Italy Triumphant

Italian troops landing in Trieste, 3 November 1918

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto meant something to Italians that cannot be found in a summary of operations. It brought the balm of victory and the promise of peace. Piero Pieri, the war veteran and historian, would hail it as a masterly breakthrough, ‘our purest glory’. The Italians had defeated an Austrian army in a straight fight – something that eluded them during the Risorgimento. More than this: ‘After fifteen centuries, an Italian army drove back and destroyed a larger and completely foreign army.’ Along with the empire, victory had destroyed the myth that Italians were incapable of waging war. A joke going around at the time caught the infantry’s rueful pride: ‘Just when we learned how to fight – the war is over!’

Boroević’s postwar life was to be sad and brief. Denied permission to live in Yugoslavia, he survived in destitution in southern Austria, ‘longing for death’ as he told a friend. According to legend, he lived on gifts of food from veterans. The Yugoslavs refused to pay his pension, supposedly because he had ordered his retreating army to occupy Ljubljana in November 1918. He died in May 1920.

When I compare my fate with that of my good German comrades [he wrote in the last weeks of his life] I cannot help but be envious. They were all able to save their fatherland from catastrophe. I could not. The Yugoslavs, whose kingdom would not have emerged if I had not fought the battles on the Isonzo, cannot forgive my role in prolonging the war … I am likewise a stranger to Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Thus, for now, I have no country and am living for the sixth year out of my military chest.

Diaz’s Victory Bulletin, issued on 4 November, exaggerated the strength of enemy forces and minimised the Allied contribution. It became a sort of national scripture, displayed in barracks as a bronze relief cast from the metal of Austrian guns and fixed to the walls of schools for pupils to learn. When people read its artful boast that ‘the remains of what was once one of the most powerful armies in the world’ were in retreat, they could not know that ‘once’ meant a long time ago. (On 9 November, Orlando suppressed a draft communiqué by Diaz that described the ‘disastrous condition’ of the Austrian army in its last days.) This false account of the last battle was not contested by the military, whom it flattered, or the journalists, who were still censored and self-censoring. Within a few years it merged seamlessly with Fascist glorification of the war. Under Mussolini, historians who knew better wrote that Italy had defeated the Austrians ‘alone’.

The 24 hours of grace were used to put Italian boots on as much territory as possible around the northern Adriatic and in the Alto Adige. At 16:20 on 3 November, an Italian destroyer nosed into the bay of Trieste. An officer in Austrian uniform led the ship through the mines guarding the harbour towards the quay, packed with excited citizens. The officer was Lieutenant Guido Tedaldi, an Italian from one of the Adriatic islands. Someone asked if he would not rather change his uniform. No, he said, he had to redeem this one, by making it serve the fatherland. Redemption was the word of the day. Standing at the prow of the Audace was the tall, corpulent figure of General Petitti di Roreto, who would be Trieste’s first Italian governor. ‘From today’, he cried, ‘our dead are dead no longer!’ The crowd roared ‘Viva l’Italia! Welcome! At last!’ A band played the royal march of the House of Savoy. ‘In the name of His Majesty the King of Italy, I take possession of the city of Trieste!’ the general declared.

Trento was liberated on the same day, and the first patrols entered Udine and Gorizia, closely followed by refugees who had been counting the hours before they could go home. A lady from Gorizia described the scene:

… such ruins were unimaginable … Munitions boxes, heaps of stones, rags, furniture, stoves … The windows are all barricaded with sandbags or bricks and you can still see the machine guns poking out of the garret windows. Barbed wire, bits of furniture, piles of wreckage, stones, block the street to the city centre. The square in front of the cathedral looks like a rubbish tip. The shops have all been gutted, everything tossed on the ground in complete confusion; a heavy-calibre shell has destroyed our house. The only movement, the only sign of life, is the rats. They rush about the streets by the dozen, outside the houses, between your legs.

Even making all haste, by 15:00 on 4 November the army was far short of the Brenner Pass. On the Adriatic, when the armistice came into force, the line of control ran short of Monfalcone, let alone Trieste. The problem was not resistance – Austrian authority melted at the touch, like snowflakes; it was mechanical. Diaz had no means to get his men far enough forward in the short time available. As long as the Italians were merely advancing, however, rather than fighting, the armistice did not oblige them to stop. Valentino Coda, a volunteer from Genoa who became the first Fascist deputy in parliament, spoke to joyful crowds in Trento: ‘The dream has come true, our hundred-year effort has been crowned, and exultant Italy gathers you to her breast.’ Pressing beyond Trento, the first troops in the Alto Adige passed Italian prisoners of war on the long road home, looking like ghosts, smiling and weeping. A unit of the 75th Alpino Division reached the Brenner Pass on 7 November. Two days later, the last Austrian troops made their way north across the pass. On the 10th, an Italian battery climbed to the summit and ran the national flag up an improvised flagpole. The Italians stood on their ‘natural border’ at last.

