Italy's Great Service in the War

Effects of Her Destruction of the Triple Alliance—An Example of
Intelligent Preparation Before the Plunge into War—Her
Moral Greatness in Resisting Starvation, German
Propaganda, and the Misunderstanding of
Her Allies—Her Present Military Aid

By William Roscoe Thayer

[The World's Work, August 1918]

Italy has been the most misunderstood and consequently the most misjudged of all the Allies. It was only after the serious disaster at Caporetto, in October, 1917, that we and the French and English came to recognize officially the greatness of the task which Italy had had to accomplish and the reasons for her partial failure. She had three difficulties to overcome—diplomatic entanglements, material and financial obstacles, and internal enemies.

Her chief diplomatic entanglement when the war began, came from the fact, that for thirty-two years she had been a partner with Germany and Austria in the Triple Alliance. This secret agreement had proved to be the most lasting of all Bismarck's international arrangements. Having created the German Empire in 1871, as the first fruits of his victory over the French, he laid about to discover the means by which he might assure the permanence of the German Empire. He saw clearly enough that the day would come when an irresistible conflict would break out between the rising forces of Democracy and the long established power of Despotism, and he intended to strengthen and prepare Germany to be the last stronghold of Despotism. He knew that the House of Hohenzollern had won all its victories at home and abroad under despotic principles; he ridiculed publicly the incapacity of the Germans for self government, and he understood clearly that, their innate servility toward their rulers and their devotion to militarism made them willing tools of their despots.

In his desire to render Despotism invincible he thought of uniting Austria and Russia with Germany in an alliance for mutual defense. But Russia declined his overtures; not that the Czar had any intention of abandoning Despotism in governing Russia, but that he preferred to be his own despot, and he was sufficiently astute to see that whoever would ride on the same horse with Bismarck must ride behind. Foiled in this scheme, Bismarck had to look round for another partner. Regarding France both as the chief champion of Democracy in continental Europe, and as the nation which would be most likely to form any league and to seize any occasion for attacking Germany, he tried less than five years after the Franco-Prussian War ended, to stir up another quarrel with her, in which he said he would "bleed her white" beyond all hope of recovery; and he never ceased to regret that he had not reduced her to a mere province in 1871. To isolate her became the dominant purpose of his statecraft. One way of doing this was to kindle hatred between Italy and France. There being already a good deal of friction between those countries, he made this dynamic by an overt act. Italy had long coveted Tunis as an African colony on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. The French, who already possessed Algeria, wished to expand over Tunis also, and Bismarck intimated that neither he nor the English would raise any objections. So the French took Tunis, and thereby aroused a storm of rage against them throughout Italy. The transaction cost Bismarck nothing, but it fomented the hatred which he desired between the two Latin countries. It also created in the Italians a sense of their isolation, amounting almost to helplessness, which made them easy victims of his further seduction; for of course they were unaware that he had abetted the French in seizing Tunis.

United Italy was a young nation barely ten years old, and she had not yet outlived the curse of sectionalism which left her weak at home and. unfeared abroad. She had to catch up with her civilized neighbors in education, in railroads, in telegraphs, and in all the other organs of modern material progress. She was tremendously handicapped by lack of coal and iron; she was very poor in the means of producing wealth; and she was staggering under the debts of the former small states, out of which she grew. A permanent cause of anxiety lurked in her very midst; this was the residence at Rome of the Pope, whose most zealous adherents in Catholic countries constantly threatened to reestablish his temporal power. But what better protection could she have against Papal intrigues than Germany, the chief Protestant power on the Continent?


