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  • Writer's pictureThe Bridge Burford

Italy and the First World War (Part two)

The second article by our Potenza Picena correspondent, George Dernowki

We left Italy joining sides with its two overpowering neighbours, the German Empire and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to thus form the military Triple Alliance Pact in 1882 while the British Empire, the French Empire together with the Russian Empire were to form later, in 1907, the Entente Cordiale which was more of a mutual friendly agreement rather than a military pact. The newly formed Italian Government was meanwhile struggling to quell the last pockets of resistance still holding out in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (former Bourbon rule), in the southern part of the peninsula following the “unification” in 1861, thanks to more than 100,000 Piedmont troops sent down for that very purpose although it took them more than twenty years of fierce fighting to do so. But that’s another story.

Before the outbreak of the First World War Italy fought a disastrous African campaign in Ethiopia ending with a humiliating military defeat leaving more than four thousand Italian troops and two thousand native troops on the battle field fought on the 1 March 1896. As a direct result of the defeat, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognising Ethiopia as an independent state (only to return nearly thirty years later under Mussolini’s regime). This defeat was a terrible blow to Italy’s military prestige but even more so was the long lasting political nightmare that haunted Italian statesmen for the next twenty years.


The effect of the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria in 1908 was far-reaching in Europe especially in Italy, which was more affected by it than anywhere except for Serbia. The annexation had brought Austria down to the Adriatic along a long stretch of coastline , from Venice to the mouth of the Adriatic, filled with fine harbours, guarded by islands and a coast as defensible as the rest of Austrian- Italian frontier. This changed completely the Italian and Austrian relation in the Adriatic. Italy claimed territorial compensation under Art. VII of the Triple Alliance Pact (agreement limited to the Balkans Area where should one party gain a territorial prize it was to compensate the other two members by ceding equal amount to the two members) but Austria shunned this claim as they pointed out that the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was not a military occupation but only administrative.

This non-application of Art. VII of the Pact was cause for attrition between the two countries.

Having lost the possibility of occupying Tunis to France (in 1882) on the pretext of defending Italian citizens in Tripoli and Cyrenaica, Italy declared war on Turkey on 29 September 1911. She bombarded Tripoli, and within a week it capitulated. On 5 November Italy annexed Cyrenaica. Throughout the campaign the Italian Government dreaded a repeat of the Ethiopian fiasco and always sent to the front double the needs of the army’s requirements, requesting the Chiefs of Staff to remain close to the coast under cover of Italian naval guns. Italy’s territorial gains were therefore limited to the coastline until the end of the First World War, after which, over the next twenty odd years, with great difficulty, Italian troops managed to stifle all local resistance and occupy the rest of the Libyan territory in 1936. Thus Italy claimed its Empire under the government of Mussolini.

On 1 October 1911, the day after Italy announced to the other powers the reasons for her move against Turkey, Austria said to the Italian Ambassador at Vienna that Italy's "military operations had impressed him most painfully and that they could not be permitted to continue; it was most necessary that they should cease and that the Italian ships were given orders to remain no longer in the waters of the Adriatic or of the Ionian Sea."

Indeed, Austria had already taken steps to mobilise her fleet for eventualities.

In March, 1912, Berchtold, the new Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs, notified Italy that if she attempted to pursue her policy of attacking the coast, the consequences might be very grave, for she would have Austria to deal with.

Accordingly Italy transferred her operations to the Aegean Sea, taking possession of the dozen or more islands which Turkey had taken from the Greeks and still held. The island of Rhodes with the Aegean islands were seized.

(May I add a note here which relates to the Second World War because Italy held these islands until then. On 8 September 1943 an armistice was signed between the Allies and the newly founded Italian Free Government, led by General Badoglio, that ordered all Italian units to henceforth resist any forces (not mentioning which forces!)) that might appear threatening in their regards. The Commanding Governor of the Italian forces in the Aegean islands, Admiral Inigo Campioni aided by Admiral Luigi Mascherpa, thence opposed the attacking German forces as they felt it their duty to do so, but were finally overcome and captured. These two admirals were then handed over to Mussolini, who had in the meantime formed his puppet government in the north of Italy (Republic of Salò), had them put on trial for high treason and sentenced to death. They were both shot on the 24 May 1944).

