Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Great War from an Italian Perspective

As a teaching member of the Bagni di Lucca branch of Unitre (University of the third age) I sometimes like to turn myself into a student and attend the other teachers’ lectures. The talk on the 15th January Thursday was of particular interest to me, both because the lecturer is Bagni di Lucca’s most distinguished local historian and because the subject is of unavoidable interest this year. Professor Natalia Sereni talked on “La prima guerra mondiale: l’entrata in guerra dell’Italia e la guerra di posizione”  in this, the hundredth anniversary year of Italy’s entry into the Great War in April 1915. The venue was the magnificently restored pink room on the first floor of the Circolo dei Forestieri (which, I am glad to say, is being refurbished for an eventual re-opening!)


(on the Piave front)

Why did Italy join in the war and join late too? These questions were answered in a comprehensive survey of the causes of WW1 in which Prof. Sereni also mentioned Chris Clark’s recent, thought-provoking book “The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to War in 1914.” The main causes centre on the Balkans, Germany’s rapid rearmament and industrial might, the decline of the Turkish Empire and alliances between the superpowers. Indeed, Italy together with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed the Triple Alliance, which meant that if any one of these powers were attacked by an outside country then the other two alliance members would rush to its aid.

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Prof. Sereni showed us how “great” the war was in terms of casualty figures for the whole conflict. These are still far from being conclusive but estimates go up to seventeen million dead between civilians and soldiers. Twenty million were injured and sometimes the mutilations suffered were so great that victims were obliged to spend the rest of their lives in institutions away from the reach of “normal” society. Psychological mutilations were even more grievous and even the smallest hamlet received its shell-shocked  “war idiot”. Indeed, the casualty figures of WW1 exceed all casualty figures for all wars in Europe fought in the nineteenth century!

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When one includes the Spanish flu which decimated an equal number of victims then estimates of thirty seven million casualties for the Great War are not far off the mark. This figure not only represents the size of the population in many countries but also points to the fact that the majority of casualties were young people, younger than twenty-five years of age and some as young as eighteen (or even less if recruits lied about their age.)

As far as Italy is concerned figures have still to be established. That over six hundred thousand were killed is certain. The figure to include those who eventually died of their injuries, disease, famine as the enemy’s  prisoners or from military “anti-desertion” tactics would take one a little above two million, however.

Truly, there was a lost generation and truly that war swept away “La Belle Epoque” for ever. I hypothesise sometimes what the world would be today if WW1 had never happened. For one thing there would have been no rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and other European dictators and certainly no WW2. I also feel we would have been a lot better off and that life would have been ever more gracious and “belle”. Vain thoughts, however: we must return to the harsh reality that history deals to us.

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As it happened, Italy, conversely, declared war against the other members of the triple alliance for two main reasons. First, there was no obligation to rush to Austria’s aid because it was Austria who threatened war on Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his spouse Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, by Gavril Princip in Sarajevo on June 24, 1914. Second, there was a secret agreement made under the treaty of London whereby, if Italy joined the Anglo-French side, she would be promised “considerable territorial gains” including Trento, Trieste, the Brenner Pass, Istria, the Dodecanese, part of Asia Minor and the Dalmatian coast. This tipped the balance between Italian neutralists and Italian irredentists (i.e. those who wanted the return of all historically Italian territories.

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Italy was not prepared for war. Materially, it lacked decent firearms to fight the Hapsburg might. Morally, national consciousness and patriotic scruples were in their infancy in this young nation, only united just a little over fifty years before. Geographically, the war was to Italy’s great disadvantage since the territory to be gained was either higher up in the mountains, as in the Trento Alps, or just too barren and exposed as in the Carse region of Istria. Tactically, commanders thought that the war (like so many other countries, including the UK, thought the previous year) would be “over by Christmas”.

Of course, WW1 apotheosised heroic action and Italy’s eventual victory (after the terrible defeat of Caporetto which affected even Bagni di Lucca since many refugees from thence were treated and given shelter here and where the Spanish flu epidemic arrived to kill off many locals, including that trio of famous ex-pat bagnaioli, Evangeline Whipple, Rose Cleveland and Nellie Erichsen). Certainly, war memorial designers and sculptors were given full employment and it is both interesting and moving to study these monuments locally in our villages. All death in action is tragic but when one is informed  that just one particular family in San Cassiano lost three of its sons then it is immeasurably so.

