31/5/1917 Discipline and punish: the Italian army deals with failure

A few days ago on the Isonzo D’Annunzio ordered Italian artillery to shell his own men after they had surrendered to the Austro-Hungarians. This willingness to treat their own men brutally is not uncommon in the Italian officer corps. In the last month alone, 54 Italian soldiers have been executed after court martial, while others have been summarily shot for perceived failures in their duty. Italians officers are far more willing to kill their own men than those of any other European army, with executions dwarfing those being applied elsewhere.

The contrast with the French army is instructive: the French are facing widespread unrest across their army with many men refusing to attack or to occupy front line positions. While the French are arresting and in some cases executing perceived ringleaders, their response is far more conciliatory than that of the Italian military authorities to far less serious offences.

Cadorna however would draw a different lesson from the contrast between his and the French army. His officers are applying iron discipline and his men are continuing to fight, while the softer approach of the French officers has led to their army’s mutiny.

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Luigi Cadorna (WW2 Weapons: the World Wars 1914-18 and 1939-45)

30/5/1917 Emperor Karl reconvenes Austria’s parliament

Austria-Hungary’s young Emperor Karl is keen to reform and revitalise his increasingly troubled empire. In an attempt to restore some political legitimacy to the regime and perhaps to spread the blame for unpleasant decisions more widely he decides to reconvene the Reichsrat, the parliament of the Austrian half of the empire. The Reichsrat has not met in over three years, with the Austrian government using powers of decree to bypass it.

The Reichsrat meets for the first time today. If Karl had hoped that the parliamentarians would approach their duties in a spirit of loyalty and cooperation towards his government then he is mistaken. Czech, Serb, Slovene and Croat members use the occasion to assert the rights of their own nationalities. While they pay lip service to the idea of loyalty to the imperial crown, their demands are dangerously threatening to the established order of the empire.

Disaffection is not confined to the parliamentary chamber. War has led to a collapse in living standards across the empire, particularly among those whose ability to purchase food has been eroded by inflation. Industrial workers are increasingly unruly. Strikes occur in war industries in Vienna. In Prague today workers stage a one day strike and demonstrate in the city centre, demanding the release of jailed anti-monarchist Václav Klofáč of the National Social Party.

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Opening session of the Reichsrat (Die Welt der Habsburger / The World of the Habsburgs)

29/5/1917 The Socialist Republic of Kronstadt

The newly reconstituted Provisional Government is trying to enforce its authority across Russia. Today though it sees itself rejected close to its seat in Petrograd. The Kronstadt naval base declares itself a sovereign republic outside the jurisdiction of the Provisional Government.

The Kronstadt sailors were already among the more radical elements at the start of the revolution, attacking their officers and playing an important role in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in Petrograd. Since then the sailors have joined the ranks of the Bolsheviks, Anarchists and the Socialist Revolutionaries. The sailors have declined to release those of their officers they have not killed, despite repeated attempts by Kerensky and others to secure their freedom.

Bolsheviks in Kronstadt play an important part in the base’s repudiation of Provisional Government authority. But in Petrograd Lenin is furious at the sailors’ declaration, seeing it as premature adventurism. While Lenin wants the Provisional Government overthrown, he does not want any move against it until the Bolsheviks are ready to seize power.

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Kronstadt sailors (libcom.org: Top 10 texts about the 1917 Russian Revolution)

28/5/1917 A bizarre episode on the Italian Front

The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo is winding down. The Italians have failed again to smash through the Austro-Hungarians, though for a while it did look like the defenders of the Carso Plateau would collapse before the Italian onslaught.

While the main Italian effort is now over, they are still staging local assaults. One of these occurs today, an attempt by Italian troops to cross the river Timavo and seize the village of Duino, from where they are to raise an Italian flag which will be visible in distant Trieste.

The attack fails. The terrain is extremely unsuitable to the kind of advance the Italians were planning and the Austro-Hungarian defence is too vigorous. The Italians are thrown back with heavy casualties, including the commander of the assault. Many of the Italian assault troops surrender once they realise how suicidal is the plan of attack.

The surrenders enrage Captain D’Annunzio, the modernist poet who had joined the army in pursuit of martial glory. He orders the artillery to shell the Italian prisoners as the Austro-Hungarian prisoners escort them to the rear. He also boasts of having prevented his mortally injured commander from taking poison, so that he would die a slow and painful death.

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Italian troops attack (Metropostcard.com)

Gabriele D’Annunzio (left) and fellow officer (Wikipedia)

26/5/1917 Once again, Italy runs out of steam on the Isonzo

Italian troops are attacking the Austro-Hungarians again on the Isonzo. In this tenth battle, Cadorna has alternated between attacking the Carso Plateau and mountainous positions further north around Gorizia. For the last few days the focus has returned to the Carso. After a bombardment of an intensity not previously seen here, the Italian infantry have made considerable gains, advancing up to two kilometres. The Austro-Hungarians appear to be on the brink of collapse, with many prisoners being taken by the Italians.

But today the tide turns. Boroevic, the Austro-Hungarian commander, has brought men south from the Gorizia sector to reinforce the Carso. The Germans have also permitted the transfer of two Austro-Hungarian divisions from the Eastern Front (where Habsburg units fight under German command). The Italians meanwhile are exhausted after their efforts of the past few days and also running low on artillery ammunition. Their attacks run out of steam and the front begins to stabilise.

The failure of another offensive to smash the Austro-Hungarians may be beginning to demoralise the Italian rank and file. Their commanders too are feeling the cold hand of pessimism on their shoulders. The Duke of Aosta, local commander of the assaults on the Carso, remarks that he fears the war could go on for another ten years. Others note that the men appear increasingly despondent, with some reporting that they wept as they went into battle, knowing that they were going to their deaths. Still, unlike the French, the Italian infantry continue to obey orders to attack. Perhaps one more battle of the Isonzo will be the one that sees them finally win victory over the Austro-Hungarians.