The Peace Treaty between Italy and Turkey was signed on 15 October 1912.

Meanwhile the Balkans was set ablaze as Montenegro declared war on Turkey. A week later Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia issued an ultimatum, demanding the autonomy of the Turkish European provinces.

The war lasted only six weeks and Turkey was decisively beaten. The Young Turks were turned out and Kemel Pasha, representative of the older elements, once more resumed the reins of power, and requested an armistice, which was signed 3 December 1912.

The Allies' demands were tantamount to the surrender by Turkey of all her European possessions save Constantinople, the Gallipoli peninsula, and a strip of territory sufficient to protect Constantinople and its approaches.

The shock to Austria was the victory of the Balkan League over Turkey, and the final shock was the victory of the other Balkan Allies over Bulgaria. The situation was such that Austria-Hungary began to prepare in earnest for eventualities and the increase of her armaments, both military and naval, to what she termed a "reinforced peace footing."

On the 9 August, 1913, the Italian Government received from the Austrian Government a communication of her "intention to take action against Serbia," which it defined as "defensive," hoping to bring "into operation the casus foederis (event upon the occurrence of which it becomes the duty of one of the allies to render the promised assistance to the other) of the Triple Alliance."

To this Italy replied that if Austria intervened against Serbia it was clear that a casus foederis could not be established, inasmuch as no one was thinking of attacking her, and it could not be a question of defence. This declaration was also made to Germany, with the expression of the hope that she would take action to "dissuade Austria from this most perilous enterprise."

The following day the Peace of Bucharest (10 August 1913) was signed and, for the time being, the "action against Serbia" was postponed; but it was by no means abandoned. Austria proceeded quietly on her way, preparing for the hour when the enterprise of extending her dominion would be less perilous.

Furthermore, during Italy's war with Turkey, Austria, far, from acting as an ally of Italy, had distinctly opposed and thwarted her. Austria had demanded in October 1911 that Italy should cease her naval operations against the Turkish forts on the European side of the Dardanelles, threatening that the repetition of such an occurrence would be serious.

Italy’s war with Turkey had contributed distinctly to strengthen her national spirit; but it had drained her resources and exhausted her military equipment. She was short of everything needed for a war, from guns to tin cups, from coal to cotton or leather or jute. Her people were worn out with war and had settled down to peace.

On 28 July 1914 the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.

The foreign policy of Italy for over thirty years had been conducted with the Triple Alliance as its central principle, not only as a bulwark for Italy's defence, but as an instrument for her possible expansion. When the war broke out, the entire force of the Italian Parliament, from the minister almost down to the youngest under-secretary and functionary, had been reared in the dogma that the Triple Alliance was Italy's Ark of Safety and that her sound foreign policy was absolutely and irrevocably bound up therewith

Italy was, indeed, still a member of the Triple Alliance but was rather entangled in it rather than bound by it.

Italy’s foreign policy was mainly confined to maintaining advantageous relations with Great Britain and France while jealously keeping an eye open on Austria’s covetous moves (especially after Austria’s interference during Italy’s war against Turkey!).

The Italian people in the summer of 1914 made it clear in various ways, even resorting to violence, that they wanted peace and release from the exactions of military service.

Yet every clear-headed man in and out of Italy, who knew her situation, knew also where her vital interests lay, on the side of the Entente, on the side of liberty.

The Italian Government was guided by the principle of Art. VII of the Treaty signed: the restraining of Austrian expansion in the Balkans which would impair the equilibrium between her and Italy as clearly shown by the official records.

On 3 August Italy announced officially her determination to remain neutral supported by the fact that her treaty obligations required her to support her Allies in case of being attacked, thus defensively, not offensively, as this was clearly the case. Immediately some 240,000 men besides the regular army were called for training and France was given to understand by clear intimation that Italy would not engage to attack her.

The Italian fleet was mobilised.

George Dernowki


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