I’ve made the point here more than once that it’s a serious error to view the coming of the First World War as some sort of mistake or accident. The European-wide conflagration that broke out in the summer of 1914 was the product of conscious, if terrible, choices, by more than one country. It was no mere error or misunderstanding.
Similarly, I’m regularly at pains to point out that the “lions led by donkeys” mantra that informs so much popular culture about the Great War is wide of the mark. There were bad generals in the 1914-1918 conflagration — there are in every war — but there were good ones too, and those tend not to get a lot of credit in popular memory. The wreckage of U.S. military decisions since 9/11 ought to remind that military incompetence didn’t stop a century ago and is not just associated with trenches.
All that said, this weekend — fittingly the Memorial Day long weekend in America — we commemorate something that stands apart from my usual caveats about the First World War. One hundred years ago Italy chose to enter that terrible conflict. It did not need to, this was an unforced error by Rome. And an awful one, greatly exacerbated by unimaginably flawed generalship that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and in the end made Italy a worse place. I’ve castigated America’s entry into the war, two years later, as a bad idea. But that wasn’t obvious at the time, while it should have been clear to anybody with open eyes in the spring of 1915 that no sensible neutral wanted anything to do with the Great War.
Cool heads, who did exist, did not prevail in Italy a century ago. There was some irrationality and some bad intelligence; the term “cherry-picking” did not yet exist yet perfectly describes what happened in Rome in the last months of peace when leaders, military and civilian, chose to see what they wanted to see. Above all there was greed.
Italy sat out the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914, when Rome reneged on its alliance obligations to Germany and Austria-Hungary, winning the undying enmity of Berlin and Vienna. Most Italians favored neutrality, diplomatic niceties be damned, a choice that was confirmed when word of the horrors of trenches and mass death on the battlefield reached them. Yet there were some Italians who favored entering the war — on the Allied side. There were nationalists who craved Austrian land, some of it occupied by Italians who were Habsburg subjects, that they grandly called Italia irredenta: “unredeemed Italy.” A few militarists favored war for its own sake. More were those who became fired up by rising nationalism and the promise of easy pickings off the increasingly putrid corpse of Austria-Hungary, which was bleeding to death on multiple fronts.
By the end of 1914, intervention had loud champions in Italy, among them a rabble-rousing socialist-turned-nationalist named Benito Mussolini, who forcefully argued that joining the Allies would get Italy easy conquests as well as a much-needed social revolution at home. Influential generals and politicos increasingly agreed, helped along by covert action by British and French intelligence, which wanted to get Rome in the war on their side, and facilitated that by secretly funding vocal interventionists, Mussolini included.
Most appealing was the dismal state of Austria-Hungary, which lost over a million dead and wounded in the first six months of fighting and appeared to be on the verge of total collapse. By March 1915, as the bad news for Vienna arriving from the Eastern Front was getting worse by the day — Habsburg forces were losing an average of more than 6,000 soldiers to the Russians every twenty-four hours — Rome decided to take the secret deal that the Allies were proffering. With what Italian politicos memorably termed sacro egoismo — sacred egotism — in late April they accepted the Anglo-French offer, ironed out in the Treaty of London. This promised Rome vast swathes of Austrian land across the Adriatic (London and Paris were nothing if not generous with Vienna’s territory) in exchange for attacking the Habsburgs.
That looked like a mere technicality by the end of April, as the Habsburg military, if press reports were to be believed, was coming apart at the seams. Ailing on the Russian and Balkan fronts, the Austro-Hungarian Army couldn’t possibly withstand the opening of a third front, in its exposed rear, facing Italy. Optimistic generals in Rome spoke of a walk-over; talk of an imminent march on Vienna — beginning with the taking of Ljubljana, the main Slovenian city, within a few days — focused on the big picture, since hardly any Italian leaders expected the Austrians to resist for long.
It turned out that Italy’s opting for war in late April 1915 was a mirage, a fantasy, and a tragic one at that. In the first place, Italian planning took no account of the geography. Literally everywhere along the front, the Austrians held the high ground, in some cases mountains, rock fortresses, thousands of feet high. The Italians would be attacking uphill, into fire. Plus whatever their shortcomings, Austrian regiments had at least learned to fight since the previous summer, while the Italian Army was profoundly unready for war and had embraced none of the tactical lessons — machine guns, rapid fire artillery, trenches — that all the belligerents had been exposed to, at terrible cost.
Neither did the Italians think about the enemy’s will to fight. While many Habsburg subjects — the army was half Slavs — were ambivalent about fighting Russians, everybody hated the Italians, the faithless ally who had stabbed Vienna in the back the previous summer. For Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, whose land had been promised to Italy, this was a war for national survival. Morale in Habsburg forces surged once news of Rome’s declaration of war was received in Vienna on May 23, and all units burned to kill Italians.
Vienna also dispatched its toughest general, Svetozar Boroević (left), to hold the Italian front. He was a master of defensive tactics who wasn’t squeamish about pushing his troops to their limit. A Serb from Croatia, Boroević viewed the war with Italy as a personal indeed racial one, as did many of the soldiers under his command. In a terrible mistake, Italy waited a month between signing the Treaty of London and actually declaring war on Austria-Hungary. Since Vienna soon learned of Rome’s intentions, thanks to good intelligence, that gave the Austrians four vital weeks to rush the meager reserves at the army’s disposal to the Italian front.
