Bagni di Lucca and the End of the Great War

Have you ever noticed this plaque in the foyer of Bagni di Lucca’s town hall? Have you ever stopped to read what’s on it? It’s going to be particularly relevant this November 4th.

There’s a plaque like this in every commune’s town hall in Italy, often cast using the bronze of captured enemy artillery. This is what’s written on it:

“Comando Supremo, 4 novembre 1918, ore 12 Bollettino di guerra n. 1268

La guerra contro l’Austria-Ungheria che, sotto l’alta guida di S. M. il Re, duce supremo, l’Esercito Italiano, inferiore per numero e per mezzi, iniziò il 24 maggio 1915 e con fede incrollabile e tenace valore condusse ininterrotta ed asprissima per 41 mesi, è vinta. La gigantesca battaglia ingaggiata il 24 dello scorso ottobre ed alla quale prendevano parte cinquantuno divisioni italiane, tre britanniche, due francesi, una cecoslovacca ed un reggimento americano, contro settantatré divisioni austroungariche, è finita. La fulminea e arditissima avanzata del XXIX Corpo d’Armata su Trento, sbarrando le vie della ritirata alle armate nemiche del Trentino, travolte ad occidente dalle truppe della VII armata e ad oriente da quelle della I, VI e IV, ha determinato ieri lo sfacelo totale della fronte avversaria. Dal Brenta al Torre l’irresistibile slancio della XII, della VIII, della X armata e delle divisioni di cavalleria, ricaccia sempre più indietro il nemico fuggente. Nella pianura, S.A.R. il Duca d’Aosta avanza rapidamente alla testa della sua invitta III armata, anelante di ritornare sulle posizioni da essa già vittoriosamente conquistate, che mai aveva perdute. L’Esercito Austro-Ungarico è annientato: esso ha subito perdite gravissime nell’accanita resistenza dei primi giorni e nell’inseguimento ha perduto quantità ingentissime di materiale di ogni sorta e pressoché per intero i suoi magazzini e i depositi. Ha lasciato finora nelle nostre mani circa trecentomila prigionieri con interi stati maggiori e non meno di cinquemila cannoni. I resti di quello che fu uno dei più potenti eserciti del mondo risalgono in disordine e senza speranza le valli che avevano discese con orgogliosa sicurezza.”

300px-Armando_Diaz_1921

(General Armando Diaz)

Here is a translation in English of the ‘Bollettino della Vittoria no. 1268’:

“The war against Austria-Hungary, which the Italian Army, inferior in number and equipment, began on 24 May 1915 under the leadership of His Majesty and supreme leader the King and conducted with unwavering faith and tenacious bravery without rest for 41 months, is won.

The gigantic battle, which opened on the 24th of last October and in which fifty-one Italian divisions, three British, two French, one Czechoslovak and a US regiment joined against seventy-three Austrian divisions, is over.

The lightning-fast and most audacious advance of the XXIX Army Corps on Trento, blocking the retreat of the enemy armies from Trentino, as they were overwhelmed from the west by the troops of the VII army and from the east by those of the I, VI, and the IV armies, led to the utter collapse of the enemy’s front. From the Brenta to the Torre, the fleeing enemy is pushed ever further back by the irresistible onslaught of the XII, VIII, X Armies and of the cavalry divisions.

In the plains, His Royal Highness the Duke of Aosta is advancing at the head of his undefeated III Army, eager to return to the previously successfully conquered positions, which they had never lost.

The Austro-Hungarian Army is vanquished: it suffered terrible losses in the dogged resistance of the early days, and during the pursuit it lost an enormous quantity of materials of every kind as well as almost all its stockpiles and supply depots. The Austro-Hungarian Army has so far left about 300,000 prisoners of war in our hands along with multiple entire officer corps and at least 5,000 pieces of artillery.

The remnants of what was one of the world’s most powerful armies are returning in hopelessness and chaos up the valleys from which they had descended with boastful confidence.

Chief of Staff of the Army, General Diaz”

 

(Scenes from the Battle of Vittorio Veneto)

The plaque declares the victorious end of the Great War for Italy and is especially relevant since this year is the centenary of that occurrence.

(Triumphant Italian troops entering the town of Vittorio Veneto on October 30th 1918) 

How are we to truthfully interpret this inscription, especially beloved by former Bagni di Lucca resident Ian Greenlees? (Do read my post on him at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/ ).

How much of what is written on the plaque is true and how much is fantasy? Clearly the proclamation is highly triumphalist in tone; unsurprisingly so when so much of Italy had suffered long under the Hapsburg regime. It is, however, based on fact and is, indeed, located in place of honour at the ‘Altare Della Patria’, Italy’s wedding-cake like Vittoriano monument in Rome where her unknown warrior is interred.

