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Belligerents and Participants
Those who united the small kingdoms of Italy into one nation in the 19th century did not see all their territorial ambitions fulfilled. The military campaigns against Austria were a disaster, and they only gained territory from them because of their alliance with Prussia who defeated Austria in 1866. The new border was set somewhat arbitrarily, and much of the land Italy coveted, Tyrol in the Alps and the Adriatic shore of the Balkans continued to lie within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite entering into the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, there were many Italian nationalists who still wanted to see all Italian populated lands redeemed (Italia irredenta) and pined to take control over Austrian lands such as Trentino and Trieste, and even turn the Adriatic sea into an Italian lake. This became a growing preoccupation of the Italian press and middle class, but most Italians only cared about provincial issues.
Nationalist feelings had been encouraged by the Italo-Turkish War that erupted in 1912. While the material benefits of seizing Tripoliana from the Ottomans are highly debatable, many insisted that this move was required to show that Italy was the equal of other imperialist powers regardless of expense. While many deplored the invasion of North Africa, it wet the Kingdom’s taste for empire and expansionist policies would stay on the forefront of politics for decades.
Italy was beset by conservative leaders who could not seem to move the kingdom into the modern world, and rested on past glories instead. Many of those seeking change saw their own rich cultural heritage as part of the problem. A unified Italy meant little to most who remained subjects rather than citizens. New movements like the Futurists who saw life in Italy as living in a museum felt this obsession with the past needed to be broken, and the only way this would ever be accomplished was through the chaos derived from war. These poets and painters glorified war, not just in traditional heroic terms, but followed the ideals of Social Darwinism in seeking to sweep Italy clean. Although these artists and intellectuals only formed a minority, their extremely radical thinking still had influence over those with strong nationalistic inclinations. Many Socialists like Benito Mussolini that were initially vehemently opposed to war came to embrace it and formed an important new pro-war block.
Despite the growing militaristic tendencies that accompanied ambitions for glory and prestige, most Italians did not favor the war in North Africa, and they would also be opposed to entering the Great War when it ignited. The unrest being caused by the growing Socialist Movement was creating a chaotic situation as Premier Antonio Salandra tried to form a new government. Popular uprisings (Red Week) broke out in Marches and Romagna in June 1914. This was followed by violent anti-draft demonstrations inspired by the socialist newspaper editor, Benito Mussolini. Eventually strikes led to open rebellion, and towns and cities began setting up their own communes or declaring themselves independent republics such as Romagna. A good portion of Italy’s army was required to restore order.
Italy had originally entered the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1882 to help protect itself from France; but on the eve of the Great War, relations with France had improved and most Italians were not in the mood to come to the aid of their traditional enemy Austria. Relations had been strained ever since Austria-Hungry seized Bosnia in 1908. The treaty was designed for defense, and so Prime Minister Antonio Salandra used this as an excuse to avoid aiding Austria-Hungry in 1914 by declaring its invasion of Serbia to be an act of aggression. He also considered their collusion with Germany without Italian approval to be a breach of the treaty.
Although Salandra took a stance of neutrality, he really favored war; he only had to choose sides. Both Austria-Hungry and France were territorial rivals in the region, and he would have liked to see both loose the War. The public knew little of the real intentions or desires of their leaders, nor of the secret negotiations that would be forthcoming. Publishers in turn produced a wide variety of cards that depicted the political situation through their own perceptions. While some cards showed Italy being wooed by foreign powers to join their alliance, others depicted Italy being squeezed by outside forces to choose sides.
Soon after the War started, negotiations opened in London and Vienna to see who would offer Italy the most territory to join their side. Germany tried to convince the Austrians into making concessions but they resisted, then offered too little too late. They both wanted control over the Adriatic and this became a sticking point that could not be resolved. Even though Russia was opposed to granting Italy Slavic populated lands of Dalmatia that might lead to a future war with Serbia, Great Britain made Italy a generous offer beyond its capacity and true willingness to deliver on. Italy’s backward economy also made it dependent on foreign trade, which Salandra was fearful of risking to a British Blockade.
