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Italian Army - Great War

The Italian nationalists worked on public opinion, portraying the war as an opportunity to restore Italy's dignity, at the same time fulfilling the dreams of the Risorgimento. A bitter debate ensued, splitting the country and the political parties between interventionists and neutralists.

The European crisis deepened as a result of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. The crisis escalated rapidly into a full-scale war, pitting the Triple Entente—Britain, France, and Russia — against the Central Powers — Austria-Hungary and Germany. Italy declared its neutrality, citing violations of the Triple Alliance treaty — signed with Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1882 — which nullified the alliance.

The immediate cause of the Great War was the assassination in Sarajevo (28th June 1914) of the Austrian heir Archduke Francesco Ferdinando and his wife by the Serbian irredentist student, Gavrilo Princip.

But the real causes of the war are more remote and complicated. The main causes of the conflict were:

  • the Austrian-Russian conflict for the hegemony in the Balkans (Austrian victory at Berlin Congress in 1878; the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908; the establishment of a big Serbian State by Russia during the two Balkan wars, etc.).
  • the French-German conflict (Prussian victory in 1870 and a French sentiment of revenge; German intervention in the Moroccan question, etc.).
  • the British-German conflict (a German political economic Power rising in the world).
  • the irredentism as in the case of Italy, that aimed to annex Trento and Trieste, and Serbia that aimed to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In June 1908 the General Alberto Pollio succeeded to Tancredi Saletta as Chief of General Staff of the Italian Army. The international political situation suggested that the disagreements between the European Powers were leading to a military solution. So the General Pollio had to prepare the Army to a conflict where it would have been involved inevitably.

Several concrete measures were taken: the balanced force was increased; fortifications with unbroken barrier were installed along Tagliamento, Carnia and Cadore; artilleries were modernised; some supplies of munitions and weapons for a war were created; the national railway system was improved because the Army in the countryside could only gather along the Piave river.

In addition to the technical logistic problems there was the operational one that needed a revision of the tactical doctrine in view of the last events in Europe. That was an innovative operation through which the General Pollio was able to realize an Italian doctrine especially regarding the idea of an offensive conflict against defensive positions; in doing that he reviewed and updated the rules for the use of Big Units as well as the tactical and technical regulation for the different weapons, using originality, a realistic sense and a balance between theory and concrete chances.

The following organisational and strengthening problems had been faced and defined:

  • the defensive organisation of the Austrian border according to the political situation of the alliance. That decision adjusted to the conditions determined by the Austrian attitude and it represented a development in the Italian political orientations at an international level; the two-year stop for all the armed forces was adopted (except for the Gendarmerie), with the extension of the compulsory military service for all the citizens;
  • the regular budgetary allocations were increased through special allocations (that were about 553 millions);
  • the machine gun was added in the weaponry of the infantry and the cavalry;
  • the modern mechanical drawn substituted gradually the animal drawn;
  • there was a first organization of the aviation;
  • the different artillery categories (the field artillery, the horse artillery, the mountain artillery, the heavy artillery and the siege artillery) were modernised.
  • country services were planned.

That complicated program was hardly undertaken by the General Spingardi and the General Pollio; it was not precisely completed at the outbreak of the war because of unpredictable and new situations, but the two Generals succeeded in giving the Army a structural organization thanks to which it could face the enemies in the battlefields and defeat them. The Spingardi-Polio reforms, that were ratified by the 1909-1910 laws, led to:

  • the permanent establishment of 4 Armed Commands that were previously provided only in case of mobilisation;
  • the legal recognition of the Supreme Joint Commission for the State Defence and of the Army Council that was the advisor authority of the Ministry of War, consisting of the Undersecretary of the War Department (Army), the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, the Lieutenant Generals, the General Executive Directors of the different services;
  • the increase of one Alpine Regiment, from 7 to 8, on a total of 26 Battalions with 78 companies;
  • the establishment of the 4th Cyclist Battalion in the 12 Bersaglieri Regiments;
  • some changes in the cavalry rules, passing from 24 regiments on 6 squadrons to 29 regiments on 5 squadrons, and from 1 to 3 divisions;
  • adjustment of the Engineers Corps: the railwaymen Brigade became a regiment (the 6th Engineers Corps) with 6 railwaymen companies, 2 automotive companies and a deposit; a specialist Engineer Battalion is created, with 5 specialist companies, a radiotelegraphy section, a photographic section, an aviation section and a train company.

The artillery was strengthened through:

  • the creation of 12 field regiments; in that way, the category amounted to 36 regiments: 12 Army Corps on 6 gun batteries and 24 divisions on 5 batteries;
  • the reinforcement of the horse regiment, from 6 to 8 batteries on 4 parties;
  • the establishment of a 2nd mountain regiment on 12 batteries (the 3rd one was established in February 1915);
  • the unification, as fortress artillery, of 10 regiments consisting of 33 groups (18 fortress groups and 15 coastal groups). The 10th regiment of the category was defined as siege regiment;
  • the establishment of the first two heavy artillery regiments, on 5 groups each of them with 2 batteries (3 groups of howitzer and 2 of cannons): on the whole 20 batteries;
  • the institution of the Supreme Technical Course and the Artillery Technical Service (Law 10 July 1910);
  • the creation in 1914 of the first aerostatic sections in order to observe the battlefield and in particular the area of the artillery shot
  • in the karsts area and in the Veneto Plain, where there were no land observatory positions with good possibilities.

Piacenza 111 and 112 regiments
Mantova 1130 and 114 regiments
Treviso 115 and 116 regiments
Padova 117 and 118 regiments
Emilia 119 and 120 regiments
Macerata 121 and 122 regiments
Chieti 123 and 124 regiments
Spezia 125 and 126 regiments
Firenze 127 and 128 regiments
Perugia 129 and 130 regiments
Lazio 131 and 132 regiments
Benevento 133 and 134 regiments
Campania 135 and 136 regiments
Barletta 137 and 138 regiments
Bari 139 and 140 regiments
Catanzaro 141 and 142 regiments
Taranto 143 and 150 regiments
Catania 145 and 146 regiments
Caltanissetta 147 and 148 regiments
Trapani 149 and 144 regiments
Sassari 151 and 152 regiments
Novara 153 and 154 regiments
Alessandria 155 and 156 regiments
Liguria 157 and 158 regiments
Milano 159 and 160 regiments
Ivrea 161 and 162 regiments
The general structure of the Army, provided for since 1873 in front line, 2nd line and 3rd line, was actualized in 1910 by the establishment of moving Militia nucleus (2nd line) for each Deposit in infantry, cavalry, field artillery regiments and an Alpine battalion.

The establishment of those nucleus occurred in several phases and, at the eve of the First World War, the Italian Army has already had a substantial number of second line units: 52 infantry regiments, 11 Bersaglieri battalions, 38 Alpine companies, 23 cavalry squadrons, 13 field artillery regiments.

The 52 infantry regiments, from 111 to 162, constituted 26 Brigades. The following territorial Militia units (3rd line): 8 Alpine regiments with 27 “Valley” battalions, 198 infantry battalions and 9 engineer battalions. In brief, what General Spingardi and General Pollio carried out was a milestone in the history of the Italian Army.

The first Italian operational plans were defensive plans that considered the river Adige as the line for the Army formation. In an in-depth study the General Cosenz, the first Chief of the Army General Staff, demonstrated that the Adige line was a rearward line. He set an advanced line, the Piave line, because of the greater strength of the Austro-Hungarian Army, the advantages of its border with mountain scenery and the favorable operational chances of the Trento fortress. That risk was worth taking in order not to lose the benefit of having the Veneto Plain for the defense, thanks to its road network useful for the operation.

The original plan changed after gradual developments in the road and railway network as well as the works to fortify the border; it was also the aim of in-depth studies, particular previsions and concrete projects by the General Tancredi Saletta while he was Chief of the General Staff of the Army.

Austria was engaged in a war where it had to deploy its forces on three fronts (Russian, Serbian and Italian fronts). That was the precondition for abandoning the defensive criterions and adopting the offensive ones. For that reason, the plan for the operations evolved conceptually: not anymore abandonment of the Italian territory to the enemy but passing the Piave and Tagliamento lines as well as offensive action along Isonzo river, from Mount Maggiore to the sea, with the Sava Valley and the Lubiana as strategic objectives.

The deployment was organized in the following way:

  • 1st Army: Trentino-Adige sector, from Stelvio to Croda Grande;
  • 4th Army: Cadore sector, from Croda Grande to Mount Peralba;
  • Carnia area: (independent Command; then 12th Army Corp at direct dependencies of the Superior Command): from Mount Peralba to Mount Maggiore;
  • 2nd Army: from Mount Maggiore to Prepotto, along the Judrio (Pre-Alps Giulie);
  • 3rd Army (of the Carso): from Prepotto to the sea.

After the mobilization on 13th June 1915, there were: 569 battalions, 173 squadrons, 512 artilleries (two-fifths to bar 560 km of the border between the Stelvio and M. Canin, two-fifths on the Giulio front for 70 km and a fifth as reserve).

