Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

Italy Joins the Allies

"Blessed are those who will return with Victory, for they shall behold the Vision of a new Rome, the brow of Dante crowned afresh, the beauty of triumphant Italy."
—D'Annunzio, 1915.

In November 1914 Turkey had joined with Germany and Austria in the Great War. Six months later Italy threw in her lot with the Allies—Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium. As a member of the Triple Alliance she had remained neutral when her two fellow-members—Germany and Austria—went to war, and Baron Sonnino, one of the most remarkable figures in the public life of Europe for thirty years the ruler and guide of Italian politics—was a stout champion of the Triple Alliance, and a stern advocate of neutrality. Now, accusing Austria of breaking the terms of the Alliance by her invasion of Serbia, he demanded a price for a continuance of neutrality.

"What price are you prepared to offer for this breach of the Triple Alliance?" asked Sonnino, while Italy quietly put her army on a war basis.

"The Trentino and Trieste," demanded the Italian leader.

Austria refused, and Great Britain stepped in with a higher price for Italy's allegiance. In return for her help the Allies offered not only the Trentino and Trieste, but all Dalmatia and most of the Adriatic Islands.

On 26th April a Treaty was signed by the Allies, and a few days later Sonnirio tore up the Triple Alliance.

On 7th May the Lusitania, a passenger ship, was torpedoed by Germans in the Atlantic. Over 1000 were drowned, including women and children. The incident roused Italy's wrath, but still the Italians wavered.

The hour produced the man—neither a prince nor politician, but a poet. Gabriele D'Annunzio, Italian poet and writer, suddenly came on the scene, and lifted up his voice. On 4th May 1915, he arrived at Genoa and made the first of his impassioned speeches, putting into words the vague thoughts that were stirring in many minds, until Italian hearts beat with a new resolve, and Italian minds shone with a clear purpose.

His faith in the great destiny of Italy infected his vast audience: "He set the trumpet to his lips and blew; and the note rang high and thrilling through the mists that still drifted about the airs of Italy."

"Listen, listen," he cried. "The fatherland is in danger, and is on the road to destruction. In order to save her from ruin and ignominy it is the duty of every one of us to devote himself utterly and to arm himself with every weapon. Every good citizen must fight without respite or quarter."

From Genoa he passed to Rome. The atmosphere was electric. Peace or war hung in the balance. For seven nights the orator poured forth his "torrents of impassioned prose" to the listening Romans. He recalled to them the glories of their past history, the deeds of those who had fought for Italian freedom.

The time had arrived for Italy to come into line with the great modern nations. No longer should she be looked on as a "museum, an inn, a pleasure resort, under a sky painted with Prussian blue."

"They think us powerless—we who are the inheritors of Rome; they hold us idle and weak —we whose labouring hands have built the railways and harbours of the world; they think us changeful, though we have held fast to the ideal of a Greater Italy, which now we shall live to see fulfilled."

On 23rd May 1915, amid outbursts of popular enthusiasm, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. Rome was wild with joy. The King, Victor Emmanuel, with his young son beside him, the tricolour in his hand, was warmly cheered. The Italian army was highly organised, though the Germans might ridicule it as an army of "mandoline players, beggars, and brigands," and prophesy that they would soon run howling away before the conquering armies of the Austrian Emperor, Francis Joseph.

All her military efforts were concentrated on securing those most cherished places—the Trentino and Trieste. The land known as the Trentino runs down like a wedge into Italian territory. From the plains Italy looked up to Italian mountains in the hands of Austria; Austrian fortresses frowned down over her richest provinces. Thus along the northern frontier, the Italians had to fight uphill, while the enemy could hold the heights with inferior troops.

But the Alpini, the finest mountain troops in the world, were soon at work in the Trentino, and soon secured good positions along the great 300-mile frontier of high Alps. Indeed their capture of the great Alpine giant, Monte Nero, which towers above Caporetto, in June 1915, was one of the finest feats in the whole war. From here the mountains are lower, for the river Isonzo plunges southward into a deep gorge, flowing out by Monte Sabotino to the city of Gorizia, the key of Trieste. This was to be the scene of the fiercest of Italy's fighting.

Here, then, behind the Isonzo river, the Austrians were gathered in strength, safe beneath the heights of Monte Sabotino, which was strongly defended. They held it for a year against fierce attacks, in which hundreds and thousands of Italians laid down their lives. In the spring of 1916 the Italians prepared their great attack on Gorizia, the conquest of which should open the road to Trieste.

