The Italian Army was large, consisting of some 850,000 soldiers, and based on a conscription system, but there were severe problems with both equipment and training. The officers were still recruited from a fairly narrow regional base and there was an inherent lack of professionalism in their general approach.
Italy adhered to the pact of London on 26 April 1915 and declared war on Austria-Hungary (but not on Germany) on 23 May. The Italian army was not fully prepared for war in Europe, and indeed was still heavily committed in Libya. It was short of 13,500 officers. Although it mobilised 1.2 million men, it had equipment for only 732,000. The problems of its war economy were comparable with those of Russia: it was not a fully industrialised power. In 1912-13, the army had been allocated 47 per cent of state spending, and since 1862 it had received an average of 17.4 per cent. However, Italy’s backwardness meant that the actual sums were small. Its re-equipment with quick-firing field artillery had just been completed, but it was short of heavier pieces and of mountain guns. The latter were particularly relevant, given the battlefield it now faced.
Although King Victor Emanuel was nominally Commander in Chief, the Italian Chief of General Staff and de facto commander was General Luigi Cadorna. Born in 1850, Cadorna had demonstrated considerable abilities as an administrative staff officer and was widely respected as a theoretical military strategist, although he had no relevant experience as a field commander. The lower ranks of his army were largely drawn from peasant stock and were dogged by high levels of illiteracy, which hampered the development of good NCOs. However, they would demonstrate a tough resilience to both harsh conditions and severe casualties on active service.
The standard infantry weapon was the magazine-charged 6.5 mm bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano rifle which dated back to 1891. It proved hard-wearing and its lighter calibre made it eminently suited to the mountainous regions where much of the fighting would occur. They were also equipped with Fiat-Revelli machine guns, which proved perfectly sound weapons – the problem was the paucity of their numbers in service condition. Even worse was the shortage of modern artillery. The most common field guns were the 75 mm Krupp or Deport models, with a number of 65 mm mountain guns which could be broken down to be transported by mules in rough country. But again there were simply too few of them, while heavy artillery was also in scarce supply. The Italians had none of the high-trajectory mortars that were so essential in mountain warfare. Throughout the years that followed the Italians would be desperate for artillery support from their British and French allies. Nevertheless, the Italian Army deployed in the field in May 1915 thirty-six infantry divisions in fourteen corps, in contrast to the paltry six divisions of the BEF in 1914. And so, the Italian entry into the war was a considerable blow to the Central Powers.
Of all the fronts of the First World War the Italian was the most ill suited for offensive operations, or indeed for any form of war at all. The frontier with Austria-Hungary was 600 km long, and four-fifths of it was made up of mountains. Several peaks rose above 3,000m; in the winter they were covered with ice and snow, and explosions could set off avalanches. In the summer the rock made entrenching impossible and sent off jagged splinters when hit by shellfire. Its northern sector was dominated by the Austro-Hungarian salient of Tyrol and the Trentino. Here Italy’s task was to hold the passes to prevent the Austrians from debouching onto the Venetian plain. As the frontier moved east it formed a fresh, Italian salient, bounded to the north by the Dolomites and the Carinthian Alps. It then swung due south following the line of the River Isonzo as it made its way to the Adriatic. Even here the Italians were going uphill, in the face of good fields of fire, but this was the logical sector on which to attack. It was the shortest route to Trieste and Ljubljana. Cadorna deployed fourteen of his thirty-five divisions along its 100 km.
