WWI – Part Eight: Victims and aggressors

While the armies of the Great Powers were busy slaughtering each other in Flanders, Tannenberg and Gallipoli, their weaker brethren were watching with keen anticipation from the sidelines like vultures waiting to gorge themselves on the corpses of the defeated party. As long as it remained unclear which of the big bandits would prove the stronger, the little bandits had to be patient and wait for their opportunity to arrive.

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On April 26th 1915, Italy suddenly announced its entry into the war on the side of the Allies.  This announcement provoked fury in Berlin and Vienna. Since Italy had been allied with the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires since 1882 as part of the Triple Alliance, the Germans and Austrians felt they had been tricked, and so they had. Unknown to their former partners, the Italians had already signed a secret treaty with the Entente.

As early as 1902, when Italy was still a member of the Triple Alliance (with Germany and Austria), the government of Rome had signed a secret pact with France that effectively nullified its alliance with the Central Powers. But even then, the Italian diplomats manoeuvred to hedge their bets. At the outbreak of war, Italy refused to commit troops, arguing that the Triple Alliance was “defensive” and that Austria-Hungary was an “aggressor”. This semantic argument was really cynicism of the most exquisite refinement, since the men in Rome were already preparing a little aggression of their own. 

The weakness of the Italian bourgeoisie meant that they had to compensate with cunning what they lacked in military might and economic weight. The gentlemen in Rome were worthy disciples of Machiavelli and had their own agenda to pursue. Since this involved designs on Austrian territory in Trentino, the Austrian Littoral, Fiume (Rijeka) and Dalmatia, the break with Austria and Germany was perfectly logical from their point of view. And what was a broken promise or two, or some treaty or other, compared to a few thousand acres of land and a substantial amount of plunder?

Alarmed by a potential threat to its southern borders, the Austro-Hungarian government hastened to open negotiations to purchase Italian neutrality by offering them the French colony of Tunisia in return. Of course, since France had not yet been defeated and was still in secure possession of its North Africa colony, the value of this offer was somewhat relative. No, the rulers of Italy were men of honour and therefore were not prepared to sell themselves at such an absurdly low price. Like a man haggling over the price of herrings in the market, they turned their backs on one stall and moved on to the next.

On February 16, 1915, while negotiations with Austria were still continuing, the Italian Prime Minister Antonio Salandra sent a representative to London under a cloak of utmost secrecy to suggest, with respect, to the British government that Italy might possibly be open to an offer from the Entente, provided, of course, that it were sufficiently generous. The gentlemen in London did not deceive their expectations.  They made a most tempting counter-offer: Italy would receive the Southern Tyrol, Austrian Littoral and territory on the Dalmatian coast – but, of course, only after the defeat of Austria-Hungary.

The final choice was aided by the arrival of news of Russian victories in the Carpathians in March and the Allied invasion of Turkey in April. The Italians began to think that victory for the Entente was imminent, and were naturally anxious not to arrive too late for a share in the plunder. In order to expedite matters, Salandra instructed his envoy in London to drop some of the earlier demands and reach agreement as quickly as decently possible. The Treaty of London was concluded on April 26 binding Italy to fight within one month.  But it was not until May 4 that Salandra denounced the Triple Alliance in a private note to its signatories. Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on 23 May. Fifteen months later it declared war on Germany.

Italy attacks Austria

Cadorna1Luigi CadornaFrom a militarily point of view, things did not look at all bad for Italy. The Italian army enjoyed a numerical superiority over the opposing Austrian forces. But this apparent advantage took no account of the difficult terrain in which fighting took place or the mule-like stupidity of the Italian commander, Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna. Cadorna  dreamed of a triumphant Italian army smashing its way onto the Slovenian plateau, seizing Ljubljana and even marching up to the gates of Vienna itself.

Cadorna, who seemed to see himself as a reincarnation of Julius Caesar, was an enthusiastic proponent of the frontal assault. His army must always advance. The number of soldiers who were lost in the process was a matter of little or no interest to him. What he did not see were the frightful difficulties posed by the rugged Alpine and Karstic terrain, the freezing temperatures, or the new conditions created by trench warfare.

