentioning the strategic optimism, shoddy planning and command ineptitude that characterised Britain’s part in the campaign, or to laying much stress on the outrage provoked in contemporary Australia by those failings. Of course, this is the centenary of the first landings on the peninsular, and despite the abject failure of naval efforts against the Dardanelles defences the Gallipoli campaign wasn’t yet a disaster – but it was suffering from poor planning and execution from the first day, and that isn’t part of the news packages I’m seeing.

Ah well, let’s hope Gallipoli hasn’t dropped off the news map when the time comes to commemorate the really shambolic stuff.

One other problem with the pomp and ceremony surrounding Gallipoli is the way commemoration can warp history. The commitment of troops to a sideshow in the eastern Mediterranean wasn’t by any means the only, or even the most significant event of that weekend in 1915. Negotiations to bring Italy into the War on the side of the Triple Entente were reaching the end of a long road, and on Monday 26 April the Treaty of London was signed.

The Treaty guaranteed that Italy, by a distance the biggest European economy not yet committed to the War, would join the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In early 1915, a time when strategic thinking on both sides assumed that one more push in the right place would bring this unsustainable conflict to an end, it was seen by many in authority as a potentially war-winning diplomatic triumph. It was not, however, a propaganda triumph, because it was kept secret, and it was kept secret because it was arguably one of the grubbiest agreements ever made between nations, a stark reflection of naked greed, high-handedness and desperation that left even some of its makers appalled and talking of international blackmail.

By the spring of 1915 Italian politicians, press and public were clamouring for war in the just causes of national expansion and national glory. Given that orthodox pre-war thinking all over Europe had assumed the approaching conflict, long overdue, would create a new world order dominated by the winners, this was not the outrageous chauvinism it appears today. The Ottoman Empire, Greece, Brazil, Bulgaria, Romania and almost every other country with foreign policy issues needed to be on the winning side and was open to bribery in return for joining it.

Italy had a young nation’s restless thirst for international status to go with foreign policy issues in spades, the most emotive of them centred on territorial disputes with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna’s refusal to make concessions in the region around Italy’s northeast frontier had scuppered any prospect of Rome going to war in 1914 alongside Austro-Hungary and Germany, its partners in the Triple Alliance, and gave the Entente powers a key advantage in what soon became an auction for Italian allegiance.

A charitable view would be that the auction got out of hand, though it might be more accurate to say it reflected the madness of a world at war. Either way, the winning Entente bid made promises it either couldn’t keep, could only keep by breaking promises made to other countries, or had no intention trying to keep. On the Italian side, Entente promises were accepted eyes wide shut for fear that the breakthrough everyone expected would end the War before Italy could claim its share of the jamboree. Check out those promises and lies.

Italy was promised substantial military and economic aid, starting with an immediate loan from Britain of £50 million (a vast sum in 1915), as well as substantial reparations after victory was achieved and the fulfilment of almost all its many territorial ambitions. Italy was to be given the Trentino (South Tyrol) and Trieste regions to the north of the country, both then ruled by Vienna, and despite promises already made to Serbia it would control both the Dalmatian and Adriatic coastlines with the sole exception of the port of Fiume (Rijeka), which was withheld as a sop to Russian support for Slav interests. Italy was also to be given formal possession of the Dodecanese archipelago (which it had annexed in 1912 but which the Entente was also promising to Greece) and the Adalia region on the Turkish coast nearest to the islands, along with an expanded area of influence in Libya.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, the Treaty of London did nobody much good. Allied aid never began to match Italian expectations, and the new battlefront that opened up in the mountain passes around the frontiers with Austria-Hungary became another ghastly stalemate that was still in progress when the Bolsheviks took over Russia and released details of all the Entente’s secret treaties.