That Vienna had any reserves left to spare at all was thanks to the biggest Italian misstep of 1915. Just days after Rome signed the Treaty of London, the Prussians and Austrians launched a major offensive in Galicia, at Gorlice-Tarnów, that succeeded beyond wildest expectations. Pound for pound this turned out to be the most successful big push by any army in the Great War, tearing a gaping hole in the enemy’s defenses and forcing the Russians into a chaotic retreat that lasted for months. By the time the Eastern Front stabilized in the late summer of 1915, over a million Russian prisoners had been taken and the tide had turned in favor of the Central Powers.
In late April, Rome agreed to go to war against an Austria-Hungary that seemed destined to final defeat within days. But before the ink was dry on that secret treaty, the war in the East shifted decisively. By the time Italy actually entered the war in late May, Austria-Hungary was very much alive and had managed to build rudimentary defenses all along its border with Italy. On the critical Isonzo front, named after the fast-moving river (see right) that snaked into the high Alps north of Trieste, Boroević had managed to dig in several divisions of veteran troops.
This was just enough to stop the Italians in their tracks. The fault was not that of Italian soldiers, who showed astonishing bravery in their assaults on the Isonzo, but of their generals, who were unskilled and often arrogant. None was worse than the top general, Luigi Cadorna, who displayed callousness and stupidity in equal measure. With no regard for the lives of his men, Cadorna threw regiment after regiment against Boroević’s Isonzo defenses, where they were shattered again and again. Exhausted units that showed insufficient ardor for the slaughter had their suspected malingerers executed by firing squad. Four major Italian offensives on the Isonzo front in the latter half of 1915 gained essentially nothing for Italy except vast casualties.
Neither did matters improve. Cadorna (left), who made Douglas Haig look like Napoleon, kept launching futile offensives on the Isonzo through the late summer of 1917. Eleven of Cadorna’s “big pushes” on the Isonzo failed to achieve any strategic breakthroughs — by August 1917 the Italians were still only one-third of the way to Trieste, to say nothing of Ljubljana, sixty miles east of that — but at the cost of over a million Italian soldiers killed and maimed.
Throughout the Isonzo fighting, Austro-Hungarian troops displayed a forceful determination that was often lacking on other fronts. In the first Isonzo fight in the spring of 1915, as the Italians launched their first major assault on that front, the commander of an Austrian battalion holding a key hill overlooking the river told his men — Slavs from Dalmatia like himself, whose home province had been promised to the enemy by the Allies — that they were defending “Slav earth.” That battalion fought nearly to the last man, holding off more than ten times their number of Italians, setting an example that many other Habsburg troops would follow.
Cadorna was eventually cashiered for gross incompetence, following the disastrous Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, a combined German-Austrian offensive in October 1917, the first of its kind on the Italian front, that shattered the Italian line and pushed Rome’s shambolic forces deep into Venetia. In his place came generals both more skilled and less cruel, who managed to rebuild the shattered army. In the autumn of 1918, the Central Powers lost the war for reasons that had little to do with Italy, and when Austria-Hungary was collapsing in late October, Rome launched its victory offensive.
But after the war, Italy did not get all the lands that Rome had been promised in the Treaty of London, an affront by friends that many Italians viewed as a mortal insult to national honor. This disappointment so radicalized Italian politics that Benito Mussolini reemerged as a fiery orator, having recovered from the wounds he sustained while fighting on the Isonzo front in 1917, promising angry combat veterans that they would get their due from Rome. He sold this as trincerocrazia — trenchocracy — and it caught on like wildfire. By 1922, Mussolini was in power, leading his battalions of veterans, calling themselves Fascists, to Rome.
But none could hide the terrible cost of it all. Some 650,000 Italians lost their lives in the Great War, most of them killed on the Isonzo front, while over a million more soldiers had been maimed. To put this in perspective, the Italian death toll, adjusted for population, would be like America today losing 5.7 million dead, which represents a figure more than four times greater than the dead of all America’s wars ever, put together.
To say nothing of how needless it all had been. While Italy did gain some land from their war of choice, and under the Fascists they proceeded to abuse Slavs there just as the natives had feared, this was nothing like the walk-over that Rome had expected in the spring 1915. Mussolini and his regime built grandiose war monuments and mausoleums up and down the Isonzo front to glorify the sacrifice, but what exactly it was all for remains nebulous a hundred years later. This weekend, Italy honored a national moment of silence to commemorate their entry into the Great War, but many continue to wonder why it happened at all.
One of those who wonders still is Pope Francis, who few months ago made a pilgrimage to Redipuglia (right), on the border with Slovenia, on what was once the Isonzo front. This vast monument, carved into the karst, is the greatest of the Fascist-era ossuaries, housing a hundred thousand Italian dead, many of them unknown in perpetuity. The pope’s grandfather fought on the Isonzo (with the elite Bersaglieri, the same corps Mussolini belonged to; and like the Duce he was wounded but survived) and passed tales of horror on to his grandson, who castigated the “madness” of it all in moving terms. For madness it was and shall remain.
P.S. If you would like to learn more about this subject, read my book, Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, which is available in English and Italian.