Full of optimism, the Italians launched offensives along the 400-mile common border between Austria and Italy, a region with some of the highest mountains in Europe. Unfortunately for Cadorna and even more unfortunately for his soldiers, the better equipped Austrians took advantage of the mountainous terrain to establish strong defensive positions all along the border. There was to be no triumphal march to the gates of Vienna but only a series of bloody battles, long lists of casualties and an inglorious stalemate.

Fighting at such high altitudes in harsh and brutal conditions was a new kind of hell for the soldiers on both sides. The Italian alpinisti (mountaineer) had to scale sheer rock faces under a barrage of enemy fire. The Austrians fought with ferocious tenacity in what were frequently bloody hand-to-hand battles. A single hand grenade could cause an avalanche in which hundreds could be buried alive or hurled into the abyss. An even more terrible threat was that posed by mining. The Austrians and Italians dug caves in the mountain sides where 20th century men lived like Stone Age troglodytes. Both sides tried to dig under the enemy’s caves and plant explosives to blow them sky-high. The constant fear of such explosions drove men mad. 

More than 30,000 casualties in this campaign were ethnic Slovenes, the majority of them being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Many thousands of Slovene civilians from the Gorizia and Gradisca region were forcibly resettled in refugee camps where they were treated as state enemies by the Italians, and several thousands were starved to death.

The Italians shifted the focus of their attacks on the mountain passes at Trentino and the valley of the Isonzo (Soča) River, northeast of Trieste. On the Trentino front, the mountainous terrain was advantageous to the Austro-Hungarians defenders. Owing to the difficult terrain, mules could not be used and so the unfortunate Italians soldiers had to haul heavy artillery up frozen mountains, plagued by frostbite, hunger and exhaustion and all the time under a continuous barrage of fire from the enemy who held the summit.

On June 23, the First Battle of Isonzo began as Italian troops attacked Austrian defences. Initial gains by the Italians were soon repulsed by the Austrians with heavy casualties for both sides. Three additional battles were fought through the end of 1915 with similar results, totalling 230,000 casualties for the Italians and 165,000 for the Austrians.

Throughout the summer the Austrian Kaiserschützen and Standschützen fought the Italian Alpini in bitter hand-to-hand combat. The Italian army was bleeding to death, but general Cadorna knew only one command: “advance!” Cadorna mounted a total of eleven offensives on the Isonzo front. All eleven offensives were repelled by the Austro-Hungarians with frightful losses.

In the summer of 1916, after the Battle of Doberdò, the Italians captured the town of Gorizia. After this minor victory, the front remained static for over a year, despite several Italian offensives. Then disaster struck. In the autumn of 1917, thanks to the improving situation on the Eastern front, the Austro-Hungarian troops received large numbers of reinforcements, including German Stormtroopers and the elite Alpenkorps. The morale of the Austrians received a great boost from the arrival of the Germans who were fresh and optimistic.

On 26 October 1917 the Central Powers launched a crushing offensive spearheaded by the Germans. They achieved a decisive victory at Caporetto (Kobarid). By now the morale of the Italian soldiers was near breaking point. Mutinous moods found their expression in mass surrenders. Thousands of Italian troops handed themselves over to the Germans without firing a shot. Those officers who attempted to resist were shot by their own men.

In the winter of 1917 approximately 300,000 Italian soldiers surrendered to the Germans while a similar number joined the mass of civilian refugees fleeing from the war zone. When asked why they were retreating, they would reply that they had been told to do so. When asked who had told them, they just shrugged their shoulders.

So heavy were the losses of the Italian Army in the Battle of Caporetto, that the Italian Government called to arms the so-called '99 Boys (Ragazzi del '99): that is, all males who were 18 years old or older. But time was not on the side of Austro-Hungary. By the start of 1918 the tide of the War in Europe was turning against the Central Powers. The Austro-Hungarians made a desperate attempt to break through in a series of battles on the Piave River but were defeated in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in October of that year.

