The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 183rd installment in the series.
May 23, 1915: Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary
While soldiers endured hardships on every front of the Great War, the prize for worst physical conditions probably goes to the Italian front, where the basic miseries of trench warfare were translated to Alpine terrain, alternating seasonally between bare rock and snow and ice. In addition to the obvious threat posed by hypothermia, in this extreme environment artillery duels produced disproportionate casualties thanks to clouds of razor-sharp fragments of shattered stone.
The Waiting Game
Considering the huge losses already suffered by all the belligerent nations, in retrospect it seems insane for any neutral country to voluntarily embroil itself in the maelstrom of the First World War, as Italy did with its declaration of war against Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915. However Italian leaders believed the Allies were winning the war, and reasoned that they could both speed the final decision and pick up territory along the way. Nor were they alone: in 1915 and 1916 Italy would be joined by Bulgaria and Romania, which waded in (on opposing sides) motivated by similar dreams of aggrandizement. All would pay for their ambitions with rivers of blood.
Before the war Italy was technically aligned with Austria-Hungary in the defensive Triple Alliance with Germany, but their relationship was complicated by the presence of ethnic Italian populations in the Dual Monarchy, including the provinces of Trentino and Trieste. Italian nationalists had long called for the “redemption” of these territories, meaning unification with the rest of Italy by dismemberment of the Habsburg realm.
As tensions mounted in July 1914, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano tried to use the crisis to extract territorial concessions from Vienna, warning that Rome couldn’t accept Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia unless it received compensation in the form of the Italian provinces. However Emperor Franz Josef refused to negotiate (after all, the whole point of the war was keeping the empire in one piece) and Italy remained neutral.
The majority of the Italian public supported the decision to remain neutral, but a vocal minority favored intervention on the side of the Allies, arguing that now was the time to wrest the Italian provinces from Austria-Hungary and liberate their ethnic kinsmen. Matters were further complicated by the deaths of chief of the general staff Alberto Pollio, who suffered a heart attack on the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and San Giuliano, who died of gout on October 16, 1914. In this confused situation Prime Minister Antonio Salandra (below, left), a foreign policy novice, cautiously embraced a policy of “sacro egoismo,” or “sacred selfishness,” which in effect meant playing the Allies and Central Powers off each other to create a bidding war for Italy’s allegiance.
Behind the scenes both sides were wooing Italy with promises of post-war territorial gains, sincere or otherwise. In the first months of 1915 Austria-Hungary, bowing to German pressure, finally agreed to cede part of the Trentino – but the Allies, already happily slicing up their opponent, countered with offers of the Tyrol and Trieste, and also threw in the Dalmatian coast for good measure (conveniently ignoring the fact that most of the inhabitants here were Slavs, not to mention that they had already promised it to Serbia). Salandra and his cynical Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino (above, right) were also impressed by the Allied assault on the Dardanelles, which they believed was about to end the war – meaning their window of opportunity was closing.
In early 1915 the Italian government also came under intense political pressure from extreme nationalist, populist, and rightwing groups, including many figures who would later play a key role in the rise of Fascism. Indeed, political violence was becoming commonplace, reflecting the brutal worldview of men like Benito Mussolini, a rabble-rousing journalist who renounced socialism because of its pacifist ideals and founded his own newspaper, Popolo d’Italia, to publicize his pro-intervention views (below, left, Mussolini, with cane, standing next to Filippo Corridoni, another prominent pro-war activist).
In 1915 Mussolini called for war in a series of articles glorifying violence and vilifying political opponents, whom he accused of being paid agents of Austria-Hungary (a nice bit of hypocrisy, as his newspaper was funded by the French government; in 1916, a French government official recalled that Mussolini had “rendered us great service in the spring of 1915.”). Amid mass demonstrations by pro-interventionists, on May 11 Mussolini encouraged attacks against anti-war members of parliament, writing, “for the health of Italy a few dozen deputies should be shot: I repeat shot in the back.” Three days later he predicted chaos if Italy stayed out of the war: “An epoch of individual and collective retaliations will begin. The traitors will pay for their crime in blood.”
