Roots & routes

The tribute Italy paid for entering the First World War

A hundred years ago, Italy entered the First World War. Having declared a policy of neutrality at the outset of the war on 2 August 1914, the Italian government was eventually persuaded to join the side of the Allies on the 24thof May, 1915. Italy’s decision to enter the war was largely driven by the terms of the secret 1915 Treaty of London under which she had been promised large territorial gains at the close of the war at Austria-Hungary’s expense.

In the words of Antonio Salandra, then Prime Minister, who had severely condemned the aggression of Austria against Serbia when the horrible crime of Sarajevo was exploited as a pretext to wage war, “the whole Italian nation was joined in a wonderful moral union”, which would have proven a “greatest source of strength in the severe struggle facing Italy”, with the goal of “the accomplishment of the highest destinies of the country”.

In May 2015, General Luigi Cadorna launched mass attacks on Austria-Hungary. The defending army quickly built trenches and the Italians suffered heavy casualties. Despite initial Italian successes, the Italian front quickly bogged down into a stalemate, which remained through most of 1916. Gains of a few miles for the cost of tens of thousands of lives in battles that lasted for days on end were common. In the first two weeks of the Isonzo Offensive, the Italian Army lost 60,000 men. By the time the attacks were called off that winter, Italian casualties had reached 300,000.

Italian troops also served in the Balkans on the Salonika front and also against the Turks in Palestine. Many Italians also served on the Western front and many are buried in the German military cemetery at Douai.

By late 1917, the Austro-German forces were gaining the upper hand and British, French and later American troops joined the Italian army. The fighting continued to be fierce among the mountain peaks of the Alps and along the Isonzo. The U.S. intervention and some significant successes of the allied forces begun to show their effects and by October 1918 the Austro-Hungarian government started peace talks.

On November 3rd, Italian troops entered the city of Trento (Trent) and captured 300,000 Austrian soldiers, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Fighting ended on the Italian Front on 4th November 1918.

By the end of the war in 1918, 600,000 Italians were dead, 950,000 were wounded and 250,000 were crippled for life. The war cost more than the government had spent in the previous 50 years – and Italy had only been in the war three years. By 1918, the country was hit by very high inflation and unemployment was high. Among the victims, there was my great-grandfather Angelo Cerbo, whose memory I would like to honor through these pages.

We are marking the centenary of Italy’s entrance in the First World War to pay a tribute to those who served, to remember those who died and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever. During those terrible years, Italy, Europe and the world were engulfed by killing and destruction. In Europe, the transition from war to lasting peace has taken time and the peace that we enjoy together does not simply mean no more bloodshed – it means something deeper than that. The very existence of the European Union bears testimony to the power of reconciliation.

Not only is war between European countries unthinkable, but former adversaries have worked together for three generations to spread and entrench democracy, prosperity and the rule of law across our continent, and to promote our shared values around the world. We will always remember the extraordinary sacrifice of the generation who fought in the First World War and we are all indebted to them because their most enduring legacy is our liberty.

In conclusion, I would like to repeat the powerful verses of Giuseppe Ungaretti, who encapsulated in a few words the sadness of soldiers at the front.

“Si sta come d’autunno sugli alberi le foglie” (We feel like leaves on a tree in Autumn).

Film: torneranno i prati by Ermanno OlmiItalian director Ermanno Olmi, eighty years of age, dedi- cates his latest film to the hundreds of thousands of Ital- ians who have immolated themselves fighting in a war that proved it a sacrifice pointless and absurd. A poignant portrait of a group of soldiers locked in a trench from the huge snow avalanche and the temporary truce. A film of a memory that speaks to the heart.

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