Exhausted by its losses Austria-Hungary surrendered in early November 1918. The Italian gamblers lost no time in scrambling to collect the winnings that had been promised to them by the London Pact. On 3 November, the Italians occupied Trieste. By mid-November 1918, the Italian military occupied the entire former Austrian Littoral, and seized control of the entire portion of Dalmatia.

Just to make sure there was no objection from the Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs who were creating Yugoslavia out of the wreckage of the Empire, the Italian Navy destroyed much of the Austro-Hungarian fleet stationed in Pula, preventing it to be handed over to the new State. Italy was showing its weaker neighbours that a new bully-boy had arrived on the block.

Bulgaria joins in the fight

For the first ten months of 1915 Austria-Hungary used most of its military reserves to fight Italy. But while that life-and-death struggle was being fought in the Alps, new and deadly manoeuvres were taking place on the diplomatic chessboard. The struggle between Germany and Austria and Russia was portrayed in Berlin as a racial struggle between Teutons and Slavs (a fact that conveniently overlooked the fact that a large part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was also composed by Slavs (Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Bosnians) and this was reflected in the mixed composition of the Austro-Hungarian army.

Serbian retreat WWIThe immediate cause of the War was precisely the struggle of the Hapsburgs to maintain their domination of the Balkans against the young and thrusting power of Serbia with Russia standing behind it. Balkan wars have always been accompanied by a particular ferocity fuelled by national hatreds that were systematically fanned by the ruling circles as a means of mobilizing the darkest passions for the sake of achieving their territorial ambitions and satiating their greed. The bloody Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 drove the Turks from the Balkans but also ended in catastrophe for Bulgaria.

After bearing the bulk of the fighting against the Ottoman forces, Bulgaria was stabbed in the back by its supposed allies, Serbia and Greece who, together with Romania seized huge swaths of territory that they had agreed should be given to Bulgaria. Bulgaria's participation in the Balkan Wars crippled its public finances and ruined its economy. A predominantly peasant country, Bulgaria’s agricultural production fell by about 9% compared to 1911. The loss of Southern Dobrudja, which had accounted for 20% of Bulgarian grain production before the wars dealt a mortal blow to Bulgarian agriculture.  Thousands of peasants and agricultural workers were killed in the wars. The number of available horses, sheep, cattle and other livestock was 20% and 40% lower.

Bled white by the heavy loss of life, isolated and surrounded by hostile neighbours, deprived of the support of the Great Powers, stripped of a large part of its territory and economically ruined, Bulgaria was seized by deep feelings of resentment that inevitably found an expression in a desire for revenge in the ruling circles in Sofia. It was only a matter of time before this accumulation of combustible material would lead to a new explosion.

When War broke out in August 1914, the Bulgarian ruling clique declared the country’s neutrality. Its strategic geographic location and strong army made Bulgaria a desirable ally for the Entente, for Germany and particularly Austro-Hungary. But Bulgarian aspirations included territorial claims against four Balkan countries. If it had just been a question of Serbia, there would have been a simple matter for the Central Powers to have won over Bulgaria to their side. But an open alliance with Bulgaria would have alienated Romania and Greece, countries that Germany and Austria Hungary were also attempting to woo.

King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who was incidentally born in Vienna and whose full name was Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had stated, “the purpose of my life is the destruction of Serbia.” That was music to the ears of the men in Vienna who up until this moment, had tried three times, and shamefully failed each time, to conquer Serbia. However, outside the aristocratic ruling clique and the patriotic middle class riffraff, there was no popular enthusiasm in Bulgaria for entering the War.

The Bulgarian workers and peasants had already suffered enough from wars and were mostly in favour of neutrality. This was a major element in forcing the Prime Minister Radoslavov to stay out of the War, while at the same time carefully exploring the willingness of both sides to satisfy Bulgarian territorial ambitions. The ruling clique was waiting to see which one of the sides would win a decisive military advantage and who would give cast-iron guarantees for the fulfilment of “Bulgarian national ideals”.

As the war dragged on the Central Powers decided they had no alternative but to give in to the demands of the ruling clique in Sofia. German and Austro-Hungarian diplomats pulled off a major coup by persuading Bulgaria to join the attack on the common enemy, Serbia.  As soon as the Central Powers offered to give them what they claimed, the Bulgarians entered the war on their side. It seemed to be a sound decision. The Allies were losing the Battle of Gallipoli and the Russians had suffered a major defeat at Gorlice. So it was with high hopes that King Ferdinand signed a treaty with Germany, and on September 23, 1915 and Bulgaria began mobilizing for war.

