The Italian Disaster

[The Literary Digest; November 10, 1917]

The collapse of Italy's Eastern front is disheartening to the Allies, says the Indianapolis News, "not because it points to their defeat, but because it postpones their victory." In all sections of the country we find our press discussing this staggering and unexpected blow to our hopes in a tone not of pessimism, but of increased seriousness and grim determination. "The Italian disaster will unhappily prolong the war, but it is not going to change the result one jot, if that result can be assured by the United States," declares the Chicago Tribune, one of the nation's most influential and representative newspapers. And it adds: "The Stars and Stripes are in the trenches to-day and they are going forward there, not back, forward till the enemy's power is beaten down and he is ready for peace for all time." "The news from Italy should intensify our work of mobilizing and organizing our forces for efficient fighting," says the St. Louis Post Dispatch, for "all that Germany does we must undo and all our Allies leave undone we must do." The lesson we must take to heart, says the Pittsburg Chronicle Telegraph, is that "Germany is making a fight to a finish and America must deliver the knock-out blow." Just as the collapse of Russia threw an additional burden on America, so does this Italian defeat, remarks the Pittsburg Dispatch, which adds: "There can, of course, be only one ending to the struggle, but it is going to take every ounce of effort and power we can put forth to compass that end with expedition and thoroughness." "The German victory, then," affirms the Manchester, N. H., Union, "is a soul-stirring call to reaffirmation of high purpose to see this thing through at all costs and for any length of time, a call to unyielding refusal to consider the spurious peace offers concocted behind the German lines, and a call to accelerated war-effort in the United States, where the weapons are being forged that are to win liberty's war for existence."

While many papers share the Boston News Bureau's opinion that this stroke at Italy "may well be the desperate gambler's last great stake," they do not blink the seriousness of the situation nor shut their eyes to the ominous possibilities if fortune should favor the gambler. Among these possibilities, they note, are: the elimination of Italy from the war; a Teutonic invasion of southern France through northern Italy; and the undermining of the Allied morale through the strengthening of the seditious and antiwar elements in the nations arrayed against Germany. Dark enough, they admit, are such inescapable certainties of the situation as the enhanced prestige of the German Army and the German Government; the political strength added to the junker and Pan-German forces in Germany; the revival of Austria's fainting war-spirit, and the stiffening of Turkey and Bulgaria in their support of Prussianism. On the military side alone, they go on to say, it would be folly to belittle a blow that in eight days cost Italy 180,000 prisoners, 1,500 guns, and positions which Cadorna's troops had fought laboriously for two years to gain. They do not, however, concede the claim of the Bremen Weser Zeitung, which declares that "the most pessimistic Germans must now see that Germany is strong enough to win peace by force."

This tremendous Austro-German thrust into Italy, declares the Berlin Vorwärts, "was not undertaken in an aggressive spirit with the object of conquest, but solely to bring peace nearer." And in the Brooklyn Eagle we read: "It is a part of the German peace offensive and is aimed at Italy because of internal conditions there. The same Teutonic influences that have been at work elsewhere have had a measure of success in Italy. The peace intrigue that was defeated in France, that was only partly successful in Russia, and failed miserably in the United States and in England has been more fruitful in Italy.

"We do not know the full story of Italy's struggle, but behind the fall of the Boselli Government was much more than the Italian defeat on the Isonzo. The Pope's peace proposal, which produced negative results elsewhere, was a powerful instrument put into the hands of the pacifists and pro-Germans in Italy. Terrible economic conditions have added to the strength of this element, which has made the most of every disturbance, and particularly the bread riots in Turin during the summer. "All these factors have played their part in weakening the Government and in strengthening the hands of certain unscrupulous politicians who have been ready to betray Italy to the Germans ever since they were defeated in their efforts to keep Italy out of the war. The real danger to Italy and to the Entente springs from this condition, rather than from any military damage the Austro-German forces are capable of inflicting. If the peace offensive at home can be overcome and Italy can quench the treacherous back-fire that is burning behind her lines, the military defense of the country may be left to General Cadorna. Properly supported by his Allies and a loyal Government, the Italian commander will save Italy."

