Italy Declares War on Austria
( Originally Published 1918 )
FOR many years before the great war began the great powers of Europe were divided into two great alliances, the Triple Entente, composed of Russia, France and England, and the Triple Alliance, composed of Germany, Austria and Italy. When the war began Italy refused to join with Germany and Austria. Why? The answer to this question throws a vivid light on the origin of the war.
Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance; she knew the facts, not only what was given to the public, but the inside facts. According to the terms of the alliance each member was bound to stand by each other only in case of attack. Italy refused to join with Austria and Germany because they were the aggressors. The constant assertions of the German statesmen, and of the Kaiser himself, that war,had been forced upon them were declared untrue by their associate Italy in the very beginning, and the verdict of Italy was the verdict of the world. Not much was said in the beginning about Italy's abstention from war. The Germans, indeed, sneered a little and hinted that some day Italy would be made to regret her course, but now that the Teuton snake is scotched the importance of Italy's action has been perceived and appraised at its true value.
The Germans from the very beginning understood the real danger that might come to the Central Powers through Italian action. Every effort was made by the foreign office to keep her neutral. First threats were used, later promises were held out of addition to Italian territory if she would send her troops to Germany's assistance. When this failed the most strenuous efforts were made to keep Italy neutral, and a former German premier, Prince von Billow, was sent to Italy for this purpose. Socialist leaders, too, were sent from Germany to urge the Italian Socialists to insist upon neutrality.
In July, 1914, the Italian Government was not taken by surprise. They had observed the increase year by year of the German army and of the German fleet. At the end of the Balkan wars they had been asked whether they would agree to an Austrian attack upon Serbia. They had consequently long been deliberating as to what their course should be in case of war, and they had made up their minds that under no circumstances would they aid Germany against England.
Quite independently of her long-standing friendship with England it would be suicide to Italy in her geographical position to enter a war which should permit her coast to be attacked by the English and French navies, and her participation in the Triple Alliance always carried the proviso that it did not bind her to fight England. This was well known in the German foreign office, and, indeed, in France where the writers upon war were reckoning confidently on the withdrawing of Italy from the Triple Alliance, and planning to use the entire forces of France against Germany.
A better understanding of the Italian position will result from a consideration of the origin of the Triple Alliance.
After the war of 1870, Bismarck, perceiving the quick recovery of France, considered the advisability of attacking her again, and, to use his own words, "bleeding her white." He found, however, that if this were attempted France would be joined by Russia and England and he gave up this plan. In order, however, to render France powerless he planned an alliance which should be able to control Europe. A league between Germany, Austria and Russia was his desire, and for some time every opportunity was taken to develop friendship with the Czar. Russia, however, remained cool. Her Pan-Slavonic sympathies were opposed to the interests of Germany. Bismarck, therefore, determined, with-out losing the friendship of Russia, to persuade Italy to join in the continental combination. Italy, at the time, was the least formidable of the six great powers, but Bismarck foresaw that she could be made good use of in such a combination.
At that time Italy, just after the completion of Italian unity, found herself in great perplexity. Her treatment of the Pope had brought about the hostility of Roman Catholics throughout the world. She feared both France and Austria, who were strong Catholic countries, and hardly knew where to look for friends. The great Italian leader at the time was Francesco Crispi, who, beginning as a Radical and a conspirator, had become a constitutional statesman. Bismarck professed the greatest friendship for Crispi, and gave Crispi' to understand that he approved of Italy's aspirations on the Adriatic and in Tunis.
The next year, however, at the Berlin Congress, Italy's interests were ignored, and finally, in 1882, France seized Tunis, to the great indignation of the Italians. It has been shown in more recent times that the French seizure of Tunis was directly due to Bismarck's instigation.
The Italians having been roused to wrath, Bismarck proceeded to offer them a place in the councils of the Triple Alliance. It was an easy argument that such an alliance would protect them against France, and no doubt it was promised that it would free them from the danger of attack by Austria. England, at the time, was isolated, and Italy continued on the best understanding with her.
The immediate result of the alliance was a growth of Italian hostility toward France, which led, in 1889, to a tariff war on France. Meanwhile German commercial and financial enterprises were pushed throughout the Italian peninsula. What did Italy gain by this? Her commerce was weakened, and Austria permitted herself every possible unfriendly act except open war.
