Thursday, May 31, 2012

Marshal of Italy Armando Diaz, 1st Duca della Vittoria

General Armando Diaz will always be remembered as the man who turned around the Italian war effort in 1917, picking up the pieces after the disastrous battle of Caporetto and leading Italy to the final victory in 1918 at Vittorio Veneto. His announcement of the total defeat of the Austrians and the victorious advance of the Italian army was one of the greatest moments of celebration in the entire history of the Kingdom of Italy. His time as the top military commander in the First World War did not last long, and he certainly had his detractors, but it proved extremely pivotal. He was born on December 5, 1861 in Naples and decided at an early age to pursue a military career. That, in itself, was a bold move considering that in the youth of the Kingdom of Italy the Royal Army leadership tended to be dominated by the Piedmontese and few would have placed much money on a young Neapolitan of Spanish ancestry rising very far in the ranks of the officer corps. Still, Diaz pressed on and earned a place as an officer in the artillery. He undertook further military training, graduating first in his class and in 1895 married Sarah De Rosa-Mirabellli. Later he worked as secretary to General Alberto Pollio (who would later be commander of the army).

Promoted to major, Diaz served as a battalion commander in the 26th Infantry Regiment for a short time before being promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1905. Afterwards, Diaz spent a few years in Florence as Chief of Staff of the local military division before he was called to serve at the front in 1910. This was the start of the Italo-Turkish War in which Colonel Diaz commanding the 93rd Infantry Regiment in Libya. He was wounded in 1912 in the fighting around Zanzur, distinguishing himself and further advancing his career. In 1914, when World War I broke out, General Count Luigi Cadorna promoted Diaz to major general and made chief of operations. In June of 1916, after the Kingdom of Italy joined the conflict, General Diaz requested a frontline assignment and was given command of the 49th Division with the rank of lieutenant general and later command of the entire 23rd Army Corps. As a general, he was frequently at the front and under fire and was awarded the Silver Medal for bravery after being wounded in the shoulder. This was only shortly before the disastrous battle of Caporetto in which the Royal Italian Army was smashed and to a large extent disintegrated with only a few elements standing firm and covering the retreat to the Piave River.

After such a catastrophe there was no longer any doubt that General Cadorna had to go and on November 8, 1917 Diaz received a royal decree from King Vittorio Emanuele III appointed him Chief of Staff of the army. It was General Diaz who would have to pick up the pieces of Caporetto, reorganize, reform and reinvigorate the army to lead it to final victory over the Austro-German forces. General Diaz was determined not to use the army as a “blunt instrument” but to make more surgical strikes when necessary. Overall, however, to strengthen and rebuild the army and improve morale, General Diaz abandoned the offensive strategy of General Cadorna in favor of a defensive strategy that would save lives and test the strength of the enemy. As expected, the Austrians soon launched another offensive and the Italian forces repelled them, inflicting heavy losses on the Austrians of 60,000 dead, 90,000 wounded and 25,000 taken prisoner. Diaz had learned of the impending Austrian offensive and opened a massive artillery barrage on the enemy trenches just as they were packed with soldiers about to launch the attack. Because of this, some units of the Austro-Hungarian army retreated while others charged forward. It was a disaster for Austria-Hungary and a morale-boosting victory for Italy.

The Allies wished General Diaz to launch an immediate counter-offensive while the Austrians were in defeat and disarray, however, Diaz refused to do so, recognizing that the same elements which had helped him secure victory would be working in favor of the Austrians if the roles were reversed. General Diaz remained on the defensive, consolidating and preparing his forces for the most opportune moment while Austrian morale plummeted and the internal divisions of Austria-Hungary began to pull their armed forces apart. In fact, he waited so long that the authorities in Rome became anxious that the war might end before there was a major Italian offensive that would help ensure that Italy was given the territorial concessions Britain and France had promised. As it happened, Diaz waited until just the right moment to launch his offensive and the result was the crushing Italian victory at Vittorio Veneto. The Austro-Hungarian forces were badly demoralized, many of the ethnic minorities were rising up to declare independence and many of the soldiers at the front saw no reason to give their all fighting the Italians while their own people were struggling at home.

As bad as Caporetto had been for Italy, Vittorio Veneto was worse for the Austrians. Diaz sent troops forward to divert attention away from the main area of attack and to sever the communications between the main enemy forces. When the main offensive was launched the Austro-Hungarian forces were split and their army basically came apart. As Italian troops surged forward Austrian commanders tried to organize counter-attacks but their troops simply refused to obey orders, dropped their weapons and gave up. During the offensive Hungary broke away from Austria and ordered the Hungarian troops on the Italian front to stop fighting. Czechoslovakia declared independence as did the Yugoslavs a day later. As many as 500,000 Austro-Hungarian troops were taken prisoner in what was probably the most complete victory ever won by the Kingdom of Italy with much of the credit naturally going to General Armando Diaz. In the following years General Diaz was made a Senator by the King and given the title of Duke of Victory. That same year, 1921, he became the first Italian general to be honored with a tickertape parade in New York City when he visited the United States along with the other Allied commanders. The visit was to attend the groundbreaking of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.

During his later years, the most controversial aspect of the life of General Diaz was a phrase he spoke in the build-up to the “March on Rome” by the Fascist Black shirts. The First World War had ended the era when the Royal Italian Army was a small corps of purely professional soldiers with Piedmontese officers. It had become a truly national army and represented a wide array of backgrounds and opinions. The rank and file included many people sympathetic to the nationalistic slogans of Mussolini and his party. When King Vittorio Emanuele III asked if the army would stand against the Black shirts, General Diaz replied that they would always follow the orders of the King but, fatefully added, that it would be better not to put them to the test in such circumstances. The army would not be called upon to shoot down the Black shirts and in the aftermath Mussolini became prime minister and quickly began consolidating his power. General Diaz was appointed Minister of War by Mussolini in his new government and later promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy when he retired in 1924. Marshal Diaz died in Rome on February 28, 1928 at the age of 66, remembered always as the man who had led Italian forces to victory in the Great War.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy

It was on May 26, 1805 that the famed Corsican conqueror Napoleone Buonaparte was crowned “King of Italy” with the sacred Iron Crown of Lombardy in Milan. The Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was officially formed on March 17, 1805 and succeeded the earlier Italian Republic which was a vassal of the First French Republic and itself the successor of the earlier Cisalpine Republic and of which Napoleone was the President. However, Bonaparte had monarchial ambitions and, as he once famously said, had the urge to sit on any empty throne he found. So, after driving the Austrians out of northern Italy, and after crowning himself “Emperor of the French” he also assumed the title of “King of Italy”. This was extremely important to him and the attachment he had for the Italian peninsula is shown in the official title Napoleone used which was, “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” giving his Italian title precedence over all others but his French imperial title. This new Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, which covered all of northern Italy not directly annexed by France, had a parliament but it was never called to sit and, significantly, Napoleone decreed that his sons would succeed him on the throne even if it meant that the French and Italian crowns no longer be united in personal union.