Accordingly, by the year 1881 the Italians were ready, through Bismarck's manipulations, which they did not suspect, to think favorably of the suggestion to join Germany in an alliance. They found that they would have to include Austria also, and this was a very bitter proposal, because the Italians had only recently fought their way to independence from Austrian dominion. Nevertheless, the Italian Government, and many of the political leaders consented to the alliance, magnifying to its largest proportions the fact that Italy was a partner of Germany, and paying as little attention as possible to Austria. This Triple Alliance was purely defensive. The vital clause in it bound the other members to go to the aid of the third in case he were attacked. The terms of the treaty were kept secret for many years but its substance soon leaked out. What did Italy get from it? Most of her gain was theoretical: the Alliance would protect her from an attack by France and would render improbable any attempt by Austria to restore the Pope. It also somewhat increased her feeling of importance, and her self-reliance. But it opened the door to "peaceful penetration" by Germany, and reduced her almost to the state of Germany's vassal in commerce and in industry before the year 1914.

When the war was imminent in July in that year, the world speculated as to what Italy would do. She being a member of the Triple Alliance, it was assumed, by those who form their opinions hastily, that she would take part on the side of her allies. The suspense we all felt was almost intolerable. Finally, late in the night of July 31st, Italy announced to France that she would not take part against the Allies, but would denounce the Triple Alliance and retire from it. The relief caused by this announcement was almost incalculable. Italy's action permitted the French to withdraw several army corps from the Italian frontier, and to transfer them to the North to meet the German shock. The moral significance was equally great: the Italians, having had, as partners of the Teutons, special means of knowing the origins of the war, declared that it was aggressive and not defensive, thus exposing for all time the pretexts and excuses of the German statesmen, and the lies of the German Kaiser.


The Germans cried out that the Italians had betrayed the pledge they had given in the Triple Alliance, but this charge was false, as the terms of that treaty made evident. In order that the reader may have no doubt of this, I quote Article III of the treaty, " If one or two of the High Contracting Parties should be attacked without direct provocation on their part, and be engaged in war with two or several Great Powers not signatory to this Treaty, the casus foederis shall apply simultaneously to all the High Contracting Powers."

It was tacitly understood, however, that Italy should not be drawn into war with England, in case that country were at war with Germany or Austria. In 1914 the Germans were bent on discrediting Italy, so that the Allies would put no trust in her. The great joy that we experienced on knowing that Italy would not aid the Teutons, was soon followed by a puzzled surprise. We took it for granted that her break with them implied that she would fight against them. Nevertheless, week followed week during that awful month of August, when the Huns swept through France, but Italy made no sign of moving. In early September, Foch defeated the German hosts at the Marne, and then they made their first great drive for Calais, but still the Italians did not move. Then rumors flew about—rumors which the Germans did their utmost to spread—that the Italians were soulless mercenaries, vilely, waiting to see which of the combatants would pay them best for their support.


The autumn passed by, winter came on, the Germans intrenched themselves from the Channel to Switzerland; the French and English urgently needed reinforcements on the western front; still the Italians remained impassive. Impassive, but not idle, for they devoted themselves to getting ready a large army, because the outbreak of the war had found them exhausted in munitions and supplies as well as in troops; their two years, campaign in Tripoli and against the Turks having left them quite unprepared for a new and greater conflict. Now this was the reason, this unpreparedness, which caused Italy to remain neutral throughout the winter of 1914-15. She was not, as the Germans insinuated, putting her support at the service of the highest bidder, although Rome was infested by German intriguers and by the agents of the Allies, each of whom tried to win her over by the strongest inducements. Just as the Kaiser sent over here some of his glib corruptors, like Dernburg, so he sent a lot of them into Italy, and it was perhaps evidence that he then regarded it more important to win Italy over than the United States, that he despatched to Rome the oiliest, sleekest, and most resourceful of all his trained seducers, Prince Bülow.