I have written quite a few posts on Italy’s role in the Great War. The main ones are at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/lest-we-forget/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-the-great-war-from-an-italian-perspective/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/03/18/bagni-di-lucca-and-the-lie-of-war/

One of my post readers, supreme United Kingdom guide and military history expert Stephen Liddell, commented: “I think the Italian role in WW1 is always forgotten outside of Italy, perhaps because they were on the wrong side 25 years later”. Do read Stephen’s book on WW1 available at

Lest We Forget: A Concise History of WW1

The final battle of Italy’s role in the Great War took place between the 24 October and 3 November 1918. It’s called the battle of Vittorio Veneto and forms the most decisive part of the third battle of the Piave.

Let’s remind ourselves of the three battles fought over a river which is sacred to the Motherland and whose waters turned red with the blood of slain soldiers.

First battle of the Piave: November 1917. After the disastrous defeat at Caporetto the Italian army held the line at this river and halted the Austrians’ advance into the Po valley and the industrial towns of northern Italy

Second Battle of the Piave. (Also called by poet and military hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio, ‘the solstice battle’ as it was fought in the middle of June). The Austrian tried again to overcome the Italian Piave line but suffered over 11,000 dead against the Italians’ 8000. More than that, the Austrian army had become exhausted and demoralised. This battle was truly the beginning of the end of the Hapsburg Empire

Third Battle of the Piave. The battle of Vittorio Veneto. The definitive Italian victory fought between 26 October and 3rd November culminating in the entry of victorious troops into a town until then not even familiar to the Italian General, Cadorna, who is supposed to have said “where the f***  is this Vittorio Veneto?” (Actually, Vittorio Veneto is also the birthplace of my mother-in-law for whom, obviously, I am grateful to for having produced my wife, Alexandra.)

(Broader picture of Italian strategy and tactics in the third battle of the Piave)

It’s important to understand that other factors other than sheer good commanding and outstanding bravery won this battle for Italy. These are:

  1. The Austrians had become exhausted and demoralised by three years’ war against Italy.
  2. The diverse populations of the Austrian empire Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Rumanians and, especially, Hungarians were deserting the Austrian army and supporting the independence of their own ethnic groups. Indeed, there were Czech soldiers fighting on the Italian side.
  3. Germany had asked extra troops from Austria to support its Western front, especially since the yanks had entered the war in 1917.
  4. The new emperor, Charles, I was desperate to end the war and sued for an Armistice with the allies in mid-1918 but without success.
  5. The Austrian nation was running out of food and had to import supplies from Germany.
  6. The Italians had to win the war by the end of 1918. The commander of Italian forces, General Cadorna was prudent saying that a major assault would not be possible until 1919 as the army was not sufficiently prepared. However, allied pressure, the thought that an armistice might be granted without a final victorious battle (and diminish Italian influence at the subsequent peace treaty) and, above all, that Italy was running out of cannon fodder to recruit – it was now 18 year olds who were being conscripted.
  7. The Italians were supported in the battle by allied divisions. As the victory inscription states, the Italian army was joined by “three British, two French, one Czechoslovak and a US regiment “. I rejoice in the fact that the Brits were on the Italian side in this war (but sadly not in the next). The principal commanders of the British Expeditionary Force (which friend David Reid was kindly enough to bring to my attention) were Rudolph Lambart, 10th Earl of Cavan and Italian Enrico Caviglia (who spoke excellent English and was subsequently made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by King George V.)

(Commanders Caviglia and Cavan)

Last month we actually passed through Vittorio Veneto. (See my post on the town’s patron saint Augusta at https://longoio3.wordpress.com/2018/10/26/my-story-of-abuse-by-augusta/ ). Throughout the year the town has been commemorating the battle which had finally put it on the map. Various regiments from the bersaglieri to the alpini to the cavalleria to the corazzieri to the fanteria have paraded in Vittorio Veneto and there will be a major display on 4th November to mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War for Italy. I wish I could be there for that!

Meanwhile Bagni di Lucca is commemorating the momentous event that occured on November 4th one hundred years ago with this programme:

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3 Replies to “Bagni di Lucca and the End of the Great War”

  1. I really enjoyed this Francis. It’s good to see the war from an Italian perspective. The Italian front with Austro-Hungary has always been of interest to me since as a child in the 80’s I remember they found the remains of some frozen Italian and Austrian soldiers when one of the glaciers had melted during a hot a summer. A world away from the Western Front or the desert campaigns. Thanks also for mentioning my book Lest We Forget.

    Liked by 1 person

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