Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary

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.

Wikimedia Commons [1,2]

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.

Glorifying Violence

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.


Political Casualties

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

7 Weird Super Bowl Halftime Acts

Al Bello, Getty Images
Al Bello, Getty Images

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez seem like natural choices to perform the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, but the event didn’t always feature musical acts from major pop stars. Michael Jackson kicked off the trend at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, but prior to that, halftime shows weren’t a platform for the hottest celebrities of the time. They centered around themes instead, and may have featured appearances from Peanuts characters, Jazzercisers, or a magician dressed like Elvis. In honor of Super Bowl LIV on February 2, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest acts in halftime show history.

1. Return of the Mickey Mouse Club

The era of Super Bowl halftimes before wardrobe malfunctions, illuminati conspiracy theories, and Left Shark was a more innocent time. For 1977’s event, the Walt Disney Company produced a show that doubled as a squeaky-clean promotion of its brand. Themed “Peace, Joy, and Love,” the Super Bowl XI halftime show opened with a 250-piece band rendition of “It’s a Small World (After All).” Disney also used the platform to showcase its recently revamped Mickey Mouse Club.

2. 88 Grand Pianos and 300 Jazzercisers

The theme of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXII in 1988 was “Something Grand.” Naturally, it featured 88 tuxedoed pianists playing 88 grand pianos. Rounding out the program were 400 swing band performers, 300 Jazzercisers, 44 Rockettes, two marching bands, and Chubby Checker telling everyone to “Twist Again."

3. Elvis Impersonator Performs the World’s Largest Card Trick

Many of the music industry's most successful pop stars—like Prince, Madonna, and, uh, Milli Vanilli—were at the height of their fame in 1989, but none of them appeared at Super Bowl XXIII. Instead, the NFL hired an Elvis Presley-impersonating magician to perform. The show, titled “BeBop Bamboozled,” was a tribute to the 1950s, and it featured Elvis Presto performing “the world’s largest card trick.” It also may have included the world's largest eye exam: The show boasted 3D effects, and viewers were urged to pick up special glasses before the game. If the visuals didn't pop like they were supposed to, people were told to see an eye doctor.

4. The Peanuts Salute New Orleans

Super Bowl XXIV featured one of the last halftime acts that was completely devoid of any musical megastars. The biggest celebrity at the 1990 halftime show was Snoopy. Part of the show’s theme was the “40th Anniversary of 'Peanuts,'” and to celebrate the milestone, performers dressed as Peanuts characters and danced on stage. The other half of the theme was “Salute to New Orleans”—not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the comic strip.

5. A Tribute to the Winter Olympics

Super Bowl XXVI preceded the 1992 Winter Olympics—a fact that was made very clear by the event’s halftime. The show was titled “Winter Magic” and it paid tribute to the winter games with ice skaters, snowmobiles, and a cameo from the 1980 U.S. hockey team. Other acts, like a group of parachute-pants-wearing children performing the “Frosty the Snowman Rap,” were more generally winter-themed than specific to the Olympics. About 22 million viewers changed the channel during halftime to watch In Living Color’s Super Bowl special, which may have convinced the NFL to hire Michael Jackson the following year.

6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

“Peace, Joy, and Love” wasn’t the only Disney-helmed Super Bowl halftime. In 1995, Disney produced a halftime show called “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” to tease the new Disneyland ride of the same name. It centered around a skit in which actors playing Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood stole the Vince Lombardi Trophy from an exotic temple, and it included choreographed stunts, fiery special effects, and a snake. Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett were also there.

7. The Blues Brothers, Minus John Belushi

The 1990s marked an odd period for halftime shows as they moved from schlocky themed variety shows to major music events. Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 perfectly encapsulates this transition period. James Brown and ZZ Top performed, but the headliners were the Blues Brothers. John Belushi had been dead for more than a decade by that point, so Jim Belushi took his place beside Dan Aykroyd. John Goodman was also there to promote the upcoming movie Blues Brother 2000. The flashy advertisement didn’t have the impact they had hoped for and the film was a massive flop when it premiered.

15 Fun Facts About Betty White

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 98th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. Her name is Betty, not Elizabeth.

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. She's a Guinness World Record holder.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.

A photo of Betty White
Getty Images

Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. White's initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she has won five times.

6. White loves a parade.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. She has been married three times.


Getty Images

White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. If she hadn't been an actor, she'd have been a zookeeper.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. She is the oldest person to earn an Emmy nomination.


Getty Images

In 2014, White earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. She loves junk food.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. She wants Robert Redford.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
Getty Images

White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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