Torpedo boats overloaded with infantry were sent from Venice to the ports of Pola, Zara and Sebenico. Facing no resistance, a single platoon could ‘occupy’ a town. Warships docked at the larger Dalmatian islands and the Albanian port of Valona. Troops even landed at Cattaro (Kotor), down in Montenegro. South of Istria, the Italians were ‘received with open hostility’ except in Zara, the only city with an Italian majority. Nonetheless, they behaved like masters with inalienable rights of conquest. An admiral claimed the title ‘Governor of Dalmatia’. An American envoy warned that Italy’s bullying attitude threatened ‘to produce an open collision with the Yugoslavs … the population is in no way hostile to a joint landing of the Entente forces but only to the Italians being allowed to act alone’. Yugoslav leaders begged the Allies to land forces of their own in Dalmatia. A few units were sent, including an American regiment. As they came under Diaz’s command, these units could hardly address the problem. Indeed, Italian commanders learned to send American platoons ahead, in order to defuse anti-Italian feeling. The Americans were then withdrawn overnight and replaced with Italians.

Fatefully, in mid-November, Orlando authorised the occupation of Fiume, a port between Trieste and Zara that had been developed as a Hungarian alternative to Austrian Trieste, 70 kilometres away. With good connections to central Europe, the port had grown rapidly. By the end of the nineteenth century, imperial buildings lined the harbour-front. Italian immigration was encouraged, to dilute the Croat pop ulation; by 1910, two-thirds of the old town (with 25,000 inhabitants) was Italian. The wider urban area remained over whelmingly Croat. Before the war, Fiume had not figured prominently on the irredentists’ wish-list; the Treaty of London granted it to the South Slavs, as a guarantee that they would not be deprived of a modern port.

By an ancient prerogative – preserved through centuries of Habsburg rule, like many other constitutional flora and fauna – Fiume was a ‘corpus separatum’, a distinct entity within the empire. On this basis, local Italian leaders claimed the town’s right to self-determination in mid-October. When the Hungarian authorities abandoned Fiume at the end of the month, local irredentists staged a plebiscite on the city’s future and proclaimed its annexation to Italy. This was the situation when a Sardinian brigade disembarked on 17 November, shoring up the self-proclaimed authorities and ensuring that the issue of Fiume would envenom the Paris conference in 1919.

The government approved a plan drawn up by Badoglio to break Slovene and Croat resistance in the occupied territories, and subvert the fragile Yugoslav state with black propaganda and paid agents. Orlando and Sonnino hoped to weaken the Yugoslav authorities-in-waiting while justifying Italy’s occupation. Inland, the Italians ignored the demarcation line agreed in the armistice. The 83rd Company of Engineers marched on and on, beyond the Carso, stopping at a little village where they erected an obelisk with a Latin inscription, expressing the White Man’s Burden of Italian greatness: ‘Consul Aulus Postumius reached this point 2,000 years ago. Today Italy returns with her civilisation.’ Other units pushed further eastwards still, and were only deterred from occupying the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, when Serbian army units threatened to attack.

The Americans and French were troubled. To clip Italian pretensions, France made Fiume the logistics base of the Allied Armies of the Orient. Indignant at this bid to loosen their grip on Fiume, the Italians refused to comply. The quarrel spiralled up to the highest level, and the Allies sent a quartet of admirals to investigate. Foch resolved the matter shortly before Christmas: the Yugoslavs should control Ljubljana and the Italians, Fiume. The Yugoslav state had already been proclaimed, thanks in part to Italy’s threatening posture in the Adriatic, driving the Slovenes and Croats into the arms of Serbia, accelerating the very process of state-formation that Sonnino wanted to abort. Sonnino dedicated himself to preventing the new state’s recognition by the Allies while suffocating it with an economic blockade. The United States recognised Yugoslavia nonetheless in February 1919, while Britain and France delayed doing so merely ‘to please the Italians’, as Clemenceau put it. By then Italy’s leaders had squandered their credit with the other Allies, mismanaging their role at the Paris conference so spectacularly that Cadorna’s campaigns look almost judicious by comparison.