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Italian Army - Early History

The important reforms, implemented by the General Staff of Vittorio Emanuele II with the aim of transforming the old Sardinian Army into the first Italian Army, started soon after the end of the Second War of Independence at the end of 1859. The small regional Army of the King of Sardinia was not sufficient to carry out the tasks that the new national Army would have carried out.

Some units of the Italian armed forces trace their origins to the armies raised by Napoleon Bonaparte from among the citizens of the conquered Italian provinces. Napoleon established the Kingdom of Italy in 1805 and named himself king. The conscripted troops called themselves Piedmontese, Sicilian, Neapolitan, or any number of designations pertaining to the myriad of states, republics, kingdoms, and duchies that occupied the geographic area known as Italy. Men from all regions of Italy were trained at the military academy founded by Napoleon at Modena. During the Napoleonic campaigns, these "Italians" fought together under the green, white, and red banner that became the flag of a united Italy in 1861.

Italy approached unification and statehood without a strong, unified military tradition, or indeed the military means to oust the Spanish Bourbon and Austrian Habsburg overlords. Thus, when the Kingdom of Piemonte and Sardinia raised the standard of nationalist revival (Risorgimento) against the Habsburgs in 1848, its tiny army, although joined by volunteers from northern and central Italy, was easily beaten by superior Austrian power at Custozza and Novara.

In the last months of 1859 there were meetings with all military forces of the Country, concluding a first organizational phase in March 1861; it was then that, by note no. 76 of 4th May 1861, the Minister Fanti “announced to all Authorities, Corps and military Offices that the Royal Army would be called Italian Army, and the previous denomination of Sardinian Army remained abolished”.

Before the integration of the other two pre-unitary Armies (the Borbonico and the Garibaldino), the Army had a structure based on five Army Corps, four of which were composed by three divisions with two Infantry brigades, two Bersaglieri battalions and three Artillery battalions each, as well as a Cavalry brigade on 3 regiments. Outside the Army Corps there was another Cavalry division with four regiments and two horse artilleries. The Infantry and the Cavalry regiments were organized in four battalions/squadrons.

The Artillery consisted of eight regiments: the 1st was a regiment of workmen; the 2nd, the 3rd and the 4th were part of the artillery square, each on 12th companies; the 5th, the 6th, the 7th and the 8th were “field artillery”, each with 12 batteries. The horse batteries were part of the 5th regiment. The Engineer Corp was organized in two regiments of 16 companies.

It was not until Napoleon III of France brought his army to the aid of Piemonte in 1859 that the Habsburgs were forced to cede a portion of their Italian provinces. On 04 May 1861, by a Decree of the Minister Fanti, the Sardinian Army was named Italian Army after having absorbed several pre-unitary armies. Established as an amalgamation of the Armata Sarda with the forces of Modena, Tuscany, Parma, and Bourbon Naples, as well as with the guerrilla bands of Guiseppe Garibaldi, the army lacked a sense of unity and esprit de corps. The Piedmontese and Neapolitan armies had been at war with each other too recently to work easily together, and the officers of both looked down on the adventures of Garibaldi's Thousand, who claimed equal status with them. Moreover, the army was unpopular with many of the kingdom's inhabitants, not only because of the enforced conscription of young males but also because of the role of the army in suppressing social disorders caused by the administrative reforms in southern Italy from 1861 to 1865. Devout Roman Catholics also viewed the army as an instrument of blasphemy, particularly after the forcible occupation of Rome in 1870 and the self-exile of the pope inside the Vatican.

It was then not until 1866, when the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Italy joined in the unsuccessful Prussian attack on Austria, that the Venetian provinces were incorporated. By then the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had also fallen to Piemonte.

The first years were not very easy because of a long struggle against the brigandage and for the unsuccessful end of the Third War of Independence in spite of glorious battles (1886 people died). On 20 September 1870, concluding the Unitarian ideals, the 4th Army Corp (headed by General Raffaele Cadorna) occupied Rome and brought back to Italy its natural Capital.

