Writing in The Irish Times last week from Florence about an Italian production of Frank McGuinness’s 1985 play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Dr Brigid Laffan remarked in passing that (in contrast, by implication, to other participants) “Italy did not go sleepwalking into the war in August 1914”; rather it discussed the options for a year before entering the conflict in 1915. The dates are certainly true, even if the suggestion that an entity called “Italy” ‑ which might be taken to mean the Italian people ‑ “discussed” such a matter of high policy tends to imply the presence of a kind of elaborate democratic consultation process, something which certainly did not take place. Italy’s 1912 electoral reform had widened the franchise to include all literate men aged over twenty-one who had served in the armed forces; this almost tripled the electorate (though still not sufficiently to include the huge numbers of illiterate peasants who would soon be called on to fight and die for “their country”). Also, it might be observed, a democratic culture does not grow up overnight and Italy, in 1914, was not much of a democracy.
The country had in fact been an ally of both Austria and Germany since 1882 (the “Triple Alliance”) in spite of continuing territorial claims against the former. Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister on several occasions from the 1890s onward, was despised by more nationalist rivals for his concern for what they called Italietta (little Italy), mere bread and butter issues like the trade deficit, agricultural tariffs, taxes, the crisis-prone banking sector, the poverty of peasant farmers, the scandal of absentee landlords, emigration and the perceived need to use martial law against striking workers in the cities. What was more exciting than all of this was war, and the prospects of glory, and gain, it might bring.
For Antonio Salandra, Italy’s prime minister in 1914, and his foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino, it was quite clear that the country’s participation on the winning side in the coming conflict could bring it significant territorial gains, if not directly from the fighting then certainly from the postwar settlement and carve-up. All that remained to figure was which side was likely to win.
After considerable delay and the maintenance over many months of twin-track negotiations with both Vienna and London, Salandra and Sonnino, influenced perhaps by news of Russian victories in March 1915 in the Carpathians, decided to back the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) rather than the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). On April 26th the Treaty of London was signed. In return for committing its resources to fight the enemies of the Entente, Italy was promised it would receive after the war significant territorial gains: Trentino and south Tyrol in the north, the cities of Trieste and Gorizia, the Istrian peninsula, Dalmatia (that is the eastern Adriatic coast, today in Croatia) down as far as Trogir, near Spalato (Split), and most of the islands running south to Dubrovnik. These territories were home to 230,000 German-speaking Austrians and up to 750,000 Slovenes and Croats – as well as to 650,000 Italians.
The only real consultation of opinion that occurred in Italy was a rather secretive and one-sided affair; and its results were ignored. Salandra instructed regional governors to prepare reports for him on people’s attitudes to the prospect of war. The findings were that most people thought going to war could be justified only if the homeland was under attack. Business leaders, with the exception of the large northern industrialists, were against fighting. The governor of Naples reckoned that ninety per cent of all social classes were anti-war. Peasants, whose sons were most susceptible to the draft, regarded it as a calamity, like famine or plague. Only the intelligentsia was in favour.
The flower of that intelligentsia was the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (greatly admired by Joyce) who became, after the death of Verdi in 1901, the world’s most famous Italian. The war, for Italy, broke out in the early hours of April 24th, 1915, when Italian customs officers fired on a number of Austrian reservists who were burning a bridge over the river Judrio. A few hours later the first Italian casualty was brought back across the river on a farmer’s cart. On the following day, D’Annunzio delivered a speech in the high style: “Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins … The cannon roars. The earth smokes … Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory … The slaughter begins, the destruction begins … All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow … We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.”
About a million soldiers were to die in this sector of the war (mostly fought close to what is now the Italian/Slovenian border) ‑ in battle; of wounds sustained; of disease or in captivity. Until the end, the ratio of men killed to territory gained was even more catastrophic than on the Western Front. Irish people, like the British, have of course for the most part little interest in the very many things that happened in the First World War which involved Russians or Austrians, Serbs, Hungarians or Czechs, Bosnians or Bulgarians, even Germans facing eastward ‑ or indeed in the places where these things happened; Flanders and a little Gallipoli are, it seems, all we can digest.
One reason to be interested in Italian experience is simply to show that the war was wider and bigger and more complex than we think. Another is the lessons that we can learn from an examination of what made Italy go to war. Brigid Laffan’s use of the term “sleepwalking” is a reference to the highly regarded 2013 book The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, whose thesis is, roughly, that Europe did not go to war in 1914 fully conscious of what it was doing and where it might lead but because “in each country political and military leaders did certain things which led to mobilisations and declarations of war, or failed to do certain things which might have prevented them” (the actual words here are not Clark’s but those of a much earlier historian).
The sleepwalking thesis would seem to suggest –and this is not difficult to believe – that the war that came, and the four years of horror that it entailed ‑ were not fully willed. Nevertheless, as the cards were played out certain things did become inevitable and the ruling classes in each of the belligerent nations accepted this, and by implication the approximately sixteen million deaths the conflict would bring: the people should simply do their duty. Victory would come through being able to endure more privation and absorb more deaths than the enemy could. In a school near Mantua, a teacher set her class the essay topic “For Italy to win, we must resist to the end.” Many of the children, it seems, took issue with the title; one boy wrote that the officers (“the ones who give orders”) were “not yet tired of killing the poor people who aren’t guilty of anything. To make it a just war, they should 1. send all those who want war to the front, because if they want it they should fight it. 2. send the rich people who give money for war bonds. 3. send the poor men home. Then it would be a just war!” The patriotic teacher reported her class to the military police.
Italy may constitute a particularly blatant example of a cynical exchanging of the lives of one’s people – between a million and a million and a quarter died ‑ for what are deemed to be national objectives (though the forced inclusion of hundreds of thousands of Austrians and Slavs in a greater and more glorious Italy can hardly have been an object of much interest to the Sardinian or Puglian peasants who did much of the fighting). But in fact each of the belligerents fought for what it saw as its national interests (rather than, as some of the more naïve have suggested, for chivalric reasons such as to defend Belgium).
As Remembrance Sunday comes round again and we hear again from the usual suspects the old lies about “the fallen”, gallantry, service and sacrifice, “they gave their lives so that others …” it is well to remember that many, perhaps most, of those who died were reluctant “heroes”. They did not “give” their lives: their lives were taken. Let’s leave the last word with Siegfried Sassoon.
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell —
(They called it Passchendaele).
My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.
At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ ‑ that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west.
What greater glory could a man desire?
For more on Italy’s participation in the First World War see: http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-border-campaign