The strange thing, perhaps, about that was the fact that Napoleone himself was not originally to be the first King of his new Kingdom of Italy. That honor was first offered to his brother Giuseppe Buonaparte but he declined it, “forcing” Napoleone to take up the Iron Crown himself, uttering at his coronation the famous traditional phrase, “God hath given it to me; woe to him that touches it!” Obviously, since Napoleone (when not at war) would be spending the preponderance of his time in Paris rather than Milan, he appointed a Viceroy to act on his behalf in the government of the Kingdom of Italy. The man he appointed to this post on June 7, 1805 was his stepson Eugè ne de Beauharnais. His job was to suppress republicanism (which the first French revolutionaries who overran Italy tried to force on the people) and to manage Italian affairs in accordance with the best interests of the French Empire. And this was, by the European standards of the time, no minor satellite. After the battle of Austerlitz, the Austrians ceded part of Venezia, Istria and Dalmatia to Italy and in 1808 after the partition of the Papal States the border of the Kingdom of Italy was extended all the way to the frontier of the Kingdom of Naples.

Under the King-Emperor Napoleone, Italy was placed under French style law and civil administration with the Code Napolé on becoming the law of the land. This was not always to the detriment of Italy, in some ways it was an improvement over the patchwork system that preceded it, however, the Kingdom of Italy suffered greatly because of the ‘continental system’ imposed on all the states under Napoleonic influence to strangle trade with Great Britain. The effects on the British were rather negligible but it had a terrible effect on the Italian peninsula (as well as many other regions in Europe). As with all things Napoleonic, Italy also established a very stylish and highly effective army. Their cockade was in the national colors of red, white and green and was outfitted much the same as the French army but with dark green rather than dark blue being the dominant uniform color. There was a Royal Guard, seven line regiments, two dragoon regiments, a horse artillery regiment and an engineer battalion along with the usual auxiliary and support personnel. The Italian troops the Viceroy led into battle alongside his stepfather proved themselves exceptionally courageous and served with particular distinction at Maloyaroslavets.

The end came during the disastrous Russian campaign when the Italian army was all but wiped out and this precipitated the eventual collapse of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy altogether. However, one observer still said, looking back, “The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitle it evermore to rank amongst the bravest troops of Europe”. With French power on the decline, the Kingdom of Bavaria allowed the forces of the Austrian Empire access through the Tyrol and the valley of the Adige to attack Italy. Republicanism began to spread again and the famous French Marshal Murat defected. Nonetheless, Viceroy Eugè ne (considered by many to be the most talented of Napoleone’s relatives) fought desperately to maintain his piece of Europe but he had never been truly accepted and never had the time to become so. When Lord William Bentinck landed at Leghorn on March 8, 1814 it was only a matter of time and on April 14 at Mantua the Viceroy signed an armistice and the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was no more. Yet, the ultimate historical impact was significant.

Perhaps because of his Corsican roots, Napoleone always seemed to have a special attachment to Italy. Not only did he go to the trouble of having himself crowned King of Italy in Milan, he prized that title above others, he made his stepson (and adopted son) Viceroy of Italy and he possibly might have succeeded to that throne himself eventually. Napoleone also gave his own son and heir the title “King of Rome” and to some extent modeled his Empire of the French on the legions of ancient Rome. The French-backed Kingdom of Italy might have gone but the idea, particularly in the north, of a truly independent Italy, a united Italian nation under one flag and one monarchy lingered on and continued to grow over the years. When the campaign for national unification began, it did so in much the same area as the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy had existed and took as its symbol the familiar green, white and red national tricolor. When this dream was finally realized it is also noteworthy that it was done at a time when there happened to be another Buonaparte on the French throne, who was sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance but without whom Italian unification may not have happened when it did.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Queen Marie Jose of Belgium

The woman who would become the last Queen of Italy, the “May Queen” was born HRH Princess Marie Jose Charlotte Sophie Amelie Henriette Gabrielle of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on August 4, 1906 in Ostend to Their Majesties King Albert I of Belgium and Queen Elisabeth, Duchess of Bavaria, the youngest of three children born to the Belgian royal couple. To a large extent, much of the course of her life was set by the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 at the start of the First World War. Princess Marie-Jose, only eight-years-old at the time, was sent to school in the relative safety of England while her parents stayed at the front where the Belgian army tenaciously held on to the last unconquered corner of their country. The little princess would regularly go and visit and her parents, while careful of her safety, made no effort to shield the little princess from the hard facts of reality. Even at the age of 12 she was helping her mother the Queen in the field hospital making bandages for the wounded soldiers. The war impacted Princess Marie-Jose in a number of ways. It cemented her idolization of her father as the heroic King who stood firm for the independence of his country in the face of overwhelming odds, it embedded in her a lifelong distrust of Germany and it narrowed the possibilities for who her future husband might be. Belgium and Italy were the only Catholic monarchies on the Allied side and, after the war, about the only Catholic kingdoms left at all. So, while she was still very young it was decided that the Princess would one day marry the Savoy heir-to-the-throne HRH Prince Umberto of Piedmont.

World War I, and all the horrors and ugliness associated with it, may also have helped instill in Princess Marie-Jose a greater love for the opposite; for beauty, beautiful art, beautiful music, for a more liberal world and a total aversion to conflict and bloodshed. With the course of her life set before her, she looked toward the future hoping for the best. The Prince of Piedmont was already known as one of the most handsome young royals in Europe and as Princess Marie Jose grew up she developed a rather unrealistic expectation of the Savoy heir as the perfect prince charming, an image encouraged by those around her. In fact, the two had vastly different backgrounds and upbringings. Princess Marie Jose loved to play with her father as a child and, particularly through the influence of her mother, was given a very liberal education, an appreciation for simplicity, tolerance and new ideas. Prince Umberto, on the other hand, was raised to be a soldier, given a military education, had the glorious family history of the House of Savoy stressed upon him and his duty to carry on that illustrious legacy. Interactions with family were kind but correct and it had not be so long ago that royal children were still required to bow in the presence of their father the King and address him by his royal title. Things were not quite that formal for Umberto but undoubtedly the history, forms and grandeur of the monarchy were stressed much more heavily in Rome than in Brussels. The princess was an informal girl who very much ‘marched to the beat of a different drummer’. When thinking of Italy she most likely envisioned the romantic aspects; the art, the music and the way the ordinary people loved life. She was probably not quite so prepared for the orderly, regimented court and elaborate ceremony of the Savoy monarchy.

