Thursday, June 19, 2014

Italian Military Tradition

There are few things I detest more than people who denigrate and mock those few who have taken up arms on behalf of others and experienced the pain and hardship of warfare, of taking lives and knowing that others are trying to take your life as well. One would think that, in these modern times, no one would be so ignorant as to slander the military forces of an entire country, yet it does happen. The one that stands out to me most of all, and which is therefore the most infuriating, is those who mock and ridicule the armed forces of Italy, usually focusing on the late Kingdom of Italy and in particular on the Second World War. This is thoroughly disgusting just as behavior goes but it is also ignorant and plainly incorrect. To make matters worse, I have even heard some Italian people, even educated Italian people, say much the same thing in more polite and respectful ways of course, by claiming that Italy has no military tradition. This is so shockingly ignorant one hardly knows where to begin in refuting it. The fact of the matter is that Italy has a very long and illustrious military history and many proud military traditions that are still drawn upon today.

Emperor Trajan
Obviously, one can go all the way back to ancient Rome for the complete story of Italian military achievements. There was Scipio Africanus who defeated Hannibal and conquered North Africa, Sulla and Pompey the Great who rose to fame in Roman civil wars. There was Julius Caesar who conquered Gaul and so much more, Marcus Agrippa who won the battles that allowed Augustus Caesar to become Emperor of Rome. Emperor Tiberius was a great soldier as were numerous other Roman monarchs, probably none so celebrated as Emperor Trajan who took the Roman Empire to its height of expansion. Even in the twilight of Imperial Rome there were men like Emperor Constantine the Great and others who accomplished magnificent military feats. Yet, having been through this argument often enough, I am well aware that (for entirely arbitrary reasons) many want to claim that the entire period of the Roman Empire somehow doesn’t count and should not be included on the “scorecard” of the Italian nation. If modern Englishmen can claim Alfred the Great as one of their own, or if the French of today can consider Charlemagne a native son, I fail to see how it is any stretch to consider the Romans to be Italians just because the modern-day people of Italy now include some additives. No one else can claim closer descent certainly.

Battle of Legnano
However, this makes it a little difficult to determine for these naysayers when exactly the Italians started being Italian -as absurd as that rightly sounds. Surely, once we moved beyond the first millennium of Christian history we can say that Romans, Lombards and so on were more or less coming together as Italians. Even in that time, there are great Italian victories and heroes worth remembering such as Alberto da Giussano of the “Lombard League” who defeated the German knights of the formidable Emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano in 1176. There was also, during this period and the years that followed, the rise of the Italian city-states, particularly the maritime powers of Venice and Genoa which built extensive empires throughout the Mediterranean. These were based on trade and commerce but it took highly skilled soldiers and sailors to establish and defend them, fighting against the most powerful forces of the day. One early figure of the great leaders of these states was Ordelafo Faliero, Doge of Venice, who captured Zara and Sebenico from the Hungarians and conquered part of Acre in Syria. There were many such great military leaders over the centuries, one of the most famous, from the 16th Century was the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria who won many victories and ultimately became a top commander in the employ of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere
Renaissance Italy was resplendent with famous warriors and victorious battles. Italian mercenaries were used across Europe and with almost constant warfare going on between the Italian states and the great powers that used Italy as a battlefield it would be impossible to list all of the significant figures and events. Italians also played a key role in the ongoing warfare against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean. Amadeus V of Savoy, in 1315, for example came to fame defending Rhodes from the Turks with the Knights Hospitaller. Also in these times, clerical leaders were often military leaders as well and probably none are so famous as the “Warrior Pope” Julius II who waged a campaign to drive the “barbarians” out of Italy and indeed succeeded in freeing almost all of Italy from foreign control and uniting the country under papal leadership. Pope Clement VII, while not leading military forces personally, came close to such an accomplishment against the invading German and Spanish forces of Emperor Charles V thanks to the great military leadership of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, sometimes called the last of the condottieri, who held off imperial forces against heavy odds until his death in battle in 1526.

Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma
There were also famous victories that, inexplicably, some people fail to associate with the Italians such as the epic naval victory at Lepanto in 1571. Most who have a passing familiarity with that famous battle are aware that the Spanish ships and overall command was held by the famous Don Juan of Austria but the vast majority of the ships were Italian and the other commanders were Italians. With much of the Spanish strength being derived from their control of Naples and Sicily, it was almost entirely an Italian force with ships and fighting men and support supplied by Urbino, Savoy, Tuscany, Genoa, Venice and the Papal States. During this same general period, the time of Tudor England, the Dutch Revolt and the Protestant rebellions in Germany, one of the most celebrated military figures was Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma who almost totally reconquered the Netherlands for Spain and was instrumental in defeating English-backed rebels in France. So great were his victories that many historians have labeled him as the greatest soldier of his time. Also, on the other side of Europe, when Emperor Constantine XI fought his gallant last-stand at Constantinople, the commander of his army was an Italian and most of the troops defending the city (about 3/5) were “Latin” Christians and a majority of those were Italians.

Another Italian military genius who commanded foreign troops was Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli who came to great fame commanding forces of the Hapsburg Emperor. He was considered possibly the best soldier of the 17th Century, rivaled only by the great French commanders Turenne and Conde. His case is also extremely revealing when dealing with those who wish to denigrate Italian military achievements as I have come across such professed “experts” in military history who have not only never heard of Montecuccoli but have no idea who Turenne or Conde was either (something which should surely offend the proud partisans of the Kingdom of France). Another great imperial field marshal was Prince Eugene of Savoy, from the same branch of the venerable dynasty that ultimately became the Royal Family of Italy. His victories over the Turks and in the War of Spanish Succession earned him praise as the greatest soldier of his own time, rivaled only by his British ally the great Marlborough.

Italian troops of the Napoleonic Wars
One of the many admirers of Prince Eugene was Napoleon Bonaparte who some have claimed to be as much an Italian military figure as a French one himself. He was born Napoleone Buonaparte and grew up speaking only the Corsican dialect of Italian before going to school on the continent and learning French. However, I would not try to antagonize the French by claiming one of their most celebrated military figures. It is enough though to see what credit he gave to the Italian fighting men of his day. Speaking of the contingent of the Kingdom of Italy that fought with his forces at the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon said, “The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitled it evermore to take rank amongst the bravest troops in Europe”. In southern Italy, the troops of the Neapolitan army did not enjoy the same reputation, to say the least of it. However, even there, it is worth pointing out that some performed very well under good leadership such as the counterrevolutionary ‘Army of the Holy Faith’ led by Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo which liberated Naples, Rome and Florence. After the brief flirtation with the unification of northern Italy in the Napoleonic Wars, Italy was divided again and the next series of military conflicts involved the efforts to reunify Italy. This movement took on a life of its own and it soon became a race to see who would lead it to victory; the republican radicals of Giuseppe Mazzini or the constitutional monarchists loyal to the House of Savoy.

Battle of Volturnus
As mentioned before, the House of Savoy itself produced a number of significant military leaders. Many, however, focus only on the defeats while ignoring the victories of the Piedmontese-Sardinian troops such as King Carlo Alberto at Goito or those led by General Giovanni Durando who successfully defended Vincenzo and won high praise by the allies for his leadership of the Italian contingent in the Crimean War. Certainly, however, the most celebrated Italian military figure of the period was Giuseppe Garibaldi who, acknowledging numerous distasteful opinions of his, was unquestionably a gifted leader of men. He gained fame as a guerilla fighter in South America and in Italy, was offered a top command in the United States army by President Lincoln and who defeated the French in front of Rome. His most stunning success though was when he took a little more than a thousand ragged volunteers and defeated the greatly numerically superior forces of the Bourbon Two-Sicilies to conquer the whole of southern Italy to unite it with the north for the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. After the reunification of Italy under the House of Savoy the battle most seem to remember is the disastrous defeat at Adowa in the first war with Ethiopia. However, that ignores the numerous colonial victories before and after that battle. Many also ignore the war with Turkey in which Italy won control of Libya and became the first to use aircraft in combat.

