** World War I -- Italy

World War I: Italy

Figure 1.--Italy was a constututional monarchy, but King Victor Emanuel had great influence. Prime Minister Antonio Salandra signed treaties with the Allies to bring Italy into the War (1915). War was so unpopular with the Italuan people that the Italian Chamber of Deputies rejected Primeminister Salandra, forecing him to resign. The King refused to accept Salandra's resignation and personslly made the decision to delare war on the Central Powers.

Italy which was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary decided to remain neutral when war broke out (1914). This was a critical decesssion as an Italian attack from the south might have been sufficient to have brought a German victory in the west during the first few months of the War. A debate developed in Italy between the nationalists who wanted to ebnter the war and the Socialists and others who were against the war. The followung year the Allies convinced Italy to join them, offering financial assistance and territorial concessions at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Italy declared war on May 23, 1915. The glorious expectations turned into a cosly stalemate. Four indesivive battles on the Isonzo River followed with Austro-Hungary (June-December 1915). The Italian goal was to take Trieste, a largely Italian city on the Adriatic. The city was important to the Austria because it was the Empire's only important port. Without Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was largely land-locked. The War proved to be much more costly than the Government expected. The Austrian-German victory at Caporreto shocked most Italians. The huge casualties disolusuioined the pubkic and the the financial impact destabilized the Italian economy. And despite the losses and cost, Italy achieved only limited territorial gains. The promised territories did not materialize. Itlians thought that the Allies at Versailles Peacre Treaty humiliated them.

Triple Alliance

Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy signed the Triple Alliance (1882). This was primarily to protect Austria-Hungary from Itlian ttack in case of war with Russia. Somehow Bismarck carried this off while still maintaining the Three Emperor's Alliance (Austria-Hungary. Germany, and Russia) signed the year before. At the time Italy had more serious territorial issues with France than Austria-Hungary. Both Savoy and Nice had been lost to France (1860). Italy and France both had competing designs on North Africa. The members of the Tripple Alliance agreed to support each other if either France or Russia attacked. The three countries renewed it at 5year intervals and it was in force at the time of Wold War I. The French alliance with Russia (1894). France and Italy settled their long-standing disputes in secret negotiations (1902). The Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) was formed (1907), but Italy remained a member of the Triple Alliance.

Northern Italy

Austria-Hungary wasca muklti-ethnic empire which included ethnic Itakian populations. Italy had acquired most Italian-speaking areas formerly controlled by Austria by 1866 when it annexed Venitia (1866). There were several areas that Italy wanted still in Austrian control (Trieste, Fiume, and Alto-Adige/South Tyrol). This was the fatal flaw in the Triple Alliance. Austria-Hungary held areas populated by ethnic Italians. Thre were also areas along the Adriaric Balkan coast controlled by Austria with ethnic Italians.


Italy had largely missed out on the 19th cenury European effort to stake out overseas colonies. Libya until the early 20th century was nominally an Ottomon province, but the Ottomon's exerted only limited control. Italy saw Libya located as it was close to home as the ideal colony with a Mediterranean coast. Italy began the final assault on the Ottomon Empire by declaring war in this case to secure a new colony in North Africa--Libya. The Italo-Turkish War (1911-12). While fought outside the Balkans, it weaked the Ottomon Army in the years just before World War I. The Italians became the first country to drop ordinance from an airplane in warfare. They tossed grenades from a German-built monoplane. The Ottomons largely ceeded to Italian demands because of the worsening situation in the Balkans, an area of much greater importance to the Ottomons. The Ottomons were, however, then further humiliated in the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912-13). Libyan nationalists were torn during World War I. Some were pro-British, but since the Italians which were turning Italy into a colony joined the Allies, some were now more favorably disposed toward the Ottomons, their former colonial masters. Senussi tribesmen supported by the Ottmons staged an uprising against the Italians (November 1915). The uprising was a relatively limited action. It did, however, cause the deployment of a substantial Allied force--some 110,000 British, French and Italian troops. Peace or more accurately truce terms were reached (April 1917). After the War, Italy would continue efforts to colonize Libya. Mussolini with his dreams of reconstituting the Roman Empire would wage a merciless campaign to end Libyan resistance to Italian rule.