As time went on Germany and Austria be-came more and more arrogant. Italy's ambitions on the Balkan peninsula were absolutely ignored. In 1908 Austria appropriated Bosnia and Herzegovina, another blow to Italy. By this time Italy understood the situation well, and that same year, seeing no future for herself in Europe, she swooped down on Tripoli. In doing this she forestalled Germany herself, for Germany had determined to seize Tripoli.
Both Germany and Austria were opposed to this action of Italy, but Italy's eyes were now open. Thirty years of political alliance had created no sympathy among the Italians for the Germans. Moreover, it was not entirely a question of policy. The lordly arrogance of the Prussians caused sharp antagonism. The Italians were lovers of liberty; the Germans pledged toward autocracy. They found greater sympathy in England and in France.
"I am a son of liberty," said Cavour, "to her I owe all that I am." That, too, is Italy's motto. When the war broke out popular sympathy in Italy was therefore strongly in favor of the Allies. The party in power, the Liberals, adopted the policy of neutrality for the time being, but thousands of Italians volunteered for the French and British service, and the anti-German feeling grew greater as time went on.
Finally, on the 23rd of May,1915, the Italian Government withdrew its ambassador to Austria and declared war. A complete statement of the negotiations between Italy and Austria-Hungary, which led to this declaration, was delivered to the Government of the United States by the Italian Ambassador on May 25th. This statement, of which the following is an extract, lucidly presented the Italian position :
"The Triple Alliance was essentially defensive, and designed solely to preserve the status quo, or in other words equilibrium, in Europe. That these were its only objects and purposes is established by the letter and spirit of the treaty, as well as by the intentions clearly described and set forth in official acts of the ministers who created the alliance and confirmed and renewed it in the interests of peace, which always has inspired Italian policy. The treaty, as long as its intents and purposes had been loyally interpreted and regarded, and as long as it had not been used as a pretext for aggression against others, greatly contributed to the elimination and settlement of causes of conflict, and for many years assured to Europe the inestimable benefits of peace. But Austria-Hungary severed the treaty by her own hands. She rejected the response of Serbia which gave to her all the satisfaction she could legitimately claim. She refused to listen to the conciliatory proposals presented by Italy in conjunction with other powers in the effort to spare Europe from a vast conflict, certain to drench the Continent with blood and to reduce it to ruin beyond the conception of human imagination, and finally she provoked that conflict.
"Article first of the treaty embodied the usual and necessary obligation of such pacts—the pledge to exchange views upon any fact and economic questions of a general nature that might arise pursuant to its terms. None of the contracting parties had the right to undertake without a previous agreement any step the consequence of which might impose a duty upon the other signatories arising under the alliance, or which would in any way whatsoever encroach upon their vital interests. This article was violated by Austria-Hungary, when she sent to Serbia her note dated July 23, 1914, an action taken without the previous as-sent of Italy. Thus, Austria-Hungary violated beyond doubt one of the fundamental provisions of the treaty. The obligation of Austria-Hungary to come to a previous understanding with Italy was the greater because her obstinate policy against Serbia gave rise to a situation which directly tended toward the provocation of a European war.
"As far back as the beginning of July, 1914, the Italian Government, preoccupied by the prevailing feeling in Vienna, caused to be laid before the Austro-Hungarian Government a number of suggestions advising moderation, and warning it of the impending danger of a European outbreak. The course adopted by Austria-Hungary against Serbia constituted, moreover, a direct encroachment upon the general interests of Italy both political and economical in the Balkan peninsula. Austria-Hungary could not for a moment imagine that Italy could remain indifferent while Serbian independence was being trodden upon. On a number of occasions theretofore, Italy gave Austria to understand, in friendly but clear terms, that the independence of Serbia was considered by Italy as essential to the Balkan equilibrium. Austria-Hungary was further advised that Italy could never permit that equilibrium to be disturbed through a pre judice. This warning had been conveyed not only by her diplomats in private conversations with responsible Austro-Hungarian officials, but was proclaimed publicly by Italian statesmen on the floors of Parliament.
"Therefore, when Austria-Hungary ignored the usual practices and menaced Serbia by sending her ultimatum, without in any way notifying the Italian Government of what she proposed to do, indeed leaving that government to learn of her action through the press, rather than through the usual channels of diplomacy, when Austria-Hungary took this unprecedented course she not only severed her alliance with Italy but committed an act inimical to Italy's interests. . .