While the Italian parliament debated the merits of war without knowledge of these secret negotiations, Salandra accepted the terms of the Treaty of London. King Victor Emmanuel III, always uncomfortable with governing, was pressured into followed Salandra’s lead, and parliament would rubber stamp his decision in May. Only the Socialists and the Vatican offered serious resistance but the two could not work together to get anything accomplished, and even the Socialists grew divided over this issue. Prime Minister Salandra, having outmaneuvered his opposition was now effectively running Italy as a dictator. He hoped the move toward war would finally help unite the kingdom while further dividing his Socialist opposition. He supported growing nationalist ideals to provide cover for a war that was nothing but a land grab.
When Luigi Cadorna became Chief of the General Staff in July 1914, most of the Italian army had been deployed to attack France. His predecessor, Alberto Pollio was a strong supporter of the Triple Alliance, and would have probably offered great resistance to Salandra changing sides had he not died on the eve of war. All the troops he deployed had to be slowly repositioned eastward without alarming the Austrians. Italy was a prisoner of its geography; its long mountainous border to the north meant that any major thrust against Austria needed to be made in the east across the Isonzo River, allowing for little innovation. The most desirable section to attack was across the Venetian Plain for that is where the prize of Trieste lay.
While Austria had already fortified their shared border it was barely manned since they were now heavily committed on other fronts. Under these circumstances Codorna felt he could make a quick breakthrough and rush onward to Trieste as long as he held the element of surprise. It was a delicate balance of building up enough troops to deliver a decisive blow while not alerting the enemy to his intentions. While Italy’s armed forces may not have been as weak as some claim, it was not trained or led well enough to be prepared for the ordeal that lay ahead of it.
Wishing to avoid confronting Germany, Italy only declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915, which was a breach of the London Treaty. The quick campaign against Austria-Hungary collapsed when General Cadorna’s army failed to cross the Isonzo. He would lead nine more costly offensives against this line; and while he eventually managed to press forward, he only gained insignificant ground over the next twenty-eight months. While the capture of long sought Gorizia was enough of a bright spot to cause Italy to declare war on Germany in August 1916, little progress was made afterwards. The eleventh offensive in September 1917 finally broke through the Austrian line but this war of attrition had left them too week to exploit it. Help was requested from Great Britain but they were reluctant to place troops under Cadorna’s command.
By May 1917 the failure of the Isonzo campaigns had led to considerable unrest in Italy. Cadorna, who blamed the antiwar Socialists for his failures, called for extreme crackdowns and even considered a military coup to put them in place. When severe food shortages occurred in August, large strikes demonstrations broke out in Italy’s industrial north. The army was called in to restore order in Turin where many workers were massacred. Not all soldiers were happy to kill their own people, and two divisions that proved themselves unreliable were shipped off to France. They initially served in a quiet sector on the Marne, but they took the brunt of the German offensive at Bligny in June 1918 where they suffered many casualties.
The mountainous region of the Dolomites saw a lot of high altitude combat even though this region was totally unsuitable for waging war. Austria-Hungary fought a completely defensive war here while the Italians remained on the offensive. While it was demanded that they take territory, there was so little confidence that this would be achieved that the Italian army here received few resources and no reserves. Outside of a couple large battles, most mountain fighting was on a small scale. Even though the front barely moved throughout the conflict, casualties were high; most being the result of the harsh environment.
Even though the Dolomites was the smallest front in relation to amount of men engaged, it generated the most depictions on postcards. These can be found in both specific and generic varieties, but both have the romance of Alpine fighting in common. These may have been the most popular Italian postcards not only because they breached conceptions of traditional warfare, they also had a tendency to reduce this gigantic struggle down to a more personalized and comprehensible scale. The fighting depicted here was exceptionally loaded with propaganda, for by setting it apart from the rest it could better express Italian slancio and confidence in the triumph of their will.
