'Allies are a Tiresome Lot': The British Army in Italy in the First World War

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The year 2014 saw the start of four years of centenaries associated with the First World War. In the decades since that conflict ended there have been many books, plays, films and television programmes which have variously characterised the war as 'senseless' and 'futile'. In more recent years revisionist historians have attempted to 'correct' this portrayal; it was a war that Britain had to be join to thwart German hegemonic ambitions, and British soldiers were not needlessly sacrificed on the wire of Flanders by Chateau Generals. Whether the reader prefers the Blackadder or the revisionist learning curve narrative of the war, it is invariably viewed through the prism of the Western Front. In so doing the war becomes a north-European event rather than one of global scope, with the mud of Passchendaele as the paradigm for the experience of all British soldiers. Although Italy lost as many men as Britain (as a percentage of the population), its perceived status as the least of the Great Powers may account for its near absence from British histories of the war. This book details the steps by which Italy became a belligerent alongside Britain and France, rather than remain an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary within the Triple Alliance. However, having elected to fight with the Entente- but not declaring war on Germany until 1916 - Italy effectively waged a 'separate' war, much to the frustration of the Allies. Then, in October 1917, the Italians suffered a crushing defeat when the Austro-German assault at Caporetto smashed the Isonzo front; now the British and the French had to send divisions from Flanders to support their southern ally. Using official documents and reports, as well as the personal letters and accounts of individual soldiers, this book draws out the demonstrable differences in the experience of those Tommies who fought on the Western and Italian fronts. But Italian military and political leaders did not make it easy for their allies to work alongside them. In the words of Sir William Robertson,'Allies are a tiresome lot', and this account outlines why, for him and Sir Douglas Haig, their Latin ally fell into that camp. Following the war, and the coming to power of Mussolini and the Fascists, Italian military historians were perceived by their British colleagues to have over-emphasised their own country's achievements, while playing down those of their British and French allies. This, and their alliance on the side of Germany in the Seconf World War, may also account for Italy's near absence from British histories of the Great War. This book turns a spotlight on a theatre of the war away from the Western Front; it broadens the narrative beyond the mud and flat farmland of Flanders and recognises the experience of those who fought and fell so much closer to Venice than to Ypres.