In World War I the courage and tenacity of the Italian army was remarked upon by many observers from the other Allied powers while also noting the outdated leadership coming from General Luigi Cadorna. Everyone remembers the disaster of Caporetto but ignore the larger picture. For one thing, the mountainous front across which Italy faced Austria-Hungary was recognized as the most difficult of the war. Even hardened German officers who had served on both the eastern and western fronts said that the Italian front was the worst of all. The Austrians also enjoyed all the benefits of the rugged terrain, dug in high on the mountains with the Italians forced to attack in the open, up hill under the most difficult circumstances. Still, while overly costly in lives lost, Italy was continuously gaining ground in the successive offensives along the Isonzo leading up to Caporetto. It should also be remembered that, for that defeat, the Germans had sent in massive support for the offensive, it should also be remembered that not all the Italian forces broke (the army of the Duke of Aosta held firm) and while many claim that only the arrival of French and British reinforcements saved the Italians from total annihilation, the truth is that they arrived after the crisis was over and the Austrian offensive had run out of steam.

Arditi on the attack
What is remarkable is how strongly Italy was able to bounce back after so stunning a loss. Under General Armando Diaz the Italians came roaring back, did very well in the air war and developed shock troop tactics that produced a new type of soldier that was famous far and wide for his reckless courage and no one could doubt the courage of the Arditi who charged enemy machine gun nests with a grenade in each hand and a dagger between their teeth. In the end, Italy won the battle of Vittorio Veneto that knocked Austria-Hungary completely out of the war. People also tend to overlook the numerous conflicts Italy was involved in between the world wars. There was the pacification of Libya, the conquest of Ethiopia, the intervention in the Spanish Civil War and the occupation of Albania, all of which were Italian successes. Incredibly, some seem intent on trying to denigrate the Italians even when they are victorious. For example, some like to pretend that Libya was never totally pacified; not true. It was and, in fact, it had become such a model colony that when Air Marshal Italo Balbo died at the start of World War II, the Libyans seemed more distraught than the Italians. In the Spanish Civil War, one defeat early on is often used to tarnish the whole Italian intervention. This is stupid, it was one loss and the only one of its kind. The Italians made a very valuable contribution, particularly in the Santander offensive under General Ettore Bastico.

The war in Ethiopia deserves some special mention because almost everyone has a totally incorrect view of the conflict. Too many accept the portrayal of it as a super-mechanized, modern Italian war machine simply massacring hordes of primitives armed with sticks and stones. This is simply a disgustingly incorrect view and an insult to the Ethiopian people as well as the Italians. The Ethiopians were not ignorant primitives. They had rifles, they had machine guns, they had artillery, European-trained military officers and European military advisors. They had an immense numerical advantage and the advantage of fighting a defensive war on their own ground. They were highly motivated and tenacious fighters who were very experienced at warfare. Experts at the time who were hostile to Italy predicted that it would take Italy at least two years to conquer Ethiopia and many even predicted that Italy would lose because the sanctions would cause the economy to collapse before that could happen. In the end, the Italians conquered Ethiopia in seven months and that was as much a logistical accomplishment as it was a tactical one. The war in Ethiopia was a hard fought victory, it was no cake walk.