Extensive mountain fighting also took place in the lower heights flanking both sides of the Dolomites. To the east there were many Italian attempts to seize the high peaks near Caporetto during the many Isonzo offensives, but they achieved little success. To the west there was constant seesaw fighting over the mountainous Trentino region with the Austro-Hungarians nearly breaking through in May 1916. The Italians would launch their own major but failed offensive here in June 1917. There are many Italian cards that depict dramatic scenes of fighting in these regions but they tend to be rather generic and are difficult to assign to a specific location. Considering the non-specificity of many other Italian cards, the lack of sited locations was most likely a marketing ploy to create a wider audience for these cards.
While the Austrians had taken far fewer casualties in the battles for the Isonzo, they too had been terribly worn down in what turned into a war of attrition. They also requested outside help and Germany only reluctantly agreed when they thought Italy was on the verge of victory. Germany thought that a limited offensive could at least eliminate Italy as a threat to Austria-Hungary and keep its teetering ally in the War. Two months later a joint Austro-Hungarian German offensive was launched on the upper Isonzo. When they pushed out of the mountains and on to Caporetto, it threatened the Italian flank to the south and the entire Isonzo front was abandoned. Efforts to regroup on the Tagliamento River failed, and the Italian army fled until it took up a new defense on the River Piave. While the Germans failed to surround the Italian army on the Isonzo, all of the costly Italian gains of the War were lost.
While attempts were made to break through the Italian defense on the Piave, the Germans had overstretched their supply lines and were no longer capable of turning it into a major effort. In any case they had achieved their goal in relieving the threat to Austria-Hungary. The Italian army was now at half strength and its long time commander, General Cadorna was removed. Morale was so low that Italy’s very survival came into question. Although there were few in Italy that did not recognize that the Battle of Caporetto had been a disaster for Italy, it was not represented as such on their postcards. Often what little is presented is shown in terms of the Italian army making a brave stand.
Some of the fiercest fighting in this theater took place on Monte Grappa, which held the Italian left flank on the Piave line. It was well fortified before the fighting ever reached it, and now it formed a choke point between two swollen rivers. The Germans launched an assault on this height in November 1917, and while a number of summits were captured, they could not drive the Italians completely off the ridge. Fighting would continue on these rocky slopes through a very harsh winter and into March of 1918 without a breakthrough. The Austro-Hungarians made some headway during their June offensive but it was stopped when the Italians counterattacked with their own elite assault troops, the Arditi. The Italians would then try to drive the Austro-Hungarians from the heights through the fall but without success. The massive amount of blood spilled here gave this place mythical qualities. It was used as the backdrop to regimental cards for years to come.
Salandra’s government had had already fallen in the spring of 1916 due to military defeats, and now his successor Paolo Boselli would also fall in October 1917 as a result of the Caporetto disaster. Antiwar decent had grown with the mishandling of the War, and by the summer of 1917 it seemed that the Socialists might assume power and take Italy out of the conflict. Though mass demonstrations arose, peace was anathema to the Futurists and nationalists. The defeatism of the Socialists was blamed for the failure at Caporetto, and a brutal backlash followed that reduced their power. When Vittorio Emanuele Orlando took over as Prime Minister, he finally enjoyed some national unity as many rallied to their Kingdom’s desperate defense.
While political divisions had settled down enough for him to keep Italy fighting until the end of the War, a new crackdown against all descent began to reverse his gains causing new divisions that would outlast the War. General Cadorna, whose leadership was increasingly questioned, was appointed to the Allied Supreme War Council while General Armando Diaz took control of military matters as the new Chief of Staff. The War would be run more conservatively under his leadership.
There was a great deal of animosity between the Austrians and Italians, much of it a byproduct of ever present political suspicions. These attitudes were especially inflamed once German troops occupied a large portion of their Kingdom in 1917, which produced looting, deportations and the destruction of cultural treasures through bombing raids. This behavior inspired further acts of cruelty on both sides. The Austro-Hungarians replaced the German as occupiers in 1918, and while their occupation induced little fear, extreme shortages of supplies caused them to increasingly ravage the countryside until they also resembled their vicious caricatures on Italian propaganda cards.
