Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War

Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War

Vanda Wilcox

Cambridge University Press, New York, 2016, 235 pages

Book Review published on: April 14, 2017

The Battle of Caporetto in November 1917 led to one of the greatest military routs of World War I. In less than a month of fighting, the Italian Army retreated over 150 kilometers, lost some 294,000 prisoners of war to the Central Powers, and lost another 350,000 men who straggled from their units or deserted from the ranks. The scale of the defeat called into question the courage, dedication, and martial qualities of the Italian soldiers of the Great War and has somewhat colored the military reputation of Italy ever since. In Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War, Vanda Wilcox examines some of the structural and systemic problems within the Italian Army that undermined the morale of the Italian soldier and thus contributed to the collapse at Caporetto. The author also explores the soldiers’ motivations for fighting and their attitudes toward military service.

Wilcox notes that the Italian Army entered the war woefully unprepared to build and sustain morale in its ranks. Italy itself was a new political entity that had not yet managed to transcend the regional identification of its people to craft any broad sense of nationalism. As males had only achieved universal suffrage in 1913, few of the peasants who swelled the ranks of the army fully understood the rights and obligations of citizenship, and the army itself had not developed any conception of a “nation in arms” to wage Italy’s wars. The army’s officer corps was an insular body drawn mainly from northern Italy and generally possessed a jaundiced view of southerners and peasants as well as a distrust of the industrial workers of the North.

As Wilcox points out, many of the morale problems within the Italian Army can be traced back to the attitudes of the officer corps and the ugly attritional realities of the Great War. The officer corps was steeped in the dogmatic military traditions of Piedmont and Savoy, and it tended to view their soldiers as an unpatriotic and unreliable rabble that could only be induced to fight through a regime of harsh discipline and the threat of punishment. These attitudes prevented the army from developing the “infrastructure” of morale, such as proper recreation facilities, coherent leave and rotation policies, realistic training programs, and a systemic means for explaining the war to the soldiers, throughout most of the conflict. When these lapses were coupled with the severe conditions that the Italians faced at the front, it was little wonder that the average soldier was discontented with his lot. It was only after the disaster at Caporetto that the Italian Army began to make systemic changes to address these problems.

Over 58 percent of the Italian Army was composed of peasants. This group, which made up a disproportionate percentage of the army’s infantrymen and illiterates, suffered the greatest losses of any class during the war and tended to be the most antiwar group in the nation. Wilcox argues that this demographic reality created unique morale challenges for the Italian Army. The peasants brought with them to the army expectations of a social contract between the leader and the led that mirrored the traditional “client-patron” relationships of their home villages. When these men believed that their officers and the army had failed to live up to their obligations, they felt free to act in their own interests to correct the imbalance. As the soldiers felt much more obligated and connected to their families than to the army or the nation, their resistance generally came in the form of desertions to aid those back home in bringing in the harvest or to meet other familial responsibilities. As Wilcox notes, however, some 60 percent of those who deserted later willingly returned to the ranks once their home obligations were met. The post-Caporretto reforms, especially those that liberalized leave, went far to address the underlying sources of disgruntlement for the peasant-soldiers. Despite the popular negative image of the Italian troops in the Great War, in the end, they still fought on and endured until victory, and when well-led and well-trained, they made solid and reliable soldiers.

Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War is an excellent book. It is well researched and written, and Wilcox does an exceptional job of weaving together official reports and soldier accounts to create a readable and informative narrative. This is an essential work for anyone wishing to understand the Italian Army of the Great War, as well as those interested in the larger ideas of what is required to maintain the morale of soldiers in battle and what encourages them to endure in the face of loss and privation.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Richard S. Faulkner, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas