UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Italian Military Incompetence

Rome, the home of one of the greatest military empires in history, now suffers from sporadic accusations that “gl’italiani non si battono” (Italians don’t fight). It is a view that, in the eyes of some critics such as John Whittam, writing in “The Politics of the Italian Army: 1861-1918,” is more than a stereotype and is now almost an assumed law of nature.

Italian soldiers long labored under the stigma of failure and incompetence. Persistent stereotypes, including that of the incompetent Italian, are well entrenched in the literature. The social structures of twentieth- century Italy affected the performance of its armies. Systematic efforts to understand all factors contributing to Italian military incompetence in this century have led to similar assessments. The unification of Italy was completed, like that of Germany, by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Under the monarchy, the most important problem was the reality in which "once Italy had been made, it was necessary to make the Italians."

During the Great War, the Italian commanders were seen as upper-class Piedmontese militarists, sending masses of Italian troops to their deaths in pointless conflicts in the mountain regions between Austria and Italy, and then showing their technical and professional incompetence by allowing a full scale disaster in 1917 by when the Germans and Austrians attacked at Caporetto, Italy's greatest military defeat before World War II. Caporetto became a symbol for left-wing and papal defeatism as well as a synonym for political corruption and military incompetence, as generals without powerful friends were sacrificed to protect those with connections.

Italy had entered the War in 1915 to liberate Italian speaking territories still under Austrian rule, but lost 600,000 men in the War, and gained nothing. What remained was a grotesque vision of the war's absurdity and the incompetence of its commanders. The so-called Great War was aafterwards seen as an idiotic and quixotic expedition in which simple working-class Italians are sacrificed to incompetence, and total confusion. The War was a painful experience for Italy, revealing its economic weakness, the shortcomings of the political class and the incompetence of the military elite.

John Gooch noted that "The mass of manpower which made up Italian armies could not rest on any quiet sense of legitimacy of the military as a government activity crucial to the welfare of society. Quite the opposite was true. From the moment compulsory military service was first introduced in 1854, a system of lotteries and exemptions Italians to think of it ... as a duel between the individual and the state." In turn, the aristocratic officer corps tended to be autocratic and high handed towards the common soldier.

notes that the Italian Army entered the war woefully unprepared to build and sustain morale in its ranks. Italy itself was a new political entity that had not yet managed to transcend the regional identification of its people to craft any broad sense of nationalism. As males had only achieved universal suffrage in 1913, few of the peasants who swelled the ranks of the army fully understood the rights and obligations of citizenship, and the army itself had not developed any conception of a “nation in arms” to wage Italy’s wars. The army’s officer corps was an insular body drawn mainly from northern Italy and generally possessed a jaundiced view of southerners and peasants as well as a distrust of the industrial workers of the North.

As Vanda Wilcox points out, many of the morale problems within the Italian Army can be traced back to the attitudes of the officer corps and the ugly attritional realities of the Great War. The officer corps was steeped in the dogmatic military traditions of Piedmont and Savoy, and it tended to view their soldiers as an unpatriotic and unreliable rabble that could only be induced to fight through a regime of harsh discipline and the threat of punishment. These attitudes prevented the army from developing the “infrastructure” of morale, such as proper recreation facilities, coherent leave and rotation policies, realistic training programs, and a systemic means for explaining the war to the soldiers, throughout most of the conflict. When these lapses were coupled with the severe conditions that the Italians faced at the front, it was little wonder that the average soldier was discontented with his lot. It was only after the disaster at Caporetto that the Italian Army began to make systemic changes to address these problems.

Over 58 percent of the Italian Army was composed of peasants. This group, which made up a disproportionate percentage of the army’s infantrymen and illiterates, suffered the greatest losses of any class during the war and tended to be the most antiwar group in the nation. Wilcox argues that this demographic reality created unique morale challenges for the Italian Army. The peasants brought with them to the army expectations of a social contract between the leader and the led that mirrored the traditional “client-patron” relationships of their home villages. When these men believed that their officers and the army had failed to live up to their obligations, they felt free to act in their own interests to correct the imbalance. As the soldiers felt much more obligated and connected to their families than to the army or the nation, their resistance generally came in the form of desertions to aid those back home in bringing in the harvest or to meet other familial responsibilities. As Wilcox notes, however, some 60 percent of those who deserted later willingly returned to the ranks once their home obligations were met.

The Fascist Italian army, or Regio Esercito, proved to be the most conservative of European armies: it displayed little formal imagination in developing military processes beyond the massed infantry and artillery tactics of World War I, in spite of Italian experiments with mechanized and motorized warfare in Ethiopia and Spain. The army exemplified Fascist Italy’s emphasis of style over substance.

The Italian people never showed any inherent passion for WWII, but the smashing German victories over the democracies in the first months of WW II, urged Mussolini to enter the war beside Hitler even if the Duce was aware of the total unpreparedness of Italian military, economically, and industrial apparatus. The Italian army of World War II was the least effective force of World War II that conducted major offensive actions. Its inability to defend its interwar conquest of Ethiopia, its disastrous invasion of Greece, its failure to support the flanks of the German Third Army leading to the encirclement at Stalingrad, and the dramatic collapse of its initial invasion of Egypt were the most notable events.