The time finally came on January 8, 1930 when the glamorous Belgian Princess was married, in Rome, to her tall and dashing Italian prince. It was a lavish, colorful ceremony, planned to awe and inspire but it was something of an ordeal for the new Princess of Piedmont. She would have preferred something simpler but Prince Umberto, fastidious himself, was determined that the ‘look’ of the event would be one all Italians would always remember. The new couple did have some things in common. They were devoted Catholics, they dreamed of a glorious future for the Italian people and they were both compassionate and good-hearted individuals. Aside from that, there were not many things they shared. For Princess Marie-Jose, the vibrant, outgoing free spirit, there was also the fact that she had married into the Italian Royal Family during the Fascist era and with her background, attitude and character, she clashed with the brutish dictator from the very start. Mussolini disliked everything about her, from the way she spelled her own name (she refused to convert to the Italian version out of nationalism) to how she dressed (Fascists preferred a more dour and matronly appearance) and he certainly didn’t like her ideas on freedom, tolerance and the sort of liberal, artistic people she surrounded herself with. Of course, Princess Marie Jose was just as repelled by everything Mussolini stood for, be it his bombastic, crude manners, his love of war or his fawning friendship with Germany.

Because of this, Princess Marie Jose was not to have the wedded life of her dreams. Her unconventional ways were hard for the Italian Royal Family or her husband to understand and the Fascist press took every opportunity to criticize her and the Prince of Piedmont as well since they regarded him as being insufficiently supportive of the Fascist Party as well. One thing Princess Marie Jose did have in common with her husband was a sincere Catholic faith. She visited St Padre Pio and was very supportive of Church endeavors. Her fashionable ways made her a trend-setter in Roman society, which infuriated the Fascists who did everything they could to smear her reputation. Because no children were immediately forthcoming they accused the Princess of being cold, immoral and having only a “show” marriage. This, of course, was not true and the Prince and Princess of Piedmont eventually had four children. They mocked the Princess for her appearance, accusing her of being unattractive and the absurdity of that can be seen by all simply by looking at her photographs. All of this had to be done subtly and “unofficially” of course because the Italians would not stand for attacks on the Royal Family but the ugly stories the Fascists put out worked their way into society. The Princess was accused of being a “traitor” to Italy when in fact she only opposed the Fascist regime and their aggression. She was always supportive of Italy and always supported the Italian troops that were sent off to war.

Princess Marie Jose served as President of the Italian Red Cross after 1939 and was greatly alarmed by the outbreak of World War II. According to Count Ciano (who also opposed the German alliance) he promised and did tell her when he first he learned of the German plan to invade Belgium so that she might warn her brother King Leopold III, though it did little good. When Italy joined the war, the Princess of Piedmont joined the Queen and other royal ladies in working tirelessly to nurse the wounded and frostbitten soldiers from the front where Prince Umberto held nominal command over the forces that invaded France. Never lacking in courage, she even tried to intervene with Adolf Hitler to obtain the release of Belgian prisoners of war. Showing no lack of devotion to the Italian troops either, Princess Marie Jose nonetheless cultivated her contacts with liberals, anti-Fascists and even some on the far left to try to arrange peace talks with the Allies through the Vatican. The King had no idea this was going on, Prince Umberto did but could not become directly involved for constitutional reasons, however the Fascist authorities certainly had their suspicions and put the Princess under ever increasing scrutiny. The main effort the Princess made in this direction was in 1943, the year that the Allies invaded Sicily and the Princess worked through Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI. However, too little progress was made over too great a time and the Princess and her four children were sent to the far north, removed from court but placed close to the Swiss border, making it easier to escape to safety.

When Italy was divided between the Allied occupation in the south and the Nazi-backed Fascist puppet state in the north, Princess Marie Jose took her children and escaped over the border but continued to support the fight against the Nazis by smuggling weapons and supplies to the partisans (which included communist and also non-communist anti-Fascist groups). One partisan group even wanted to name her their “commander” but she declined the offer. When her husband succeeded to the throne on May 9, 1946 as King Umberto II, the couple reunited in Rome where she briefly reigned as Queen consort of Italy. Although there was really no romance at all between the two anymore, both were people of duty and were committed to putting their own problems aside for the good of the country. However, from the very start the new King and Queen faced a combined opposition made up of the communists on one side and the ambivalent Allies on the other. The communists attacked the King Umberto II and Queen Marie Jose by often using the propaganda first dreamed up by the Fascists. Again, some of this has gained acceptance in the popular portrayal of the “May Queen”. Some, for example, have come to believe that she was an extremely reluctant Queen consort, very gloomy and resigned to the total collapse of the Kingdom of Italy. However, the truth was quite the contrary. Queen Marie Jose was under no illusions about the difficulties Italy faced but she envisioned something much better, lifting the people out of the ruins of the war and restoring the glory, beauty and creativity, artistic and scientific of the Renaissance period.

However, at the moment, Italy was devastated and the only ones with real strength were those with foreign assistance and this meant the anti-monarchists, particularly the communists who were backed by the Soviet Union. King Umberto II and Queen Marie Jose were the targets of a great deal of vicious propaganda, spread by the communists but often originating from the Fascists. The monarchists tried to get support from the Allies (primarily Britain and America) but none was forthcoming. Rumors were also spread about the political opinions of Queen Marie Jose, implying that she herself was a revolutionary and did not want the monarchy to continue. This was, of course, absurd. The Queen was interested in politics only insofar as it had an impact on the people and society but she was never ideological. The fact that she was friends with figures from the far left was used by dishonest people to construe that she shared their political views completely. That was certainly not true, she was an out-going woman with a large circle of friends and no political litmus test on who she would associate with. In the end, a referendum was held on the future of the monarchy and the republicans controlled the vote. It was, therefore, fairly easy for them to use a variety of underhanded methods to ensure that the result was in their favor. Some urged King Umberto II to raise his flag in the staunchly monarchist south and contest the results but after all the horrors of World War II, he refused to be responsible for causing an Italian civil war. Without abdicating, the King and Queen left Italy.

After stopping first in Egypt, Umberto II settled in Portugal but Queen Marie Jose was suffering from a number of health problems and her doctors advised her that the Portuguese climate was not good for her. She was also having trouble with her vision and so moved to Switzerland to be near a noted ophthalmologist and where the climate was better. King Umberto II could not go with her as he was prohibited from either entering Italian soil or living in any country bordering Italy. In any event, the couple had remained together mostly for the sake of their duty to the country and the benefit of their children. So, there was a separation but the two never divorced, it being against their religious convictions and in the unlikely chance that the Italian monarchy might be restored and they be called to resume their posts. Queen Marie Jose devoted her time to her love of music (she had the talent of a concert pianist) and learning, writing a number of books on the long history of the House of Savoy. Eventually she moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico to be near her daughter Princess Marie-Beatrice and her children and was able to see some of the former residences of her great-aunt Empress Carlota of Mexico. She was also always glad to help aspiring musical talents and learn about local history and culture. She longed to return to Italy but was only able to after the death of her husband. Marie Jose, the last Queen of Italy, passed away herself in Geneva on January 27, 2001 from lung cancer at the age of 94. Still a beloved figure, her funeral was attended by, as well as her own children and grandchildren, her nephew King Albert II of the Belgians, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Hereditary Prince Albert of Monaco and many, many others.

