Italy decides…

I’m currently reading 1915 by Lyn Macdonald and shared a small passage about Italians leaving London when Italy joined the war with an Italian colleague of mine, as the stereotyping made me chuckle (he assures me all the wildly emotional Italian stereotypes are indeed true). When we think of 1915 we may think of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, Hill 60 or Artois. Of Kitchener’s Army, ANZACs at Gallipoli or the sinking of the Lusitania. But something that isn’t so often thought about is the 23rd of May – when Italy finally joined the war on the side of the Allies.

Italian propaganda poster, 1917

Italy’s part in the Great War is not often discussed. In theory, Italy, should have joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. After all, she was part of the Triple Alliance of 1882, reaffirmed in 1912. As events transpired, Italy turned its back on this alliance and declared war against Austria-Hungary some 9 months into the conflict. To understand how the Italian government came to take this position, it’s important to know a little more about what Italy was like as a country at the turn of the century.

The Roman Empire dominates Italian history and after its collapse in 476AD, the unified nation began to fracture. Over the centuries, Italy descended into a patchwork of independently ruled and often conflicting states. After three wars of independence and countless bloody conflicts and civil revolutions between the major states, the Kingdom of Italy was finally established in 1861. However, the country was not truly unified, at least as far the people were concerned, with major socio-economic differences between Southern and Northern parts of the country representing a huge challenge to the new government and many Italian’s living outside of the newly defined borders – enter: Italia Irredentia.

This nationalist movement began in earnest at the end of the 19th century, gathering huge pace in the years running up to the Great War. The goals were clear, the complete reunification of geographic areas home to all Italian peoples. The political ideology of Irredentism revolves around the motivation to reclaim and occupy land deemed to be former lost territory of that nation, and it’s something which became a huge influence on Italy’s decision to enter the war. As mentioned, Italy was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. But Italy’s relationship with Austro-Hungarian empire was far more complex than it seemed, for the two countries had been at war over territory for much of the 1800’s. Italian irredentists were aggrieved at historic areas such as Trentino and Istria falling outside the boundaries of the Kingdom of Italy. These regions on the Italian peninsula had been granted to the Austrian Empire after the Napoleonic Wars and were heavily populated with Italians – so although formally engaged in the Triple Alliance, relations between Italy and Austria-Hungary were far from strong.

In 1914, the political situation at home in Italy was volatile. The government was struggling to get to grips with socio-economic divides which dogged the new nation. In March, the Liberal government of Giovanni Gioletti collapsed, under the mounting civil unrest and the rise of fascism.  New Prime Minister Antonio Salandra declared his agreement with Gioletti that Italy would remain neutral, as the Triple Alliance had been a defensive alliance and, since Austria Hungary had been the aggressor, Italy was not obliged to join the war effort on their side. In realty, Salandra’s view was more calculated and he began secret negotiations with the aim of establishing whether entering on the side of the Entente or Central Powers would provide the greatest benefit to Italy.  Salandra was a conservative, an irredentist and indeed an opportunist.  He believed that the Entente nations were on course for a swift victory and in April 1915, signed the Treaty London, formally committing Italy to begin military action on the side of the Allies by the end of May. The agreement had been reached as the Entente had promised Italy the return of territories from Austria-Hungary at the end of the war.

Pro-war demonstration in Bologna, 1914

When the news broke, Salandra faced a huge backlash from much of the impoverished Italian public. They cared little for lost territory and even less for the affairs of other nations, when their own was in such turmoil. There were however, some exceedingly strong voices in favour of entering the war – they were led by one Benito Mussolini. Facism was flourishing, as it often does, in the ever widening gaps left between unstable and feuding political parties. It fed on the high unemployment levels and poor living standards faced by the Italian public. Nationalists took to the streets, young men angry at the political elite, frustrated and disillusioned. Mussolini believed the war represented a great opportunity for Italians and socialists to free themselves of the shackles afforded to them by Austro-Hungarian and German empires, to rise up and build an Italy for Italians. The voices of the anti-war public were largely drowned out, besides which, there was now little option for Italy since the agreement had been made and there was certainly no chance of rejoining the Central Powers, with Salandra having publicly denounced their actions.

Mussolini in his Italian Army uniform, 1917

On the 23rd May 1915 Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary and a new 400 mile front, much of which was deep in the Alps, opened. Approximately 5 million Italian soldiers stood on the precipice of what would be a disastrous war for many of them, dogged by a lack of proper equipment and training, and doomed to be led by their Commander-in-Chief Luigi Cadorna, across some of the most challenging landscape of the entire war.

Italian gunners loading shells decorated with Easter messages, 1916. 

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