Some have suggested tha Italian military incompetence resulted entirely from the general lack of intellectual interest in the profession of arms, while others contend that poorly trained, suspicious Italian soldiers and incompetent Italian officers were the result of poorly drafted conscription laws, lack of money for training, and other factors. Soldiers suffered great hardships largely due to the incompetence and unforgivably bad planning of their leaders.

MacGregor Knox argued that the Italian Army's "approach to morale, unit cohesion, and relations between officers, NCOs, and enlisted men was inconsistent with any tactical system aimed at defeating the enemy. Nationwide recruitment, in a nation as divided by dialects and particularisms as Italy, made unit cohesion difficult to achieve at the best of times ... The caste mentality of the officer corps precluded, and was designed to preclude, a relationship of trust with the lower orders."

Rommel horrified Goebbels with story after story of Italian incompetence. Jeffrey Record observed that "it probably cost Germany more to have Italy as an ally than simply to have fought her as an enemy. From the Balkans to North Africa to the Italian peninsula itself, the repeated failures of Italian arms compelled Germany to divert substantial and irreplaceable military resources to what were, for Germany, secondary theaters of operations."

The Italian officers and their men were unready, their tanks too weak, their artillery unable to fire beyond five miles. Italian troops had no field kitchens and were frequently begging food and drink from their German comrades. The German view was that "They're useless except for defense, and even then they're useless if the British infantry attacks with fixed bayonets." "The ordinary Italian soldiers are good, their officers are worthless." "The Italian troops have failed once more exactly as during the last offensive. The reasons for this are as follows: the command is not equal to the mobile direction of battle in desert warfare... The training of Italian units does not correspond to the demands of a modern war. For example, units brought up to replace lost battalions for a division fired for the first time near the front. Officers who had not served since the end of World War I were detailed as battalion commanders. The arms of Italian units do not permit the Italian soldier to withstand British attacks without German assistance. Apart from the well-known faults of Italian tanks - short range and feeble engines - the artillery, with its lack of mobility and inadequate range (6km - maximum 8km), is absolutely inferior to the British artillery, which is known to be good. Also weak equipment with antitank weapons gives the Italian soldier a feeling of inferiority. Supply of the Italian troops is not adequate. Troops have no field kitchen and quantities of food are small. For this reason, the Italian soldiers, who are usually extremely contented and unassuming, often come to their German comrades to beg something to eat and drink. The great difference in food allocation to officers and men has an adverse effect on morale of the troops. The Italian soldier is not equal to the bayonet attacks of the British infantry. He has not got the nerve to hold on when enemy tanks have broken through. Continual bombing attacks and artillery fire quickly wear down his will to resist. The Italian soldier can maintain defense only with German support, and then only if the German soldier bears the brunt of the fighting." [Air Historical Branch Translations of Captured Documents (New Zealand), as sited in Rommel. A Narrative and Pictorial History, by Richard D. Law and Craig W. H. Luther, ISBN 0-912138-20-3, R. James Bender Publishing, San Jose, California, 1980, footnote 38 on page 179. See also "Italy as a Military Ally," by Generalfeldmnarshall Albert Kesselring, MS# C-015, Foreign Military Studies, Headquarters, US Europe]

Fascism left the Army in the hands of the monarchy, which used the Army to distance itself from the fascist regime. Afterwards, the defeats of World War II shattered whatever tenuous relationships existed between the Army and society. This gap continued through out the Cold War. Very large differences existed between the values of society and the Army. Because of these, the Army could not hope to gain a consent based upon its strong values, or on a mass acceptance of its traditions, or of the symbols respected by soldiers. Over forty years of inactivity in the Italian Army had flattened the identity of the soldiers to the point that the public associated the Army with only ceremonial functions. The military's reputation for poor reliability, it seemed to be a stereotype still deeply impressed not only abroad but also in Italy.

For forty years Italy had kept its Army in "naphthalene" (for preservation). It was reasonable for the Italians and the Allies to ask themselves how capable were those soldiers who had grown up on the "threshold of Gorizia" [the border between Italy and Slovenia] waiting for a probable attack from the East. Edward Luttwak wrote: "The Italian soldiers have had few occasions to show their ability in actions of war. There are very many reasons for this, from the 'mammismo' [attachment to the mother] to the antimilitary consensus felt by the left and the Catholics together. Among the armies of the developed countries, the Italian one is the least well trained. Ceremonies and parades excluded, the recruits are able to do nothing. There is a pro-forma Army supported by a state which has no interest to better it."

In the 1990s, with the intervention of the Army in the Balkans, however, a cultural change took place. Italians had the opportunity to see a military force moving in the right direction, led by wise commanders. From 1994 to 2005 the trust in the Italian Armed Forces rose from 36 to 67%; in particular 87% of the public believes that the Italian soldiers are effective above all in human relationship. The Italian Army has succeeded in deleting the negative image when compared to other more organized and efficient armies. Today, in fact, it has the image of a modern armed force, professionally well prepared, efficient and reflective of the best values of the nation.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

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