Balkans Crisis (July 1914)

Serbian terrorists assasinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown (June 28, 1914). The Austrians were outraged and considered how to react. Offocials wanted to punish Serbia. The major constraining factor was Russian guarantees to Serbia.

Outbreak of War (August 1914)

The German Government provided unqualified support for its ally Austro-Hungrary to proceed with repriasals against Serbia (July 6). This freed Austria from the fear of having to fight a two-front war with Russia and Germany. Austria officials believed that Russia would not dare go to war with Russia. Austria presented Serbia with an extensive list of demands. The Serbs accepted all but one. Austria declared war anyway . Russia issued mobilization orders. The Germans demanded that the orders be canceled. When the Russians did not, Germany declared war. Germany then turned west and activated the Sclieffen Plan because of the French-Russian Entante. This brought war with Belgium, France, and Britain.

Italian Neutrality (August 1914)

Italy when World War I broke out was a member of the Tripple Alliance. The Alliance required Italy to supporther allies, Germany and Austria-Hungary which were now at war. Italy did not, however, join her allies in World War I broke out (August 1914). Italy temporized. Thus as the rest of Europe rushed toward war, Primeminister Antonio Salandra announced that Italy would not enter the War. Salandra claimed that the terms of the Tripple Alliance Treaty did not apply because neither Austria-Hungary or Germany were attacked. Salandra had many factors to consider. There was considerable opposition to the War in Italy. Also Italy did not have a great deal to gain. The territory that Italy most coveted was in Austrian hands. And Italy as a peninsula was much more exposed to Britain's principal military force--the Royal Navy. This was a decession of considerable importance. The Germany Army came very close to vistory in the West during 1914. If Italy had attacked France in the south, this might have meant a German victory in the west. Salandra was not sure how the Central Powers would react to his refusal to join them in the War. He thought that Austria-Hungary might attack Italy. As a result the Italian Army was concentrated on the border with Austria-Hungary. General Luigi Cadorna, Army Chief of Staff, oversaw the repositioning of the Army. The Germans and Austrians were furious, considering Italian neuttality a betrayal. The military sitiation, however, did notnot permit any action against Italy.

Italian Debate

A debate erupted in Italy with the outbreal of the World War I. The Government's decision not to honor the Treaty commitments with the Central Powers seems to have been well received. And there was considerable oposition to war in Italy. Many Italians, especially the Socialists, wanted no part of the War. Many Socialists, Catholics, pacifists, and republicans spoke against Italian participation in the War. The peasantry was apathetic. It was Italian nationalists who wanted to enter the War. The nationlist sentiment was strongest among the urban middle classes. They tended to see the goal to be achieved as national unity and the 'liberation' of Trento and Trieste. [ Vigezzi] Austria held substantial territory with Italian ethnic populations and the nations desired to annex these territories. In a day before public opinion polling, it is difficult to know prcisely just how public opinion broke on the War. But most authors suggest that a majority of the population wanted to stay out of the war. While most Socialists were agasinst the war, some younger Socialists with nationaltic views were more favorably disposed. Among them was a young Benito Mussolini. Mussolini like other Socialists at first opposed the War. He wrote, "Down with the war. Down with arms and up with humanity." Within a few months, however, he changed his mind, and began describing the War as "a great drama". He wrote, "Do you want to be spectators in this great drama? Or do you want to be its fighters?" He would echo these sentiments again two decades later. As a result, the Socialists expelled Mussolini from the party. There were some Socialists that agreed with Mussolini, especially the younger generation that was more moved with nationalists appeals. It became common after the war to see Fascism and Socialism/Communism as opposites ends of the political spectrum. In fact, the Fascists attractes considerable support from Socilists and a considerable part of their program included Socialist fetures. The NAZIs referred to themselves as National Socialists. The Italian Fascists did not use their term, but in fact national socialism was a good description of their program. The Government in essence maintained a neutral status while waiting to see which side was likely to prevail and could offer the most. This proved to be the Allies.