At dawn on Sunday, 6th August 1916, a deafening bombardment was opened by the Italians—louder and more terrific than had ever been heard before—against the Austrian front, and by early afternoon the heights of Monte Sabotino had been won by the Italians. The great mountain, which had defied Italy for fifteen months, had been captured in a few hours. The defenders, who had lived in deep caverns on the mountain-side, had been caught like mice in a trap, and they were now hurried down as prisoners. Three more days of fierce fighting for Gorizia, and the Italian troops entered as conquerors in triumph. The beaten Austrian army retreated hastily to positions on the Carso upland, leaving 19,000 prisoners and quantities of heavy guns, rifles, and cartridges.

The battle had opened the gate to Trieste, but the Italians had yet before them the waterless and trackless Carso country, which was yet to cost them dear.

On 21st November 1916 the Emperor of Austria, Francis Joseph, the oldest sovereign in the world, died in his eighty-sixth year after a reign of sixty-eight years. "An old man, broken with the storms of State," he had "gravely misruled the peoples entrusted to his care." Some pity may be felt for his tragic career, but otherwise he was but little missed from a land which he left ruined and bankrupt.

His successor was the Archduke Charles, nephew of the murdered heir Francis Ferdinand.

All through the winter of 1916 fighting continued. The Austrian army was then stiffened by Germans, and attacks on a large scale were planned which should bring Italy to her knees. General Mackensen, after his victories over Russia, was now brought to conduct the new offensive.

In October 1917 the Austro-German armies were ready, and terrific fighting took place along the banks of the Isonzo river and to the north of Gorizia. So numerous were the heavy guns fired by the enemy that the whole scene has been described as a "landscape of flashes." England had sent troops to help the Italians, but the enemy was too strong for them this time. A terrible poisoned gas, new to the Italian troops, disabled and tortured them. Rain fell heavily, and dense fogs collected along the banks of the river. Through this mist the German storming troops broke through the Italian lines. Then the city of Gorizia was pounded into ruins, and fell on 29th October into the hands of the Germans, while Italian armies were everywhere retreating.

The whole sequence of events is known to history by the word "Caporetto," after a little Alpine market town on the Isonzo river, round which the main fighting took place. After the fall of Gorizia came the terrible Italian retreat. At first it was orderly, but then, hustled by the victorious foe, a sudden feeling that all was indeed lost, infected the army. Several regiments, having been isolated, laid down their arms without a struggle; many from sheer war-weariness flung away their rifles. The roads were crowded with refugees, there was no traffic control, miserably the masses moved slowly along. Rain fell steadily, increasing the mental depression of the beaten army.

And none could tell them then that a year later they would march over the same ground to victory.

No light task remained to rally the shattered Italian armies, pushed back some twelve miles beyond their eastern frontier. England and France came to the rescue, and soon the impossible seemed to happen. The feeling of discontent passed—a new spirit of determined resolve came over the nation. Every one, from the King to the poorest peasant, realised that new lines must be formed and held against the foe.

"Here they shall not pass," became the universal cry; and perhaps nothing more wonderful happened in the whole course of the war than the great rally of Italy after the Caporetto defeat.

The movement was led by the King, Victor Emmanuel. He had been at the front since the beginning of the war, visiting trenches and exposed positions, sharing meals with the soldiers, simple in his ways, and ever respected for his courage. Sitting one day with a dying soldier who was comforting himself that he had given his life, "for you, Majesty,"—"No, no, my son," was the King's grave reply, "for Italy."

He now multiplied his efforts a thousandfold, and his proclamation of November 1917 was as a trumpet call to the whole nation. "As never My House nor My People, united in a single spirit, have ever wavered before danger," ran the words, "so, even now, we must look adversity in the face undaunted. Citizens and soldiers must be a single army."

With the Allies a strong line of defence was formed behind the river Piave, held for a year, beyond which the Austro-German army failed to move them. Fighting went on into 1918, until at the last the Italians broke through—broke as a flood rushing forward to overwhelm what once had been "the proudest army in the world." The great battle of Viturio Veneto gave the victory to Italy, and the Austrian armies fled eastward and ever eastward—away from the land of Italy. They left 600,000 prisoners and 7000 machine-guns—the largest haul of the whole war. The way to Trentino and Trieste was now open, and an armistice was signed on 4th November 1918 between Italy and Austria, by which all territory allotted by the Treaty of London was to be restored.

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