July 1918

Italian Prisoners in the First World War.

By Alessandro Chebat

It is the horror of imprisonment that is necessary to inspire the soldiers

(Gen. Morrone - Minister of War)


Up until the 18th century the fate of captured prisoners was at the mercy of the victors, who could dispose of them as they saw fit, by killing them, torturing them, enslaving them or releasing them for ransom or caste solidarity. With the advent of the century of the Enlightenment the idea spread that prisoners of war should be kept and then returned. However, it was the 19th century - with the expansion of armies and the exacerbation of conflicts - that saw procedures for the handling of prisoners of war become established. Between 1864 and 1907, a series of conferences held in Geneva and The Hague established internationally recognized conventions. 

 Prisoners were to be guaranteed life, adequate food and lodging, health and religious care and regular correspondence. The victorious army had the right to detain prisoners in security camps and to impose forced labour on the troops. Officers were exempt from the work and had to be detained in separate camps. In general, the rules laid down were flexible and were placed under the oversight of an internationally recognized body, such as the Red Cross.

At the outbreak of the Great War there was immediately a greater influx of prisoners than expected. The internment system designed in the years before the war came into crisis: thousands of prisoners had to be held, transferred and fed for years, in large camps inside the nation's borders, surrounded by barbed wire and under armed guard. All the nations involved tried, as far as possible, to respect international conventions, however Germany and Austria-Hungary - where the naval blockade caused food shortages - met with increasing difficulties in ensuring food for the prisoners. After the first year of the war, for example, about 300,000 French prisoners held by the German found themselves with insufficient rations, forcing the French government to appeal to the families of prisoners and humanitarian associations to send food packages and clothing. Given the insufficiency of the consignments, in 1916, an agreement was reached with the German authorities to send foodstuffs on freight trains from France through neutral countries. A similar solution was also reached for the English prisoners. In some cases this led to a paradoxical situation in which the prisoners were better dressed and fed than their jailers. The approximately 600,000 French prisoners received 75 million parcels from families and associations, while the government provided one million quintals of bread and 625,000 parcels containing clothing. There were less than 19,000 deaths, including deaths from injuries.

The situation was different for Italian prisoners. Until a few years ago, official data on losses in the Great War reported about 670,000 fallen and 600,000 prisoners. However, a breakdown of the statistics on the fallen revealed that 500,000 died from injury or illness, another 50,000 after the armistice due to war injuries, and about 50,000 in prison camps: the total did not match the 670,000 reported. In 1993, a book by Giovanna Procacci revealed that the deaths in prison camps had actually numbered more than 100,000. Of these, only 550 were officers. In reality, the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the violation of human rights committed by the enemy, reported this figure as early as 1920, and it equalled one-quarter of deaths in combat (402,000) and two-thirds of those due to illness (169,000). It is evident that the remembrance of the wartime imprisonment of Italians had, for a number of reasons, been subject to a decades-long repression. 

Often, there hung a suspicion around prisoners of war to the effect that their surrender evidenced a lack of will to fight or was a desertion in disguise. In France, returned prisoners of war were subject to investigation and disciplinary measures: only ten years later were prisoners granted the same rights as other ex-combatants. In Italy, the moral, political and social pressure directed at those who became prisoners was even stronger and originated from the social and cultural prejudice that separated the ruling classes from the troops. Indicative of this is a March 1916 memorandum from the Supreme Command complaining about how: "The number of our prisoners taken [...] is not proportionate to the size of the battles and the number of the troops involved". This opinion was also reinforced by the news received from a Swiss delegation to the prison camps between the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916 about the good living conditions of the Italian prisoners. These reports were confirmed by the publication in the press of letters from prisoners employed in agricultural work. It should be pointed out that these situations almost always involved officers and generally only a small part of the entire prisoner population, nevertheless the general staff agreed on the disadvantages of publishing reports that were too comforting about the treatment of prisoners.

It was in the first half of 1916, on the occasion of the Battle of Asiago (“Punitive expedition”) - during which, for the first time, a large number of Italian soldiers were captured - that the identification of prisoners with deserters was internalized among the political and military leaders. In a note to the Presidency of the Council, General Porro stated that in order to avoid desertions, the press needed to give "the broadest and most colourful coverage possible to reports about the ill-treatment inflicted on prisoners in Austria-Hungary and the bad food they received".

So it was that Italian propaganda began to depict prisoners of war as "wretched and shameless" individuals who had "sinned against the homeland". Following Caporetto and the unfortunate telegram from Cadorna - in which he blamed the defeat on the "lack of resistance" of some units of "cowardly capitulators" - this attitude became more acute and the infamous character of prisoner of war status was further reiterated. Between 1917 and 1918, the condemnation of those who were taken prisoner was further augmented by a propaganda initiative aimed at "preventing" desertion and stirring hatred of the enemy. Warning leaflets were distributed, with titles such as: Austrian Cruelty, The Horrors of Austrian Imprisonment, Suffering over the Alps, From the Grave of the Living, etc. These described the living conditions of prisoners of war in great detail, and depicted the Austrians as solely responsible for the suffering and deprivation portrayed. The message was clear: surrendering was a dishonourable act that worsened soldiers' living conditions and hopes of survival. 