"After the European war broke out Italy sought to come to an understanding with Austria-Hungary with a view to a settlement satisfactory to both parties which might avert existing and future trouble. Her efforts were in vain, notwithstanding the efforts of Germany, which for months endeavored to induce Austria-Hungary to comply with Italy's suggestion thereby recognizing the propriety and legitimacy of the Italian attitude. Therefore Italy found herself compelled by the force of events to seek other solutions.
"Inasmuch as the treaty of alliance with Austria-Hungary had ceased virtually to exist and served only to prolong a state of continual friction and mutual suspicion, the Italian Ambassador at Vienna was instructed to declare to the Austro-Hungarian Government that the Italian Government considered itself free from the ties arising out of the treaty of the Triple Alliance in so far as Austria-Hungary was concerned. This communication was de-livered in Vienna on May 4th.
"Subsequently to this declaration, and after we had been obliged to take steps for the protection of our interests, the Austro-Hungarian Government submitted new concessions, which, however, were deemed insufficient and by no means met our minimum demands. These offers could not be considered under the circumstances. The Italian Government taking into consideration what has been stated above, and supported by the vote of Parliament and the solemn manifestation of the country came to the decision that any further delay would be inadvisable. Therefore, on May 23d, it was declared, in the name of the King, to the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador at Rome, that, beginning the following day, May 24th, it would consider itself in a state of war with Austria-Hungary."
It was a closely reasoned argument that the Italian statesmen presented, but there was something more than reasoned argument in Italy's course. She had been waiting for years for the opportunity to bring under her flag the men of her own race still held in subjection by hated Austria. Now was the time or never. Her people had become roused. Mobs filled the streets. Great orators, even the great poet, D'Annunzio, proclaimed a holy war. The sinking of the Lusitania poured oil on the flames, and the treatment of Belgium and east-ern France added to the fury.
Italian statesmen, even if they had so desired, could not have withstood the pressure. It was a crusade for Italia Irredenta, for civilization, for humanity. The country had been flooded by representatives of German propaganda, papers had been hired and, by all report, money in large amounts distributed. But every German effort was swept away in the flood of feeling. It was the people's war.
Amid tremendous enthusiasm the Chamber of Deputies adopted by vote of 407 to 74 the bill conferring upon the government full power to make war. All members of the Cabinet maintained absolute silence regarding what step should follow the action of the chamber. When the chamber reassembled on May 20th, after its long recess, there were present 482 Deputies out of 500, the absentees remaining away on account of illness. The Deputies especially applauded were those who wore military uniforms and who had asked permission for leave from their military duties to be present at the sitting. All the tribunes were filled to overflowing. No representatives of Germany, Austria or Turkey were to be seen in the diplomatic tribune. The first envoy to arrive was Thomas Nelson Page, the American Ambassador, who was accompanied by his staff. M. Barrere, Sir J. Bennell Rodd, and Michel de Giers, the French, British and Russian Ambassadors, respectively, appeared a few minutes later and all were greeted with applause, which was shared by the Belgian, Greek and Roumanian ministers. George B. McCleIlan, one-time mayor of New York, occupied a seat in the President's tribune.
A few minutes before the session began the poet, Gabrielle D'Annunzio, one of the strongest advocates of war, appeared in the rear of the public tribune which was so crowded that it seemed impossible to squeeze in anybody else. But the moment the people saw him they lifted him shoulder high and passed him over their heads to the first row.
The entire chamber, and all those occupying the other tribunes, rose and applauded for five minutes, crying "Viva D'Annunzio!" Later thousands sent him their cards and in return received his autograph bearing the date of this eventful day. Senor Marcora, President of the Chamber, took his place at three o'clock. All the members of the House, and everybody in the galleries, stood up to acclaim the old follower of Garibaldi. Premier Salandra, followed by all the members of the Cabinet, entered shortly afterward. It was a solemn moment. Then a delirium of cries broke out.
"Viva Salandra!" roared the Deputies, and the cheering lasted for a long time. After the formalities of the opening, Premier Salandra, deeply moved by the demonstration, arose and said:
"Gentlemen, I have the honor to present to you a bill to meet the eventual expenditures of a national war."