She had not had an easy life, although much of it looked very glamorous. Her childhood was dominated by war, her marriage was not a very happy one, another war ruined her hopes for the future and she was forced to leave her adopted country. Relations with her children were not always the best afterwards and she was often lonely. However, she endured it all as simply part of the duty that accompanies royalty. Her mother had given her curiosity, compassion and an open mind. Her father had given her courage, devotion to duty and a ‘never quit’ attitude. She was a great lady and would have undoubtedly been a great Queen. It is to the detriment of Italy that she was not given a chance to fully prove herself in that role.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Italy in the Great War

It was on May 23, 1915 that the Kingdom of Italy officially entered World War I, on the side of the Allied powers by declaring war on the Dual Empire of Austria-Hungary. In nominal command of all armed forces was HM King Vittorio Emanuele III, however, he was content to leave operational control in the hands of the chief of the general staff, Count Luigi Cadorna, while he stayed at the front, always on the move, inspecting the troops, seeing to their welfare and settling disagreements within the supreme command. The primary front was the 650 kilometer frontier with Austria but Italian forces were also engaged in North Africa, East Africa and the Middle East where an Italian contingent served alongside the other Allied powers, primarily from the British Empire. Another larger contingent of labor and combat forces also served on the Western Front and forces were dispatched to Albania for cooperation with Allied forces in the Balkans. Because the Austrians were already engaged against the Serbians and the Russians, Italy held an advantage in manpower over Austria, however, Italian forces were not as well armed and the mountainous terrain gave the Austrians an extremely strong series of natural fortifications that gave them a key advantage.

General Cadorna
General Cadorna adopted an offensive strategy that was to be based on a series of “offensive bounds” from one objective to another. This resulted in a series of attacks known as the battles of the Isonzo. All available strength was concentrated along the Austrian front, to the detriment of the Italian position elsewhere. In North Africa, for example, most troops were pulled out with only a minimal colonial force remaining and, as a result, Italian control over the region was soon reduced to several key coastal cities as Islamic rebels of the Senussi sect launched a guerilla war against the Italians encouraged and armed by the Ottoman Turks (who were anxious to reclaim the region from Britain and Italy) and the Germans who used their submarines to smuggle guns to the Bedouins fighting against the French, British and Italians in North Africa. Likewise, in Somalia, a rebel army rose up under the command of the “Mad Mullah” Mohammed Abdullah Hassan. He was supported, again, by the Ottoman Turks and also formed an alliance with the Emperor of Ethiopia who had converted to Islam. These forces cooperated to try to drive out the Allied powers and all agreed to recognize the spiritual authority of the Turkish Sultan, the Caliph of Islam, and so were supported by the Ottoman Empire.

When the “First Offensive Bound” was launched in 1915, General Cadorna had high hopes of a rapid advance against the Austrians, seizing key positions that would allow Italian troops to threaten vital cities and, perhaps, even Vienna itself. Allied observers were greatly impressed by the bravery of the Italian troops but also noted that their commanders often presented them with vague orders and impossible goals. As the Italian forces charged the Austrian lines, dug in on commanding heights with many machine guns and excellent artillery, their ranks were blasted to pieces. Still, they fought on and captured several key mountain passes and advanced the Italian lines considerably. The first battle of the Isonzo was an Italian victory. The cost, however, was extremely high; nearly 15,000 men compared to less than 10,000 for the Austrians and the advance had not reached nearly as far as had been hoped. Nonetheless, General Cadorna stuck to his original strategy and conducted the entire front like a massive siege operation. Many more battles were to follow, often with similar results.

From July 18-August 3 the second battle of the Isonzo was fought, again with minor gains being achieved but taking heavy casualties. In North Africa, Italian forces completed a withdrawal to the coast of Cyrenaica and declared war on the Ottoman Empire for supporting the Libyan rebels. Through the fall and early winter, the third and fourth battles of the Isonzo were fought. Limited territories were taken, the Italian armies continued to advance but at a cost in lives out of proportion to the actual gains. On other fronts, Italy declared war on Bulgaria and the first Italian troops landed in Albania which was being overrun by competing factions from neighboring nations. Italy could also count on more help in North Africa in the future as the Senussi rebels, emboldened by the Italian retraction, began attacking French and British possessions as well. Overall, 1915 had seen some important gains for Italy, the taking of some vital mountain passes but also very heavy casualty rates and a number of setbacks in Libya.

As 1916 opened Italy won some important victories over the Senussi rebels as Libyans in the coastal areas rallied to the Italian side. In March, the fifth battle of the Isonzo was fought, Italian troops advancing a short distance at the cost of many lives. Questions became more common about the conduct of the war, but any who voice disagreement found themselves promptly dismissed or even imprisoned by General Cadorna. One of those to suffer the wrath of the chief of staff was General Giulio Douhet, the prophet of air warfare, who was sent to prison for opposing the costly strategy of Cadorna. Still, the overall strategy was not changed. In May, the war clouds began to gather in East Africa as the “Mad Mullah” of Somalia allied with the Ethiopian Emperor Lij Jasu in support of the Ottoman Turks. Lij Jasu was soon overthrown but had enough support to continue the war. Italy sent reinforcements to Eritrea as French, British and Italian positions in the region all come under attack. That same month, disaster struck the primary front as the Austrians launched a major counter-offensive that saw Austria take Arsiero and Asiago. Austrian forces also recaptured the northern end of Lake Garda. However, there was better news from the south. At the same time, Italian reinforcements landed in Libya, retaking al-Bardi and Zuwarah while a combined British-Italian force destroyed a Senussi encampment near Darnah. Soon, the Senussi agreed to negotiations.

Italy had been rattled but not defeated and during the summer, Cadorna launched more attacks that saw Italian troops retake Arsiero and Asiago. The next month, he launched the sixth battle of the Isonzo in which Italian forces made substantial gains, including the capture of the long sought after city of Gorizia. Also in August, the 35th Italian Division arrived in Thessaloniki in Greece to support their fellow allies on the Macedonian front. The Bulgarian forces were halted and began to be pushed back, prompting them to call for German and Austrian assistance. It was also on August 29, 1916 that Italy finally joined the fight against all the Central Powers by declaring war on Germany. Meanwhile, successes continued in the Balkans as Italian forces pushed the pro-German Greeks out of southern Albania and launched diversionary attacks while the other Allies broke the Bulgarian right flank and captured Florina. Back on the Austrian front, however, the same old routine returned with the seventh battle of the Isonzo in which Italian forces suffered heavy losses in exchange for a minor advancement of their lines. The eighth and ninth battles of the Isonzo in the fall produced the same results. The most noticeable successes remained in the Balkans where a major Bulgarian counter-offensive was defeated after which the Bulgarians suffered a major setback with a successful Allied offensive. Italian troops in Albania pushed eastward and were able to link up with the French, establishing a continuous front from the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea.