To understand how promising the field was in which Bülow worked, we must remember that for twenty-five years German capital had been dominating northern Italy. Under its impulse, banks, factories, mills, steamship companies and a vigorous foreign trade had sprung up and prospered. Naturally, the Germans, who had the money, controlled these enterprises and put Germans in to manage them. German interests gradually became very powerful, and the native Italians found that deputies representing those interests were elected to parliament, and had much influence, direct or indirect, on legislation. So Prince Bülow could count on this support. He could count also on a certain section of the Italian nobility; either because it had never forgotten its allegiance to its former petty rulers before the days of United Italy, or because the aristocratic class was more or less solidaire in all countries. It required no great cleverness to convince them that autocratic Germany was fighting for them, because it was bent on destroying Democracy, the system which, if it finally triumphed, would do away with nobles and monarchs too. Bülow had a third ally in the Blacks, the Papal party which cared nothing for the welfare of Italy but has always gladly clasped the hand of any accomplice, or welcomed any scheme that aimed at breaking up the Italian Kingdom—the condition precedent to the restoration of the Pope's temporal power. There was a fourth element also with which the wily Bülow coquetted, the Socialists. We can judge now from having seen the effects of German intrigues on the Russian Socialists, how dangerous Bülow's manipulation of the Italian threatened to be. One of the astonishing facts of the past four years is that the Socialists of all the other countries, although they protest that they are international, allow themselves to become willing dupes, victims, or accomplices, of the German Socialists. Socialism will have a hard task when it tries to explain this monstrous incongruity.


The prince not only carried in his pocket vulgar gold for buying those who were purchasable, but he carried in his portfolio enticing offers which he dangled before the Italian Government. When at last he realized that he could neither frighten nor cajole Italy into fighting alongside of her partners in the Triple Alliance, he worked desperately to persuade her to remain neutral, and with this in view, he promised her the Trentino and Triest if she would not join the Allies. The territory he so coolly offered belonged to Austria and not to Germany, but he knew, and the Kaiser knew, and the world now knows, that Austria was virtually Germany's vassal, and would have to accept whatever arrangements the German Kaiser dictated.

Competing with Bülow were the French and the English spokesmen, who used arguments which in general appealed to the higher nature and ideals of the Italians. They made it plain that if Italy, the country which had achieved her independence through the principle of freedom, the country whose founders were Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour—the three apostles of freedom—were to side with Germany; she would deny her guiding principles; and become herself the tool of Despotism. No doubt also they urged her to understand that in the long run her material prosperity was likely to be bound up in friendship with the western powers and not with the Teutons. They, too, promised her that at the close of the war she should have back Unredeemed Italy, and they were willing to give her immediately a subsidy—not very large—toward paying the cost of putting her army into the field.

Two things prevented her from being lured by Prince Bülow: first, the loyalty of King Victor Emmanuel to the tradition of liberty, and, next, the rising tide of anti-German public opinion among the masses and the intellectual leaders of the country. At last, on May 24th, 1915, her military preparations having been completed, Italy, amid a burst of popular enthusiasm, declared war on Austria.

Why on Austria alone? Because she regarded Austria as the actual provoker of the war. The ultimate criminal was unquestionably Germany, which had been waiting for many years for a pretext for war. Recently, Germany had instigated Austria to force the issue with Serbia, and at the last moment, when Austria seemed on the point of coming to a peaceful understanding with Russia, the German Emperor had sent to France and to Russia his ultimatums which made peace impossible. Italy had also other reasons for aiming at Austria rather than Germany, or at both; Austria was her immediate neighbor; Austria held the territory of Unredeemed Italy which was to be delivered from bondage; Austria, as Italy's hereditary enemy and oppressor, kindled the instinctive animosity of the Italians.

Part II

Once at war, Italy prosecuted it with all her resources. In the course of a year she had a million men under arms at or near the front. She drilled two million more, but she had not enough arms or munitions or uniforms to equip them. She had to fight over the most difficult terrain in Europe—in the valleys and on the ridges of the Alps which formed the frontier between her and Austria. When that frontier was drawn by Austria, in 1866, it left all the approaches to Italy through the Alpine passes open to Austrian invasion, and this of course made it doubly difficult for the Italians to advance into the enemy's country.

I do not intend to describe the campaign in detail. Suffice it to say that the Italians succeeded in taking and holding a strip of the mountainous territory, and that on the east they occupied all of the Venetian Plain as far as the Carnic Alps. Their feats of engineering by which they constructed roads over the mountains, and made tunnels through them; the fortitude with which month after month they clung to crags and peaks and intrenchments amid the snow in perilous positions, sometimes 10,000 feet high; the ingenuity with which they transported heavy guns and all their supplies on wire cables slung from crag to crag far above the valleys; the stern pluck with which they endured unremittent cold and Alpine blizzards and slowly diminishing rations, are among the marvels of even this war.