Details of the London treaty began appearing the Western press at the end of 1917, provoking understandable anger in Serbia and Greece, but also sparking pubic outrage in Italy over a particularly embarrassing clause that prohibited any Entente response to peace proposals by the Pope. At the end of the War an exhausted and turbulent Italy received precious little of its territorial bounty at the Paris Peace Conference, as the Treaty became a byword for the failings of ‘old world diplomacy’ and the claims of smaller Balkan states took precedence. Within another three years, Italian dissatisfaction would find expression in the noisy nationalism of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

I don’t know, all that seems worth a mention to me, or at least a commemorative tip of the hat – but I guess hard-nosed diplomacy and treaty clauses get low billing in a media circus that’s all about feelings.

16 OCTOBER, 1914: Greed Kills

I think I’ve already mentioned this in an another context, and if I haven’t it’s time I did: once all the European nations known as ‘great powers’ had hastened to war in August 1914, and initial fighting on the three main fronts proved indecisive, strategists on both sides set about hunting for an edge by cultivating allies among the continent’s smaller powers.

In what was essentially a beauty contest, diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary (small countries generally knew better than to make alliances with Russia) worked to tempt neutral governments with promises to fulfil their territorial ambitions or to protect them from powerful enemies.  The biggest prizes on offer in 1914 were the Ottoman Empire, a former great power on the slide, and Italy, a would-be great power noisily and aggressively on the up. The Ottoman regime in Turkey was swiftly seduced into dependence on Berlin, but Italy played it canny during the War’s opening months and refused to be drawn into the conflict. The principal architect of Italy’s caution was a Sicilian nobleman, conservative foreign minister the Marquis di San Giuliano.  His death, a hundred years ago today, has been seen as a fatal turning point in the history of southern Europe.

Giuliano had been in his job since 1910, even then a very long time in Italian politics. He had inherited Italy’s diplomatic position as the partner of Germany and Austria in what was known as the Triple Alliance, and had overseen a policy of keeping Germany friendly while doing his best to obstruct all Austrian attempts at southward territorial expansion. Relations between Austria and Italy were extremely rocky by 1914, with both powers looking to gain influence in the Balkans and both claiming control over the hilly regions to the north of Venice.

It came as no real surprise to the rest of Europe when, on the outbreak of war in August, Giuliano refused to join the fighting alongside the Central Powers.  TheTriple Alliance only committed Italy to war in the event of an attack on its partners, and Guiliano had no trouble depicting the Austrian invasion of Serbia as an aggressive act. Increasingly sick, he spent the remaining weeks of his life playing diplomatic poker with the two belligerent power blocs, convincing them that Italy was biddable either way and securing promises of territorial gain from Berlin and London, while arguing at home that economic and military reform were needed before Italy was ready to fight a war.

Tug of world war...
Tug of world war…

And there’s the rub. Giuliano was cautious but fully committed to the idea of war, and as such he reflected the prevailing mood among contemporary Italians.

Italy was a young kingdom, fully unified as recently as 1870. Most of its ruling classes, most of its intellectual influences and most ordinary citizens shared the view that it belonged among the great powers of Europe. Expansion into Austria, the Balkans and North Africa was seen as essential to securing the country’s rightful status in terms of prestige and socioeconomic development. Better yet, it could be justified by Italy’s youthful vigour when compared to the crumbling, anachronistic empires that currently controlled those areas. Under these circumstances the outbreak of a general war in Europe, especially one that seemed likely to at least destabilise the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could only be seen as an opportunity. Broadly speaking, Italy’s governing classes were hell-bent on joining the War and profiting from it

Giuliano’s aims were no less warlike, but were founded on pragmatism. He worked to ensure that Italy joined the War when it was ready, joined when the fighting was easier, joined the winning side and received territorial rewards in the aftermath. After his death, passion, populism and greed gradually replaced his Realpolitik at the heart of Italian foreign policy, and the kingdom of Italy joined the War on the Allied side seven months later.

After a ghastly three-year campaign against the Austrians to the north. Italy did end up on the winning side and did gain territory at the end of the War, but at a material, socioeconomic and political cost that far exceeded anything the policy-makers of 1914 would have considered acceptable.  A little more of the restraint exercised by the smooth-talking, gout-ridden Sicilian in the summer and early autumn of 1914, and we might all have been spared the angry, volatile rogue Italy of the post-War era.

There you go; not a lot of people know that.