As 1917 opened Italian forces won a string of victories in North Africa, restoring Crown control over western Tripolitania and forcing the Senussi rebels to come to terms. A peace was agreed to though not all Muslim rebels abide by the terms. In East Africa, the “Mad Mullah” attacked the Somali forces of Sultan Uthman of Obbia, a supporter of Italy, but was defeated. Later in the summer the Sultan launched his own offensive against the “Mad Mullah”. In Europe, Cadorna stuck to his usual methods in the tenth battle of the Isonzo, gaining ground but losing many lives. Morale was dropping dangerously in the Italian army, due to their heavy losses and among the officer corps cohesion was on the decline as well due to the numerous sackings and court martials. Yet, Austria was in a perilous state as well and appealed to Germany for help, as they had been forced to do on other fronts, warning that the next Italian offensive might prove decisive if German divisions were not transferred to strengthen their front. German support did arrive and soon the combined Austro-German forces launched a major counter-attack on the Italian lines in what became known as the battle of Caporetto. The result was a crushing defeat for Italy as the worn and weary Italian army almost completely came apart. Hundreds of thousands are captured or simply abandon the field, General Cadorna himself abandons the second army and rushes to Padua. Only the Duke of Aosta and his Third Army hold their positions as the rest of the front simply collapses. Venice and Milan come under threat but the Austro-German forces run out of energy to pursue and the Italian army reformed itself behind the Piave River.

General Diaz
The defeat of Caporetto had major repercussions on the Italian war effort. The public was finally shocked to its senses with the old image of Austrian troops marching across northern Italy bringing back memories that served to unite all Italians in support of the war effort as never before. General Cadorna was dismissed and General Armando Diaz took his place, bringing a new style of command and a new overall defensive strategy that would be far less wasteful of human life. The Italian army immediately began to effect a nearly miraculous turnaround. New assault units are developed for raids against enemy lines, proving themselves in early 1918 when, in conjuction with the navy, these “bold ones” infiltrated the Austrian lines and destroyed a number of electrical sub-stations. As summer opened, more Austrian offensives are defeated and General Diaz considered his forces sufficiently recovered to dispatch the Italian II Corps to France to aid the Allies on the western front. Throughout the fall Italian troops participated in the Allied advance in the Balkans as Bulgaria was pushed out of the war. General Diaz, cautious by nature, held back until Austria-Hungary was at her weakest point as the subject nationalities of the Hapsburg empire began to split apart and turn on each other. Finally, on October 24, General Diaz launched the battle of Vittorio Veneto.

Vittorio Veneto was for Austria what Caporetto had been for Italy. The Austrians were demoralized and war-weary and when they were hit by the Italian troops, supported by elements from the British army, the Austrian lines were split and the army was shattered. 300,000 Austrian troops surrendered and the Austro-Hungarian army basically dissolved. In quick order, the Empire of Austria-Hungary would as well. On October 27 Austria asked Italy for an armistice and on November 2 the Hungarian government ordered all Hungarian troops to lay down their arms. The next day, as Italian troops landed in Trieste, Austria signed the armistice with Italy which took effect on November 4 at 1500. The peace would be difficult, and post-war feelings would harden public opinion in Italy against her former allies, but, at least, the war was finally over and in a conflict which saw the downfall of many monarchies (on both sides) the Kingdom of Italy had survived. Her troops had served in East and North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Western Front and the primary front against Austria. The Italian navy had been instrumental in saving the hard-fighting Serbian army from total destruction and yet, what was gained seemed insufficient considering the terrible losses Italy had suffered. The fact that so much of what was promised was not delivered would have terrible consequences for everyone in the future.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Italian Cavalry

Carabinieri cavalry

Savoy cavalry on the attack in Russia

Italian cavalry in the invasion of Greece

Savoy cavalry, World War I

'Hunters of Africa' colonial cavalry, 1887

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani

Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani, 1st Marquis of Neghelli, is possibly the most infamous Italian soldier of World War II. To a large extent, this is entirely justified for he ended his career as a traitor to his king, his country and a sell-out to the Nazi German puppet state of the Salò Republic of which Mussolini was the willing figurehead. Putting politics aside, the military reputation of General Graziani has been rather unjustly tarnished over the years, perhaps because of his politics. All too often General Graziani is portrayed as an ineffective and incompetent commander when, in reality, his record was one of almost total success with his poor reputation mostly being derived from a single failed campaign. It is also worth noting that it was a campaign Graziani opposed and expected to fail. In any event, he was a more complex figure than most realize and a far more talented military commander than he is often given credit for. The record should be set straight.

Graziani in World War I
Rodolfo Graziani was born on August 11, 1882 in Filettino in the province of Frosinone. His father was a doctor and his parents wanted to send him to study at a seminary but he decided to pursue a military career and joined the Royal Italian Army in 1903. Most of his military career would be spent in the colonies and that was where he was first posted, to the colony of Eritrea where, as a young lieutenant, he caught malaria and was badly hurt after being bitten by a venomous snake. Graziani learned Arabic and the language of the native Tigreans while in the colony. During the War with Ottoman Turkey he earned promotion to captain. As a young officer he then served with great distinction in World War I. It was during that conflict that he first saw service in the north African colony of Libya where the Turks and Germans were encouraging Senussi Muslim attacks on Italian outposts. Later he was transferred to the northern front against Austria where he was wounded twice and earned rapid promotion for his skill and bravery. By the time the conflict ended he had become the youngest colonel in the Italian army at age 36.

In the chaotic aftermath of World War I, Graziani was marked for death by the communists and he decided to retire to Parma until the political situation settled down. Going into private business, he became a merchant dealing in goods from the Far East but was not successful. He was recalled to service due to the worsening attacks by Muslim rebels on Italian farms and businesses in Libya. His colonial experience and knowledge of the Arabs recommended him for such an assignment and on January 11, 1930 he was chosen personally by Mussolini to be Governor of Cyrenaica. For the next two years he came to hold the primary command of the Italian forces fighting against the Senussi Muslim rebels under the guerilla leader Omar Mukhtar. Knowing that speed and mobility were the primary advantages of the Bedouin cavalry, Graziani worked to match them in these areas. He used light, fast-moving columns, made use of aircraft and, long before anyone had ever heard of such names as Rommel or Montgomery, he became the first to use tanks in the desert.

Graziani first took back control of the Tripoli plateau, then cut the rebels off from their supply lines from the south by marching across the desert to capture the Senussi stronghold of Kufra. Then, to deprive the rebels of their supplies and volunteers coming in from Egypt he built a ‘frontier of wire’ along the border, a massive barbed wire “wall” stretching some 271 kilometers from El Ramleh to Jaghbub, effectively covering the frontier from the Mediterranean to the impassable deep desert. A formidable obstruction, this frontier fence is still in existence today. All of this created a tightening noose around the rebels, cut them off from outside aid and robbed them of their mobility. Most controversial of all, however, was Graziani’s decision to cut the rebels off from their civilian base of support by adopting a tactic first used by the British in the Boer War. After identifying the villages that were the main sources of support for the rebels, Graziani had the local populations moved into large concentration camps where many died due to unsanitary conditions. It was because of this that the Bedouin rebels gave Graziani the nickname of “the Butcher of Fezzan”. However, it all worked. Muslim attacks on Italian farmers ceased, the rebels were cut off and defeated and Omar Mukhtar himself was finally captured by a troop of Libyan cavalry allied with the Italians.