The announcement was greeted by further prolonged applause. The Premier's speech was continually interrupted by enthusiasm; and at times he could hardly continue on ac-count of the wild cheering. The climax was reached when he made a reference to the army and navy. Then the cries seemed interminable, and those on the floor of the House and in the galleries turned to the military tribune from which the officers answered by waving their hands and handkerchiefs.
At the end of the Premier's speech there were deafening vivas for the King, war and Italy. Thirty-four Socialists refused to join the cheers, even in the cry "Viva Italia!" and they were hooted and hissed.
The action of the Italian Government created intense feeling. A newspaper man in Vienna, describing the Austrian indignation, said:
"The exasperation and contempt which Italy's treacherous surprise attack and her hypocritical justification aroused here, are quite indescribable. Neither Serbia nor Russia, despite a long and costly war, is hated. Italy, however, or rather those Italian would-be politicians and business men who offer violence to the majority of peaceful Italian people, are unutterably hated." On the other hand German papers spoke with much more moderation and recognized that Italy was acting in an entirely natural manner.
On the very day on which war was declared active operations were begun. Both sides had been making elaborate preparations. Austria had prepared herself by building strong fortifications in which were employed the latest technical improvements in defensive warfare. Upon the Carso and around Gorizia the Austrians had placed innumerable batteries of powerful guns mounted on rails and protected by armor plates. They also had great number of medium and smaller guns. A net of trenches had been excavated and constructed in cement all along the edge of the hills which dominated the course of the Isonzo River.
These trenches, occupying a position nearly impregnable because so mountainous, were de-fended by every modern device. They were protected with numerous machine guns, surrounded by wire entanglements through which ran a strong electric current. These lines of trenches followed without interruption from the banks of the Isonzo to the summit of the mountains which dominate it; they formed a kind of formidable staircase which had to be conquered step by step with enormous sacrifice.
During this same period General Cadorna, then head of the Italian army, had been bringing that army up to date, working for high efficiency and' piling up munitions.
The Army of Italy was a formidable one. Every man in Italy is liable to military service for a period of nineteen years from the age of twenty to thirty-nine.
At the time of the war the approximate war strength of the army was as follows: Officers, 41,692; active army with the colors, 289,910; reserve, 638,979; mobile militia, 299,956; territorial militia, 1,889,659; total strength, 3,159,836. The above number of total men available included upward of 1,200,000 fully trained soldiers, with perhaps another 800,000 partially trained men, the remaining million being completely untrained men. This army was splendidly armed, its officers well educated, and the men brave and disciplined.
The Italian plan of campaign apparently consisted first, in neutralizing the Trentino by capturing or covering the defenses and cutting the two lines of communication with Austria proper, the railway which ran south from Insbruck, and that which ran southwest from Vienna and joined the former at Fransensfets; and second, in a movement in forcé on the east-ern frontier, with Trieste captured or covered on the right flank in the direction of the Austrian fortress at Klagenfurt and Vienna.
The first blow was struck by Austria on the day that war was declared. On that day bombs were dropped on Venice, and five other Adriatic ports were shelled from air, and some from sea. The Italian armies invaded Austria on the east with great rapidity, and by May 27th a part of the Italian forces had moved across the Isonzo River to Monfalcone, sixteen miles northwest of Trieste. Another force penetrated further to the north in the Crown land of Gorizia, and Gradisco. Reports from Italy were that encounters with the enemy had thus far been merely outpost skirmishes, but had allowed Italy to occupy advantageous positions on Austrian territory.
By June 1st, the Italians had occupied the greater part of the west bank of the Isonzo, with little opposition. The left wing was beyond the Isonzo, at Caporetto, fighting among the boulders of Monte Nero, where the Austrian artillery had strong positions. Monfalcone was kept under constant bombardment.
A general Italian advance took place on June 7th across the Isonzo River from Caporetto to the sea, a distance of about forty miles. Monfalcone was taken by the Italians on June the 10th, the first serious blow against Trieste, as Monfalcone was a railway junction, and its electrical works operated the light and power of Trieste.
Next day the center made a great blow against Gradisca and Sagrado, but the river line proved too strong. The only success was won that night at Plava, north of Borrigia, which was carried by a surprise attack. The Isonzo was in flood, and presented a serious obstacle to the onrush of the Italians. By June 14th the Italian eastern army had pushed forward along the gulf of Trieste toward the town of Nebrosina, nine miles from Trieste.