We see now that the cause which, in a measure, checked all these efforts was that fatal lack of a single military command over all of the Allied armies in the West—a defect which was remedied only in March, 1918, after the first colossal German drive in Picardy had startled the British and French. Then they appointed General Foch and secured a unification of military direction which will, let us hope, bring a speedy victory. But in 1915, 1916, and 1917, the armies fought without proper coordination. If this handicapped the British and French, campaigning side by side in France, still more did it harm the Italians, isolated from the Allies on the west both by the whole stretch of Switzerland and by the feeling that they had no direct contact with them. In time it came to seem as if Italy were fighting a war of her own, which only remotely concerned the Great Cause. The despatches gave brief reports of her exploits among the Alps and along the Isonzo, but few persons stopped to consider what these exploits meant.

To the lack of unison inherent in the general Allied plan, was added the suspicion that the French and English did not sympathize with some of Italy's objects. It was whispered that in coming into the war the Italians had stipulated that, at its close, if the Entente won, they should receive certain territory along the shore of the eastern Adriatic. These expectations did not please the French and English, who had plans of their own for Dalmatia, and thought that insistence on the Italian claims would greatly complicate the solution of the Balkan problem. There may have been causes of grievance which I do not know of; but I feel that it was wholly reasonable for Italy to seek to protect herself from future Teutonic raids by controlling the eastern shore of the Adriatic and its chief ports. The War has shown conclusively that so long as Hun submarines can dart out of those ports and out of the hiding places which abound on that coast, the eastern shore of Italy and all her commerce in the Adriatic will be at the mercy of the Huns.

Leaving these vague rumors out of consideration, we cannot but feel that the desire of the Italians to do all that they could alone tended to keep them somewhat aloof from their partners. Their motives sprang from a noble source. Italy ranked among the Great Powers by courtesy rather than by actual strength; and so she proudly resolved to prove herself in this ordeal worthy of her assumed state. Accordingly, as long as her raw material lasted, she made her own guns and munitions and provided for all her needs, without begging or borrowing. The meagre despatches that came from her front usually brought good news and led the world to suppose that she was not only holding her own but advancing. Her capture of Gorizia—one of the most glorious displays of valor during the War—made us all believe that she was on the point of driving the Austrians back to Laibach and beyond.

Part III

The great calamity of Caporetto, on October 24, 1917, took the world by surprise. Everyone outside of Italy marveled how it was that this rout should almost overwhelm her so soon after we had received bulletins announcing her brilliant advance. In order to understand the disaster which swept Cadorna's army back from the Isonzo to the Piave and cost him the loss of probably 200,000 men and immense stores and material, we must glance at the internal condition of Italy from the time she entered the war. Many of the symptoms of her disease were common to our own case. There was a considerable peace party made up of business men who did not wish to have their prosperity interrupted by war. There were also Pacifists—persons without a country, or in many cases, with a secret preference for Germany. The Socialists, who in Italy, as well as in other Entente lands and in the United States, were actually under German control, whether they admitted it or not, added many recruits to the Anti-War League. Many Clericals sided with the Teutons as a matter of course, for Austria was the chief Catholic nation in Europe. Since his election the Italians have believed, on what evidence does not appear, that Pope Benedict XV is pro-German. He belonged to one of the old reactionary aristocratic families of Genoa—nobles who correspond in spirit to the Junkers of Prussia. It is believed in Italy that the Pope has been promised by both the German and the Austrian Kaisers that they would restore his temporal power at the end of the war. The Ultramontane Diet of Bavaria openly announced that this was one of the aims of the war. The failure of the Pope to protest against the atrocities, of the Huns, or to rank himself squarely from the beginning on the side of the peoples struggling in behalf of Christian civilization, seemed to justify the assumption of the Italians that he was against the Allies; and the fact that he put forth appeals for peace, precisely at those times when the peace he advocated would mean a complete victory for the Germans, strengthened the suspicion of his pro-German desires.


Needless to say the head of this octopus of treachery and discord was the German propaganda, which used now one tentacle and now another. It went so far as to concoct a fake copy of the Secolo newspaper of Milan in which among genuine news it published such lies as that the French had turned against the Italians, had captured Turin and. were besieging Milan; also that the Austrians yearned for peace and wished to fraternize with their Italian brothers. And in fact when the Austrians advanced on the fatal morning of October 24th, they threw up their hands and shouted "Kamerad!" The Italians laid down their weapons and advanced to meet the Austrians, and then the Germans, who had been screened behind the Austrians, rushed forward, opened fire, and the panic began. For months previous to this priests who served as chaplains, and insidious lay propagandists whispered disloyalty into the ears of the troops. An officer, who was with the army at that time, has told me that the Pope's message created a most depressing effect among them. It turned their thoughts away from the un yielding prosecution of the war to the [acceptance of peace—peace on any terms, regardless of consequences.

The gradual diminishing of rations caused a slackening of determination and morale. A soldier requires a modicum of food in order to maintain his resolve at the highest pitch; slow starvation saps valor. You can judge how near the Italian soldiers were to starvation when you know that for awhile before Caporetto some of the troops were reduced to seven dried chestnuts apiece for their morning ration. More even than for themselves they worried over the destitution of their wives and children from whom they had infrequent or no news. The rumor that several officers proved traitors at the moment of the Hun's camouflaged attack has not yet been fully verified. But there is reason to believe in its truth because a dozen or more of the suspected traitors were shot.

Part IV

Note that Italy was now waging war against both Germany and Austria. She broke with Germany in 1916. Many outsiders, Americans among others, wondered why she delayed so long, but the reason was obvious and sufficient. As I hinted above, thirty years of "peaceful penetration" had left northern Italy in the hands of Germany. She owned the capital she managed the industries and commerce. Italy had to wait until she could train men of her own to replace the German experts who directed the mills and factories and other works. When she was sure that this necessary business would go on under her own superintendence, she declared war on Germany also. She had provocation enough, for since 1915 German officers and even German troops had fought in the Austrian armies against her; the airplanes which began to harass her beautiful cities were German; and German were the submarines which glided out of Pola and other ports, and destroyed her shipping.

We ought not to forget that it took courage on the part of Italy to throw down the gauntlet to Germany, because the fate of Belgium and of Poland warned her that if the German armies entered her territory they would shrink from no atrocity and no bestiality. If the Huns won the war, Austria would undoubtedly make the Italians pay dearly; but the Germans would, according to their nature, vent their hatred in ways more outrageous than the Austrian. Looking far ahead also, Italy foresaw that so much of her trade as depended on German connections would be greatly affected if the quarrel were between her and Germany instead of merely between her and Austria. Nevertheless, when the time was ripe she dared to confront Germany.

Only when Cadorna's army was rolled back to the Piave, did France, England, and the United States realize the situation. When the possibility that Italy might go to pieces, stared them in the face, they at last understood how really important, not to say essential, her help had been. They rushed two armies to check her retreat and to give her aid in reforming her shattered corps and in stiffening them for further resistance. Then we saw the havoc which lack of coordination had wrought; and we accepted the assertion that the Italian front should not be regarded as an isolated and detached line but as an integral part of the entire western front, of which it was in fact the right wing.


