War is a horrific business, as if we didn’t know in these 24-hour media times. Every now and then, however, the business of killing and maiming (or, if you want to be romantic, fighting and dying) for your country manages to crank up the horror to even more catastrophic levels. If you’re going to go to war, whether or not you are militarily trained it’s generally a good idea to ensure that you have covered all the bases before you set out, rather than at the time of battle. This lesson was repeatedly ignored during the Great War of 1914-18, in which it seemed at times like the generals who were supposedly in charge of matters were trying to outdo one another in how to prosecute a war badly.
The shortcomings of Haig and Rawlinson on the Western Front, in which they justified the offensives on the Somme and Passchendaele through their view that previous assaults on the German lines had failed owing to a lack of sufficient “weight”, are of course well known. Less well known is the even worse scenario in which Italian soldiers were expected to risk all for their king and country – up in the freezing, snowy mountains of the Dolomites.
In 1914 the Italians were nominally on the side of Germany and the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary, being part of the Triple Alliance – in opposition to the Triple Entente of Britain, Russia, and France. When war broke out, however, the Italians declared neutrality, and the following year switched sides, attacking the Austrians in the Dolomites. After securing promises from the French and the British, the Italians aimed to take not only the mainly Italian-speaking province of Trentino, but also the more northerly province of Alto Adige (a.k.a. the South Tyrol), where German-speakers actually outnumbered (and still outnumber) their Italian counterparts. As far as they were concerned, these areas – as well as the port of Trieste on the Adriatic coast – were Italia Irridenta (Unredeemed Italy), those areas without which, they thought, Italy could fulfil her dream of being a properly united nation. It was a dream that was to cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Quite apart from the basic incompetence, not to say ruthlessness, of the Italian supreme commander, General Luigi Cadorna, the conditions in which his soldiers had to fight were even more horrific than those facing the British, French and Belgians on the Western Front. One British soldier stationed with the Italians, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton, remembered them in his memoirs:
Trenches are cut in the solid ice, where more Italians are killed by avalanches than by Austrians, where guns have to be dragged up precipices and perched on ledges fit only for an eagle’s nest, where sentries have to be changed every ten minutes, owing to intense cold, where battalions of Alpini charge down snow slopes on skis at a rate of thirty miles an hour… Everything froze hard during the night: one’s boots, the ink in one’s fountain pen, and the lather froze on one’s face before one had time to shave.
A series of the avalanches described by Dalton all struck on the same day – Friday 13 December 1916 – a day known thereafter as White Friday. Early that morning, about 10,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers were fatally engulfed across the lines around Mount Marmolada. It is considered the second-worst avalanche in history, after the 1970 Huascarán slide in Peru that killed thought over 20,000.
Further disasters and failed attacks on the Austrian lines on the Isonzo river culminated in Italy’s stunning defeat at Caporetto the following year – a reverse that led to Britain and France sending more troops to bolster their Italian allies.
The point is this: the Allies’ ultimate victory, and everything that was required to secure it, did little to solidify their alliance. The Italians reckoned their war service had earned the country more than just the Italia Irridenta territories, but other areas with non-Italian-speaking populations, whereas the French and British, considering the Italians the weakest of their alliance’s links, proved reluctant to honour their promises of 1915. This divergence in the Entente would ultimately drive a wedge between them – a wedge that would prove a key factor in the rise in fascism in Italy, and the country’s gradual glide towards the German camp in the 1930s. And all because of rash and cynical promises, incompetent leadership, and unrealistic foreign policy objectives. Still, thank goodness such factors are things of the past in international relations now…