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.

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