Mussolini sounded positively reasonable next to Gabriele D’Annunzio (above, right), an ultra-nationalist author already famous for his sensuous, intoxicating poetry and serial womanizing. After leaving Italy for self-imposed exile in France to escape his debts in 1910, in the spring of 1915 D’Annunzio returned with help from the French government and gave a series of inflammatory speeches, which were republished in the leading rightwing newspaper, Corriere della Serra. In a speech on May 6, 1915, he amplified Mussolini’s calls for attacks against anti-war activists:
If it is a crime to incite the citizens to violence, then I boast of committing that crime. Today the treachery is blatant. We don’t only breathe in its horrid stench, we feel all its appalling weight. And the treachery is being committed in Rome, city of the soul, city of life.
In another speech on May 13, 1915 he returned to the theme, unapologetically inciting criminal violence (below, D’Annunzio addressed the crowd):
If it is considered a crime to incite the citizenry to violence, I glory in that crime, I take it upon myself alone…Every excess of force is allowable, if it avails to prevent the loss of our Fatherland. You have to prevent a handful of pimps and swindlers from sullying and losing Italy.
Secret Treaty, Public Disorder
Unbeknownst to most of D’Annunzio’s listeners, the Italian government had already committed itself to join the Allies with the signing of the Pact of London on April 26, 1915 – the day after the Allied landing at Gallipoli, but well before any news of the disaster started trickling out.
Believing the Allies were about to storm Constantinople, Salandra and Sonnino rushed to sign Italy up before it was too late. In the secret treaty the Allies confirmed their extravagant promises of territory and agreed to loan Italy £50 million on generous terms, along with assurances of war indemnities from the defeated Central Powers. After the war Britain and France came up short on the territory, embittering the Italian elite and setting the stage for the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists – but in the short term they got Italy to sign on the dotted line, opening another front against the Central Powers.
In a typically high-handed move, Salandra and Sonnino had committed Italy to war without consulting Parliament, knowing full well that most ordinary Italians still opposed the idea. However they had some political advantages working for them: for one thing, the Italian constitution technically granted sweeping powers to the king, Victor Emmanuel III, even if he generally chose not to exercise them. Meanwhile the different anti-war groups, including the Liberals led by former Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, the socialists, and the Vatican, proved totally unable to set aside their differences in order to present a united front. Simple threats of violence finished the job: amid mounting public disorder anti-war members of Parliament, already labeled traitors by the pro-war demagogues, feared for their own physical safety and that of their families.
On May 20, 1915, with many anti-war members cowed into silence and Giolitti unwilling to challenge the king, Parliament voted 407 to 74 to grant the government authority to finance the war, clearing the way for a declaration of war. On May 22 the government ordered mobilization, and the following day Italian diplomats delivered the final ultimatum to Austria-Hungary – at this point a mere formality. At midnight on May 23 Italy was formally at war.
Thus the Italian government deliberately led the country into the inferno despite the fact that a majority of the public opposed it, as Mussolini himself frankly admitted years later, during the Second World War: “The people’s heart is never in any war. Was the people’s heart in the 1915-1918 war, by any chance? Not in the least. The people were dragged into that war by a minority.”
An Uninspiring Start
Considering how long they had to prepare for it – chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna started drawing up plans to attack Austria-Hungary in December 1914 – the Italian military’s opening performance in the First World War was unimpressive, if not downright disgraceful. Apparently unable to appreciate the hard lessons learned by other belligerents in the first ten months of the war, Cadorna believed the same tactics of mass infantry assaults would carry the Italians all the way to Vienna in less than two months. This was soon revealed to be a ludicrous fantasy (below, Italian troops leaving Venice).
The initial Italian invasion of Austria was dubbed the “Primo Sbalzo” or “First Leap” but hardly lived up to the name. When fighting began four Italian armies containing around 400,000 men – out of a total mobilized strength of 1.2 million, on paper at least – faced just two Austrian divisions, numbering 25,000 men. But the Italians, believing the Austrians had four times that number, proceeded cautiously at first, giving Austrian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf time to rush more defenders to the area from the Balkan front, quiet since the Serbian victory at Kolubara (the Serbs were busy preparing for a long anticipated attack from Bulgaria).