While the misdeeds that occurred during the German occupation of northeaster Italy are reminiscent of the rape of Belgium, Italian postcards, at least for the most part, seem to stress the idea of success rather than stir up hatreds. There are of course plenty of exceptions, and their numbers may only be lacking because occupation here came late in the War. Political cartoons were often exceptionally harsh. Clues were often taken from the French cards depicting German transgressions. Even the anti-German British series by Louis Raemaeker was reprinted in Italian. Germans acquired the title of barbarians and the enemy of innocent children, just like on French cards. Some of these themes took on stronger associations in Italy because of the plundering of ancient Rome by Germanic tribesmen.
Believing the fighting on the Italian Front had been brought to an end, Germany began withdrawing troops to reinforce their 1918 spring offensive in the Western Front. All their men had left by the summer leaving the Austro-Hungarian army behind to man the defenses. Austria-Hungary would then make one last effort to destroy the Italian army, but without German help it did not succeed. The failure of Caporetto led to Cordorna’s fall and he was replaced by General Armando Diaz who turned Italy’s army into a more professional fighting force. After the Allies provided Diaz with heavy reinforcements, they pressured him to launched launched his own offensive in October. While he believed his army was not yet ready for such a move, he was also fearful that inaction would lead to a poorer negotiating position in a War that was close to ending. When his attack came against the weary Austro-Hungarians, they broke and called for an armistice soon after.
At the Paris Peace Talks, it was decided that Italy would receive Trieste and only part of Trentino, but this was a lot less territory than was promised by the London Treaty when they entered the War. Some areas as on the Dalmatia coast had already been captured, and now they were being asked to give it up. While the Allies could accept the redemption of Italian populated areas, Italy was now asking for even more territory than it was originally promised for nothing more than symbolic reasons. Much of the territory Italy coveted was now seen by the other Allies as essential to the creation of new united Slavic state in the Balkans, which was their priority. Italy’s representative, Premier Orlando walked out of the conference in disgust, but none of the other powers there seemed to care. By June Orlando fell from power, and the Peace Talks ended without resolving Italy’s borders.
The political situation in Italy had been relatively unstable before the War, and Prime Minister Salandra’s attempts to unify the Kingdom through war and intrigue had backfired. The failure as a victor to receive what it saw as its due only caused more unrest. Political divisions had not only grown larger in the intervening years, they had grown more extreme and prone to use violence. When Italy landed troops in Anatolia, it provoked the Allies an war nearly erupted with the United States.
Tensions over the contested port of Fiume rose to a boil in September 1919 when its Italian and French occupiers began to clash. The Italians were then ordered out but they were rallied by the ultra-nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who had been promoting an irredentist agenda long before the War ever started. Now he staged a military takeover and declared Fiume part of Italy. The new Premier, Francesco Nitti denounced D’Annunzio as a traitor but his army only grew as his ranks filled with deserters. This led to a political crisis in which the government was dissolved. Italy was already shifting towards Fascism.
After the Ottomans withdrew their forces from Libya to fight in the Balkans at the end of the Italo-Turkish War in 1912, Italian troops made inroads into the interior that brought them into conflict with Sanusi tribesmen. Although most Italian troops were withdrawn from Tripoliana to fight on the Austrian Front, they would launch an offensive against the Sanusi in the spring of 1915. Though this led to a declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire in August, their offensive operations failed and the Italians remained peened into their coastal strongholds for the duration. The Sanusi would continue their attacks after receiving German arms, but they could not drive them out. When the Ottoman Empire signed an Armistice in October 1918, the Sanusi refused to surrender to the hated Italians, and they moved to Tunisia. There the French accepted their surrender but executed them afterwards.
Since the Great War followed on the heels of the Italo-Turkish War, it is often difficult to tell which postcard matches up with which conflict. One sure clue that the card is from World War One is if it was published in another Allied nation. French publishers were the most likely to cover military events around the Mediterranean at this time. Italian troops fighting in Libya can be distinguished from those fighting in Europe on unlabeled cards by their distinctive helmets designed for hot climates.