As we perceived the causes of the mistakes and blunders, we could measure also the determination, resourcefulness, and tenacity of the Italian army during its two years and a half of fighting. The difficulties at home against internal conspirators and pro-German propagandists were revealed, and we were filled with admiration as we beheld, in the retrospect, Italy's plucky and proud resistance in the face of her waning resources. For example, when her coal supply, which she drew from England, was nearly exhausted, she extended the system of electrification, by which her industries in the north were run from power generated by Alpine rivers, as far south as she could. And her hungry people let no murmur of complaint and no whimper of their poignant suffering be heard by the world outside. When the United States entered the war in April, 1917, the Italians received the news with a frenzy of joy. They felt that American cooperation was both a guarantee of final victory and of immediate relief from acute distress. We had everything—men, money, munitions, fuel, and above all, food. But the spring passed and nothing more than usual reached Italy. Spring turned to midsummer and midsummer to autumn, and still no American succor. Cadorna's army burrowing, and crawling forward up in the northeast and seeing its food supply dwindle to the ration of those seven dried chestnuts, began to wonder whether the talk about help from America was all an illusion, a cruel falsehood. They began to fear that Italy was abandoned by her allies and by the world. They had done their utmost; they knew that they could not hold out much longer, and they saw no prospect of being rescued. This dark doubt also, sank into their hearts and depressed their morale.

The eyes of our Government being opened, it sent, and has continued to send to Italy, so far as the scanty means of transportation permitted, the supplies of first importance. But no American of fine instincts can fail to acknowledge with regret and humiliation the part which our official neglect played in causing the Italian débâcle last autumn. It took that to rouse our officials to comprehend the imperative need of saving Italy, just as it took the German drive at Amiens last March to rouse them to the desperate need of sending our troops to France in all haste and to speed up every preparation, unless we would allow the war to be lost through our delays.


We deplore now not only the actual débâcle, with all that it involved, but the victory which might have been won, if the other Allies had given the Italians sufficient support. For it now seems indisputable that they were right in urging that the most feasible way to end the war in 1917 was by crushing Austria. At Caporetto, the farthest point of their advance, the Italians were only a few miles from Laibach, and if they had succeeded in reaching that place they could have driven so deep a wedge into the heart of Austria that she would have collapsed. She was very near collapse: how near, is proved by the fact that the Germans took care to transfer their forces from the Russian front to the Austrian. Had Austria crumbled before the Germans came to her rescue, it is difficult to see how the Germans could have gone on fighting alone. The collapse of Austria would have smashed the Middle-Europe dream and have cut off the Bulgarians and the Turks from their German overlord. The loss of this vital possibility must be charged to the lack of a central control and of close cooperation among the Allies.

Such have been the principal ways in which Italy has served the cause of Civilization, and has aided the Allies in the life-and-death struggle with Teutonic Barbarism. Her refusal, before war was declared, to join her partners in the Triple Alliance was her earliest service; and when she published the fact that nearly a year before, Germany and Austria had urged her to join them then, in their war of aggression, she proved that their evil design on the peace of the world had been long premeditated. By not allowing herself to be stampeded into declaring war on Austria until she was fairly well equipped, she saved the cause from beginning its campaign under the burden of a serious defeat; for she could not, in August, 1914, have prevented the Austrians from overrunning northern Italy. This disaster would have put the Italians permanently out of the war, and allowed their enemies to use their troops elsewhere, besides giving them the advantage of a most cheering initial success.


Italy's military contribution was to keep busy a large part of the Austrian army. If the Russians had not been betrayed, this diversion of the Austrian strength might have sufficed to shatter the Hapsburg Empire before the end of 1916. To-day, when all the German forces are pounding the British, and French and Americans on the western front, it is the Italian army along the Brenta and the Piave which, prevents the Austrians from going to reinforce the Germans on the west.

The attempt of wily German propagandists, therefore, to disparage Italy has no real basis. The efforts of these reptiles to sow discord by insinuating that the Americans despise the Italians and set no value on their alliance, have been abortive, as they should be. We Americans understand that Italy, like the United States, was not hurried into the war after a few days of distracted and stormy negotiations, but made her choice deliberately, after counting the danger and the cost. She might have stayed out in ignoble neutrality. Her peril was immensely greater than ours, but she resolved to be true to her past and to cleave to the ideal of Liberty which was the most precious legacy she had inherited from her past. She deserves the gratitude of civilized men to-day, and especially whatever succor her allies can give her. She is sure of the praise and blessing of posterity to-morrow and ever after.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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