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Since the 1970’s, when more archives were opened up to researchers in Rome and a more critical attitude adopted, it has been realised that the military commanders and the government were rather less heroic towards the cannon-fodder they sent to the front-line. Soldiers were truly caught between a rock and a hard place. When orders were given to advance they had the choice of a strong chance of being killed by state-of-the art Austrian machine guns firing six hundred shots a minute or a certain chance of being shot without trial for alleged desertion if they retreated.

Many soldiers, taken prisoners by the Austrians, literally died of starvation in their Hapsburg jails because the Italian government, unlike the other allied government, sent them no food parcels since it thought that soldiers had made themselves prisoners consciously to escape the fighting. I know this to be totally incorrect from personal family experience. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Italian, gained one of the highest military honours, the Medaglia d’Argento al valor militare, for heroic action on the Carso front, was made prisoner and languished in the Spielberg fortress prison in what is now the Czech republic, (the same one where writer and patriot Silvio Pellico endured ten years captivity), for over two years before being freed and returned to Italy where he caught “la spagnuola” and had to spend time in a sanatorium. Luckily he was saved; else I would not be here to write these lines.


Some Italian prisoners even finished up in Mauthausen years before the concentration and forced labour camp was revamped by Herr Hitler in WW2. What horrors are committed in the name of “justified” wars!

The conditions at the front were graphically described by Prof. Sereni who herself had to embark on a voyage of discovery for material which had been “censored” in the traditional school history curriculum. The lice, the rats, the uneatable grub, the frostbite, the searing sun in limestone country, the rusting barbed wire, the lack of water in the Carse region, the inability to regain companions’ bodies killed in no-man’s land, the difficulty of digging trenches into solid rock and, above all, the impossibility of describing the real conditions in which they were living and fighting in letters to relatives and friends (that is, if the soldiers could write in the first place – illiteracy was still so high then) since all letters were censored by the authorities and one could be severely punished for revealing the smallest facts of life on the front….all these abhorrent and ghastly details were fully expounded by Natalia who did not flinch in the least from presenting us with her ongoing research into these and related matters.

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It was a brave lecture that was delivered by the jewel in the crown of local historians and one which gave us further valuable insight into the greatest mass destruction that humanity has ever endured.

I can only conclude with the following poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti, born in Alexandra, Egypt of parents who’d emigrated there from Lucca, and which was quoted by Prof. Natalia Sereni at the end of her powerful lecture:


Cima Quattro il 23 dicembre 1915

Un’intera nottata
Buttato vicino
A un compagno
Con la bocca
Volta al plenilunio
Con la congestione
Delle sue mani
Nel mio silenzio
Ho scritto
Lettere piene d’amore

Non sono mai stato
Attaccato alla vita.


(My Translation followsJ


Summit no. 4 December 23, 1915


A whole night

Thrown next 

To a massacred


With his gritted mouth

Turned towards the full moon

With the congestion of his hands


My silence

I’ve written

Letters full of love


I’ve never been

So attached to life.

PS For further lectures please consult my post at:




7 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Great War from an Italian Perspective

  1. Sounds like your Unitre has some great courses to attend. Fascinating look at history from a perspective rarely discussed in the West.. I have been pondering the poem by Ungaretti and your fine translation and wonder if there is a subtle difference in meaning that comes with ‘In my silence, I wrote… ‘ as in the original, versus ‘my silence, I have written..’ Yours links the ‘penetrating with silence. I am wondering if these are, in fact ,linked? Not a criticism here, merely a query, since I can’t spend time at your wonderful Unitre.

  2. Wow what a deep insightful lecture this was I certainly was never taught this at school(I went to English school we were never even taught about UK involvement in the WWI just as well really what a waste of humanity as always the great Shakespearian quote comes to mind “man’s inhumanity to man”) Interestingly I read this depressing blog to my Mother who added that her Father fought somewhere in the North of Italy and was miraculously saved as his group was in a tunnel which was bombed resulting in death and destruction. Nonno always spoke about re vittorio emanuele II visited the soldiers ” con grande simpatia ” as he encouraged these young men at war. Nonno also received the highest merit of Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto and enjoyed this for 2 years my parents took Nonno and Nonna to see the War Monument at Bassano del Grappa .Another interesting fact that both my parents and I also actually met Giuseppe Ungaretti who came to my parents place of work Italian Institute of Culture I even had his autograph but sadly my books have been stolen and which contained many other VIP ‘s.

  3. Pingback: Lest We Forget | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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