The 2nd and the 3rd Army Corps had the offensive task along the Giulia front that was considered the main front. The 4th Army in Cadore and the troops in Carnia had a secondary offensive task. The 1st Army had a strategic defensive task along the other front. That plan of operations was a plan of high strategic level, typical of the Great Warlords. But in the executive phase, a series of circumstances created obstacles and difficulties in the operational preparations leading to the lack of those prerequisites of the plan. When Italy went to war (decision taken only a month before the operations, through the Treaty of London), Russians, defeated in Galizia, were forced to a dangerous retreat; Serbia, that had an efficient going to war, was in a strange phase of inactivity; the Anglo-French mission to Dardanelli failed completely. In that way there was not the indirect support by the Allies, especially by Serbians, to the Italian offensive at its beginning. Along with this serious problem that had a negative effect on the execution of the operational plan of General Cardorna, there was a more serious problem related to the impossibility in pursuing the strategic surprise on which the Chief of General Staff counted

Succumbing to the Triple Entente's offer of Trentino, Trieste, the South Tyrol, Istria, and nearly half of Dalmatia. Italy signed the Treaty of London, entering the war in May 1915. Italy entered the war in May 1915 to pursue the irredentist ambition of annexing the Italian-speaking provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire: Bolzano, Trento, Udine, the port of Trieste, the Istrian peninsula, and much of the Dalmatian coast.

Although the Austro-Hungarian forces were inferior in number respect to the Italian ones, they had the advantage of fighting from strong positions and organized to defend, thanks to permanent fortifications and hard works. The war itself, expected to be over by the summer of 1915, dragged on for two more years. The army had not been consulted prior to the decision. Once again the political leaders had committed troops without advance preparations, but despite low morale and woefully inadequate supplies, the troops nevertheless acquitted themselves creditably in fighting against the Austrians until the collapse at Caporetto.

The performance of the Italian army in World War I was remarkable. Badly equipped and supplied, fielding only 25 divisions at the outset (although eventually rising to 65 by 1917), it began an offensive against the slopes of the Julian Alps above the Isonzo River and over the next two years renewed the offensive no fewer than 10 times. The number of deaths and the conditions of battlefield life were appalling — 650,000 men were killed and 1.7 million more were disabled.

The year 1915 was a really favourable year for the Central Powers on all fronts. At the beginning of 1916 the Austro-German military chiefs considered the situation favourable for them and they thought to win against France and Italy. The great Italian operations in 1916 were six: the 5th battle of the Isonzo, fought to help the French Army in Verdun; the Austrian offensive in Trentino and the consequent counteroffensive; the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th battles of the Isonzo. Among these battles the most important were: the battle in Trentino and the 6th battle of the Isonzo that led up to the conquest of Gorizia.

In the winter between 1916 and 1917 and at the beginning of the spring, the war operations were characterized by a standstill. With the good season the Entente Forces restarted the initiative. In May 1917, while the great spring offensive was underway on the west, between Soissons and Craonne, the Italian Superior Command decided to support it indirectly by attacking along all the front of the Isonzo. The action was performed from 12th to 28th May determining the 10th battle of the Isonzo.

The Italian losses were terrible: 40 000 deaths, 108 000 wounded and 18 500 missing people. The Italian Army was wearing out and in the fighting departments the hope to reach the rock barrier in front of them faded. Austria-Hungary started to feel the effects of the defeats. It was sure it could not carry out other offensives in those conditions with the same power and intensity.

By the autumn of 1917, Italian Commander in Chief Luigi Cadorna’s strategy of successive offensives near the Isonzo River in northern Italy — 11 Italian attacks since May 1915 preceded the Austrian assault at Caporetto — had cost the Italians heavy casualties for an advance of less than seven miles, only one third of the way towards their preliminary objective, the city of Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. Despite this, the wave of Italian attacks had also taken a serious toll on Austro-Hungarian resources in the region. Indeed, in the wake of the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in August 1917, Austria’s positions around the city of Gorizia were dangerously close to collapse.

The Austrians, who then urgently requested German assistance. As a result, the German Supreme Command, led by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, determined with their Austrian counterpart, Arz von Straussenberg, to launch a combined operation against the Italians, intended for mid-September.

In preparation for the offensive, Germany transported seven divisions of troops to reinforce the Austrians on the upper banks of the Isonzo. Cadorna, learning by aerial reconnaissance of the Austro-German movements, pushed back his own army’s scheduled September offensive to prepare a defensive position for the scheduled attacks that month. Unfavorable weather, however, pushed back the plans, and by the time Germany and Austria-Hungary were ready to attack, they were able to catch the Italians by surprise.

