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Life in Italy During World War I

On the 24th of May 2015, Italy celebrated the 100th anniversary of its entry into World War One. Many people fail to understand its true magnitude, even if aware of its bloodiness and of the tragedy it brought to the entire world. We are often more aware of how horrific, how inconceivably violent World War Two was, yet we seem not to perceive World War One’s horror with the same intensity. We should have a look at this piece of history: Italy World War 1.

One Hundred Years of Remembrance

An Italian Trench on the Eastern Front (Corriere della Sera, November 1915)
An Italian Trench on the Eastern Front (Corriere della Sera, November 1915)

Truth is, World War One was, if differently, just as tragic. It changed, destroyed, ripped apart the lives of millions, just as World War Two did. It is important, it is almost a duty not to forget what happened in Italy WW 1! None of the men who fought it are still alive. None of those who lived and witnessed the fear and tragedy of it can tell their stories!

However, their experience and their tales can still be passed on by us, remembered, and kept alive.

When you are in Primary and Middle school in Italy, you are often asked to learn famous poems by heart. One of them is San Martino del Carso, by hermetic poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, who fought in the trenches as a teenager. This is his memory of war, of what it left within him. In their simplicity, Ungaretti’s words became the symbol of Italy’s effort in the Great War. Moreover, the trail of loss, turmoil, and pain its events left within the people who fought it.

Of these houses
nothing remains
but some
walls in the rubble.
Of the many
who were closed to me
very little
But in my heart
not one cross is missing. 
It is my heart, 
the most ravaged of all villages. 

The history of Italy in World War I

The period from 1915 to 1940 in Italy is tied, directly and indirectly, to the events of the First World War and its consequences, which were to lead to the Second World War.

The Italian effort in the first world conflict is strongly associated with the Eastern Front, which ran through the Dolomites, where the armies of Italy and Austria-Hungary faced each other from 1915 to 1918.

In 1882, Italy had joined the Triple Alliance, along with the Empires of central Europe. Namely Prussia and the Habsburg’s Empire. Italy did this in hope of getting a few territories including Dalmatia, Trieste, and Istria back. In 1914, when the conflict started, Italy was still nominally allied with the Alliance. However, when the country finally decided to enter the war actively, it sided with its opponents, France and Britain. Due to their promise, in case of victory, of territorial acquisitions to the Italian king, Vittorio Emanuele III.

Even though Italy had initially hoped to launch a surprise attack to capture many cities in Austria, these hopes were quickly dashed. In the end, the country had to resort to trench warfare, as it was common already on the Western Front.

The Campagne – Italy WW1

As said, Italy had initially opted for neutrality, in spite of its diplomatic ties with the Central Empires. Italy managed to maintain neutrality because it claimed to have joined the Triple Alliance exclusively for defensive purposes! Because the war had been waged by the Alliance, Italy felt it was in its right not to enter the conflict actively. 

Italy had had a heated rivalry with Austria-Hungary since 1815, when, after the end of the Napoleonic wars, a new European asset had been constructed at the Vienna Congress. It was then that Italy (which was not a unified country, yet) lost several regions. Italy lost Trentino Alto Adige and parts of modern Friuli Venezia Giulia to Austria-Hungary.

Aware of this situation, the forces of the Triple Entente (France, Great Britain, and Russia), tried to woo Italy to join the war on their side. Holistic at the beginning, Italy eventually agreed with the London Treaty of 1915. In exchange, as we said, for the possibility of territorial annexions in case of victory.

Italy then cut off its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and officially entered the First World War on the 24th  of May 1915, on the side of the Triple Entente.

A World War One Italian Postcard
A World War One Italian Postcard (Gino Roncaglia/Flickr)

The Early Battles of Italy in WW1

When Italy entered World War I, it started with an attack aimed at conquering Gorizia. This being strategically located along the Isonzo river. However, things did not go as planned! The Italian army was far from being ready to join the conflict! This was a logistic mistake that was to be repeated in 1940 as well…

Due to the lack of proper – and sufficient – ammunition, vehicles, and artillery, the battle was invincible. For instance, the Italian army barely counted 600 army vehicles, which meant troops could count only on horses and mules for the transport of weapons and supplies. In insight, this proved to be a huge setback!