Admitting that "here is a Teuton victory which can not be minimized," the Boston Transcript says:

"In a single day, as it were, the Italians' efforts of two years have been swept away, their armies on the Julian front have been captured or broken to pieces, their whole line southward to the Adriatic has been shaken and put in danger of early destruction, and the Venetian plain, at least as far as the Tagliamento River, which seems indeed providentially drawn across the province of Udine as a possible defense for Venice, given over to the enemy. Nor do the possibilities of this victory of the Teutons end with the tactical advantage which they have gained. By it the drooping loyalty of the Austrians and Hungarians to the tyrannical rule of Berlin will be revived, and the growing rebelliousness of the Slavic peoples of Austria-Hungary will be subdued. The courage of the German people will be renewed, and all present hope of separating them from their Kaiser paralyzed. For the time being, and unless the fine resolution and the inherited magic of command of King Victor Emmanuel can succeed in rallying his troops and his people, the Italians are put in the miserable position of the Russians. To the German people the Berlin Government will be able to represent the British and French successes before Ypres and Laon as of no comparative consequence. The victory opens the way for not merely a campaign of Belgian ravage in Venetia, but for a German campaign of disintegrating intrigue and bribery in all the Allied countries.

"It is proper to note all these elements of encouragement to the German side in the victory on the Italian front. But it would be base to yield in any degree whatsoever to the menace of them. Did France yield when her beaten armies poured in upon Paris after the defeats at Mons and Charleroi? Did not French and British resolution, bravery, and resource then rally for a noble effort, which hurled back the Germans to the Aisne? Was not that German success the very thing that united France and Britain? Did the German rush into France have any other effect in this country than to intensify American sympathy with France and prepare the way for our eventual entrance into the war on her side? Not otherwise can be the effect of the dreadful Italian reverse on the Allied, and particularly the American, support of Italy……."

"It is a time to double every effort. It is an emergency that must be met. Tactically, we may hope that in some measure the disaster may be redeemed. The line of the Tagliamento may be held through the restorative effort of the brave young King's genius. There is a limit to the expenditure of German man-power possible on this line, with Haig and Pétain pressing to fresh victories in the West. A new chapter of success may open for the Allies in France and Belgium and even in Macedonia. It is time to fight, to organize, to push, to pay. The eventual victory must and will be won."

As an almost immediate sequel to Mackensen's terrific drive against Italy comes Russia's virtual withdrawal from the war. This was revealed in Premier Kerensky's statement, through the Associated Press, on November 2, that Russia, worn out by the strain, "claims as her right that the other Allies now should shoulder the burden of the war." Commenting on this, a Washington correspondent of the New York Evening Sun says:

"No doubt exists in Allied quarters that the first great Entente Power to enter the war is quitting. Whether she will make a separate peace or merely remain inactive until spring, information available here does not make clear."

"Russia's decision to cease active participation in the war is believed to have been reached some time ago. There have been closely veiled intimations in some Allied quarters for several days that Russia had decided to quit and that Germany knew it before the Kaiser swung his legions from the Russian front to northern Italy to support the Austrians in the great drive against Cadorna."

In Italy, on the other hand, public opinion seems to be solidified instead of demoralized by the invasion—a unity symbolized by the new Coalition Cabinet under Premier Orlando. The Italian comment that reaches us, moreover, reflects nothing but confidence and determination; and an Associated Press dispatch from the Italian front drops this remarkable hint of actual benefits accruing to the Allied cause:

"While the horrors of the recent experience stand out boldly to those who went through it, yet this is offset by the magnitude of the beneficial military and strategic results accomplished."

"Exactly what these are can not even be hinted at for the present, but the main fact is that another wall—another line of steel—will face the enemy and all Europe and America are now doing their part to second Italy's tremendous task."

"It is easy to come down to the plains!—it is not so easy to get back again," remarks Capt. Lamberto Vannutelli, of the Italian Embassy at Washington. And General Corsi, the famous military critic of the Rome Tribuna, reminds us that the lines of communication through the Alps will soon be covered deep with snow, while the Allies will have the plains of Italy at their back.

All sections of Italy have been welded together and political antagonism supprest, reports the Milan correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph. Dispatches from Rome claim that even in retreat the Italian forces have "inflicted terrible losses on the enemy and captured thousands of prisoners," the number of Germans killed in the great battle on the Bainsizza Plateau alone being placed at 30,000. The French and British troops rushed to the support of Italy report that they found the Italian armies "stronger materially and morally than had been expected in view of their reverses in the mountain sector," and in the semiofficial Giornale d'ltalia (Rome) we read:

"The Entente immediately understood that at Friuli will be decided not only the Italian war but the European War. Before the imposing concentration of German, Austrian, and even Bulgarian and Turkish forces, there have been hurried to our battle-fields Franco-English soldiers to defend by the side of our Army the future of world democracy."

