152: Italian Front: The Walking Wounded


On the Italian front both sides stumbled into 1918.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 152. Thank Peter. Many of you have probably noticed that the podcast has joined the Recorded History Podcast network. This should not change the podcast too much except for in one area, advertisements, starting soon the weekly episodes will be accompanied by advertisements. My hope is that these will open up some exciting opportunities in the future. As part of this shift I will also be adding a new benefit to Patreon subscribers of $1 a month or more, ad free episodes. Let me know if you have questions, comments, thoughts, or concerns about this change. We last visited the Italian front with the Austro-German attack named the Battle of Caporetto. In this attack the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary had broken, at least temporarily, the stalemate that had kept the Italian and Austrian troops locked on the Isonzo and on the Asiago plateau since the war had started. The Italians had attacked in these areas 11 times, throwing themselves against the Austrian positions on the Carso, at Gorizia, at villages like Podgora, and around the summits of mountains like Mt. Sabotino and San Michele. After trying for 2 years to pry the Austrians from these positions the Italians were thrown back in only a few days, with all of their gains wiped away in the defeat at Caporetto. The new line would settle along the River Piave, if only because the Austrians and Germans could not push any further, being already more than 100 kilometers from where they had started. This move south reduced the length of the front line by 170 kilometers, a god send to the Austrians who were desperately short of men. There were a few last attempts by General Boroevic and the Austrians to cross the river, but with most of the German assistance moved elsewhere, they made little headway and the fighting stopped until the spring of 1918. That is where our story begins. Over the next three episodes we will discuss the situation at the beginning of 1918, then look at the last two attacks on the Italian front one from the Austrians and one launched by the Italians. Then in Episode 3 we will discuss the end of the war in Italy and look at the postwar situation in Austria and Italy.

With the defeat at Caporetto the Italians found a really good excuse to get the help from their Allies in Western Europe that they had been asking for since 1915. The British and French became very concerned that if the collapse of the Italian army was not arrested in some way they would drop out of the war entirely, removing almost all pressure from Austria-Hungary with Russia on its way out of the war by the end of 1917. Even though the Western Front generals in both the French and British armies had strongly resisted any attempt to move men or guns to the Italian fronts they were finally convinced that it was necessary. This help would begin to arrive by the end of 1917, and it would be in the form of 130,000 French and 110,000 British troops. There would also be huge quantities of artillery ammunition, heavy gun batteries, and other supplies that wouldd be of great assistance to the Italians. Just from an artillery perspective this would allow them to fire more artillery shells in 1918 than they did in the rest of the war, combined. One of the British soldiers, upon arriving in Italy would say that ‘it was such a gorgeous rest after Flanders.’ This assistance from the Allies came at a price though, and General Foch would soon begin hounding Diaz to launch an attack. Diaz was busy getting his army put back together again and would resist clls for attacks during the first half of 1918. This was a relatively easy task early in 1918, but by the time of the German attacks in the spring Diaz had to be far more adamant that his army was not ready due to ever increasing pressure from the British and French for the Italians to do something with the troops that had been sent. Diaz was from southern Italy, and was of Spanish ancestry. Before the war his military experience was first in the artillery and then he had served 16 years as a staff officer in Rome. Diaz was almost the opposite of Cadorna, being very cautious and a detailed planner. He was also the opposite in another important way, he was willing to work closely with the politicians in Rome. He would support the creation of a war committee and he would meet with politicians often to discuss the situation at the front.

While the help sent was appreciated, the Italians also had to do something about their own army. Caporetto had completely disorganized many units in the Italian army, and it took months to round up all of the scattered soldiers and to get them reorganized into their units. Rounding up stragglers could make up for some of the manpower short fall, and the Italian leaders found as many men as they could in training depots or recovering from wounds as they possible could, but it would not be enough. The class of 1899 would be called up before the end of 1917, which meant that the only available pool of reserves would be the class of 1900 that would be called up during 1918, but this only totalled about 260,000 men which would be far less than was required. While Diaz was scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of warm bodies, he was also doing everything he could to make the army more efficient. He broke up his forces into small, but more efficient armies. He improved the relationship between the infantry and artillery and he trained up more assault troops, the Arditi, bringing them up to 21 full strength battalions for 1918. Diaz would also make other administrative and structural changes to the Italian army. He would push powers down through the chain of command which Cadorna had gathered to the top. He would find competent officers and then empower them to get the job done. He would also name General Badoglio as his chief of staff. Badoglio would prove to be a good choice. He was a capable leader and well organized. This would be the beginning of Badoglio’s story, and he would be a critical figure in the inter-war period for the Italian military.