Luigi Cadorna was put in charge of the troops in spite of having very little battle experience on his shoulders, which made him unpopular among soldiers. If troops do not trust their leader, victory is an almost inconceivable dream to attain.

Italy in WW1 – The year of 1916

In August 1916, the Italians were still stuck on the river Isonzo and launched their 6th attack in the area to obtain highly relevant strategic positions. Even though this last attack proved to be relatively more successful than the others, Gorizia was still unconquered. So Gorizia remained one of the most important Italian fronts in WW1’s early years.

When, eventually, the city was taken, Italian troops obtained a much-needed injection of courage and strength. This however failed to produce further success! For the first two years of the war, Italy largely fought a “Guerra di Posizione“, a position war, where lines were guarded and defended, but no advancement was made. This type of war, which is commonly known also as “trench war” because soldiers fought, lived, and died in trenches, is today quintessentially tied to the events of World War One in Italy.

If life in the trenches was horrific both on the Western and the Eastern Fronts. The latter, where Italy fought, proved to be harder under certain circumstances. Attacks were launched more often and discipline in the Italian army was known to be particularly harsh.

“La leggenda del Piave”, a song of the WWI

Germany’s Arrival

After the tenth Italian attack in the Isonzo area, nothing much had been gained. Italy then directed an attack on Austria to the east and north of Gorizia. The Italian army managed to break the lines and captured the Bainsizza plateau. Just when the Italians thought that they were one sure step closer to victory, they experienced another drawback. The supply lines were not able to keep up anymore and Italy was forced to withdraw.

Vestiges of War
Vestiges of War (khyes/Flickr)

Shortly before the 11th battle on the Isonzo was fought, the German Army provided reinforcements to the Austrians. The Austrians were desperately in need of help by this time and German soldiers rushed to their help. They introduced various tactics and war strategies unknown to Imperial soldiers, which could have potentially helped the Alliance to obtain some victories. However, soldiers had been engaged in several attacks back to back and were left with almost no energy, which resulted, once again, in no territorial gains.

In 1917, the Germans and the Austrians launched an attack on Caporetto with a large supply of artillery. The armies easily penetrated the Italo-Austrian border and, on the very first day, they managed to pierce into Italian territory for 12 miles to reach the Tagliamento river. This battle is remembered in Italy as one of the most tragic war events for the Italian nation. It even entered the common language, if something is “una Caporetto“, it means it is a defeat or a failure of epic, catastrophic proportions.

The End of World War I in Italy

1918 marked the end of the war. For Italy, it was the year of two of the most important World War One battles, that of the River Piave and that of Vittorio Veneto.  

The Battle of the Piave began with an attack close to the Tonale Pass, which the Italian armies easily repulsed. The Italians were able to move two battalions in the direct path of the Austrians in an attempt to block them. Svetozar Boroevic Von Bojna, leader of the Hungary-Austrian army held the lines with strength, but its supply lines had been bombed. Whereas Italian reinforcements soon arrived in the area, tipping the scale in their favor.

First World War Soldiers
First World War Soldiers (Portobeseno/flickr)

No more offensives were launched after the Battle of the Piave. The army of Italy had suffered considerable losses and thought launching an attack at that point quite dangerous. Armando Diaz, who had been the general at that time, decided to wait for more reinforcements from the Western Front. When they finally arrived, in October of 1918, the Italian army was in the position to launch one last attack.

Vittorio Veneto, located close to the Piave river, had been the target of this attack. The Austrian armies had fought quite fiercely, but Italians successfully overwhelmed them. On the 3rd of November, that same year, Austria surrendered. The following day, the armistice was signed.

The treaty of Saint Germain annexed Zadar, Istria, Trieste, Trento, and Alto Adige to return to Italy. With many losses and many deaths, Italy in WW 1 managed to be on the winning side! Read on about Italy in World War 2.

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3 years ago

wasnt super helpful. The article is titled “Life in Italy During World war 1”, but all the article talks about is the battles that the soldiers fought, not what life at home was like, which is what the title implied.