By 1871 the Italian army had won a certain military name. Its nucleus, the Armata Sarda, the royal army of the House of Savoy, had played an ostentatious part in the Crimean War on the Anglo-French side; it had produced, in the La Marmora brothers, a trio of generals known to the European public. In the Bersaglieri, the romantically beplumed Piedmontese light infantry, the Italian army possessed a force that seemed to rival the French Zouaves in battlefield bravura. The army remained, nevertheless, a fragile creation.

After a period characterized by a remarkable reorganization and strengthening (Minister Ricotti), on 5th February 1885 Colonel Tancredi Saletta disembarked in Massaura with a Corp of expedition consisting of 800 soldiers, determining the beginning of the colonial period; after a long campaign of penetration in Eastern Africa, Adua (1896) marked the end.

In the 1860s over 75 percent of those drafted for service in Basilicata, in southern Italy, took to the hills, and even in 1910 one-fifth of all southerners evaded military service. By then, however, the army had improved its public image. In imitation of the German and French armies, it had begun calling itself the "School of the Nation"; it had also been referred to by a leading politician in 1894 as "the only existing cement which holds the country together." Moreover, it was probably the only secular national (as opposed to regional, provincial, or communal) institution with which most nineteenth-century Italians came into contact. It continued to incur scorn as an instrument of repression, however, particularly during the agrarian unrest of 1898.

It also had suffered two humiliating defeats in Ethiopia: the battles of Dogall in 1887 and Adowa in 1896. The Battle of Adowa was the worst defeat suffered by European troops at the hands of the Africans during the conquest of the continent. It represented a setback in Italy's attempt to conquer Ethiopia and a major blow to Italian national self-esteem for which the conquest of Libya from Turkey in 1911-12 only partially compensated.

On 25 April 1897, an Italian Corp of expedition disembarked in Suda, in the isle of Candia; it would have been part of an inter-allied Corp responsible for the pacification in the isle after the insurrection against Turkish dominion. In that way the international tasks began. In fact, on 14 July 1900 a Corp of international expedition was constituted: it had to stop the “Boxers” insurrection and defend the European Protectorates. On 29th September 1911, all the Italian Army was involved in the Libyan campaign during the Italian-Turkish war; on 5th October its troops disembarked in Tripoli. The Italian-Turkish war ended with the occupation of Dodecanneso (Spring 1912) and the conquest of Fezzan (9th August 1913-12th August 1914).

Nationalism was becoming an increasingly important political force. It was a revivalist movement, described by its principal proponent, Enrico Corradini, as "a religious feeling . . . which when it becomes widespread in Italy will at last make the trains run on time." As such it competed directly with socialism, which it identified as a cancer growing in the body politic that would eventually seize control of the state and the nation.

Italy's dismal performance in foreign policy was particularly rankling. The debacle in Ethiopia had to be avenged, and by 1911 the nationalists had whipped up enthusiasm for another colonial adventure. The precarious balance of power in Europe contributed to an atmosphere of intrigue, in which French activity in North Africa seemed to portend a threat to the Italian claim to Libya. In the event of war, which seemed imminent in 1911, control of the Libyan ports would be important.

In order to preempt France, Italy in September 1911 declared war on Turkey, which had ruled Libya for over one hundred years. The invasion of Libya appeared to be a success, but the troops soon got bogged down in fighting with the local Arab population, against all predictions that they would welcome liberation from the Turks. Faced with a stalemate, Giolitti pressured Turkey in the Aegean, seizing 13 islands. Serendipitously, the first Balkan war broke out several months later. Turkey, pressed on all sides, sued for peace with Italy in October 1912, ceding Libya.

The campaign against Turkey for the conquest of Libya carried out inevitable interferences on the organizational work of General Pollio. That campaign was usually considered the cause of the Army unpreparedness when it went to the world conflict. Actually the war in Libya was more costly and bloody than it was expected and it employed huge quantities of vehicles as well as materials, depleting the stocks. That war was also declared “an element that delayed the completion of our military unit”; and it is an undeniable truth. But we cannot exclude that it had a regenerative function because it forced to replenish materials introducing new ones that responded to the needs of a modern war.

Soon after the war in Libya, the Italian Army was in the initial phase of reorganization and it has not become yet a power and it has not developed yet through the measures studied by General Pollio.

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Page last modified: 24-11-2018 18:46:59 ZULU