Hailed in Rome as the “Pacifier of Libya”, General Graziani was replaced by Italo Balbo and transferred to the governorship of Italian Somaliland. He was still holding that post when the Second Italo-Abyssinian War broke out in 1935. Graziani was ordered to attack from Somaliland in the southeast while the main attack led by De Bono and later Badoglio would come from Italian Eritrea in the north. Nonetheless, although he commanded a secondary front, the overall victory could not have been achieved so quickly were it not for Graziani’s contribution. At the battle of Genale Doria he wiped out an entire Ethiopian army and later, at the battle of the Ogaden, Graziani successfully defeated the formidable Ethiopian defenses designed by the Turkish general Wehib Pasha known as the “Hindenburg Wall”. Within seven months the Italians had conquered an area larger than all of France, over the most rugged terrain imaginable and for his achievements Graziani was made Viceroy of Italian East Africa and promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy. However, controversy arose again when he ordered reprisals taken after an assassination attempt against him. The reprisals caused the Ethiopians to second his title of “butcher” and calm was not restored until Graziani was replaced as Viceroy by Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta whose rule was characterized by fairness and humanity.

When World War II broke out, Marshal Graziani was Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Army General Staff but, when Air Marshal Italo Balbo was accidentally killed Graziani was named to replace him as Governor-General of Libya. In that position, he commanded all Italian forces in North Africa and after British raids into the colony, Mussolini ordered him to launch an immediate invasion of Egypt to seize Alexandria and, it was hoped, break the back of the British position in the Mediterranean. Graziani had grave misgivings about such an invasion, knowing that his largely infantry force would be almost impossible to move across the desert. He had the British greatly outnumbered in terms of manpower, but the British had more and better of everything that mattered most in desert warfare, specifically tanks, trucks and artillery. Nonetheless, Mussolini was adamant that Graziani attack, regardless of the cost in human life. He had seen Graziani triumph in Libya and Abyssinia and was certain he could do the same again if he would only make the effort. However, the Marshal realized that the highly mechanized British imperial forces were nothing at all like the armies of Arab guerillas and Ethiopian tribesmen he had faced before. He had had all the tools he needed to defeat those enemies but against the British he needed weapons and transportation he did not have.

Marshal Graziani did advance with most of the Italian 10th Army about sixty miles into Egypt and then halted and established a line of fortified camps while he called for more trucks, more tanks, more fuel and more air cover. Mussolini would promise, order him to continue the offensive and then little to nothing would show up. As it turned out, the north African front was being robbed of war materials that were instead being sent to Albania in preparation for the invasion of Greece. It remains a matter of dispute if Graziani was wise to stay on the defensive where he was or if he could have plowed ahead and conquered Egypt even at the expense of an inordinately high casualty rate. What might have been, we will never know. The British counter-attacked the Italian fortified camps, built too far apart to support each other, reducing them one by one until the Italian troops were driven out of Egypt and Libya was invaded by the British. It was the first real defeat Graziani had suffered during his career and he was replaced by General Italo Gariboldi and for the next two years took no part in the war. He had really been crushed by the defeat his forces had suffered and urgently called for Germany to send assistance to Africa. There was an inquiry into his conduct but no actions were ever taken as a result.

The failed invasion of Egypt was the biggest defeat in Graziani’s career and it is the campaign that has most marred his military record. The famous German Africa Corps was rushed in and quickly turned the situation around, driving the British out of Libya and back into Egypt. This has often led to unfavorable comparisons between Marshal Graziani and German Marshal Rommel. Graziani certainly made mistakes in the placement of his men after halting the offensive and he can be faulted for surrendering the initiative to the enemy. However, even if he had pushed forward, in all likelihood the 10th Army would have been defeated anyway. The German and Italian forces which Rommel later led to a number of stunning victories were much better equipped and much better supplied than the force Graziani had at his disposal. If Mussolini had given him the support he later gave to his successors, it is at least possible that Graziani could have taken Egypt and brought the war in North Africa to an early conclusion.

As it was, the Marshal was sidelined as Mussolini was positively furious with him, particularly after Mussolini had been forced to turn to Hitler for help after having proudly refused any assistance previously. Nonetheless, Graziani did not seem to hold any anger against Mussolini. He had supported the Fascist regime throughout their time in power and had even supported the most reprehensible policies of Mussolini. In 1943 when Fascist Party leaders finally cooperated with HM King Vittorio Emanuele III in removing Mussolini from power, Rodolfo Graziani was the only Marshal of Italy who betrayed the King and remained supportive of Mussolini, following him north to serve the German puppet-stated named the “Italian Social Republic”. How could this have happened after such a long career in the royal army? Given certain aspects of his character, displayed at certain times throughout his career, Graziani may have been a “true believer”. It is also possible that the fact that Graziani and Marshal Pietro Badoglio were on such bad terms influenced his decision.

In any event, Graziani went north, betraying his King and his country to side with a puppet government of German manufacture. Despite his previous feelings about the Marshal, as the most senior soldier to take his side, Mussolini appointed Graziani his Minister of War. It was a useless and futile fight, doomed to inevitable failure and yet, even at that late date, Graziani again displayed some of his old military talent as commander of the German and Italian Army Group Liguria in which he halted the Allied offensive and pushed them back at the Battle of Garfagnana in December of 1944, the only successful action of the Axis forces at that stage in northern Italy. He surrendered to the U.S. Army and in 1948 was sentenced by a military tribunal to 19 years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis. However, he was released after several months and remained totally unrepentant about his actions, writing such books as “I Defended the Homeland”, “North Africa 1940-41” and “Libya Redeemed” while in prison. He supported the Italian Social Movement in the last years of his life (a neo-Fascist party) and was named “Honorary President” of the group in 1953. He died in Rome on January 11, 1955, the most prominent and the most condemned Italian officer of World War II.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Marshal of Italy Luigi Cadorna

General Count Luigi Cadorna was the field commander of the Italian army during the first half of Italian involvement in World War I and, sadly, an example of the weakness of the Supreme Command of the time. Born on September 4, 1850 at Verbania he was the son of the famous General Raffaele Cadorna who had fought in the Wars for Independence and who led the royal army in the seizure of Rome. Luigi Cadorna joined the Royal Italian Army in 1868 and progressed steadily through the ranks of the officer corps until he was offered the post of chief of staff in 1908, a position which he refused. However, when hostilities seemed eminent with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he accepted the post and when the Kingdom of Italy entered the conflict against Austria in May of 1915 Count Cadorna held the top command of the army and was confident of success being able to field 875,000 men in 36 infantry divisions. However, Italy faced many threats, not only on the northern front against Austria but in Libya and eastern Africa where the Ottoman Turks incited local Muslim sects to rebel. The Italian army was also industrially ill-equipped with only 120 modern artillery pieces.