Treaty of London (April 1915)

The British and French attempted to convince Italy to enter the War while the Central Powers pressed Italy to honor their pre-War alliance. France was being desperately pressed by the Germans on the Western Front and saw Italian participation as a way of forceing Germany to divert forces from the Western Front. This lead to secret negotiations. The Italian Government agreed in London to enter the War (April 26, 1915). The Allies offered both financial assisance and territorial concessions. The agreement was formalized in the Treaty of London. The Allies agreed to essentially finance the Italian war effort. The British provided a �50 million loan. The Allies also offered to support Italian territorial claims on Austrian territory. The British agreed to substantial Austrian territory along the Adriatic Sea (Dalmatia and Istria). These were areas with substantial Italian populations. It was a tempting offer and one the Central Powers could not match as Austria would not surender its own territory. And the Allies held no territory with Italian populations.

Declaration of War (May 1915)

Italy was a constututional monarchy, but King Victor Emanuel had great influence. Prime Minister Antonio Salandra had decided not to honor the Triple Aliance Treaty with the Central Powers (August 1914). Instead he signed a secret treaty with the Allies to bring Italy into the War--The Treary of London (1915). War was so unpopular with the Italian people that the Italian Chamber of Deputies with its large Socialist faction rejected Prime-Minister Salandra, forcing him to resign. The King refused to accept Salandra's resignation and personslly made the decision to declare war on the Central Powers. Italy declared war on Austria (May 23, 1915). Italy did not at the time declare war on Germany. Germany had no Italian territory and the Italians hoped rather naively to limit the conflict to he Austrians. Prime-Minister Salandra invoked Italy's Sacro Egoismo (sacred self-interest). Italian historians refer to it as 'mobilization without consent'

Italian Alpine Front (1915-17)

Italian General Luigi Cadorna assembeled 25 infantry and 4 cavalry divisions on the Austrian border. The Italian force was organized into four armies. Italy was the weakest of the major European powers. It was a poor country with a partly industrialized north. The Italian Army was thus not equipped for a modern war. The Italians had only 120 heavy or medium artillery pieces and about 700 machine guns. Cadorna despite the limitations of his forced launced the spring Isonzo Offensive (May 1915). The Austrians following the pattern of the Western Front, built a system of trench defenses. Four indesivive battles were fought on the Isonzo River. The Italian goal was to take Trieste, a largely Italian city on the Adriatic. The city was important to the Audstria because it was the Empire's only important port. Without Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was largely land-locked. The Italians took heavy casualties trying to break through the Italin trenches. In only 2 weeks of fighting, 60,000 Italians were killed. The Italian continued the attacks into the winter. Casualtied mounted and totaled 300,000 men by the time the offensived was ended. Despite the huge losses, Italy between 1915 and 1917, never penetrated more than 10 miles into Austrian territory.

Home Front

Italy was still a poor country when it entered World War I. The Government receoived commitments from Bitain and France for financial assistance and military equipment. The demands of the War, however, dwarfed the Allied aid. Italy was a still largely agricultural country and Italian farms were not very productive. Large numbers of Italians were forced to emigrated because of the poor economic conditions. (This is why Itallians were one of the majo immigrant groups coming to America in the late-19th and early-20th vcentury.) The weak Italian economy was severely stressed by the War. One major problem was that men were the primary family bread wearners. When the Goivernment called up the serves and expanded conscription, this left many families without incomes. To make matters worse, the diversion of agricultural laborers to the Army, affected farm ptodiction. As a result, food prices rose. Inflation became a very serious problem. If the father wa killed or badly injured the family was imppverished. Stipeds to soldiers were very low. Middle and Upper class families could generally make do. Poor families which barely survived in the best of times found themselves in very difficult circumstances. Food aid from America was very important in preventing malnutrition.

Italian Soldiers

We do not yet have details on Italian conscription. Italy was now unified and had pretensions of being a great power. It was in fact a poor, backward country. There was some industry in the north, but the south was mostly agrarian and in some places still essentially feudal. The men conscripted into the Italian Army reflected that. Most had no idea about what the war was about and had no interest in fihhting it. Illiteracy was virtually non-existent in the German World War I Army. Only one per thousand concripts (0.1 percent) were illiterate. Illeteracy was very limited in other Western European European armies. Only 68 men per thousand (7 percent) in the French army were illiterate. The comparable number in italy was a stunning 330 men (33 percent).