Italy’s entry to the war caused less panic in Austria-Hungary than it ought to have done. The addition of a third front to an empire which a year before had embarked on a short war on one could only stretch its resources to breaking point. But in the pre-war years Conrad von Hötzendorff had suggested a pre-emptive strike against Italy almost as often as against Serbia. Its treachery in not honouring its alliance obligations confirmed that – in Conrad’s words – it was ‘a snake whose head has not been crushed in time’.28 The prospect of war with Italy revitalised the Dual Monarchy. Slovenes, Croats and Serbs could rally against a common enemy, and the success at Gorlice-Tarnow was well timed in relieving the most obvious pressure on the empire. Under pressure from Falkenhayn to give priority to the east and not to divert forces to the Italian front, the Austrians fought defensively – and did so successfully and with determination. ‘Will you tell me’, Enzo Valentino, an eighteen-year-old volunteer from Perugia, asked his mother from the front on 3 September, ‘why you persist in imagining and believing a lot of things which I do not write to you? … To be always going forward, and soon to be about to make a great advance? I have never heard anything of all this. As to advancing, it is now a month and a half that I have been up here and always in the same place.’ In the same letter he reported the first fall of the snow. Seven weeks later he was killed by shrapnel fire, an edelweiss in his cap, as he ran forward, shouting ‘Savoia, Savoia, Italia’. Or at least that was what Captain Carlo Mayo told his mother. In four battles on the Isonzo in 1915 alone the Italians made no appreciable progress, suffering 235,000 casualties, of whom 54,000 were dead.
Italy’s decision to participate in the war that broke out in August 1914 was a matter of acute calculation of the country’s best interests. When war broke out, Italy was joined in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria. Seen by the Italian government as purely defensive, the treaty promised Italy’s assistance to Germany and Austria should either be the victim of an attack. As Austria’s displeasure mounted concerning Serbian aggrandizement at Turkey’s expense in the Balkan Wars, Italy made clear that the Triple Alliance would never be a license for Austria to engage in aggressive war against the Serbs. Thus, when the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand led to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Italy—claiming that the Triple Alliance’s conditions had not been met—declared its neutrality, while Serbia’s and Austria’s allies mobilized for what each thought would be a swift war resolving outstanding problems of national aspirations, imperial ambition, and the settling of scores.
It soon became clear that the most an Austrian victory might yield to Italy would be concessions in Africa (perhaps Tunisia, French since 1830). But a French victory over Austria and Germany could mean that territories such as the Trentino might become Italian. Neutrality, the policy favored by Giovanni Giolitti, might favor either Austria or Serbia at war’s end but certainly not Italy. The decisive factor was the desire to establish Italian credentials as a power and to take part in establishing the postwar equilibrium. Thus, the Treaty of London of April 1915 formalized Italian entry into the war as an ally of France and Britain. It was accepted by the Italian Parliament only after Gabriele D’Annunzio and other nationalists had manipulated crowds in the public squares of Italy to rout opposition opinion that, in fact, held the majority in Parliament.
War fever, however, was followed by bloody reality. Hostilities in some of Europe’s highest mountains could not have begun at a worse time. Russian forces had suffered defeats that obliged them to withdraw from (Austrian) Galicia, thus freeing Vienna to reinforce its positions in the Alps and in Friuli. In 1916, the Austrian Strafexpedition in the Trentino caused the government of Antonio Salandra to fall. By the summer of 1917, 11 bloody but indecisive battles at the Isonzo River had been fought on a 96-kilometer (60-mile) front and had advanced Italian forces barely 16 kilometers (10 miles) toward Trieste. When the Austrians learned of a massive Italian offensive being planned by General Luigi Cadorna for the spring of 1918, they sought, and received, assistance from their German ally in the form of experienced troops and officers. The 12th battle of the Isonzo, begun in October 1917, ended at Caporetto, where the Italian line broke.
Rumors of a rout became self-fulfilling. It was only at the Piave River that the line finally held. British and French reinforcements soon arrived and enabled the Italian army to counterattack with a vengeance, driving Austria to ask for an armistice after a stunning defeat at Vittorio Veneto in October 1918, at which the Italians took more than 400,000 prisoners. The armistice came on 3 November 1918, eight days before the armistice on the Western Front. In all, Italy lost 650,000 killed or missing during the war, less than the terrible sacrifices made by France and Germany, but comparable with Great Britain. Half a million men were permanently disabled.
The war also reduced respect for Parliament and for the liberals who controlled it. The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor heightened social tension. Moreover, many returning veterans found that even the newer engineering and metallurgical industries, made rich by the conflict, now faced shrinking markets and needed no new workers. Thus, not only were social divisions sharper than they remembered, but the consequent bitter tensions did not stand comparison with the comradeship of the military life. All of these factors contributed to the rise of Fascism.