Nonetheless, General Cadorna adopted an offensive strategy. The primary focus would be concentrated against the Austrians and Cadorna planned for a succession of “lunges” along the Isonzo River. In the first year of Italian participation in the war, General Cadorna launched four of these “lunge” offensives on the Isonzo line with the goal of capturing Gorizia from which the Italian armies could threaten Trieste or the Austrian heart of the Austrian homeland. Cadorna based this strategy on the understanding that the bulk of Austrian strength would be occupied by the hard-fighting Serbians, leaving the Italian frontier lightly defended. However, the Austrians enjoyed a strong defensive position along the mountainous border and were better equipped than the Italian army which had only 300 machine guns of quality design when the first troops charged into the Austrian lines. The result was a horrific casualty rate in exchange for only minor territorial gains. Attack after attack yielded similar, meager results. The character of General Cadorna also made it very difficult to adjust tactics to say nothing of considering an overall change in strategy.

As soon as the war began, Count Cadorna became known as an intolerant authoritarian. He disliked the almost constant presence of His Majesty King Vittorio Emanuele III at the front, he tore up messages from the Prime Minister in Rome and was notorious for dismissing any subordinates who disagreed with his strategy or voiced opposition to his plans. During his time in command, General Cadorna dismissed no less than 216 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders who disagreed with or otherwise displeased him. His disciplinary measures on the enlisted men were no less harsh with one out of every 17 men being brought up on charges during his tenure, about 750 of whom were executed. Naturally, this greatly damaged the cohesion of the army and dangerously lowered the morale of the soldiers. However, Cadorna refused to ever consider that he might be in the wrong and anyone who suggested that the great losses and lack of a major victory were his fault would soon find themselves in a prison cell. That was for the officers. The other ranks were less fortunate. When offensives fell short of their goals, Cadorna blamed the soldiers and even reintroduced the old Roman punishment of decimation in an effort to “motivate” them.

Cadorna with his staff officers
Given such circumstances, it is amazing that the Italian forces were able to achieve what they did. It is often forgotten that the Italian armies did make consistent progress against the Austrians from the start of hostilities. In the “First Offensive Bound” Italian forces captured Sté lvio, Tonale, Guidriari, Giau and Plö cken passes along with several salients beyond. In June they took Monte Nero in a nighttime attack and in the second, third, fourth and fifth battles of the Isonzo minor gains were made. Austrian counter-attacks then set back the situation but the lost ground was later regained and in the sixth battle of the Isonzo there were major advances with Gorizia finally falling to Italian forces. The problem was that all of this was supposed to have been done quickly after war was declared and Italy had suffered huge casualties in gaining these often minor accomplishments. Yet, General Cadorna refused to change his strategy. The seventh, eighth and ninth battles of the Isonzo finished out 1916 and, again, each saw minor Italian gains but at tremendous cost in loss of life while the morale situation became severe.

The breaking point came in October 1917 when the Austrians, reinforced by a number of crack German divisions, launch a major offensive against Caporetto (today Kobarid in Slovenia). The Italian forces were shattered, with a few exceptions and the army almost completely came apart. Hundreds of thousands were taken prisoner, tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands simply panicked. They had been taken by surprise due to a heavy mist on the opening day of the attack and the German had made heavy use of poison gas which the Italians lacked an effective defense against. A massive retreat followed to the Piave River where the Italian army began to put itself back together and where the Allies, belatedly, rushed in assistance. General Cadorna had retreated as well but, as usual, refused to accept responsibility for the disaster and placed the blame on his soldiers. The Allied leaders came together to discuss the situation and King Vittorio Emanuele III proved a zealous and passionate defender of the ordinary Italian fighting man against those who would demean his courage and integrity. Since the King dispelled that myth, there could be no question that General Cadorna had to be replaced.

The former commander was replaced by General Armando Diaz and General Cadorna was “kicked upstairs” to be the Italian representative at the Allied Supreme War Council in Versailles. A new strategy was adopted and the Italian army effected an almost miraculous recovery. Cadorna, however, remained bitter about his dismissal and after the war spent his time writing his version of events in which he, typically, blamed everyone but himself for the misfortunes Italian arms had suffered. He had an exaggerated sense of his own importance and at the start of the war liked to envision himself as another Napoleone. When he was dismissed he believed that the public would rise up on his behalf and not allow it to happen but, after Caporetto, no one was sorry to see him go and he bitterly blamed the House of Savoy for forcing him into retirement in a last act of shameless indiscipline and bad grace. A post-war enquiry showed the extent of his mistakes as well as his flight to Padua, abandoning the second army, at the height of the disaster. Although retired, Mussolini gave him the honorary rank of Marshal of Italy in 1924 and he died in Bordighera in 1928, still a bitter man.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

King Ferdinando II of the Two-Sicilies

HRH Prince Ferdinando Carlo of Bourbon Two-Sicilies was born in Palermo on January 12, 1810 to TM King Francesco I of the Two-Sicilies and Queen Maria Isabella of Spain. He was named after his grandfather, King Ferdinando I and came from an illustrious Spanish royal heritage. His birth on the island of Sicily was a result of the wars with Napoleonic France which forced the Bourbon Royal Family to abandon Naples after Italy was overrun by French troops. Thanks to the British Royal Navy, the Bourbons were relatively safe on Sicily but, allies or not, they tended to be less than comfortable with the absolutist rule of the Bourbons and were afraid that the Queen was colluding with the French. As a result the British representative to the royal court in Palermo, Lord William Bentinck, used his influence to try to bring a limited constitutional monarchy to Sicily. There was even some talk among the British pf placing the infant Ferdinando on the throne to bring him up in the fashion they desired. This was enacted but did not survive the downfall of Napoleon after which the Bourbons returned to Naples, enacted the full union of the south of Italy into the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies and restored their traditional form of absolute monarchy.

This was the atmosphere the young Prince Ferdinando grew up in. His father was not an especially moral man, tended to be rather paranoid and had little interest in the day-to-day political running of his kingdom. Like most royal heirs, Prince Ferdinando seemed to try to distance himself from the autocratic reputation of his father and entertained some liberal ideals. However, he also witnessed first-hand how closely the King kept to his generals and the crushing of a revolutionary uprising in 1828. Ferdinando was first titled Duke of Noto, he became Duke of Calabria when his own father came to the throne. His education was undertaken by religious and military instructors, whose influence would be seen throughout his life. Nonetheless, many liberal reformers who had clashed with Francesco I clung to the idea that Ferdinando would be their hope for the future. In 1820 the rebellious carbonari even talked about making him king in Lombardy and thought he might emerge as a leader of Italian unification. This, however, was definitely not to be. He became a firm believer in the “Divine Right of Kings” and would never willingly share his power with anyone, at least not for long.