Caporetto (October 1917)

The static trench warfare of the first 2 years of the War was dramatically changed in 1917. The Austrians reinforced by seven German divisions attacked the Italians at Caporetto. What followed was a series of battles which shattered the Italian Army. The Italians had to retreat and lost 0.3 million men. Like the French at Verdun, it was a battle from which the Italian Army never truly recovered. The Italians with Allied assistance managed to stop the Austro-German advance at the Piave River, just short of Venice.

Political Consequences

Caporetto in large measure was the end of the Italian war effort. The Italian Army after Caporetto was mucj like the French Army after Verdun, incapable of lsrge-scale offensive action. General Luigi Cadorna was descredited. The failure to take into consideration the needs of the Italian soldier had been a major factor in Italy's defeat. More Italian soldiers died from cold and starvation than actual battlefield wounds. Cadorna and other generals attempted to deflect criticism by blameing their soldiers--poor morale and �defeatism". Cadorna blamed the disaster at Capporetto on "shirkers" and referred to the defeat as a �military strike". Of course he was thinking of the on going Russian Revolution. After the War, the Caporetto Inquest (1918-19) blamed the idefeat on top military leaders. Cadorna was replaced with General Armando Diaz (November 1917). The advance of German and Austrian troops from the northern borders into Italy helped change public aditutudes, Workers were still dubious about the War. The Mmiddle-class, however rallied to the cause. Thousands of support committees were organized, modstly by by middle-class groups, to �defend the nation". There was even some support from Socialist deputies and the intellectual community (such as Turati), rallied to the war effort as the threat to Italian territory became clearer. The German demands on Russia were a clear indication of what a victorious Central Powers would have imposed on Italy.

Vittorio Emanuele Orlando

Vittorio Emanuele Orlando was chosen to lead Italy (November 1917). He benefitted from the changing political atmosphere as even some left-wing deputies began to see the danger from the Central Powers. Orlando's more liberal government suceeded in rallying the Army and Italian people to defend the country. Diaz made them welfare of his men an important aspect of his military leadership. He also adopted a more defensive campaign which involved sharply lower casualty rates. The Italians did launch a final offensive at the end of the War--Vittorio Veneto. While this resulted in a face-saving victory, military historians generally agree that the victory was primarily the result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany more than any real transformation ofvthe Italian Army.

Vittorio Veneto (October-November 1918)

Austria-Hungary like Germany attempted to win the War with a massive summer offensive. The Austrians attempted to break the Italian defensive line at the Piave River (June 1918). The offensive was a disaster. The Austr-Hungarian Army lost 0.1 million men, serious eroding morale in an already weakening army. Following the battle, Italian commander General Armando Diaz held back, determined to prepare for a decisive strike. The plan he developed was to launch three of the five armies on the Piave front (Monte Grappa to the Adriatic) across the river and toward th Vittorio Veneto, an important communications center. This wouls separate the two oposing Austrian armies. The Italian Army gained a major victory at Vittorio Veneto (October 24-November 3). The Austro-Hungarian Empire like the Imperial Army was desintegrating by late-1918 despite the victory over Russia. The various national groups that made up the Empire saw the possibikity of independence. The Austrians asked for an armistice and began negotiating with the Italians. The Austrian-Italian Armistice of Villa Giusti was signed on November 3, 1918, but only went into effect a day later. The Austro-Hungarian troops had been ordered to stop fighting on the November 3. The Italians were thus able to occupy Tyrol and capture over 0.3 million Austro-Hungarian soldiers with virtually no resistance.


Paolo Boselli served as primeminister (1916-17). Vittorio Orlando served as prime minister (1917-19). Orlando represented Italy at the Versailles Peace Conference.


World War I for Italy was a disaster. The glorious military success did not come. The Italian Army fail to make any progress against the Austrian Army and casulaties over 2 years mounted in another stalemated campaign. Then the Austriand strengthen by German divisions achieved a major success at Caporetto (October 1917). The Italian Army lost 300,000 men and had to conduct a humiliating defeat. The Italians managed to stabilize the front and eventually achieved a victory at Vittorio Veneto (1918). The cost of that victory was enormous. An estimated 0.6 million Italians were killed in the war and nearly 1.0 million wounded. About 0.25 million were badly crippled. The financial aid from the Allies covered only a small part of the financial cost. Government spnding rose drastically over peace-time levels. The result was inflation and a serious unemployment problem after the War.