Diaz also set about making changes to the conditions at the front. Italian soldiers had always hd it hard while in the front line, and Diaz took some steps to make their time at the front better. Rations were increased not just in size but also variety, pay was increased, annual leave was increased from 15 to 25 days, older soldiers were given more leave, and leave was more consistent. These were all good changes that improved morale, but just as impactful was the issuing of a free life insurance policy for all soldiers, with death benefits paid to their families should they be killed. Along with these concrete efforts to improve morae there was a concerted propaganda campaign designed to remind the soldiers why they were fighting. This propaganda campaign was not just limited to the soldiers at the front and would also be used on the home front. These efforts went far beyond just spreading information though, the situation back home demanded more. Much like other ocuntries the war was putting tremendou strain on the Italian society. Crippling inflation, food shortages, millions of men gone to the front year after year, all of this caused increasingly large problems for the Italian authorities. There were many groups within Italian society that were pushing and pulling against each other. On one sider were the interventionists, some monarchists, some anarchists, some fascists. On the other side were the socialists. During the war the socialists had a reasonably large following in Italy, and their push for peace found many receptive ears early in the war. However, by October 1917 the anti-socialists in Italy went on the offensive. This led to the imprisonment of mmany socialists. In the government there were many elements that called on a stronger official crackdown on the socialist elements of society, especially as the situation in Russia continued towards another revolution. These types of crackdowns and the general segmenting of the population would play a role in shaping post war Italy.

One interesting bit of information about the Italian government during the war was that unlike other government, they refused to send food parcels and other supplies to their prisoners of war. They were concerned that if they did then then the soldiers at the front would deser en masse, preferring the safety of the POW camps behind the lines instead of life at the front. The general feeling was that POWs as a whole were worthless, cowardly, defectors and they should be punished not given supplies. As a result of these policies more than 100,000 of the 600,000 Italian prisoners would die in captivity during the war, a death rate almost 9 times greater than for Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Italy. I mention this not because it plays into some larger narrative, but mostly because I just thought it was interesting.

We now turn to the Austrian side of the line. 1917 had been the Empire’s most successful year of the war so far, and it was the most successful by quite a bit. The Italians had been defeated at Caporetto and the Austrian army was now deep in Italy, on the Eastern Front the Russians had collapsed and in just a few months they would be out of the war. Perhaps most importantly, 1917 had been the year where the Austrians had suffered the least number of casualties. However, even with all of the good things that were happening, there were many massive problems for the Austrians to overcome. Since the beginning of the war, of the 8.4 million men undeer arms, 4 million had become casualties, 780,000 were dead, and 1.6 million were prisoners. While 1917 was the lightest year for casualties, it still cost them 1.5 million men either killed, wounded, or captured. It was by this point impossible to get divisions up to full strength. Throughout 1918 there would only be about 100,000 replacemetns available per month, which may seem like a lot but was only about of a third of what the Austrians had needed every month for the first 3 years of the war. Because of this manpower shortfall most units were understrength. There were some efforts to reform the army to be closer to some of the other forces around Europe. This would have increased unit firepower and reduced the army’s reliance on headcount. However, unlike the other armies the Austrians simply did not have the industrial output to make this happen quickly, if at all. The industrial shortfalls would only get worse as their economy collapsed along with that of the Germans who had supported the Austrians for most of the war. Artillery shell production would only be half of what it had been in 1917, and the production of infantry rifles would fall by 80 percent. It was also proving more and more difficult to properly feed the soldiers, with rations cut many times over the course of the year simply because there was no more food available to send to the front.

