Incompetence, Stupidity, and Cowardice: The Royal House of Savoy and the Governance of Italy, 1861-1946

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24

PART 8

Redipuglia is a small village of less than 3,000 people in the Northeastern corner of Italy. Nothing much has happened here since 1917 when this bit of land anchored the eastern end of the military front between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Actually one important thing did happen: in 1938 the largest war memorial and cemetery in Italy was constructed here.

The Military Cemetery of Redipuglia

As you can see from the photograph, it is of awe inspiring size and design. 111,187 Italian soldiers from the Great War are buried here. 69,330 are unidentified. If they could talk, what would they say? That they found meaning in giving up their young lives for the Royal House of Savoy and that slapped together nation we know as Italy? I doubt it.

The truth is they couldn’t tell you why they had given up their lives. They had no idea why they were fighting. Most were illiterate peasants drafted into the army in territorial based regiments. The handful who weren’t illiterate, the officers mainly, may have had some grand notions of martial glory. But that notion would not have lasted long once they were in the trenches, freezing to death, without enough food or ammunition. A horrific fact to contemplate is this: since many of these men were deployed in the mountains in winter, thousands simply died in avalanches. Those killed in that way hardly died in a glorious charge head-on against an Austrian position (the preferred method of attack by the Italian Army). They just suffocated to death after being covered with tons of snow.

Had they known the following death would have been all the more bitter: it only cost the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Turkey, etc) on the average of $11, 344.77 to kill one Allied soldier (French, British, Russian, Italian, etc). Yet it cost the Allies an average of $36,485.48 to kill one soldier from the Central Powers. So the Italian soldiers were killed on the cheap. (Source: The Pity of War: Explaining World War One by Niall Ferguson)

Efficient modern armies are very difficult to improvise. Logistics, a military science of its own, is very complex. (The US armed forces have long excelled at logistics since our forces are often deployed thousands of miles from the US.) Staff work is not something one picks up without extensive schooling. Think of writing an order for an attack by a half a million men and all that has to be coordinated. When do various batteries of artillery begin to fire? What type of shells are they to fire? When do they stop firing? How much ammunition will they need? Who will bring it to the batteries? And this is just a small piece. The Italian Army had few trained staff officers and it showed.

The young men who died certainly deserve a monument. But they deserve something else as well. What is that? They deserve our understanding that folly and a whimsical disregard of reality by their political and military leadership killed them. We owe them that. Yet we have hardly taken this lesson to heart as events from then until now will testify. How many wars have we as a nation been involved in since the Great War? And which of those wars, besides World War Two, were critical to the national survival of the United States?

Of all the wars the United States has been in since the Revolutionary War, which war do you believe was so critical to the survival of our nation that you yourself would have been willing to give up your life and the lives of your children and loved ones to fight in that war? I can only think of three wars in which I would have been willing to give my life: the Revolution, the Civil War (on the side of the Union), and the Second World War.

To look at a burial shrine like the Resacrario militare di Redipuglia from the First World War, is to look at an obscenity. Why? Because the deaths of these men were useless. These poor lads died for nothing – in a campaign and in a war almost everyone has forgotten. Their deaths changed nothing. They were sent to war by old men interested in power. That’s all.

While these soldiers were killed in action, they weren’t killed fighting man to man. They were killed by artillery shells fired by men they never saw and who never saw them. So they weren’t standing on the fire steps of their trenches bravely shooting at their enemy. Instead, they died in a rain of artillery shells as they huddled in terrified groups deep in their crumbling trenches, screaming and crying out for their mothers; so the memoirs of every side reveal.

Artillery caused over 50% of combat deaths in World War One but on the high mountain ridges being contested by the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians, the rocky terrain splintered under the impact of artillery shells and spewed rock fragments everywhere – making artillery fire all the more deadly. 75% of these men died from effects of that fire.

Italian troops man a trench in the mountains, Trentino, 1915

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

Leave a Reply