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Guns (Metropostcard.com)

Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Aosta (Wikipedia)

23/5/1917 Tisza steps down as Hungarian Prime Minister

Back in 1914, it was only after winning over Prime Minister Tisza of Hungary that the pro-war faction in Vienna was able to issue an ultimatum to Serbia. The main Austrian authors of the war have now left the stage. Emperor Franz Josef has died, Foreign Minister Berchtold has retired, Austria’s Prime Minister Stürgkh has been assassinated and army commander Conrad has been demoted.

And now Tisza is obliged to step down as prime minister of Hungary. Since his accession, Emperor Karl has been intent on reforming his empire. He wishes for a more liberal and federal structure for Austria-Hungary, one in which all the peoples would be equally privileged. This is problematic for Hungary, as the Hungarians there rule over many people of other ethnicities. Karl talks also of widening the franchise, which would both dilute the power of ethnic Hungarians and shift power away from the gentry class who are Tisza’s base.

Tisza seems unable to resist Karl. His position is undercut be increasing demands within Hungary for greater democracy. Now he agrees to resign and is succeeded by Moritz Esterházy, who declares himself a supporter of democracy, so long as it is “Hungarian democracy”. Now he must set to work on the negotiation of a renewal of the 1867 compromise that established self-rule in Hungary.

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István Tisza (Wikipedia)

23/5/1917 Unrest in Italy as attacks continue on the Isonzo

The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo continues. Cadorna had lowered the tempo of his men’s attacks on the Carso Plateau to focus on attacks on the more mountainous terrain around Gorizia to the north. Fighting there has become positional, with both sides taking and retaking hilltop positions and suffering heavy casualties while they do so.

Now Cadorna turns his attentions back to the Carso. Italian artillery blasts the Austro-Hungarians with a terrible intensity, though with much of the artillery still deployed around Gorizia the bombardment is not quite as intense as it could be. Still, the hope is that when the infantry attack tomorrow they will have better luck than in their advance at the start of the battle.

On the Italian home front meanwhile the strain is beginning to show. A wave of unrest sweeps across the country, particularly strongly in Milan. The authorities respond harshly, deploying troops to restore order in Milan and to crush leftist trouble-makers there. Some 50 people are killed and 800 arrested.

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Italian position, Mont San Gabriele (Rainer Regiment)

21/5/1917 A minor success for the Allies in East Africa

The war in East Africa continues. The Germans here are cut off from their homeland but they continue to resist the Allied invasion of German East Africa. Their army is mostly locally recruited Askaris led by European officers. British Empire and Commonwealth forces are finding the war here tough going, as are their Belgian allies. Although they greatly outnumber the Germans, the terrain and climate are unforgiving and the Germans are adept at playing a game of cat and mouse.

For both sides, supplying their men is difficult. The Germans are living off the land, looting the colony’s civilian population and leaving famine in their wake. Both sides find the transportation of food extremely difficult. The colony lacks paved roads and has a very limited railway network. Supplies must be carried on the backs of men, which means that large numbers of bearers must be deployed. The British in particular have forcibly recruited a vast corps of bearers, whose numbers greatly exceed their men under arms. These bearers are underfed and suffering terribly from disease as they are moved out of their native areas. Their mortality rates are greater than those of soldiers on the Western Front.

The British have a stroke of luck today. Captain Max Wintgens has been leading a German raiding party that has spread chaos behind the Allied lines. The Allies have made great efforts to track him down, but these have been a costly failure. The British pursuit force sees a tenth of its 2,500 bearers die of disease and a greater number again become too sick to continue the campaign. Today though Wintgens himself is obliged to surrender to the Belgians, now suffering from typhus. However his subordinate officers escape with the rest of the raiders to continue harassing the Allies.

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Bearers (DW: Africa and the First World War)

Max Wintgens (Axis History Forum)

19/5/1917 Faisal sends his agents north into Syria

Thanks to a steady inflow of British arms and money the Arab Revolt is now pretty secure in its dominance of the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. The Turks still have a garrison in place in Medina but it is unable to contest control of the region with the rebels. British aeroplanes are bombing the railway line to Medina, keeping the Turks there too undersupplied to bother the Arabs.

To the discomfiture of his British patrons, Emir Hussein of Mecca has declared himself King of the Arabs. Now his son Faisal prepares to extend his father’s writ north into Syria. He sends his cousin Nasir ibn Ali and other trusted associates to reconnoitre the region. They are to make contact with the rural tribesmen and also with the Arab nationalists in Damascus.

Travelling with Faisal’s men is British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, who has been liaising between Faisal and the British in Cairo. Lawrence has become sympathetic to the Arab cause. By now Lawrence is aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle East between them. Lawrence dislikes the French and hopes to assist Faisal in staking a claim to Syria before the French are able to establish themselves there.

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T.E. Lawrence (Wikipedia)

18/5/1917 America introduces conscription

US warships have arrived in Europe to join patrols against the U-boat menace. President Wilson knows however that if the war is to be brought to an end it will be done so on land. Here the USA is at a considerable disadvantage. The country’s army amounts to just 145,000, insignificantly small compared to the great armies of Europe.

In order to make a difference in Europe, the American army will have to be expanded. Today the President signs into a law the Selective Service Act, which allows for conscription. Even so, it will be some time before the army will have been built up to a level that can take on the Germans. Given the task facing the Americans, that of building a large modern army almost from scratch, some wonder whether the USA will be able to deploy troops to Europe in strength before 1919.

In keeping with the traditions of the United States, draftees will be segregated by colour.

image source (Wikipedia)