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

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PART 4

In the years after unification, given the bad economy and almost total absence of an industrial base, the one thing you would think the Kingdom of Italy wouldn’t do was go to war. That would be the dumbest thing imaginable. So that is what they did. The Royal House and its supporters wanted Italy to be a great power. Great powers attacked other countries and grabbed territory wherever they could so they could call themselves Empires. At one point, Victor Emmanuel III was made Emperor of Ethiopia. (Among his other titles was ‘King of Jerusalem’, one of the crusader states which became defunct in 1291.)

The government was in terrible debt. The populace restive. War made it worse. And Italy fought lots of small wars, often without much success. They took Massawa, a large city on the Red Sea and then capitol of Eritrea. (They later moved it to Asmara which is still the capitol of the nation of Eritrea.) Using that as a base, the Italians set about taking Ethiopia. This didn’t go as planned. On 1 March 1896, an Italian Army of about 18,000 men was decisively beaten by the Ethiopians at the Battle of Adwa. This was embarrassing. Just to show things don’t change that much, this will sound familiar: the Ethiopians had been given arms by Imperial Russia, who wanted to check Western European influence in Africa.

Tapestry of the Battle of Adwa between Ethiopia and Italy.

Italian dirigibles bomb Turkish positions on Libyan Territory. The Italian -Turkish war of 1911-1912 was the first in history in which air attacks (carried out here by dirigible airships) determined the outcome

Meanwhile, on the path of diplomacy, if there was a hole, Italy fell into it. The French got mad at them because the Kingdom of Italy had supported the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the French never got over it. Some thought the two countries would go to war. In 1882 the Germans came calling. “Why don’t you join us and Austria in a Triple Alliance?” “Hmmm. Sounds good. OK.”

In 1911, however, without telling their alliance partners, the Kingdom of Italy attacked the Ottoman Empire in what is known as the Italo-Turkish War and seized most of modern day Libya. Unexpectedly, the Italians introduced a new concept in warfare: they dropped a bomb from an airplane on Turkish troops. This was the first time this had ever been done.

Unfortunately, the Germans and Austrians became furious with Italy since both those countries were trying to seduce the Ottoman Empire into an alliance. King Victor Emmanuel III certainly had his plate full with angry countries. Bad diplomacy and stupid proclamations added the British and the Greeks to his enemies. Things couldn’t really get any worse. But they did. In 1914, World War One began.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia.]

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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/

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