But, of course, most of this prejudiced view of Italian martial prowess is a result of World War II and that is no accident. It was an explicit tactic of Allied propaganda to denigrate the Italian war effort as a way to boost their own morale and to cause division between Germany and Italy, in other words, to make the Germans resentful by portraying the Italians as incompetent weaklings that had to be carried by Germany. Obviously, things did not go well for Italy but that was due mostly to being worn out by extensive pre-war operations and because of the lack of a proper upgrading of the armed forces. Contrary to what most think, Italian forces performed quite well under extremely difficult circumstances during the war and had a number of very competent commanders. Much of the bad press Italy continues to receive usually boils down to the invasion of France, the first invasion of Egypt and the invasion of Greece. All of this has been grossly overblown. For France, the Italians were unprepared and did poorly in their first operation of the war. Rather like Britain, France, Russia and America all performed rather poorly right out of the gate as well. In Egypt, too much was being asked of a force that was woefully behind the times and in Greece, that was not the disaster everyone thinks. It did not go well certainly but things began to turn around before the Germans intervened so that it was a stalemate that existed on the Greek front, not a collapse.

Bersaglieri on the attack
It would take too long to recount in detail all of the instances in which the stereotype is wrong but here is a brief rundown: The most successful non-German submarine commander of World War II was an Italian and the Italian submarine fleet sunk almost ¾ of a million tons of Allied shipping. Italian naval forces penetrated the British anchorage at Alexandria, Egypt and sank two battleships and a tanker and by the middle of 1942 the Royal Italian Navy totally dominated the central Mediterranean. In the Battle of Britain the outdated Italian aircraft actually gave as good as they got, later produced some planes superior to their Allied counterparts and Italian planes managed to sink 72 Allied warships and 196 freighters during the war. At Gazala in 1942 it was the Italian X Corps that saved the German 15th Brigade from total destruction and it was the Italian forces in Egypt that held off the British in Egypt while the Germans retreated after El Alamein (a battle the Italian commander predicted would end in disaster and for precisely the reasons for which it did) and in individual engagements Italian forces won stunning victories over the British and the Russians. Speaking of the Italian light infantry, Field Marshal Rommel said, “The German soldier astonished the world, but the Bersaglieri astonished the German soldier”. In terms of military commanders, Marshal Ettore Bastico proved his competence in Spain and gave good service in North Africa, being one of the few officers Rommel would at least listen to. Marshal Giovanni Messe (an ardent royalist) won victories on the Greek, Russian and African fronts and even Marshal Graziani, though ridiculed for his failed invasion of Egypt, knew it was a no-win situation and in any event that was the only defeat of his career. The Duke of Aosta won the respect of the British for his skillful and gallant defense of Italian East Africa, Major Adriano Visconti was one of a number of ace Italian fighter pilots in the war, shooting down 26 Allied aircraft and units such as the Folgore Division earned the respect of their enemies for their courage and tenacity on the battlefield.

Obviously, there were plenty of losses as well, the overall war was a loss for Italy and a defeat is a defeat. However, the point is that every country has its successes and every country has its failures and it is simply ignorant to slander an entire people the way the Italians have been. What started out as simple wartime propaganda has been repeated so endlessly and exaggerated out of all proportion that it is truly ridiculous. The vast majority of the sweeping generalizations that too many people make are simply untrue. The Italians have an illustrious military history with many great victories and many brilliant military leaders to be justly proud of. I also wish more people would keep in mind that denigrating someone, even an enemy, is often just as insulting to the other side. Where is the honor in defeating a totally hapless enemy? More simply though, I wish more people would simply pause before belittling anyone who put on a uniform and went into actual combat, something most people have not done. It is a pet peeve of mine to see the brave military forces of the past denigrated by smug people who usually don’t have the first clue as to what they are talking about and the two that seem to be put down the most, and thus infuriate me the most often, are those of Austria-Hungary and Italy (and I have touched on Austria-Hungary before). It really needs to stop and people should have more decency. Just as in art, music, exploration and so many other areas, when it comes to warfare the Italians have much to be proud of.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Latter Day Gallic War