This demonization of the enemy "captors" was widespread among all of the combatant nations in the field; however, it should be emphasized that if the French and British prisoners managed to survive, it was largely due to the action of their governments that allowed food to be sent and took direct part in it. On the contrary, the Italian ruling class made the cynical decision to let more than 100,000 prisoners die in the belief that this would discourage surrenders and desertions among the troops.

As in other European nations, at the beginning of the conflict, Italy also left the support of the prisoners to the initiative of the Red Cross and families, whose actions soon proved to be insufficient and subject to delays due to the collapse of the postal system. It should also be noted that the situation for Italian prisoners was even more serious as the standard of living of their families was generally lower than those of France and England (18 million parcels were sent from Italy compared to 75 million from France). With the protraction of the conflict - particularly in the last two years - the dramatic food crisis within the Austro-Hungarian empire led to the continual reduction of the rations distributed to the prisoners, which fell below 1000 calories per day compared to a minimum requirement of 3300. The conditions of being imprisoned varied from case to case: tolerable for those who were employed in agricultural work and could supplement the meagre rations provided, unsustainable for those employed in factories, in mines, or in work gangs far from the camps. However, with the onset of winter, hunger and cold became the main enemies of Italian prisoners, who began to die by the thousands. The main causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis and starvation oedema: in just one ward of the Mauthausen hospital, between November 17 and April 18, there were over 500 deaths from enteritis reported. In Sigmundsherberg, 491 died in 1917 alone and, in the first nine months of 1918, there were 1,779 deaths. The worst conditions were those for the soldiers captured following the rout of Caporetto. Arriving exhausted at the detention camps after a lengthy transport journey characterized by hunger, fatigue and the hostile attitude of their captors, they had to face a harsh winter without adequate provisions or clothing. Witness accounts relate that often prisoners driven by hunger sold their heavier clothes for a loaf of bread, which then left them at the mercy of the elements. This was the period that saw the highest levels of mortality: in Mauthausen one-tenth of the prisoners died in just two months, while in Milowitz some accounts report 10,000 deaths in four months out of the 14,000 present.

The extremely high death rate in the last two years of war was due not only to the considerable increase of prisoners after Caporetto (280,000 captured), and to the impossibility of the Austrians and Germans to provide for them, but mainly to the attitude of the Italian authorities. Following the rout, in fact, the Supreme Command - in agreement with the political authorities - prohibited the sending of collective aid by railroad cars, reiterating that the aid had to remain individual and, at the same time, prohibited the Red Cross from resorting to public donations to finance the aid. The captured officers could, however, always count on adequate supplies. The Italian government did not undertake any initiative to come to the aid of the Italians in captivity, referred to as the "shirkers over the Alps", nor did it facilitate the shipment of parcels. Often parcels remained far too long in warehouses, arriving to prisoners when their contents were no longer edible. The Italian foreign minister Sonnino stated that there were those among the prisoners who were "undeserving of any help and that they should be treated more as deserters than as prisoners". It should be noted that, if the sending of aid to Austria was difficult, aid to Germany was in fact impossible, as it was forbidden to send parcels to this country as there were no agreements on the matter in place.

In September 1917, the only border across which aid could pass, that of Switzerland, was closed. Later on, following the terrible human costs of the 10th and 11th Battles of the Isonzo - where 30,000 Italians were taken prisoner - the military authorities decided to hold the mail at the censorship offices, and then decided to destroy all that remained undistributed. Actually a "legend" was diffused according to which the food packages intended for prisoners were de facto plundered by Austrian soldiers once they arrived at their destination. These initiatives, combined with public news conferences held by prisoners who had escaped from the camps, had a very specific purpose: to discourage desertions.

It is indicative that the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry itself did not cast a shadow of any governmental responsibility in the tragic fate of the prisoners. It merely commented that 3/5 of the troops would have survived if they had received the same treatment as the officers. The conclusions postulated that the dramatic conditions of the prisoners were due to the desire of the enemy to take revenge on the Italian betrayal and the intent to stir up discontent among the families against the government in order to create a rift on the home front.

In fact, it should be noted that Germans and Austrians did not pursue a punitive policy towards prisoners. Though they made use of corporal punishment - as they also did to their own soldiers - and extremely strict discipline, they did not commit any particular acts of cruelty against them. However, they did not want to and could not do without the reserve workforce represented by the prisoners, who were employed in the mines, in the most arduous labour and in agricultural work, though without being able to count on adequate food. A series of wartime contingencies that affected the Central Powers, together with a ruthless punitive desire by the Italians, condemned over 100,000 prisoners to death. The expressed goal that it was "the horror of imprisonment that is necessary to inspire the soldiers ", as the Minister of War, General Morrone affirmed, was pursued to its most extreme consequences.


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