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.

1 comment:

  1. Is it possible this man practiced plein air watercolor painting as a hobby? I have a study in watercolor of what looks like a Gustav Bauernfeind of Jersuelum signed by a Diaz. It once was the property of an industrialist whom I feel certain Diaz had the opportunity to know if not coordinate American Red Cross (and financial) activities during WWI with post war activities as victors enjoying the spoils like the 1921 Liberty Memorial. OMG, those Generals were most certainly the rock stars of their day.

    This industrialist was a copper magnate, NY Fed Reserve Class B Banker and was on a short list to be Germany's ambassador in 1921. Then he blew Tea Pot Dome. A real old school globalist. William Boyce Thompson.

    Of course, this more likely is simply a study, but that industrialist did NOT mount and frame ugly things unless they were valuable in his stock and trade. Ever heard of Diaz painting? Churchill did. It was the thing to do if you considered yourself a Renaissance man. There were too few Bauernfeinds, so folks were pleased to see the copies. Those things go for millions.

    I will leave off a joke about a bad study of a German masterpiece because I, too, eat the whole pig. History is my favorite mystery.