After the declaration of war the Austrians swiftly withdrew to heavily fortified defensive lines, previously prepared some miles from the border at the order of Conrad (who long viewed war with Italy as inevitable), and allowed the enemy to creep forward unopposed. The main advance was left to the Italian Third Army, under the command of General Luigi Zuccari until May 27, when he was abruptly relieved by Cadorna and replaced by Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta – the first of literally hundreds of Italian commanders to be cashiered in this fashion by Cadorna, who shared French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s mania for firing unsatisfactory commanders. By the end of May Aosta had advanced to the River Isonzo, fated to be the scene of eleven bloody battles in coming years, but failed to capture the crucial bridges over the river, which were blown up by the retreating Austrians.
To the north the Second Army under Pietro Frugoni, hindered by a lack of artillery, occupied the basin around Caporetto (later the scene of a disastrous Italian defeat in October 1917) but failed to seize the strategic ridges beneath the Carnic Alps. Further west, the Italian First Army under Roberto Brusati launched an ill-advised attack on Austrian defenses along the strategic heights around the city of Trent (which gave its name to the region Trentino) but immediately ran out of steam. Meanwhile the Italian Fourth Army under Luigi Nava occupied the town of Cortina, but for some reason didn’t launch a concerted offensive until the first week of June.
By the time the Italians arrived at the real Austrian defensive lines, Conrad had managed to transfer around 80,000 more troops to the area, which would soon be organized in three defensive formations – a new Austrian Fifth Army guarding the Isonzo River front under a Croatian general, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, who soon showed himself one of Austria-Hungary’s most talented commanders (above, Austrian troops climbing near the Isonzo); Army Group Rohr, named for its commander General Franz Rohr, who’d been the main organizer of Austrian defenses on the Italian front in April-May 1915; and Home Defense Group Tyrol, under Victor Dankl von Krasnik (below, Austrian troops dug in on the Tyrol).
By mid-June the Italian advance had come to a sudden and inglorious halt at a cost of 11,000 casualties – a relatively modest figure, by the standards of the Great War, but one that was about to spiral out of control. The real bloodshed would begin with the First Battle of the Isonzo from June 23-July 7, 1915.
In the second half of May 1915 the Great War claimed some of its most prominent political casualties yet, as the Gallipoli debacle and a growing scandal over munitions shortages forced British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a new government and replace Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had been one of the most prominent figures associated with the Allied campaign to capture the Turkish straits, first with a naval assault and then later with the amphibious landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula. In fact, behind closed doors Churchill had prevailed upon First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, the operational commander of the Royal Navy, to go along with the original plan despite his misgivings. Now both men would pay the price.
Following a bitter dispute at a meeting of the War Council on May 14, 1914, on May 15, Fisher handed in his resignation, to be replaced by Sir Henry Jackson, previously the Third Sea Lord, responsible for naval supplies. Two days later, on May 17 Churchill offered his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty, and on May 21 Asquith accepted, although Churchill remained in the cabinet as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a ceremonial position that however allowed him to listen in on debates. On May 25 Asquith appointed Arthur Balfour, a Conservative former prime minister, as First Lord of the Admiralty as part of a new coalition government.
Asquith was forced to form a new government by public anger over the munitions crisis or “Shell Scandal,” which rocked the British political scene beginning with the publication of a controversial article in The Times on May 14, following the British defeat at Aubers Ridge, which the newspaper attributed to the lack of artillery shells. This in turn raised the issue of the government’s alleged mismanagement of shell production from both public and private manufacturers; Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper titan who owned The Times, was distraught over the death of his nephew at Neuve Chapelle, and personally blamed Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener for the loss.
Although public opinion rallied around Kitchener for the most part, the enmity of Britain’s most powerful news publisher helped force Asquith to form a new cabinet that included David Lloyd George (above), the Welsh Radical politician and orator who’d previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also criticized Kitchener as old and out of touch. Lloyd George joined the government in the newly created position of Minister of Munitions, with responsibility for speeding up shell production. From here he would rise to become the next Secretary of State for War, and eventually replace Asquith as Prime Minister.