Book Review – V. Wilcox, Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War (Cambridge, 2016)

Vanda Wilcox’s book is an important contribution to the understanding of the Italian army in the Great War and also to explaining how morale functions in human conflict.

Rock cut WW1 trenches in the Dolomites

My interest in the Italian front became active after a walking holiday in the Dolomites during 2015. While there, I found rock-cut trenches over which Italian and Austrian troops had fought over during the conflict. I had always been Flanders-centric in my perspective on the Great War given both my grandfathers’ fought there and the units I selected as case studies for my PhD also served there. However, my Dolomites trip sparked my attention and I searched for English language books on the subject but found there was little beyond Mark Thompson’s excellent White War. However in 2016, like buses, two publications came along at the same time; John Gooch’s The Italian Army and the First World War and Vanda Wilcox’s Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War.

 

Writing about morale is tricky. As a subject, it can be examined from a macro or micro level (i.e. national level vs unit level), from a top down or bottom up perspective (i.e squaddie vs general) and in part or as a whole (i.e. examining a constituent element of morale, such as leadership vs examining all factors which could contribute to morale). Most scholars have examined morale in a small and focused way; this is a safe option as it keeps study concentrated on a limited research base. For example, my PhD examined the extent, nature and impact of military group cohesion in eight infantry battalions on the Western Front and its relationship to morale. Wilcox’s approach to throws caution to the winds. She examines morale in an army of 4.25m as a whole, focusing on what factors enhanced or degraded its will to fight over the course of the war.[1]

 

Her approach is to examine morale from two perspectives. She considers the effectiveness of the Italian army’s organisational culture, policies and efforts at building and sustaining morale but also considers what motivated the individual soldier who was the object of the army’s efforts but also an autonomous subject with agency.[2]

 

She argues that morale in the Italian army on the whole was solid, resolute and brought the Italians victory against the Austrians. Though the Italian army had serious morale issues at many times during the war, which affected its performance and efficiency, the army remained in the field till the end. She contends that the devastating panic which occurred in the Italian 2nd Army after the joint Austrian/German attack at Caporetto in October 1917 was caused by military defeat by Central Powers’ forces rather than a morale collapse by the Italians.[3]

 

There was much in the Italian army’s approach to discipline, organisation and command which militated against building morale. Army policy did not encourage the development of morale based on local patriotism as regiments were not recruited on a province (county) level but nationally. This resulted in the majority of units being filled with men drawn from across Italy which also created integration problems because of strong regional dialects, affinities and identities.[4] Officer-men relations were marked by suspicion, social distance and an emphasis on discipline which meant many inter-rank relationships were marked by distrust.[5] The army also spent little time on patriotic education or propaganda to build morale and most efforts to do this were done by motivated junior officers.[6] There was little welfare provision for soldiers’ recreation and leisure, there was nothing like the provision in the British army.[7] The allocation of leave to soldiers was also inefficient, viewed as a reward and used as an indiscriminate disciplinary measure.[8] Discipline was incredibly harsh, arbitrary and often administered without due process. 

Marshal of Italy, Luigi Cadorna

This approach reflected the views of the army, and that of Comando Supremo Cardorna, that discipline was punitive, a deterrent and necessary.[9] Decimation was practised and six percent of all men serving during the war were involved in some sort of disciplinary action.[10]

 

Army policies impacted on soldier will to fight. The leave system was viewed as unfair and prompted mutinies in December 1915 and January 1916.[11] Many peasant farmers deserted the army to return home to help bring in the harvest with their pre-war local communities who depended on it to survive. As the war progressed, the army sought to reform policy on welfare provision in a bid to improve morale. For instance, Cardorna’s replacement Armando Diaz, who became Comando Supremo in late 1917, introduced ‘agricultural leave’ to allow those from farming districts to return home to work on the land which proved popular.[12]

 

Despite policies which damaged morale, the Italian soldier showed an amazing resilience to fight. Many soldiers, especially those from middle class or educated backgrounds were motivated by nationalist ideals.[13] However, for most men, especially those drawn from the rural peasantry, motivation came from a resigned endurance that many people adopted in face of the coercive powers of the state.[14] For many of these people, this situation of conditional compliance emerged because people lived and worked within traditional social structures and norms based on a hierarchical social order and the traditional power structures of state, church and army.[15]

 

However, she argues that though these people endured and fought, they did not necessarily consent to the war or supports its aims. Italian soldiers were not passive or unthinking and their willingness to follow the desires of the wider organisation was not fixed.[16] There were two major elements which broke down soldier morale, a sense of unfairness and war weariness. These contributed to significant levels of desertion, even if temporary, self-mutilation and protests. However, there were only two mutinies in the Italian army during the war, relatively few when compared to the problems in the French Army in early 1917.[17]

 

Wilcox argues that to understand the morale of the Italian Army, the nature of Italian society must be understood. Societal relations, socio-economic factors and cultural influences shaped how social relations, command ethos and the military culture affected officer/men interactions, individual behaviour in uniform and the military efficiency of the army. Italy in 1914 was a very different society to that of Britain or France. It still had a large illiterate agrarian peasantry and only a small, though growing, urban industrial proletariat and middle class. For half a century, Italian men had been subject to limited liberties, forced conscription without franchise and little state education. The Italian state could never motivate, discipline or manage their populace in uniform in the same way that Britain or France could as British subjects and French citizens had very different ideas of their duties to the state, obligations to serve and an affinity with the polity, culture and society of their country. In absence of a normative culture where citizens were self-motivated to fulfil their obligations to the state, it is not surprising that the Italian authorities relied on coercion.

 

Trenches in the Dolomites

A minor criticism is this work has no background chapter, setting out the broad narrative of Italy’s role in the Great War, especially the key battles and engagements. Combined with this a short note on the nature, structure and geography of Italian society would have been useful. Some pen portraits of some of the key players, such as Cadorna and Diaz, would also have been helpful.

 

Overall, this work is an important contribution to the historiography of the First World War on several levels. The omissions in the English language scholarship of the Italian army and Great War experience are so massive that any work which helps us understand this country and their conflict is welcome. This book is also important as it furthers our understanding of morale outside the context of the British Army and the Western Front. Lastly, it also helps tackle deeply ingrained prejudice of many Anglo-centric people about Italian combat performance and sets out a very different version than popular myth suggests.

 

Notes: 

[1] V. Wilcox, Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War (Cambridge, 2016), p.13.

[2] Ibid., p.10.

[3] Ibid., pp.2-4.

[4] Ibid., pp.23-26.

[5] Ibid., pp.34-43.

[6] Ibid., pp.45-53.

[7] Ibid., p.57.

[8] Ibid., pp.59-62.

[9] Ibid., pp.65-87.

[10] Ibid., pp. pp. 82, 172.

[11] Ibid., p.59.

[12] Ibid., p.61.

[13] Ibid., pp.141-145.

[14] Ibid., pp.143, 138, 176.

[15] Ibid., pp.197-198.

[16] Ibid., p.138.

[17] Ibid., p.168-197.