Italy and the First World War

General Oskar von Hutier iIn 1882 Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the Triple Alliance. The three countries agreed to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia. It was renewed at five-yearly intervals. The formation of the Triple Entente in 1907 by Britain, France and Russia, reinforced the need for the alliance.

On 28th June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. On 6th July the German government gave its support for Austro-Hungarian reprisals against Serbia. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia and France began to mobilize its troops. This resulted in Germany declaring war on Russia (1st August) and France (3rd August). When the German Army entered Belgium on 4th August, Britain declared war on Germany.

Socialists, pacifists and republicans in Italy demanded that the country kept out of the war. On 2nd August, Antonio Salandra, the prime minister, announced that in response to popular pressure, Italy would not honour its Triple Alliance obligations.

Salandra feared that Italy would be attacked by his former allies. General Luigi Cadorna, chief of staff of the Italian Army began building up his army and placed a large percentage of them on the borders with Austria-Hungary.

At a secret meeting held in England on 26th April 1915, representatives of the Italian government agreed to enter the war in return for financial help and the granting of land currently under the control of Austria-Hungary. The Treaty of London resulted in Britain granting an immediate loan of £50 million and a promise to support Italian territorial demands after the war.

By the spring of 1915 General Luigi Cadorna had 25 infantry and 4 cavalry divisions. Grouped into four armies, Cadorna only had 120 heavy or medium artillery pieces and some 700 machine guns. Despite the shortage of artillery Cadorna launched mass attacks on Austria-Hungary in May 1915. The defending army quickly built trenches and the Italians suffered heavy casualties. In the first two weeks of the Isonzo Offensive, the Italian Army lost 60,000 men. By the time the attacks were called off that winter, Italian casualties had reached 300,000.

Primary Sources

(1) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

Two slaves, who were perhaps not so completely cowed as the rest, said to my master, who was about to flog them, "No, massa, we not going to be flogged so much, we won't submit." "What is that you say?" my master said, starting back. They repeated, "We are not going to allow you to beat us as you have done." "How will you prevent it?" he said. "You'll see, you'll see, massa," speaking half threateningly. He was evidently afraid of them. When they went home at night he spoke mildly to them, and told them, "he only wanted them to do their work, that it would be better if they could get on in the fields without him. Don't hurry yourselves, my boys."