154: Italian Front: The End


After three years of fighting on the Italian front, the war was over.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 154. Thank you to Peter, Kyran, Robert, Brad, and Patrick. Over the last two episodes we have discussed the events on the Italian front during 1918. In this episode we will conclude our story of the Italian front by looking at the last week of the war for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then dig into what happened after. We will also cover, somewhat briefly, the events at Versailles which pertained to Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As I mentioned in the Middle Eastern episodes, these topics are also topics that we will touch on in episodes later this year where we will dig much deeper into all of the events at Versailles. However, during those discussions these topics may get overshadowed by some of the larger topics that we will be discussing at that time, so I wanted to make sure the Italian Front gets its time in the spotlight, it also helps make these Italian episodes are more of a complete story. We will also be closing out this episode with a brief discussion of the legacy of the war in Italy. For the Italians, their part in the First World War would be a critical step in the road to the fascism and then the Second World War.

After the battle of Vittori Veneto the Allies would evaluate the situation somewhat differently than the Austrians were. In For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army, 1619-1918 Richard Bassett would say “For everyone in the Imperial and Royal Army, from the Kaiser downwards, the failed offensive was perceived as a defeat. Ironically, the Entente did not see it as a defeat. To their consternation, the Imperial and Royal Army was showing no signs of disintegration despite reports of mutiny, hunger, strikes, and the eternal problem of the feuding nationalities. This ‘defeated’ army had attacked the armies of three nations with numerical inferiority, and had conducted a skilful withdrawal, inflicing heavy casualties and taking more than 40,000 prisoners. Such was not the behavior of an army on the brink of collapse.” While the Allies may have thought that the Austrians were still holding together, on the other side of the line the situation was far more clear, the Austrian army was near the point of collapse. On November 1st Austrian representatives in contact with the Italians would request armistice terms. In The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 Mark Thompson would summarize the terms that were provided like this “The Austro-Hungarians must stop fighting at once; the imperial army must be reduced to 20 divisions and surrender half its artillery; all the occupied territories (corresponding to the Treaty of London) must be evacuated within a period to be decided by the Allies; all German troops must leave the empire within 15 days; all Allied prisoners of war must be liberated at once; and the Allies must have free use of all imperial transport networks. The terms were non-negotiable and the Austrians had until midnight on 3 November to accept.” When the Austrian leaders received this information they would spend most of the night discussing them. Emperor Karl initially resisted accepting them, but after these long discussions it was decided that there was no choice but to acquiesce, it was the only chance of keeping any semblance of the Empire together.

At the front, while these conversations wre occurring in Vienna, Boroevic was doing everything he possibly could to keep the army together. The longer the war went on the more troops just disappeared, or were killed, or were captured by the Italians. At the time that the armistice discussions were occurring Boroevic had about 80,000 loyal troops still together and organized. Over the next several days he would send messages to Karl on multiple occassions, stating that he was ready and able to march these troops to Vienna. He wa prepared to use what was left of the army to preserve the Empire and the Hapsburg dynasty, but all of these messages went unanswered. By this point Karl had lost all hope of maintaining the empire, and he was very hesitant to try and use force to keep his place on the throne, and so Boroevic was stuck waiting for a call that would never arrive.

The armistice between Italy and the Empire would come into effect at 3PM on November 4th. However, the Italians had accepted Austria’s acceptance the day before, they just wanted to delay for 24 more hours to continue their advance and to continue roundig up prisoners. There was some confusion about this fact on the Austrian side and because of this the Austrian troops believed that the war ended on November 3rd at around 3PM, and most units were unaware that there was a delay, which meant that they stopped fighting. This made all of these troops easy targets as the Italians continued to advance and this resulted in the Italians taking 350,000 prisoners just in the lsat 24 hours of the conflict. These and other troops would be held in poor conditions near the front and this would result in some 30,000 additional deaths, just due to their poor treatment. As soon as the armistice did come into effect the Italian Prime Minister Orlando announced Italy’s victory, saying that it was one of the greatest ever recorded in history. On the Austrian side the news was accompanied by a messges from Karl saying “Filled now as ever with unwavering devotion to all my peoples, I do not with to oppose the free government with my own person. I recognise in advance whatever decisions German Austria may make about its future form. I renounce all participation in the affairs of state…the happiness of my people has from the beginning been the object of my most ardent wishes. Only an inner peace can heal the wounds of war.” When peace was declared along the front many of the units just stopped fighting and begun to strike up a friendly relationship. All along the front the Austrian units continued their retreat, either as organized military units or as deserters and on November 7th the last Autrian unit crossed the pre-war border, it was over.

So, with the war over, the winners now had to figure out what they actually wanted and if they were going to get it. For Italy, they knew exactly what they wanted, and that was the territory they had been promised around Trieste in the London Treaty from 1915 and some areas on the eastern Adriatic. To the the latter they would run up against a good deal of interational support for the creation of Yugoslavia, which would need that area along the Adriatic. To increase their claim to the areas the Italians moved forces into these areas where the populace was primarily Slovene and Croatian. These military units then violently cracked down on any organized groups in the area. This was a plan created and promoted by General Badoglio and fully endorsed by Rome. Once these units were in place they then spent money and time on a propaganda campaign that was designed to try and destroy popular support for the neew country. These efforts attempted to achieve two goals, the first was to try and make the area instable, justifying the Italian army’s presence there. The second goal was to try and discredit and erode the support for the Yugoslav nationas that would be at Versailles talking to other countries. In both of these goals the Italians were almostly entirely unsuccessful. All that Italy’s efforts did was drive all of the Yugoslav nationalists, and the civilians in the area closer to the Serbians. If there was any group that you did not want to have clashing claims with at Versailles it was the Serbs. No eastern country had better claims for whatever they wanted, and no eastern country who have a larger voice at the peace conferences.

Unfortunately for Italian aspirations their leaders would procede to completely mishandle the negotiations at Versailles. In their defense, it was impossible to properly prepare for Versailles. A journalist would say that “the crushing weight of the world” lay on the leaders shoulders and ‘They were supreme as perhaps no body of men in history has been supreme. No one could control them.’ When it came down to it, there were three important men at Versailles, French Prime Minister Clemenceau, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, and American President Wilson. Orlando hoped to be in this group but was mostly unsuccessful. He was generally thought of very poorly by the other leaders, and it was difficult for him to make an impact. The biggest issue was that Orlando was playing from a point of weakness. He knew that Italy did not even have close to the power of the other countries, and so he was not involved with negotiations that were not directly related to Italy. This prevented him from having an impact on the negotiations as a whole, which minimized Italy and its concerns. It did not help that the Italians were constantly pushing for greater gains, while the other nations did not even really see much of a need to honor the Treaty of London that Italy had signed in 1915.

While the negotiaions in France dragged on and on, the situation on the Italian home front began to deteriorate. There was a concerted effort by some groups within Italy to move the country to a more reasonable position in the post war world and to temper the expansionist aspects of its foreign policy. The leading voice in this movement was Leonida Bissolati who led a campaign to limit Italy’s territorial ambitions, especially in areas where there was not an Italian majority. he would try his best to convince other Italians that this path was the correct one, but on January 11th when speaking at a public meeting in Milan his movement would fall apart. At the meeting Bissolati would be shouted down by hardcore nationalists who favored an even larger Italian expansion into the Balkans and elsewhere. This is sometimes cited as the first act of organized fascist violence. With the silencing of the reasonable path, Italy was not setup for disappointment. What was being demanded by the people, what was being demanded by Orlando, was simply unattainable, they just were not going to get everything they wanted. And this setup them upon the path to disappointment.

In Versailles Orlando simply refused to budge from his positions on what Italy deserved. While at the same time the Italian military strengthened its position in future Yugoslavia. In February 1919 the Italians threatened to stop all humanitarian aid from America that was going to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Austria in order to get concessions from the other countries. The Americans simply answered that they would stop all aid that was on its way to Italy, which forced the Italians to back down. In April 1919, when it was suggested that the Germans should finally be brought into the negotiations Orlando refused to proceed until Italy’s claims had been handled. By this point Lloyd George was done with Italy, and just wanted them to stop being a nuisance and so he said that Britain would agree to anything that Wilson and Orlando agreed to. In essence, this solved two problems that Lloyd George and Clemenceaur had in a single stroke, it made Wilson feel important and got Orlando out of the way by giving them their own little project to work on. They also knew that Wilson would probably never agree to many of the expansionist dreams of the Italians.

Wilson, while perhaps not able to have the influence in Versailles that he initially hoped, found it easy to throw America’s weight around againt Italy. When Wilson and Orlando met Wilson suggested that the port of Fiume, high on the list of Italian desires, be made into a free port with considerable autonomy, but within the Yugoslav sphere of economic influence. Orlando refused. Then Wilsom made it very clear that the Eastern Adriatic was off limits, that was all going to Yugoslavia. Orlando did not approve. Then Wilson stated, quite plainly, that the Treaty of London could not be reconciled with the peace that would be made, and the Italians would, essentially, just have to deal with it. Wilson would eventually suspend further loans to Italy until the situation was resolved. Orlando, frustrated, said that if these areas were denied to Italy he would leave Versailles and Italy would refuse to join the league of nations. Wilson would call this threat “unbelievable” which prompted Orlando to announce that he would be leaving the conference. Lloyd George is said to have laughed when he found out that Orlando thought that the conference would come to a halt without him being present saying ‘They always believe that we people of the North bluff the way they do.’ While those in Versailles were losing more and more patience with Italy, in the streets of Rome signs were all over the city demanding that the Adriatic Coast and Fiume be given to Italy.

The core of the problem between Italy and the other nations is that Wilson firmly insisted on the creation of Yugoslavia, and in this he was supported by France and Britain. The Italians on the other hand did not even pay lip service to things like self-determination and anti-imperialism. They did not want any less territory than the British or French really, but the Italians simply refused to play the game. When, on May 26th, Orlando returned to Versailles he woud say that Italy would give up its claim to Fiume if everything else in the Treaty of London was honored. To this Wilson still refused, and Clemenceau agreed. At the end of the day Fiume would be a free city, at least for the moment, and it would be recognized as a separate state under the new League of Nations. Italy would be given some of its other demands, but most of the areas that they wanted went to Yugoslavia. When it came time for the Italians to sign the treaty, it would not be Orlando who was in charge. Just a few days before the treaty was ready, in June 1919, Orlando had been ousted from his seat in the government. While on paper this settled the situation, in Fiume the war was far from over. General D’Annunzio and a band of Italian war veterans would march into and occupy Fiume in September 1919. When D’Annunzio’s group lost the first free elections in the city, they made Fiume into a warzone. In 1922 they would win back control, and hand the city over to Mussolini in 1923.

For its part in the war, Italy had gained territory that included 300,000 Slovenes, 200,000 Croats, 250,000 German speaking Austrians, and just 650,000 Italians. To try and make sure that these new areas were properly incorporated into Italy, war veterans were asked to settle in the area. To get these small territorial gains the Italians had sacrificed 690,000 soldiers, with a million more seriously wounded, and 600,000 civilians due to war related hardship. It was a heavy price, and it would only be the beginning of the hardship for the Italians.

Just to wrap up one final story, I think outside of the Western Front, the person who has been in our story hte longest is General Boroevic of the Austro-Hungarian army. he had commanded the Empire’s troops through the hard battles of the Isonzo, through the great victory at Caporetto, and through the great defeats of 1918. After the war Boroevic would settle in Austria, after having been exiled from Yugoslavia even though he was a Slav, because of his role in the war. He would live the rest of his life in destitution and had to rely on the charity of former soldiers to help him through. Just a few years after the war, in 1920, he would die of a stroke. After he died, the Former Emperor Karl would pay for a memorial to be erected for Boroevic out of his own pocket. A sad end to one of the Empire’s most loyal generals.

Of couse, the war did not end with the signing of the treaty at Versailles, or even with the death of some of its participants. All over Europe the shadow of the war would be felt for decades to come, and nowhere moreso than in Italy. The disappointment of the Italian gains after the war would feed into a narrative of Italy having been betrayed by its allies. Italian nationalists would rage agaainst Wilson, rage against not being given their territory in the Adriatic. These mindsets would then play into many of the economic hardships experienced in Italy, as much like other countries it tried to come to terms with the devastated areas of the country, the massive levels of public debt, and dealing with their demobilizing army. The total cost of the war for Italy was 148 billion lire, which is obviously hard to properly put into context, but if you total up the budget of Italy from 1861 to 1914, it still comes to a little under half of what was spent from 1914 to 1918. 5.5 million men had been brought into the army, 2/5 of them became casualties, and 3/5 of them now had to readjust to civilian life. Cost of living and inflation would continue to rise in 1919, a problem felt worst by those of society least able to bear it. The traditional government found itself distrusted, the socialists found themselves unprepared to lead, and those of more radical ideologies found a power vacuum that they were glad to fill.

Even with all of the hardships of the First World War there were many who saw it as a critical step on the countries path because it was the first major national challenge the country had faced since unification. It had caused the country to come together, but it was about to be once again torn apart. During his rise ot poewr Mussolini would use the First World War for his own purposes. He would glofiy the soldiers who had fought in it, and demonise those they had fought for. What were once small, almost personal cemetaries on the Carso, where small groups of families made their own little areas, became grand monuments to Italy. At Redipuglia, the largest Italian cemetery the remains of soldiers were brought together into 22 colossal terraces, with the Duke of Aosta buried between them. Here the cemetary celebrated the Third Army, even though all it did was unsuccessfully attack on the Carso. Other giant monuments were built in the inter-war period as well. But instead of promoting remembrance and honoring the sacrifices that were made, they were used to promote Italian nationalism and eventually fascism. In some ways the war would never end in Italy. By 1922 Mussolini, himself a veteran of the Isonzo and Asiago fighting, was already on his way to power. Beyound that lay more fighting, more death, more suffering, another war, another story, for another time.