The Prince served for a time as Captain-General of the army before succeeding to the throne as King Ferdinando II on November 8, 1830. At first, the hopes of the liberals soared when he dismissed the conservative ministers of his father, cut government spending, granted an amnesty to political prisoners, allowed exiles to return and even allowed men back in government in Naples who had served under the French-imposed regime of Marshal Murat. Even when there was an assassination attempt against him, he did not harshly punish the perpetrators. There was also great public celebrations at his marriage in 1832 to Princess Maria Cristina of Savoy, fourth daughter of King Vittorio Emanuele I of Piedmont-Sardinia. She was very pious, very religious woman who the people adored and soon came to regard as a living saint. Nor were religious issues ever very far from the mind of King Ferdinando II. He saw himself as occupying a unique position in Europe and wished to be free to lightly tip the balance in any conflict toward those he favored. For that reason he had expelled the Austrians who had been occupying parts of southern Italy since the war with France and he tried to maintain good relations with Great Britain.

King Ferdinando II was proving a successful and popular monarch, in his own country and in the other courts of Europe. However, the first drop in liberal support for his reign came as a result of his feuding royal relatives in Spain with the outbreak of the First Carlist War. France and Great Britain supported the side of Queen Isabella II (a child who was acted for by her mother Queen Maria Cristina who served as regent) whereas King Ferdinando II supported the rebel forces of her uncle Don Carlos. He opposed the liberal policies of the regency even though Queen Maria Cristina was his sister, but, the Carlists represented the more absolutist, zealously Catholic and traditionalist side of Spanish politics and this was much more to the taste of King Ferdinando II. However, many of the liberals who had cheered him when he first came to the throne were turned off by his sympathy for what was seen (in liberal circles at least) as the forces of reactionary absolutism. Perhaps more importantly, the French and the British viewed his sympathies with the Carlists as almost a betrayal as they expected him to support their own policies. Because of this, when the moment of crisis came for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Bourbon monarchy would not be able to count on support from the other powers of Western Europe and, indeed, many in Britain took the attitude that their downfall would be beneficial.

In 1836 tragedy struck when the devout Queen Maria Cristina of Savoy died giving birth to her son, the future Francesco II, last King of the Two Sicilies. She was only 23-years-old and had never felt very ‘at home’ in the court at Naples. Her shy and modest demeanor was inadvertently annoying to her very strong-willed and outgoing husband. Still, her devotion was respected by all and she was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1872 after a great deal of religious campaigning by her son. The next year King Ferdinando II married Maria Theresa of Austria, a strict and private woman who disliked royal pomp and public ceremony and who could always be counted on to advise her husband toward taking firm measures against any enemies. She certainly did her duty though, giving Ferdinando II nine children during their years together. That same year, for instance, there was a huge popular demonstration in Sicily calling for a constitutional monarchy and King Ferdinando II took swift and firm steps to see them dispersed and also set up a special police force to remain ever alert to potential revolutionary threats.

This hurt his popularity somewhat as it did not seem in keeping with the jovial, plain-speaking monarch who had endeared himself to the “man on the street”. About ten years later, despite all the efforts of his secret security forces, huge riots broke out in Calabria and on Sicily calling for a constitution. Ferdinando II sent in the army to crush the rioters but, the following year, another rebellion broke out in Palermo that soon spread across the whole of Sicily, an uprising that would be seized on by other peoples across Europe to make 1848 the year of revolutions from Paris to Budapest. When riots broke out near Naples as well the King agreed to allow a constitution, based on the French Charter of 1830, passed by the Neapolitan parliament. However, only a year later, disagreements with the new deputies brought things to a halt, riots broke out again and the King had to send in the army to restore order. Without even bothering to rescind the constitution, Ferdinando II simply dissolved parliament and returned to absolute rule on his own. The King granted a safe haven to Pope Pius IX when rebellion drove him out of Rome and when Sicily declared independence from Naples he sent a large army to re-conquer the island and restore it to his authority. The campaign was a success but, unfortunately, the brutal actions of those fighting in his name, meant that the King lost the love of a great many of his subjects.

After all this turmoil, King Ferdinando II decided he had no alternative but to be severe in suppressing all dissent. The jails were filled, many went into exile and, of course, these people did all they could to spread the blackest image possible of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Naturally, the images painted of the kingdom were not entirely true. Because of the riots and rebellions there was repression but the country was not the primitive backwater many portrayed it as. During his reign Ferdinando II had linked Naples and Sicily be telegraph, launched the first Italian steamship and built the first railroad on the Italian peninsula. However, because of his alienation of the British, they helped spread the negative image of the Bourbon monarchy and after tensions increased France and Britain each broke off diplomatic relations with the increasingly beleaguered state in 1856.

That same year there was another attempt on his life, that time by a disgruntled soldier who stabbed at the King with a bayonet. He survived but the wound he received caused an infection that caused his health to deteriorate. He finally departed this life on May 22, 1859. Throughout his reign he had met each crisis with strength and unwavering determination but it was precarious position he left for his son with the Two Sicilies politically isolated and with many enemies. During the subsequent fall of the kingdom under Francesco II many who decided to join the forces of unification, despite their sympathies being with the Bourbon monarchy, mourned the fact that it would not be necessary if someone with the strength of Ferdinando II were still in charge of things. He had been able to make the tough decisions to maintain power in spite of the many challenges that sprang up, some on their own and some because of his own commitment to his principles. However, while he had been able to cope in such an atmosphere, his son, more suited to being a saint than an autocrat, would ultimately prove unable to do so.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Sommergibili of the Regia Marina

At the start of World War II the Regia Marina could boast of having the largest submarine fleet by tonnage in the world. Only the Soviets had more in terms of numbers and these were of a smaller size. The King's underwater fleet consisted of 172 submarines that were quite capable at hunting enemy ships, scouting for the surface fleet, carrying valuable cargo through dangerous waters and laying mines. Almost half were quite large vessels capable of operating for cruises of up to six months with an effective range of 20,000 miles, well beyond the ability of the submarine forces of other powers. Their torpedoes were reliable, their crews were all-volunteer and very well trained and during the course of the war proved to be extremely capable at bringing down enemy planes with their anti-aircraft guns. Of course, there were also some problems. The vessels were made for operations in the Mediterranean and could not operate well in the fierce seas of the North Atlantic. They were slower to turn and took twice as long to crash dive as the average German submarine. Nonetheless, they performed feats that others were incapable of. Lt. Commander Franco Tosoni Pittoni of the submarine Bagnolini was the first to slip through the British-held Straits of Gibraltar. No Italian submarine was ever lost going through the straits even though the Germans lost numerous submarines in their runs in and out of the Mediterranean. At one point there were actually more Italian submarines operating in the North Atlantic against Allied convoys than German ones. The most successful Italian submarine of the war was the Leonardo Da Vinci which sank 120,243 tons of enemy shipping. In 39 months of combat, from the start of the war until the King sacked Mussolini and declared an armistice, Italian submarines sank 13 enemy warships of 24,554 tons and 129 merchant ships for a total of 668,311 tons of enemy shipping.