Treaty of St. Germain (September 1919)

The Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) is the best known World War I peace treaty. It was the treaty with Germany. Like Germany, Austria (as one of the successor states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was punished for causing the War. The Allied dictated the terms. Austro-Hungary was dismembered. Austria for centuries had been a major European power was left as a small-landlocked country. Italy was more affected by the treaty with Austria--the Treaty of St. Germain Italy bordered on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and as a result, the territorial changes affecting Italy were primatily covered in the Treaty of St. Germain. The Allied promises in the LOndon Treaty proved illusionary. While Italy got some limited territorial concessions such as the South Tyrol, Trieste, and Istria. Italy did not obstain the Adriatic coast territory it coveted. This went to what would become Yugoslavia. (Serbia on which Yugoslavia was based had been another member of the Allied coalition.) Many Italians came to believe that the limited territorial gains were a small reward for the vast losses in men and treasure. In addition, many Italians came to see the Big Three (Americaa, Britain, and France) as dominating the Conference. Orlando was seen as poorly representing Italian interests. Many nationalists such as Mussolini were outraged.

Italian Fascism

Fascism first developed in Italy during the period of economic dislocaion and social unrest which followed World War I. The Fascists coined the term Totalitarian and while Musollini may have expired toward that goal, he never created a truly totalitarian state, but rather a personal dictatorship and authoritarian state. Unlike other political movements, Fascism does not appear to have develoed out of any clearly discernable 19th century tradition. THe Fascists first appear after World War I in 1919 and led by Mussolini managed to seized power in 1922-25. The poltical orientation of Italian Fascism was initially on the Socialist left, but with a strong nationalistic strain. From the beginning the Fascists believd in using violence to achieve thir goals, but their were also elements of idealism and anti-materialism at least in the ideology. Fascists supported Italian colonialism, but initially supported Communist ideals such as opposition to imperialism and racism. Mussolini as il Duce shifted the party to the right in a series of practical and profitable compromises with the country's important institutions. Italian Fascists invented the term "totalitarian" for Fascist Italy, hoever, Mussolini never carried out a comprehensive Fascist revolution. Rather he ruled as an authoritarian leader in a state that some limited pluralist features. After Mussolini's elevation to power, Fascism began its development of a authoritarian form of social organization. Within a few years, representative democracy in Italy had been replaced by a centralized autocracy which at its apex was the absolute dictatorship of Mussolini in whom were concentrated all the principal functions of Government. Directly under him was the Grand Council of Fascism, constituting the political general staff of the regime and of the Fascist Party. The Fascist Party was legally identified with the state, and all other parties were outlawed.

World War II (1940-45)

While little good can be said of the 12 years of NAZI rule in Germany, Italy is significantly different. Although it is not popular to say so, there were, along with the many negative aspects, possitive impacts of Missolini's Fascist movement. It is said that Mussolini made the trains run on time, but in fact there was much more to Fascist rule in Italy. Fascism was in fact a factor for modernization, especially for southern Italy which in the 1920s was still almost feudal. The excesses of the NAZIs were in part limited by the fact that Mussolini was not the homicidal maniac that Hitler was and the that the Italian Fascists were not as committed to the same racist doctrine that the NAZIs persued. Programs like eugenics, Lensensorn, euthenasia, and Eindeutschung, were never persued by the Itlalian Fascists. Here the fact that Mussolini never dared confront the Church as Hitler did, prevented the excesses of the NAZIs. Mussolini was, however, dazzeled by the military success of the NAZIs and joined Hitler in 1940 with an invasion of France, only after France had been essentially destroyed by the Wehrmacht. The Italian people turned on Mussolini as the illconceived War turned against the Italians and their German allies. The Italian Fascit were certainly not the friends of Jews, but the Holocaust in Italy was forced on Italy only after the NAZIs occupied Italy in late 1943 and Mussolini became a pawn of the NAZIs in late 1943 of the NAZIs.


Bosworth, Richard. Mussolini's Italy : Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 (2006).

Vigezzi, Brunello. Da Giolitti a Salandra (Florence: 1969).

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Created: 8:53 AM 9/26/2015
Last updated: 5:31 AM 2/12/2017