Against the advice of almost everyone, Mussolini declared war on England and France on June 10, 1940 in the hope firmly establishing a new Roman empire across the Mediterranean and North Africa. Air Marshal Italo Balbo and Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio warned the Duce that Italy was not ready to fight a world war. Military units were under-manned, equipment was outdated and Italy had been worn down by the successful but still draining series of military operations since World War I. There was the pacification of Libya, the conquest of Abyssinia, the Spanish Civil War and lastly the occupation of Albania. Italy had known scarcely little peace since 1915 and although the military had won many victories, it was badly in need of updating. However, Mussolini was convinced that the war was almost over, that France was on the verge of defeat, Britain would come to terms soon after and his aims could be achieved as long as he got in on the conflict before the last shots were fired. Mussolini reasoned that, after some minor clashes, Italy could win all it wanted at the negotiating table and, truth be told, Mussolini’s goals were actually very modest. From the French, the goal was Nice and Corsica and from England, for the consolidation of the empire, Malta, British Somaliland and a land corridor across the Sudan to link Libya and Italian East Africa.

Prince Umberto at a staging area
Ultimately, it made little difference as Hitler and Mussolini met in the Principality of Monaco and Hitler found Mussolini’s demands to be too much and would not even permit an Italian representative at the French surrender. However, that surrender was still in the future when Mussolini ordered Italian troops to invade France. The troops which would be asked to carry out this task were those of Army Group West (for the Western Alps) under the command of His Royal Highness Prince Umberto of Piedmont, heir to the throne, with General Emilio Battisti as his Chief of Staff. On paper, the Italian forces seemed quite formidable, consisting of the First Army led by General Pietro Pintor and the Fourth Army led by General Alfredo Guzzoni, however, in actuality it amounted to 32 divisions that were below strength, ill-equipped and poorly supplied. They were sent into extremely difficult terrain which greatly favored the defending French forces, many of which were highly trained specialists who showed much more tenacity than the rest of the French army that faced the Germans and who, though fewer in number, seemed to have more of everything than the Italians had. Marshal Badoglio had said that the army needed an additional 25 days to be fully prepared for offensive operations. This was after he had reported that the army was ready to go whenever Mussolini gave the order and a furious Duce ordered that the army begin the invasion of France immediately no matter how unprepared they were.

Italian Alpine forces advance
Only 19 of the assembled 32 divisions were able to move forward and it still took eleven days longer to begin the offensive. The Italian attack really began on June 21, 1940 at 0530 hours with the bombardment of La Turra. It was a bad omen of things to come as the artillery available for the attack were outdated guns left over from the First World War which were not powerful enough to do any serious damage to the French fort. The Italian shells simply bounced off and they could have bombarded La Turra for months and had no more effect. At Briancon the Italian artillery proved just as inadequate to the task and the Italian fortified positions at Chamberton were hard hit by returning fire from French artillery with more modern 280mm howitzers. In frustration, the Regia Aeronautica was called in to bomb the French from the air. However, the planes had little effect as they lacked the dive bombers needed for such precision bombing.

tankettes covered in snow
Everyone has probably heard about how badly supplied the Italian forces were, the most often repeated evidence of this being a lack of pots and pans to cook with. However, despite great courage and tenacity, the Italian forces were also thwarted by simple bad luck that no one could see coming. About a dozen Italian battalions moved against the Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Mon, Petit Saint-Bernard and Seigne passes which were lightly defended by only about four French battalions with forty heavy guns. However, just as the Italians were attacking, the area was hit by a massive, freak snowstorm that brought everything to a grinding halt. Italian tankettes became stuck in the snow, planes could not fly, supplies and machinery froze up and more than 2,000 Italian troops were afflicted with frost bite in the miserable conditions. The terrain made things no easier and many were reminded of the famous Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who said that attacking France by way of the Alps would be like trying to pick up a musket by holding the tip of the bayonet. It is remarkable that, in spite of these conditions, Italian forces were still able to work their way around and encircle the French outpost at the Petit Saint-Bernard pass though they could not actually seize it.

