Italy’s involvement in World War I is often overlooked but was strategically important. Battles on the Italian front were often long, intense and waged in difficult mountainous conditions. Italy’s involvement in the war also caused significant disruption, suffering and change for her people.
The Italian nation
Like Germany, 20th-century Italy was an old culture but a new national entity. Rising nationalism would lead to its unification, feed tensions with its neighbours and contribute to its entry into the war.
For much of the 1800s, Italy was a jigsaw of small kingdoms, duchies and city-states. A nationalist push for unification emerged in the 1820s, though in its early years it remained relatively small.
A series of revolutions in Europe in 1848, along with the activities of men like Guiseppe Garibaldi and Guiseppe Mazzini, intensified Italian nationalism in the mid-19th century. The Kingdom of Italy, based in Turin, was formed in 1861. Italian independence and unification were fulfilled after the new nation obtained control of Venice (1866, from Austria) and Rome (1870, from the Vatican).
The Triple Alliance
In 1882, Italy became a signatory to the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This surprised many because for much of the 19th century, the Italians and Austro-Hungarians had been traditional foes.
Austro-Italian tensions stemmed largely from territorial disputes. Vienna continued to occupy and claim sovereignty over the Tyrol and Trieste, areas populated by a majority of Italian-speaking peoples. The Austrians had also objected to and worked to undermine Italian unification.
Because of this, many viewed Italy’s membership of the Triple Alliance as either insincere or fragile. This alliance provided Italy with some breathing space while she consolidated her national power and military capacity – but few believed it would last. Many thought that in the event of war between the Allies and Central Powers, Rome would abandon the latter and side with the Allies.
Italy’s response to the war
The outbreak of war seemed to bear out this prediction. In August 1914, the Italian government refused to commit troops to fight alongside those of Austria-Hungary. The Triple Alliance’s military obligations were purely defensive, Rome argued, and Vienna’s moves on Serbia were an act of aggression.
In reality, Italian politicians were considering their involvement in the war – as well as the relative benefits of siding with the Allies and the Central Powers.
The majority of Italian politicians believed their nation was militarily unprepared and wanted to stay out of the war. But an influential minority – including prime minister Antonio Salandra and foreign minister Sidney Sonnino – urged intervention.
Attacking Italy’s traditional enemy Austria-Hungary while it was occupied with Russia and Serbia was appealing. So too was the prospect of territorial expansion and the acquisition of new colonies.
The British, recognising Italy’s desire for expansion, promised Rome significant territorial rewards. These territorial gains would be carved from the Austro-Hungarian empire once it was defeated. Among these promises were the Tyrol, Trieste, the Austrian Littoral, parts of the Dalmatian coast, the protectorate of Albania and a share of Germany’s African and Asian colonies.
Italy enters the war
On April 26th 1915, Italian delegates signed the Treaty of London, a secret agreement committing their nation to the war. On May 3rd, Italy publicly relinquished its membership of the Triple Alliance. Twenty days later, Rome declared war on Austria-Hungary – but not on Germany. Hostilities began just days later.
Between June 1915 and March 1916, Italian forces launched five separate assaults against Austrian positions in the Isonzo region. While the Austrian defenders were heavily outnumbered, they had the advantage of elevated positions. In contrast, the Italians were led by inexperienced and overly aggressive officers who frittered away men with fruitless offensives.
By the end of 1915, more than 60,000 Italians, or one-quarter of their army, had been killed. The struggle for the Isonzo continued for almost two years, with numerous counter-offensives and fallbacks. In total, there were 11 different battles in the region, costing more than 130,000 Italian lives.
Opposition to the war
Within Italy, the stalemate in the Isonzo caused domestic morale and support for the war to plummet. In June 1916, the failure of these military campaigns forced prime minister Salandra to resign; he was replaced by 78-year-old Paolo Boselli, a politician of no obvious talent or initiative.
Pope Benedict XV was an outspoken critic of the war, calling it a “useless massacre” and a “horrible carnage that dishonours Europe”. Affected by the high death rate and the words of the Pope, large numbers of peasants and workers shunned the war, refusing to enlist or abide by conscription orders. Desertions in the Italian army steadily increased, peaking at 60,000 in 1917.
The situation worsened after the 1917 revolutions in Russia. These eased pressure on the Eastern Front and allowed large numbers of Austro-Hungarian forces to relocate to the Italian border regions. They were joined by some German units, Rome having declared war on Berlin in August 1916.
The Caporetto disaster
In October 1917, some 400,000 German and Austro-Hungarian troops attacked the Italian army at Caporetto, 60 miles north of Trieste. Despite outnumbering their attackers by more than two to one, the Italian lines were penetrated almost immediately. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians moved rapidly, outflanking and encircling much of the Italian army.
When the battle had run its course by mid-November, 11,000 Italians were dead and more than a quarter-million had been taken as prisoners. A great number of these surrendered voluntarily.
Caporetto was an unmitigated disaster, one of the worst defeats in any theatre of World War I. The Italian government again collapsed and the prime minister and several military commanders were replaced.
With the enemy now threatening Italian territory, Rome adopted more defensive military strategies. They managed to repel another much smaller Austro-Hungarian offensive in mid-1918, then counter-attacked again as the Dual Monarchy crumbled in October 1918.
Outcomes of the war
Italy’s involvement in World War I was disastrous by any measure. More than 650,000 Italian soldiers were killed while more than one million were seriously wounded. More than a half-million civilians died, most as a consequence of food shortages and poor harvests in 1918.
The nation was effectively bankrupted, its national debt increasing from 15.7 billion lire (1914) to 85 billion (1919). This debt, along with economic disruption and shortages, saw inflation increase by 400 per cent.
To rub salt into these wounds, Italy received almost very little promised to her in 1915. The Treaty of Saint-Germain (1919) gave Rome the Italian-speaking regions of Tyrol, Trieste and Istria – but sovereignty over the Dalmatian coast was granted to newly-formed Yugoslavia, while Germany’s colonies were claimed mainly by Britain and France.
Many Italians believed their country had sacrificed far too much for far too little return. One of these was the fascist demagogue Benito Mussolini, who later acquired support and rose to power on the back of these nationalist sentiments.
A historian’s view:
“War objectives evoked no wide popular support in Italy, unlike in a number of other countries that joined the war with enthusiasm. Thus Italian domestic differences were not papered over at the outbreak of hostilities. On the right, the church was firmly against the war, especially one against another Catholic power, Austria. On the left, the nationalist aims of the war were derided as hollow, or as a prize to be paid for by the proletariat… Throughout the war, political rifts divided the country even more bitterly.”
1. Like Germany, Italy was a recently-unified nation whose entry into the war was in large part driven by nationalist ideals.
2. Italy was previously a cautious ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary but in May 1915, she decided to side with the Allies.
3. Italy was lured into the war by the prospect of significant territorial gains from a defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire.
4. The Italians were militarily and economically unprepared for war, so suffered high rates of casualties and desertions.
5. The culmination of the Italian war effort was a disastrous defeat at Caporetto, which caused the government to fall and ended Italian ambitions of capturing territory from the Austro-Hungarians.