Italy In The First World War

Before World War I started, Italy was part of the Triple Alliance, which included the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, when the war started, Italy remained neutral citing the reason that the Triple Alliance was a defensive alliance. Then, after secret negotiations with the Allies, Italy entered WW1 on their side declaring war on Austria Hungary on 23rd May 1915. War on the Italian front was primarily marked by the deadlock at Isonzo, which proved difficult to break. However, in 1917, Austria-Hungary, supported by six German divisions, launched a massive surprise attack breaking through the Italian lines at the Isonzo front. They then advanced 150 km within Italian territory. The following year, under new Army chief Armando Diaz, Italy handed crushing defeats to Austria-Hungary which ultimately forced their retreating army to surrender. Despite the Italian contribution in winning WW1, the promises made to them by the Allies, primarily Britain and France, were not honored leading to much resentment among the Italian people. Here is a detailed analysis of Italy’s participation in World War I including all the major events in which it was involved.

Neutral Despite Alliance

The rising nationalism in Europe in the 19th and early 20th century had led to emergence and consolidation of an independent Italian state. In 1914, only the Vatican and San Marino retained independence within Italy. However, a large Italian population in certain regions of the Habsburg Empire had long been a point of political contention. Despite the differences, Italy had agreed to come together with Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance in 1882, Germany being the third ally. The alliance ruled out any Italian aggression against a far superior Austria-Hungarian force and the Italian Royal Army’s planning was limited to defensive operations with regards to its more powerful neighbor.

World War 1 Alliances
Illustration of European political alliances in the period leading to World War I

When WW1 broke out in 1914, Italy was thus expected to join the Central Powers. Instead Italy decided to stay neutral, citing the reason that the Triple Alliance was a defensive alliance; and Austria-Hungary and Germany were the aggressors in the war. Adding to that, Italy had signed a secret treaty in 1902 with France, deciding that each would remain neutral in the event of an attack on the other, thus undermining the Triple Alliance.

German declaration of war report
Newspaper report of German declaration of war

Joins The Entente In War

In the years leading to the war, Italy had grown more convinced that alliance with traditional enemy Austria-Hungary will not gain Italy the territories it wanted: Trieste, Istria, Zara and Dalmatia, all Austrian possessions. On the other hand, Italy had enhanced its diplomatic relationships with the United Kingdom and France since its 1902 secret pact with France. Following the August 3, 1914 declaration of neutrality, Italy began to probe which side would grant the best reward for Italy’s entrance in the war or for its neutrality. On the military front, Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna issued the first guidelines for offensive action against Austria-Hungary.

Map of major alliances in WW1
Map of major alliances in WW1

As the war proceeded, the Central Powers wanted to keep Italy neutral. They promised Trentino but not the South Tyrol, part of the Austrian Littoral but not Trieste, maybe Tunisia but only after the end of the war while Italy wanted them immediately. In April of 1915, negotiations with the Allies led to the secret London Pact which promised Italy all the territory it desired and more. A month later, on 23rd May 1915, after revoking the Triple Alliance, Italy declared war on Austria Hungary; and the other Central Powers in the following weeks. Italian political parties were not united in supporting the war. The liberals criticized the government for its decision to enter the war and blamed it for the consequences; while the socialists also maintained a policy advocating neutrality.

Deadlock At Isonzo

When the Italian offensive action began in May 1915, the front on the Austrian border was 400 miles long, stretching all the way to the Adriatic Sea. The Italian plan aimed at directing the main effort towards the river Isonzo where the Karst plateau offered more maneuvering. The area had been the eastern gateway for invading Italy. Moreover, beyond it towards Austria were areas of strategic value for Italy.

Battles of the Isonzo map
Map of 11 Battles of the Isonzo (1915-1917)

With Austria Hungary tied on other fronts, the Italians enjoyed numerical superiority almost throughout the conflict. In 1915, the Italian Army had more than 1 million men but despite its differed entry into WWI, they were weak in heavy weapons and modern equipment. Four major offensives were executed in the same year but the 2:1 ratio could not overturn the advantage of the terrain and the defensive structures set up by the Austro-Hungarians.

Second Battle of the Isonzo
Italian Army at the Second Battle of the Isonzo

The year 1916 saw the Italian Army increase its strength to 1.5 million. Also, they deployed better weapons and equipment. Five more offensives were launched at Isonzo, but the most notable event was the Austro-Hungarian counteroffensive, “Strafexpedition” or the “Punishment Expedition”. Aimed at forcing Italy to surrender, the attempt was initially a success and proceeding well. However Italy under Luigi Cadorna stemmed the offensive, albeit with great difficulty. They had to move massive reinforcements from the Isonzo Front.

Fifth Battle of the Isonzo
Italian trenches at the beginning of the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo

Between 1915 and 1917, 11 battles were fought at Isonzo and after two years of fighting the Italian troops only got 10 miles inside Austrian territory. Hundreds of thousands were killed and many more wounded without much to show for; and the deadlock remained.

