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Never was a maiden courted with more ardor than Italy was by the Allies and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria). Being a shy maiden and one who couldn’t make up her mind, her suitors promised gifts of all sorts: colonies (usually ones belonging to the other side), bits of territory in Europe (here again, usually belonging to the other side) as well as all the other things a girl needs for her trousseau: ammunition, artillery, rifles, and gold. What to do?
Great Britain and France ended up promising the most help and especially the most money. Italy needed money and the money also offered great opportunities for theft. British pounds, accepted throughout the world, were far more useful than German Reichsmarks, which weren’t. So on 23 May 1915, Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary and comes into the war on the side of the Allies, at least against the Austro-Hungarians. The Kingdom of Italy doesn’t get around to declaring war on Germany until 27 May 1916, fourteen months later. Presumably, they charged an additional fee for that.
But no matter the specific timing, the Italians were at last in the war. The King was pleased. This war would cement Italy together as a nation, he and others thought. Those others included most of the elites as well as many leftists including one of the leaders of the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano), a bombastic loudmouth named Mussolini. A good war would be helpful for everyone.
But it wasn’t a good war. It was a catastrophe. The Italian Army spends all its time fighting in the the mountainous border area between them and Austria. Soldiers are given almost no training. Only the elite Alpine regiments know how to fight in the mountains. As they constantly lose critical battles to the Austro-Hungarians, the appalling incompetence of the Italian military organization, especially in logistics, is exposed. Italian generals exhibit a total lack of concern for the rank and file. There is a shortage of modern equipment of all sorts, the medical services are medieval, and the weather is freezing much of the time. The unspeakable horror of this particular part of the war as well as of modern war itself, is all captured in the autobiographical novel, A Farewell to Arms, written by a young American volunteer ambulance driver named Ernest Hemingway; himself later wounded and sent home.
Italian alpine troops on the march in the Mount Grappa area
Italian machine gun position in a mountain pass
Italian troops tunneling through the snow in the Italian Alps
On the capabilities of the Italian Army and its soldiers, the main character in A Farewell to Arms, Frederic, says to a priest assigned to his unit:
They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.
[Images courtesy of Photos of the Great War.]