The Germans attacked the Italian front at Caporetto. On October 24, after a brief, effective artillery bombardment, the German and Austrian infantry moved ahead against the damaged Italian lines, using grenades and flamethrowers to exploit their advantage and achieve a quick and decisive breakthrough. By the end of the day, they had advanced an impressive 25 kilometers. The Battle of Caporetto in November 1917 led to one of the greatest military routs of the Great War. In less than a month of fighting, the Italian Army retreated over 150 kilometers, lost some 294,000 prisoners of war to the Central Powers, and lost another 350,000 men who straggled from their units or deserted from the ranks. The battle of Caporetto represented for the Italian Army an agonizing failure that affected all the Nation. The sudden loss of Friuli, Carnia, Cadore (Italian territories and densely populated), of 300 000 men and 3 000 pieces of artillery as well as all the stocks with military materials between Isonzo and Piave, it represented a terrible blow.

The scale of the defeat called into question the courage, dedication, and martial qualities of the Italian soldiers of the Great War and has somewhat colored the military reputation of Italy ever since. The post-Caporretto reforms, especially those that liberalized leave, went far to address the underlying sources of disgruntlement for the peasant-soldiers. Despite the popular negative image of the Italian troops in the Great War, in the end, they still fought on and endured until victory, and when well-led and well-trained, they made solid and reliable soldiers.

After the final battle, while the Country supported the Superior Command in the total reorganization of the military instrument, the Italian Army did not remain inactive. Since the line of the resistance at the eastern far end of the upland of Sette Comuni was unstable after the “Christmas battle”, an offensive was organized from 28th to 30th January and it ended victoriously with the reconquest of the M.Valbetta-Col del Rosso-Pizzo Razea line. The same adjustment of the contact line was performed in May in the Adamello group where Cima Presena, Cima Zigolon and almost all the pick of Monticelli were conquered. Thanks to this “battle of the three mounts” the Italian recovery began. Caporetto had been only an episode. In fact, in March, after the beginning of the great German offensive in France, 4 French divisions out of 6 and 2 Britain divisions out of 5 could retreat from the Italian front, without causing any problems; on the contrary, in order to demonstrate the brotherhoods between the Allies, an Italian Army Corps was sent to France.

The Central Powers did not manage to defeat Italy through the offensive in autumn 1917. They realized that the time was in favor of the Entente because of the entry into the war of the USA; it was necessary for them to find a rapid solution of the conflict through great strategic offensives. That was the decisive reason of the Austrian offensive in June 1918 that was prepared with a lot of means along with technical and moral expedients; it led to have confidence in the success. The battle of the Piave, in which 150,000 Austrians and 90,000 Italians died, was a great Italian victory: it was the first in 1918 by one of the Entente Armies and it was a sign of the victorious end of war.

In 1918, with British and French help, the Italians counterattacked at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and eventually recovered most of the territory previously lost. The Italian Superior Command realized the possibility to break the enemy front in the area between the two Austrian Armies (the 5th and the 6th) in Piave, on the director of Vittorio Veneto, an important logistic center along the operational line of the 6th Austro-Hungarian Army. On 30 October 1918 the 8th Army occupied Vittorio Veneto with its advanced guards. They were thus able to lay claim to the "Italia irredenta" for which they had gone to war.

The night of 3rd November the armistice of Villa Giusti was signed: on 4th November 1918 at 3.00 p.m. the hostilities on the Italian front were stopped. In the battle of Vittorio Veneto Italy did not only defeat “one of the most powerful Armies in the world” but it also caused the complete fall of the Empire of Hapsburgs. The Italian effort was enormous, but the era of the Italian Risorgimento ended with the disappearance of the centuries-old enemy as well as the achievement of the natural borders.

The cost of the war was enormous. Almost 5 million men had been called up, more than half of them peasants or agricultural workers. Southerners were greatly over-represented on the front lines, while skilled northern workers were assigned to relatively safer positions in the artillery or engineering corps or the armaments factories. By the end, at least 600,000 had died. In addition, the economic cost was staggering. Much of the fighting had taken place on Italian soil, devastating whole provinces. The state had spent an estimated 41 billion lire (at prewar prices), and the budget deficit had grown tenfold, pushing postwar prices to at least 400 percent over prewar prices.

Italy was on the winning side, but its case was poorly presented at the Versailles Conference. Its territorial demands, which now included not only those areas mentioned in the Treaty of London but also Fiume, were considered excessive, especially by the United States. Dissatisfied with the "multilated victory," Gabriel D'Annunzio, one of the most vocal interventionists, led an army of 2,000 "legionnaires" into Fiume. Fiume and D'Annunzio became symbols of a patriotic and vibrant Italy, attracting nationalists, ex-servicemen, syndicalists, anarchists, futurists, and adventurers. For over a year the Italian government was powerless to disband them. Finally the Treaty of Rapallo, signed in 1920 by Yugoslavia and Italy, declared Fiume to be independent, Italy controlling Trieste, Istria, Zara (in Dalmatia), and four islands, and ceded the rest to Yugoslavia.

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