Meanwhile, the Austrian armies were being constantly strengthened. The initial weakness of the Austrian defensive was due to the fact that the armies normally assigned to the invaded region had been sent to defend the Austrian line in Galicia against the Russians. When Italy began her invasion the defenses of the country were chiefly in the hands of hastily mobilized youths below the military age of nine-teen, and men above the military age of forty-two. From now on Austrian troops began to arrive from the Galician front, some of these representing the finest fighting material in the Austrian ranks. The chance of an easy victory was slipping from Italy's hands. The Italian advance was checked.
On the 15th of June the Italians carried an important position on Monte Nero, climbing the rocks by night and attacking by dawn. But this conquest did not help much. No guns of great caliber could be carried on the mountain, and Tolmino, which had been heavily fortified, and contained a garrison of some thirty thousand men, was entirely safe. The following week there were repeated counterattacks at Plava and on Monte Nero, but the Italians held what they had won.
The position was now that Cadorna's left wing was in a strong position, but could not do much against Tolmino. His center was facing the great camp of Gorizia, while his right was on the edge of the Carso, and had advanced as far as Dueno, on the Monfalcone-Trieste Rail-road. The army was in position to make an attack upon Gorizia. On the 2d of July an attack on a broad front was aimed directly at Gorizia. The left was to swing around against the defenses of Gorizia to the north; the center was directed against the Gorizia bridge head, and the right was to swing around to the northeast through the Doberdo plateau. If it succeeded the Trieste railway would be cut and Gorizia must fall.
Long and confused fighting followed. The center and the right of the Italian army slowly advanced their line, taking over one thousand prisoners. For days there was continuous bombardment and counter-bombardment. The fighting on the left was terrific. In the neighborhood of Plava the Italian forces found themselves opposed by Hungarian troops, unaccustomed to mountain warfare, who at first fell back. Austrian reserves came to their aid, and flung back three times the Italian charge.
Three new Italian brigades were brought up, and King Victor Emanuel himself came to en-courage his troops. The final assault carried the heights. On the 22d of July the Italian right captured the crest of San Michele, which dominates the Doberdo plateau:
Meanwhile the Austrian armies were being heavily reinforced, and General Cadorna found himself unable to make progress. Much ground had been won but Gorizia was still unredeemed. Many important vantage points were in Italian hands, but it was difficult to advance. The result of the three months' campaign was a stalemate. In the high mountains to the north Italy's campaign was a war of defense. To undertake her offensive on the Isonzo it was necessary that she guard her flanks and rear. The Tyrolese battle-ground contained three distinct points where it was necessary to operate; the Trentino Salient, the passes of the Dolomites, and the passes of the Carnic Alps.
Early in June Italy had won control of the ridges of the mountains in the two latter points, but the problem in the Trentino was more difficult. It was necessary, because of the con-verging valleys, to push her front well inland. On the Carnic Alps the fighting consisted of unimportant skirmishes. The main struggle centered around the pass of Monte Croce Carnico.
In two weeks the Alpini had seized dominating positions to the west of the pass, but the Austrians clung to the farther slopes. A great deal of picturesque fighting went on, but not much progress was made. Further west in the Dolomite region there was more fighting. On the 30th of May Cartina had been captured, and the Italians moved north toward the Pusterthal Railway. Progress was slow, as the main routes to the railway were difficult.
By the middle of August they were only a few miles from the railway, but all the routes led through defiles, and the neighboring heights were in the possession of the Austrians. To capture these heights was a most difficult feat, which the Italians performed in the most brilliant way; but even after they had passed these defiles success was not yet won. Each Italian column was in its own grove, with no lateral communication. The Austrians could mass themselves where they pleased. As a result the Italian forces were compelled to halt.
In the Trentino campaign the Italians soon captured the passes, and moved against Trente and Roverito. These towns were heavily fortified, as were their surrounding heights. The campaign became a series of small fights on mountain peaks and mountain ridges. Only small bodies of troops could maneuver, and the raising of guns up. steep precipices was extremely difficult. The Italians slowly succeeded in gaining ground, and established a chain of posts around the heights so that often one would see guns and barbed wire entrenchments at a height of more than ten thousand feet among the crevasses of the glaciers. The Alpini performed wonderful feats of physical endurance, but the plains of Lombardy were still safe.