frozen troops trudge forward
On the line of the passes at Bellecombe, Clapier, Mont-Cenis and Solliers the Italian troops stormed Modane but could not take the passes. When a French reconnaissance unit was detected, they were flanked by two battalions of Italian troops and forced to fall back, first to La Tuille dam and then La Planey. Elsewhere, Italian troops encircled the fortified village of Abries but all other attacks along the French defensive line were repulsed the first day of the offensive. The Alpine front was a frozen, snow-covered stalemate that was not about to broken any time soon, the only possibility for success was on the coast. On June 22 the Italian troops opened the way to the coastal village of Menton but elsewhere there was little success. Even with the arrival of reinforcements, no superiority in numbers could break the Alpine line. Menton was taken but no other gains were made and at 2100 hours on June 24 the word came down that France had agreed to an armistice with Germany. The most significant success of the brief campaign had been carried out by the Regia Aeronautica which had destroyed dozens of French aircraft on the ground at Provence as well as airfield supplies and facilities.

the Franco-Italian armistice
The Kingdom of Italy had to make its own peace with France and that was no easy task, despite asking for little to start with. There was also no shortage of respect for the bravery of the French troops opposing them. At La Turra, Mussolini saw the French flag still flying and when told of the resistance they had offered, he ordered the defenders to be freed and given special military honors in recognition of their courage and tenacity. Still, the French government at first refused to make any real concessions at all, somewhat oblivious to the fact that, regardless of how well they had done in the south, they had still been defeated. Mussolini threatened to resume offensive operations and begin air attacks before the French agreed to negotiate. France and Italy signed an armistice on June 25 in which Mussolini gave up almost all of his earlier territorial demands and Italy received only a 50 kilometer demilitarized zone along the French side of the frontier.

The conquest of Caesar it certainly was not.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Italian Kings of Jerusalem

Today, the only reigning monarch who still includes “King of Jerusalem” among their list of titles is the King of Spain. In the past, however, the long dormant succession dispute over the former Kingdom of Jerusalem was carried on, nominally, by a number of monarchs each claiming the title, including the King of Italy and the Emperor of Austria. After the overthrow of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, for a time the King of Italy was the only reigning monarch who included among his titles that of King of Jerusalem. How did this come about? How did the House of Savoy come to have a claim on the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem? It all goes back to the marriage of Queen Charlotte I of Cyprus to her cousin Ludovico of Savoy who reigned alongside her as King of Cyprus. Charlotte was only fourteen when she became Queen of Cyprus and she was quite a forceful character. By that time she was also already on her second husband, her first, John of Portugal, passing away in 1457. In 1459 she married Ludovico of Savoy, Count of Geneva as a way of strengthening her throne against the schemes of her illegitimate half-brother who was constantly trying to take her kingdom from her.

Queen Charlotte I
The Kings of Cyprus had held the title of King of Jerusalem ever since Hugh III seized it upon the death of King Conrad III, last of the Hohenstaufen line that started with Emperor Friedrich II and his pilgrimage/crusade. The title to the kingship of Jerusalem was then passed down by the monarchs of Cyprus to the person of Queen Charlotte who died at the age of 43 in 1487. She and King Ludovico had no children and her husband had predeceased her, Ludovico having died in 1482 in France. However, before her death she ceded her titles to the next legitimate successor Duke Carlo I of Savoy, also known as ‘Carlo the Warrior’ who inherited the titles to Armenia, Cyprus and Jerusalem. Queen Charlotte I was given a lavish funeral, paid for by Pope Innocent III and buried in St Peter’s Cathedral. However, at the end of her life, she had been driven from her lands and had only the titles to pass on, not the actual control of the territory they represented. Her primary kingdom was being held by the Republic of Venice when Duke Carlo I inherited the title to it. Rather than provoke a war, the House of Savoy chose not to press their claim to the throne of Jerusalem (or Cyprus or Armenia) but still maintained the titles for the principle that they believed these were rightfully their own and, perhaps, in the hope that one day they could be restored in fact as well as in name.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Symbols of Savoy Spain

Flag of the Kingdom of Spain, 1870-73

Arms of the Kingdom of Spain

Lesser Arms of Spain

Arms of King Amadeo I

Arms of Queen Maria Vittoria

Royal Standard of King Amadeo I