Tenth Battle of the Isonzo
Painting depicting Italian attack at the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo

Caporetto Crisis

Despite the heavy losses, the Italian Army had grown to 2 million men in 1917. However armies on either side were exhausted by 2 years of fighting, and when the Italians tasted some success at 11th Isonzo, the Austro-Hungarians sent distress calls to their German allies. Germany had its hands full but they feared the defeat of Austria-Hungary would devastate the Central Powers. Thus, for the first time, Germany decided to provide assistance on the Italian front. A new 14th Army was formed with nine Austrian and six German divisions. It was commanded by the German Otto von Below.

Battle of Caporetto
German assault troops at Caporetto

On 24th October 1917, the Central Powers launched a massive surprise attack breaking through the Italian lines in the upper Isonzo at Caporetto and routing the 2nd Army. The defeat of Caporetto caused the disintegration of the whole Italian front of the Isonzo; and the enemy advanced 150 km within Italian territory in less than a week. The Italians stabilized to an extent forming new defensive lines on the Tagliamento and then finally on the Piave rivers. The Italian defeat even surprised the attackers who did not have the forces to fully exploit the success. Moreover, advancing further became impossible with the German troops needed on the Western Front. There were tremendous Italian casualties at 10,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 265,000 taken prisoners. On the other hand, there were 70,000 Austrian and German losses. The Italian Army Chief Cadorna accused the Second Army of surrendering to the enemy without fighting. He was, however, soon to be replaced by Armando Diaz.

Battle of Caporetto Italian POWs
Italian POWs after the Battle of Caporetto

Path to Victory

The change in command brought fresh perspective and much needed change after the loss at Caporetto. Learning from mistakes of the past, Armando Diaz worked on the complete reorganization of army, bringing in many major and minor changes from the top to the bottom. Large armies were split into smaller ones. Moreover, better coordinated units and more autonomous structures were adopted for departments and offices. Collaboration and thorough consultations were encouraged with focus on planning and management of operations. This re-organization restored dignity, responsibility and autonomy of action to each office and department of the High Command. Soldier grievances were better addressed and efforts were made to keep their morale high. Reckless frontal assaults were avoided. The up-gradation of weapons and equipment continued with vigor. Also, tactical norms were updated learning from the recent bitter experiences.

Armando Diaz
Armando Diaz – Chief of Staff of the Italian Army (1917-1919)

Thus, in June 1918, when the Austro Hungarians renewed their offensive, the Italian Army was high in its morale, flanked by its allies and strengthened in its overall structure. The Austro-Hungarians were repulsed in the Battle of the Piave River; and lost everywhere along the front suffering heavy losses. The failure marked the swan song of Austria-Hungary on the Italian front, with multi-ethnic entities of their empire on the verge of rebellion.

Second Battle of Piave River
Italian troops awaiting the Austrian attack during the Second Battle of Piave River

The Italians, backed by their allies, launched a counter offensive on 24th October, 1918 from Vittorio Veneto. Fighting ensued for a few days but amidst reports of revolutions and independence proclamations in the Dual Monarchy, the losing Austro-Hungarian army began to disintegrate and sued for peace on 29th October. Given the economic and industrial capabilities of its enemies, Italy was mostly dependent on human resource in the initial years of battle. 5 million of the 6 million conscripted men answered the call for their country. Most of them saw action and 680,000 lost their lives, contributing greatly towards the victory of the Allies.

Villa Giusti
Villa Giusti – The site of the armistice that ended warfare between Italy and Austria-Hungary

Anger At Versailles

In 1919, apart for the tremendous casualties suffered in the war, Italy was facing numerous economic and social challenges. It was hit by very high inflation and unemployment; and was hugely in debt, mostly to the United States. But despite their problems the Italians had been on the winning side, and expected just rewards at the Treaty of Versailles.

Vittorio Orlando
Vittorio Orlando – Representative of Italy at the Versailles Peace Conference

Italy had entered the war on the promises made in the Treaty of London and had gone to Versailles expecting those promises to be honored. However its major and more powerful Allies (Britain, France and America) had their own ideas. Italy was given the two small areas of Istria and the South Tirol. The Adriatic coast was made part of a new country called Yugoslavia, which included Serbia and Bosnia. The creation of a pan-slavic state Yugoslavia was clearly given precedence over Italian ambitions. The Italians were miffed and pulled out of the treaty negotiations for a time, but ultimately had to accept the terms offered.

The Treaty of Versailles was incredibly unpopular in Italy. The Italian public believed that their leaders there had been humiliated by the Allies, fueling anti-British, French and American sentiment among the population. The anger in the coming years would lead to increasing the support for Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Fascist Party, who promised to rebuild Italy and recreate the Roman Empire. The Versailles Treaty was among the primary reasons that Italy entered WWII on the side of the Germans.

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