Turning again to the statement of General Corsi as cabled to the New York World, we read:

"The enemy in launching his offensive must have decided on three objectives, one of tactics, one of strategy, and one of politics, deriving his success from the strategical objective. He took advantage of the Tolmino door to break through our lines on the middle lower Isonzo, and with a maximum expenditure of effort succeeded in this plan. He hoped to achieve also a political objective in the dissolution of the Italian Army and the weakening of the national resistance. This strategical political offensive induced the enemy to employ all the strength he could assemble, otherwise the enormous Austro-German-Turkish-Bulgarian effort could not be explained.

"The enemy, however, has not achieved the result he expected, since the withdrawal of the Italian Army was successful……."

"With the entrance into action of the Italian cavalry, the command announces successful maneuvers carried out by the horse, which, for the first time, appears to be playing an important role in the war since the battle of Charleroi."

"Prompt, resolute decision has been shown by the nation, afflicted with sorrow, but firm and determined to fight until final victory shall have been obtained."

"The Austro-German offensive has entered upon a new phase, in which the fighting is being, conducted in the open, and in this phase the measure of the enemy will be taken by the Entente Powers, and a decisive battle on the plains is probable……."

"Whatever the number of Italians taken prisoner, the strength of the army of General Cadorna has not been weakened. It must not be forgotten, in fact, that Italy has under the colors more than 3,000,000 men. As for guns that the Austro-Germans claim to have captured, they only represent the production of a few weeks of the munitions-factories of our Allies."

Gen. Pasquale Tozzi, head of the Italian military mission to the United States, is convinced, according to the Washington correspondents, that the invaders will be stopt at the Tagliamento line, altho Berlin claims to have captured already several important bridge-heads on that river. "The supreme command is looking forward, not backward," says a dispatch from Italian headquarters, which adds: "War is a game, and if the enemy gives a hard blow, you must give a harder counter-blow." "Both country and army have the firm and unanimous will to fight, and win with sure faith in victory," declares Count di Cellere, Italian Ambassador at Washington, Premier Orlando, in a telegram assuring General Cadorna that this terrific Teutonic blow "has not curbed our spirit nor broken up the inner strength of the country," speaks of the "victory which can not fail us." And Premier Lloyd George affirms his confidence that "Italy and her Allies will not only stem the tide of the enemy advance, but in due course will roll it back forever."

"The Germans beckon us to the Italian front, and with a very hearty good-will we shall oblige them," remarks the military correspondent of the London Times, while from the Associated Press correspondent at Cadorna's headquarters comes the statement that "another wall will face the enemy," and that "all Europe and America are now doing their part." These words are interpreted by the. New York Times to mean that the Allies will how seek a military decision on the Italian instead of the French and Belgian front:

"It seems certain that the Allies at the Paris conference have decided on nothing less than the transference of the winter's warfare from Flanders and the Aisne to Italy. They will hold their lines in the north, of course, and continue to pound the enemy there; but Germany has offered them the opportunity to face a German army in the open, before it can dig in, and without doubt great French and British armies will be sent to Italy with the idea of striking the smashing blow there. And it is to be borne in mind that if a German army is smashed in Italy, the smashing can be followed up as it can not be on the Aisne or at Verdun. If the Germans can be driven back in Italy they can be followed; they can be followed to enemy territory. The German drive at Italy was a calamity, but it has in it the possibility of a blessing. If that German army can be defeated, it can be routed, it can be driven home; whereas, a German defeat in Flanders or France offers no such possibility."

"Thus it seems probable that the whole aspect of the war may have been changed in the twinkling of an eye; that the Allies have the intention of making Italy the great battle-ground for the defeat of Germany; and it certainly seems that their opportunities on such a battle-ground are very much greater than they could become for a long time in the northern field."

"There is every reason to expect that, with unified Italy at his back, Cadorna will perform his task of holding the Germans either at his present line or at some other until Italy's Allies can have their men and supplies on the spot in sufficient force to turn northern Italy into the place where the issue of the war can be fought."

The Springfield Republican also recognizes the possibility that "the military center of gravity may abruptly shift to the plains of northern Italy, where history has so often been decided, and where winter need bring no slackening whatever in the intensity of the struggle."

The great lesson of the Italian disaster for the Allies, according to Mr. Frank H. Simonds, military expert of the New York Tribune, is the need to pool military resources, centralize control, and frame a concerted program. All Germany's victories during this war, he reminds us, have been due to the ability of the High Command to concentrate its forces and stake all on a single blow, while "so far the Allies have been unable to sustain a similar unity of purpose." Recalling Napoleon's insistence on unity of command and concentration of effort, Mr. Simonds says:

"Through all the period of his great wars Napoleon fought coalitions and alliances. His victories in the early period of the Empire were won with inferior numbers under conditions which should have produced victory for his opponents. Austerlitz was possible because of division in the counsel of Russian and Austrian leaders. It was not until 1813 that his opponents learned to act together with any measure of coherence, and as late as the Marne campaign of 1814 division of forces gave Napoleon his last victories, and almost enabled him to triumph over vast numbers when his armies had been reduced, to a handful."

"We have always known that the Germans were close students of the Napoleonic warfare, and from the very outset of this war their operations have been conducted on the Napoleonic scale and with the Napoleonic principles in mind. Whether German armies have been acting alone or have been joined with Austrian, Bulgarian, or Turkish armies, the German General Staff has been the master, as was Napoleon in the days when he drew armies not alone from smaller subject states, but even from Prussia, to serve with his own Grand Army. The result has been in the ease of Germany, as in the case of Napoleon, that the whole striking forces have been concentrated on a single point, sometimes with fatal consequences to the enemy, never without carrying immediate and. deadly peril not alone to the armies, but to the whole existence of a hostile nation.

"Going backward to the beginning of the war, one sees that the Germans struck at France with all their forces, after superior preparation, possessing troops better equipped, provided with better artillery, and, like their commanders, animated with the determination to destroy at a single thrust."

"French strategy availed to parry the blow at the Marne and pinned down the German attack at the Yser, but German High Command was thereafter able to forge a new thunderbolt against Russia, which eventually destroyed Russian military power and for all practical purposes put Russia out of the war. The blow at Servia accomplished the same thing on a smaller scale. The blow directed at France at Verdun was for exactly the same purpose, altho it failed. The blow that has now fallen upon Italy has the same character, the same purpose, and has had great initial success."

"Now, when one sets against this policy the Allied policy of three years of conflict one sees clearly why superior ultimate resources and devotion not less great have failed so far to win a decisive victory. While the conflict was between France and Germany in the Marne campaign there was unity of command on the Allied side, and this unity of command enabled France to save Europe. But after the Marne and the Yser there begins a long period in which we have side-shows—the wasting of scanty British numbers at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, the transfer of French and British troops to Saloniki, the collapse of Russia in 1915, due in the first instance to the inability of the Allies in the West to occupy German troops on their front, and we are now seeing the defeat of Italy because of the failure of Russia."

In the long run the coalition against Napoleon triumphed, in spite of all handicaps, just as the coalition against Germany must triumph. Mr. Simonds, however, seems to still expect the decision on the French and Belgian front:

"Even were Italy to be crusht, Germany could not win the war against Britain, France, and the United States, unless these three nations should consent to give up a struggle which they could not lose if it were pursued. Russia and Italy, even if Italy were permanently removed from the war now, have lasted long enough to destroy Austria's value as an ally to Germany, and Germany must stand or fall alone in a battle with three nations, two of which in wealth and in population vastly exceed the Kaiser's empire."

"Napoleon failed at the task which the Kaiser has undertaken. Louis XIV failed, with better initial advantages, against a Europe more completely disorganized. Nothing is more eloquently illustrative of the situation than the fact that every German success is immediately used in Berlin and elsewhere by every German agent as the basis of the flotation of peace propaganda."

"On the other hand, it is plain that German defeat will be tremendously delayed if the French, the British, and the American High Commands, together with the Italian, if Italy is to remain a belligerent, as one should now believe, do not imitate the German method and measurably, at least, seek to achieve unity of command in all directions and concentration of resources on a single front. If Italy can now be saved and the enemy pinned down at the Tagliamento, Italian man-power should thereafter be joined to French, British, and American on the Belgian and French fronts, and the campaign of 1918 should see the concentration of every man and every gun available in a final effort to break the military power of Germany, as Germany has sought to break the military power of each one of her foes separately."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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