Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Italy enters the war - May 1915

The emergence of Italy as one nation seems to be even more complex than the unification of Germany. From the sacking of Rome in 410AD by the german Visigoths, today's Italy endured centuries of internecine struggles between italian city states, of invasions and of wars of succession. The Holy Roman Empire, which lasted from 800 -1800 provided some sort of stability in a macro sense, but within it were any number of feuding states and shifting alliances. The Holy Roman Empire of 18th century covered roughly the area that Germany, Austria Hungary and Italy did in 1914. However, following it's demise in 1810, Italy suffered conquest and occupation under both Napoleonic and Habsburg yokes. 
Nationalism and monarchism in the shapes of Garibaldi and King Victor Emmanuel II at last succeeded together in the wars for Italian Independence between the 1840s and 1860s. Finally, when France relinquished control of the southern Papal states to Italy, during its own disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, the united Italy, roughly as shown in the map, was complete. Italy signed the Triple Alliance pact with Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1882, in which each party undertook to support any partner attacked by France or Russia. Significantly, Italy insisted on a clause that would allow her to refrain from any conflict involving Britain.
Small wonder, then, that Italy felt ambivalence about observing the Triple Alliance commitment when the central powers declared against Russia, and then France and Britain in 1914.  Although a distinctive peninsula, the young Italy had uneasy border relationships to the north. To the east and north east lay the Adriatic sea as a short separator from the volatile Balkans; to the north west lay France, and due north the once mighty Habsburg empire, now the ailing but belligerent Austria-Hungary. 

Relationships were tense following the outbreak of war. Not only was Italy unwilling to declare for the Central Powers against Britain, she argued - with justification - that Austria had repudiated the terms of the Triple Alliance by a unilateral invasion of Serbia, and by the terms of that agreement she was owed compensation of other Balkan land.
Two powerful politicians at the top of Italian government were at odds, and by early 1915 a policy stalemate prevailed. Giorgio Sonnino, the Foreign Minister, was strongly pro-war (initially on the side of the German alliance), whereas Giovanni Giolitti, former Premier and current leader of opposition, was an ardent neutralist, who preferred to negotiate with Germany and Austria for concessions. Germany was the keener of the two powers to do this, and pushed Austria hard for concessions. However, Italy had one eye on the early developments in the Gallipoli campaign, and could see opportunities for territorial gains from north to south Adriatic coast if she sided with successful allies. While Germany pressured Austria, in late April and in secret, Sonnino U-turned and signed the Treaty of London with Britain, France and Russia, which promised even greater gains than Germany was proposing. Sonnino denounced the Central Powers publicly on 3rd May, but then came a fight back by Giolitti, who persuaded parliament (unaware of the Treaty of London) to accept the current Austrian concessions. Despite this, the final balance was tipped by public opinion, swayed by its inchoate aversion to and distrust of Austria; and inflamed by the recent callous sinking of the Lusitania. Italy mobilised on the 22nd May, and declared war on Austria on 23rd. Declaration against Germany and Turkey came significantly later.
Although perhaps setting out with a cynically opportunist approach to joining the war, Italy could hardly be said to be joining the winning side at this point. Mackensen was driving the Russians and all before him on the Eastern Front; Ypres 2 had just occurred and the Champagne and Artois campaigns were going badly in the west; and the allies were in deep trouble at Gallipoli.

Field Marshall Luigi Cadorna
Italy was to fight with great resolve for more than three years, losing 650,000 men and fighting on some of the most difficult terrain of the war. The Commander in Chief was Luigi Cadorna. Like Mackensen, Cadorna was 65 years old at the outbreak of war. He was a fine soldier with an intricate knowledge of the border with Italy. This long and often treacherous 500 miles border had three main sections: in the west the Trentino region; in the centre the daunting Dolomite, Carnic and Julian mountain ranges; and in the east the plain leading to the Adriatic. The last of these would become the equivalent of the attritional Western Front. The River Isonzo (today the Slovenian river Soca) was the scene of many battles during the next three years, and was Cadorna's initial focus for attack. In the mountains, Italy's ski troop divisions, the Alpini, carried out some of the most intrepid and skilful campaigns seen anywhere.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Field Marshall August von Mackensen

Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen
(1849 – 1945)
If there had been a Ballon d’Or equivalent for the WW1 season of 1915, General August von Mackensen would surely have taken the award. This remarkable man lived to the age of 95, dying in late 1945 under the Allied post war occupation of Germany. This was the sixth Germanic era of his life: the Kingdom of Prussia; the North German confederation; the German Empire (Second Reich); the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich being the others. Thus, he not only lived through the Austro-Prussian (1866) and Franco-Prussian (1870) wars that led to the creation of the Second Reich; he served with success and distinction in WW1 and survived WW2, outlasting the Third Reich. 
Recognised as outstanding from early in his military career, he advanced to Field Marshall, was awarded Germany's highest honours, including being one of only five WW1 recipients of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.  

He was ennobled in 1899, becoming von Mackensen, on account of his distinguished military service to date. He was seen as a likely successor to von Schlieffen as German Chief of Staff, but the post went to Moltke the Younger in 1905. By the outbreak of war in 1914 he was 65 years old. He was assigned to command the XVII Army Corps as part of the German Eighth Army under overall command of Prittwitz (the “fat soldier” we encountered in earlier posts – Eastern Front Part Three). Along with Francois and Below, Mackensen comprised the group of senior officers who overrode Prittwitz’s decision to withdraw the Army towards the River Vistula. He fought fiercely in the Battle of Gumbinnen to the north of the Masurian Lakes, and thereafter starred at Tannenberg to the south of the lakes. Thus, he had distinguished himself in action against both claws of the Russian pincer within three months of the outbreak of war. 
A younger version

Hindenburg and Ludendorff replaced Prittwitz, and when Hindenburg was made Supreme Commander East, he appointed Mackensen as General of the Ninth Army to drive into the north of the Polish Salient. He was awarded Prussia’s highest military decoration ‘Pour la Merite’ for his successful advances through Lodz and to the edge of Warsaw.
In April 1915 he took command of ‘Army Group Kiev’, which included his own new Eleventh Army and, as we have seen, led the vital German breakthrough between Gorlice and Tarnow in May, following this up with the advances that pushed the whole Russian front back to the east of Poland. He was further decorated for these acts, oak leaves added to his PlM, and the Order of the Black Eagle, Germany’s highest ranking order of military knighthood. He was not finished for 1915. In October 1915, Mackensen, commanding the newly formed Heeresgruppe Mackensen, which included his own German 11th Army plus the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army and Bulgarian 1st Army turned to the Balkan. The campaign effectively destroyed Serbia’s resistance, although much of the Serbian Army was to retreat over the mountains to Albania, where it was rescued by the British fleet and transferred to Salonika, re-entering fighting on the Macedonian front. Mackensen respected the courage and durability of the Serbian army, and erected a monument to them in Belgrade, earning mutual respect from Serbia. He became Field Marshall after this campaign.
Mackensen reviewing Bulgarian troops 1916
We will encounter Mackensen again in 1916, at the head of Germany’s Rumanian campaign. Here after a brilliant strategic and tactical campaign to halt Rumanian invasion of Transylvania (then in Hungary) Mackensen continued to overrun Rumania, entering Bucharest on a white horse at the head of his troops in November. For this Mackensen was awarded Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.
At the end of the war he was captured in fighting in northern Serbia, and interned until after Treaty of Versailles.

Mackensen retired from the army in 1920 at the age of 70. He was always a staunch monarchist, and was opposed to the new Weimar Republic. He took advantage of his war hero status and frequently appeared in public in full dress uniform in support of conservative and military movements. His distinctive ‘totenkopf’ – death’s head - Hussar’s badge was to be the symbol adopted by the Panzerwaffe and the SS during the Third Reich. 
The totenkopf badge

Although he supported Hindenburg against Hitler in the 1932 general election, he later became a visible and symbolic supporter of Hitler’s regime. He disliked the violence and cruelty of the regime however, and reacted publicly against the atrocities carried out in Poland in 1939-40.
Hitler and Goering came to view him as disloyal but untouchable, and he outlasted both of them. His last high profile public appearance was in full dress uniform at Kaiser Wilhelm’s funeral in Holland in 1941.

Quite a life.