Former Allies Now Enemies; Italy Covets Austrian Territory

Now It’s War on Seven Fronts.

Special to The Great War Project

(28-31 May) A new front – the seventh — opens up in these days a century ago – the war between Italy and Austria.

Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary just a few days previous. The fighting focuses on two mountainous regions held by Austria, but desired by the Italians. These battles come to be known as the South Tyrol and the Isonzo.

At the start of the war in 1914, Italy is an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. But Italy covets territory along Austria’s southern border. To keep Italy in the fold, Germany presses Austria to make territorial concessions to Italy, but Vienna has none of it.

Italians and Austrians, fighting in the Alps crossing the Isonzo River, Spring 1915.

Italians and Austrians, fighting in the Alps crossing the Isonzo River, Spring 1915.

“Italy then followed a policy of pure self-interest,” writes historian Michael Neiberg, “listening to offers from both sides.”

On the other side, writes Neiberg, “the British and the French governments saw the value of Italy as an ally, mostly for geographic reasons.”

An unfriendly Italy, Neiberg points out, makes it difficult for Britain to be confident of unrestricted access to the Suez Canal. An ally in Italy helps the French secure their southeastern border, and Russia, according to Neiberg, “hoped that Italy could force the Austro-Hungarian Army to pull forces away from the Carpathians,” where Austria is causing so much trouble with the Russians. Neiberg writes….

“British, Russian and French strategic interests lined up well with those of Italy…

At first Austria-Hungary displays little interest in taking the war to the Italians. Its first priority is Russia. At this moment the Austrians are readying a new campaign against the Russians on the Eastern Front — across the Carpathian Mountains and into southern Poland.

Isonzo 3

Austrian mountain troops attacking the Italians on the Isonzo front, spring 1915

The Austrians establish defensive positions in the mountains and evince little interest in going on the offensive against Italy.

In other developments, on May 31st precisely a century ago, according to historian Martin Gilbert, “a single Zeppelin flew over London, dropping ninety small incendiary bombs and thirty grenades.”

The damage in this air attack is “absolutely negligible,” according to a British officer who witnessed the German attack. Nevertheless, it’s a portent of what is to come as all sides work feverishly to build an aircraft that can take the fight to the skies.

But so far in the air war, the battle of the air ships and air planes, the results are not significant.

By this time, nearly a year into the fighting, disenchantment with this ruinous war is slowly growing.

At the end of May a London newspaper Labour Leader publishes a letter from the pacifist Clifford Allen, who looks at the war with unjaundiced eyes. “The country is now ceased to fight for the causes of the war,” he writes, “and merely continues to fight, even more intensely and madly, because of the results of warfare.”

“The longer peace is delayed, the more bitter becomes the war, and the harsher and therefore more temporary the ultimate peace.”

The wisdom of these remarks is astounding, but few people listen.

“Ferocity about the war could be heard everywhere, writes historian Adam Hochschild.”

More typical are the views in this sermon, quoted by Hochschild:

“Kill Germans! Kill them!”

…raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon. “Not for the sake of killing, but to save the world….Kill the good as well as the bad…Kill the young men as well as the old…Kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded…

“I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.”

The speaker is the Anglican bishop of London.