Talking to Barrière about the transport to Italy of Austrian prisoners (600 officers and 30,000 soldiers) captured by the Serbs and presently in Albania, I told him that I did not see any reason why we should not keep them in Italy after having overcome all the great difficulties and dangers of men and ships [...]
Sidney Sonnino to Camille Barbière, French Ambassador to Italy on 9 December 1915
The First World War differs from previous conflicts due to the large number of prisoners of war that the individual belligerent nations captured and detained during the hostilities.
Although the Eastern Front stands out from the other theatres of war by virtue of the numerical size of the mass of prisoners, this feature of the Great War is also noticeable in the case of the Italian-Austrian front: on this front the Austrians and Germans took about 600,000 Italian soldiers prisoner, while, at the same time, the soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army captured by the Italians according to official statistics were 477,024.
The conditions of imprisonment, the dynamics of being captured and the personal experiences of the Austro-Hungarian army prisoners in Italy are particularly multi-faceted and involve numerous variables. Among these variables, the time of capture and nationality were the two that made the most difference in terms of the individual. In fact, before the battle of Vittorio Veneto, which saw the rout of the Austro-Hungarian army, the number of Imperial prisoners in Italy, although not marginal, was not high in comparative terms: before October 1917 there were 168,898 soldiers listed as prisoners, of which according to the official Italian report only 5,513 could be considered voluntary deserters. This preliminary data is itself enough to give us an understanding of how the battle of Vittorio Veneto proved a turning point in the assistance meted out to prisoners of war. The limited number of desertions, even on a front characterized by difficult environmental conditions, shows how the overall strength of the multi-national army of the Dual Monarchy exceeded the expectations of many contemporary observers.
Given that for a long time the total number of prisoners of war had been limited, the methods of caring for prisoners of war was slow in developing. Each Army organized quarantine stations in its rear areas, due to the fear that prisoners might be carriers of infectious diseases. After that time, and until 1916, prisoners were sent to the interior and mostly housed in old disused military facilities dating from the 17th and 19th century. Only later on were some new prison camps constructed, and these were set up outside the war zone, mainly in central and southern Italy. The universe of the camps (at least 270) varied greatly and ranged from small stations that housed a few hundred prisoners to large concentration camps (Avezzano, Sulmona, Padula, Asinara), capable of hosting thousands of ex-soldiers. The officers, as usual, were separated from the troops and enjoyed better conditions.
Within this complex framework, the experience of some 24,000 Austrian prisoners who were detained at Asinara after December 1915 deserves special mention: these troops were the remnant of a contingent of 60,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners, captured by the Serbs in the Autumn/Winter 1914-1915, who, following the capitulation of Serbia, were marched on foot along with the remnant of the Serbian Army under extreme conditions through the mountainous area of northern Albania, and were then handed over to the Italian transport detail in Albania. From Valona and Durazzo, these 24,000 survivors were sent to Asinara and, given their extremely precarious health conditions, they were placed in quarantine. During the sea crossing and the first months on the island, a cholera epidemic further decimated the group: on 25 April 1916, a census of the prisoners on the island numbered them at 16,655.
Between May and July 1916, this contingent was finally sent to France, though Asinara continued to be one of the largest places of captivity: on 1 January 1917, out of the 79,978 prisoners held in Italy, 11,003 were located on the island of Asinara, under strained environmental conditions; only the Padula camp, in the province of Naples, held more.
In Italy, in the first months of 1917, 80,000 prisoners, divided into 2,000 individual detachments, were employed in agricultural, industrial and construction work. In April 1918, and thus before the battle of Vittorio Veneto, when the number of prisoners held in Italy swelled decisively, the number of Austrian prisoner-workers increased to 130,000 units: utilising a logic similar to that of most other warring States, all the prisoners in Italy that were able to work were actively employed in the war economy and, in particular, in agricultural work (60,000).
The Italian government decided only at great length and after numerous reconsiderations to implement a policy that actively focused on nationalities for its prisoners of war, following the example of other belligerent nations (Serbia, Russia). Under pressure from the Allies, it was decided at the end of 1917 to recruit minority nationalities from among the Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war to form national legions to provide support for the Italian war effort and, at the same time, constitute a further cell of political activism among the Slavic nationalities of the Empire abroad. The move proved far-sighted, given that at the end of the hostilities the Czechoslovak Legion in Italy had 25,000 effective recruits (destined to grow after the end of the conflict), the Rumanian Legion (March 1919) as many as 36,712 effective recruits, and the Polish legion 24,000. These were the first to be repatriated at the end of the hostilities.
The outcome of the battle of Vittorio Veneto led to the collapse of the system for handling prisoners of war in Italy. The number of prisoners held increased from 170,000 to 415,000 in the space of a few days; the camps proved insufficient to contain such a mass of people and there were real health emergency situations. This was exacerbated by the fact that, following the signing of the armistice, repatriations of Italian prisoners of war held abroad, and in need of assistance, began, as did those for Italian-speaking Austro-Hungarian soldiers still in the ranks of the Imperial Army, who were discharged only after a period in quarantine and, not infrequently, following a period of preventive internment. Thus, according to the official Italian report, there were 40,917 deaths among the Austro-Hungarian prisoners held in Italy during the conflict, amounting to nearly one prisoner out of every 10, with a great spike in mortality in the months after Vittorio Veneto, despite the brevity of the experience of imprisonment of the prisoners taken at the very end.
Finally, although most of the repatriations were organized and completed after the signing of the peace treaties (Saint-Germain in 1919, and Rapallo in 1920), in 1920 there were still 6,000 prisoners of war in Italy, mainly Ruthenians, who, according to diplomatic reports, had no intention of being repatriated unless they were guaranteed that they would not have to resume fighting in the Russian civil war or in the Ukrainian-Polish war, which was raging in the region at the time.