With Germany and Bulgaria now on their side, the Austrians resumed their plan of conquest with a new spirit of optimism. The Slav provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia) provided troops for the Austria-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, while only little Montenegro allied itself with Serbia. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians crossed the Danube and moved on to take Belgrade. The Serbs fought like tigers in two days of vicious street fighting, but in two days the capital fell, overwhelmed by superior forces. Then came a further crushing blow. On 14 October Bulgaria sent in 600,000 troops into Serbia. The Bulgarian Army attacked from two directions, from the north of Bulgaria towards Niš and from the south towards Skopje.  

The Bulgarian attack rendered the Serbian position completely untenable; the main army in the north (around Belgrade) could either retreat, or be surrounded and forced to surrender. In the Battle of Kosovo, the Serbs made a last and desperate stand but in the end were forced to retreat. Beset by enemies on all sides, Serbia was overrun in a little more than a month. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, the Serbian generals decided to retreat into Albania. Faced with snowstorms and intense cold, with impassable roads and almost no supplies or food, the army trudged across steep mountains together with the tens of thousands of civilians fleeing from a merciless enemy. Many soldiers and civilians did not make it to the coast. They perished of hunger, disease, the attacks of enemy forces and ambushes by Albanian bandits.

Britain and France talked about sending troops to Serbia, but nothing was done until it was too late. At the end of 1915, a Franco-British force landed at Salonica in Greece, to offer assistance to the Serbs and to pressure the Greek government to declare war against the Central Powers. The answer of the pro-German King Constantine I was to overthrow the pro-Allied government of Eleftherios Venizelos before the Allied expeditionary force arrived.

The British puppet Venizelos set up a provisional government in Salonica where he was protected by the bayonets of the Entente. Greece was split into two camps, which nearly came to blows before the King of Greece resigned in favour of his son Alexander who joined the war on the side of the Allies. But the Greek army did nothing. French and Serbian forces retook limited areas of Macedonia by recapturing Bitola on 19 November 1916 following a costly offensive.  For most of the time, however, what was known as the Macedonian Front was a picture of impotent inactivity.

Only after most of the German and Austro-Hungarian troops had been withdrawn in September 1918 did the French finally made a breakthrough when the Bulgarians suffered their only defeat of the war at the Battle of Dobro Pole. Two weeks later, on 29 September 1918, Bulgaria surrendered to the Allies and as a consequence, lost not only the additional territory it had fought for in the major conflict, but also the territory it had won after the Balkan Wars giving access to the Aegean Sea.

Bulgaria had suffered a second national catastrophe, which shaped its national consciousness just as the agonizing Calvary of the Serbs has been burned into the collective memory of that people. These tragedies have played an important part in creating a sense of victimhood that lasted for generations. Serbs and Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians, Croats and Macedonians – all saw themselves as victims.

That is the problem. In the Balkans everyone sees themselves as a victim and nobody as an aggressor. That is the great tragedy of the Balkans. The question that must be asked is: who are the victims and who are the aggressors? The ordinary Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians have always been victims – victims of their own ruling class. They did not engage in diplomatic intrigues. They did not spread lying propaganda in the press. They did not declare war against anybody. And they did not order thousands to march to their deaths.

It is the poor peasants and workers who were driven like sheep to the slaughter in wars against other poor peasants on the other side of imaginary and meaningless borders. They and nobody else are always the victims of somebody else’s war. As for the rulers of the Balkan states, history shows us that yesterday’s victim becomes tomorrow’s aggressor and yesterday’s hanged man becomes tomorrow’s executioner. And so it goes on, a never-ending dance of death and hate, until the workers and peasants rise up against their own landlords and capitalists, tear down the artificial frontiers, and create a Balkan Socialist Federation on the principles of freedom, equality and justice. Only then can we put an end to this whole bloody business.

London 27 March 2015.