While the army was being assaulted by all of these problems, morale at the front was actually pretty good, all things considered. This remained true even as the situation on the home front continued to spiral toward open revolt and revolution. However, not every unit was immune to discipline problems, and this caused the creation of 7 divisions to act as security forces. These divisions, by necessity, were made up of front line troops who had proven themselves reliable, which just spread the army at the front out even thinner than before. In the instances where troops did get out of line these security forces were generally able to bring them back into line without much bloodshed. However, even the most loyal troops were affected by the food shortages, no soldier likes to be hungry. The morale problems that did start to crop up were only made worse when the government in Vienna made the decision to start sending troops that were arriving from Russian Prisoner of War camps onto the Italian front. These soldiers were often sent back into training camps without any leave, and sometimes without even receiving their backpay. If you were to construct a scenario to destroy morale, it is hard to find a more perfect storm than tending returning POWs to the front, without leave, without backpay, and without enough food to feed them. These troops would cause havoc behind the front during the summer of 1918, far moreso that the troops that had been on the Italian front for years.

While the loytaly of the troops at the front was somewhat steady, it did not prevent the Allies from trying to cripple it. A Central Inter-Allied Propaganda Commission was setup that prepared a tremendous amount of propaganda to distribute to Austro-Hungarian troops. 60 million copies of various pieces of propaganda were created. Some of them had the names of deserting officers on them, with messages like ‘The Italians and Yugoslavs are in complete agreement and the Italians receive us and accept us as allies and brothers. Everyone who comes here is sorry that he did not come before, for here hunger and misery, fear and slavery, are unknown.’ You will learn how absurd this claim was when we get to episode three of this series. There are few things the Italians cared less for than the Yugoslavs. Oddly enough, the effect of these mmessages was felt far stronger in Vienna than at the front. Politicians and military leaders were terrified that the army might listen to the propaganda, causing a possible disintegration of the army, but this did not happen, at least until the very end.

Once piece of information that bolstered the Austro-Hungarian defenders, especially the slavs from the southern areas of the empire was a leak from the Bolsheviks. After the Bolsheviks came to power they leaked all kinds of information about the various agreements that the Russians and the Entente had agreed to. This included the Treaty of London between Italy and the other countries. This agreement had promised the Italians Trento and Trieste, as was expected, but also and far more critically areas on the eastern Adriatic. The huge majority of the population in this area was Slavic, and they did not want to trade in their Austrian masters for Italian ones, in fact they were pretty well set on creating an independent Yugoslavia after the war, and in these aspirations they were supported by at the very least the Americans, and the British and French mostly did not care, but it was nice to make the Americans happy. Pressure would begin to maount on the Italians from all of the other countries in their alliance and by mid-August 1918 they would officially state that they supported a free and united Yugoslav state, a declaration which, if they had made it earlier in the war, could have won many Austro-Hungarian troops to their side. But, as I mentioned earlier, the Italians could not have cared less about the Yugoslav cause and they would do everything in their power to sabotage it.

One area that we have not discussed is the area of Italy that was now controlled by the Austrians. When the Austrians occupied the areas of Italy after Caporetto they would prove to be ill-prepared to handle the administration of these new territories. When the troops moved through they plundered and pillaged the countryside and there was widespread reports of violence against civilians, including murder and rape. Then after the first wave of soldiers came through the requisitions started of just about anything that could be eaten. This was then followed by further round of requisitions that would take far more than just food, one list of items included 95,000 sheets, 65,000 shirts, 39,000 items of underwear, 47,000 towels, 56,000 pillow slips. This list may seem like and odd set of things to take, for an army, I mean, pillow slips? But it starts to make more sense when you consider that by this point in the war the Austrian military was desperately short of textiles, soldiers were being sent to the front with paper underwear, in those kinds of situation a pillow case starts looking mighty appealing. Along with taking so many physical goods the Austrians also locked down the territory, with civilians not allowed to move around between districts without a permit. This harsh exploitation campaign would result in the death of around 10,000 civilians during the last year of the wawr. Once again, the Italians refused to help those behind Austrian lines. They refused to both send humanitarian supplies and to let civilians trapped behind the front get out of the occupied territories. The belief at army headquarters and in Rome was that these civilians were more useful where they were, causing issues for the Austrian armies and maintaing a strong Italina claim to the territory. The harsh occupation of the area did help to remove any possibility of the north eastern Italian territories falling under the Austro-Hungarian empire after the war, by the time it was over everybody in the area hated the Austrians. It would be most of the year before they were liberated, and next episdoe we will discuss what drove the Austrians to attack in the summer of 1918, and then the results of the attack, before discussing the Italian attack that followed.