After Hector Friedlander took control over Agenzia Stefani in 1881, his close ties to the Italian government insured his firms place as the primary press agency in Italy. Through his position he was able to curtail news unfavorable to government officials and their unpopular, controversial or failing policies. Thanks to his efforts, Italy’s shifting alliances did not get as much public attention as they deserved. This limited control over news proved satisfactory until Italy’s disastrous defeat at Caporetto. After October 1917 all news would first be filtered through the minister of propaganda, which had a huge effect on the type of images that found their way onto postcards. Censorship became severe and soldiers accuse of spreading defeatism could be executed without a trial. The long string of military failures would not be allowed to reach the public’s eye. While Italy produced large numbers of postcards, few deal with specific battles or places but tend to fall within major themes.
Very common among Italian military cards are those that incorporate a great deal of symbolism in the form of personifications. These can be traditional allegories of victory or liberty to the more spiritual renderings of angels or of Christ. While other nations produced similar symbolically themed postcards, they seem more prevalent in Italy than anywhere else. Even as Italian artists abandoned Neoclassical painting for a more impressionistic style, the use of allegory followed these changes. It seems as if half of all combat scenes are presented as allegory. The question is whether this trend was just following public taste or if it made the production of cards easier for publishers. With few victories to point to, Italian publishers could represent the hope of victory through allegory rather than actual events.
Some Italian cards depicting their soldiers in battle make no reference to any real event but depend solely on symbolism and allegory to promote Italy’s greatness, conquests or victories in order to stir to patriotic urges. The cry of Savoy, the Italian royal house, often rings loudly on these cards. Other cards depicted scenes of historic battles, often stirring up memories of Garibaldi and the unfinished goals of the Italian war for independence.
Italian military cards often made connections between the modern Kingdom and the ancient Roman Empire. The implication was that there was a continuum of greatness from the ancient Romans to present times, and that Italy was not only a formidable force to recon with, it would become a powerful empire again. These propaganda cards usually display Roman legionnaires juxtaposed to their modern counterparts. Symbolic elements were also commonly used to support this comparison or completely substitute for the soldiers.
Italy fared badly against Austria in their struggle for independence, but they had made a military alliance with Prussia, which proved to be to their advantage after the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866. The Peace of Prague that followed awarded much territory to Italy at Austria’s expense, but it did not include all the lands craved and borders were not precisely set. Italian nationalists became obsessed over redeeming all Italian populated lands (Italia irredenta), with a particular interest in Trentino and Trieste. While most Italians only cared about provincial issues, publishers became preoccupied with this issue, and political cartoons concerning redemption abounded once the Great War broke out. Italians were only a minority in these lands, but the propaganda war presented the situation as if a large population had been excluded from their proper place within the Kingdom of Italy.
Less common but still produced in number are postcards that involve the romance of warfare, not through battlefield depictions but of the soldier as respected hero. These too are often presented in a symbolic manner. Beautiful women can be found encouraging men as they head off to the battlefront, which also implies that women are attracted to brave soldiers. Many of these cards are similar to the glamour postcards produced in Italy before the War, and many are by the same artists. Some of these cards go further to depict romantic encounters.
Unity cards, demonstrating the strong alliances between Allied nations were very common among all those fighting the War. What is unusual among Italian Publishers was the large amount of postcards dedicated to praising the help of the United States when the vast majority of Americans fought in France. While the United States did provide essential war materials to Italy, The troops stationed there were more of a token to satisfy the Italian-American community at home. These postcards however were of great propaganda value in raising moral because of their promise of aid in desperate times. They were more than a promise of help, they were a sign of friendship, which ensured their popularity. These cards however fell out of vogue after President Wilson voiced his opposition to Italian imperialism.
Regimental cards, already produced in number long before the Great War continued to be made. Many nations produced such cards but those from Italy stand out because of their great artistry and their prolific production. A regiment is a basic building block of military organization, which usually consists of about a thousand men commanded by a colonel. They were often recruited from the same city or province so they could mobilize quickly when necessary called. They were each given a number and they often acquired nicknames as well. Italy produced postcards of all its regiments. These cards are full of ornamental and symbolic elements, and often depicted heroic regimental action in a past conflict. This sometimes makes cards without a postmark difficult to date as those published during the Great War might depict 19th century victories on them for inspiration, while scenes of fighting from the Great War were often published after the war had ended. These types of cards remained popular through World War Two.