July 1917

Soldiers. The men at war

By Alessandro Chebat, Helena Trnkova, Gustavo Corni, Wojciech Lisek

"What was going on in my head when the war broke out in 1915? We were complete innocents, we did not know why we were going to that war, we knew nothing at all. We only talked about it among ourselves, all of us people without any schooling, that did not read the newspapers (...) at school I had learned the alphabet and how to grow radishes and parsley, I still have the book that six of us children, brothers and sisters, studied."

Pietro Balsamo (Margarita - Cuneo, born in 1894, Peasant)

The Italian soldier in the Great War: intellectual officers, peasant soldiers and worker draft-dodgers?

By Alessandro Chebat

The Great War gave us the image of the Italian infantryman as a peasant soldier, scared but obedient, poorly trained but capable of acts of heroism. The reasons for this cultural construction are varied. Agrarianism ​​("ruralismo") was best suited to the authoritarian paternalism of the ruling classes, while obedient and fatalist peasants who did not ask questions and accepted the authority of officers like that of a father to a son, were considered the symbol of a war where obedience and submission were the fundamental values ​​that would lead to victory.

The social conflicts of the pre-war period, the advance of the socialists, the anti-militarism of the workers and the opposition to entry into the war, had generated fears of the spread of anti-patriotic ideas among military and interventionists. Glorification of the patient sacrifice and the resigned submission of the peasant class was therefore considered effective in censoring the combative behaviour of the urban proletariat, with its "madness" of breaking the bonds of paternalism, and its pacifism and sympathy for socialism. The contrast between peasant soldiers and draft-dodging workers - many workers were in fact exempted from service as they were necessary for war production - was created in such a way as to divide the lower classes, re-directing the resentment felt for the sacrifices they were subjected to onto fabricated goals.

The primacy of obedience and the "cult" of peasant resignation are to be found in many sources. Father Agostino Gemelli - Psychology Advisor to the Supreme Command - wrote: "The soldier in trenches does not think much, because he sees little, he always thinks of the same things. His mental activity is greatly reduced, as there is nothing to nourish it." There was thus "a kind of narrowing of the field of consciousness" needed to survive the tensions, the hardships and the horrors of war. From this point of view the farmer was privileged, as he was able to more readily adapt to the progressive brutishness

Gemelli's assessment lacked any reference to the patriotism that might have inspired the soldiers, confirming the weakness of the idea of a homeland among the peasant masses. This weakness was due to the greater usage of dialects instead of Italian, limited nationalization of the masses and the high level of illiteracy among the lower classes (still at 40% in 1911), which frustrated the first political education interventions aimed at instilling the "religion of the homeland", implemented by the governments of liberal Italy. Homeland for the peasant-soldier was limited to his fellow townspeople or to his local province, and the war was accepted not as a duty or on the basis of the abstract reasons of patriotism, but rather as an imposition, a hard fate that had to be endured and from which, sooner or later, he would escape.

The statistical data also seem to support the opinions of the peasant soldier. In 1911, Italy had 36 million inhabitants and 7.7 million households averaging 4.6 persons. Of these, 58% were employed in agriculture, 23.7% in industry and 18% in the tertiary sector. With regard to mobilization data, 5,900,000 men were called to arms, however, excluding those unfit or exempt from service, the army comprised 4,250,000 effective personnel, of whom 2,600,000 were agricultural workers. There was a clear preponderance of peasants in the infantry, the branch of service that suffered the most casualties. A survey of war orphans conducted in 1920, reported that 64% of these were the children of peasants, 30% of workers, 3.3% of businessmen and merchants, and the remaining 2.7% of office workers and professionals. However, caution must be taken when considering such data due to the uncertainty of the classification categories - peasants could mean farm hands, sharecroppers, or small farmers - and the survey criteria, often based on the self-definition of the subjects. This last point is characteristic of changes in the relationship between the city and the countryside. Industrial development had seen cities attract a lot of rural labour that continued to live in the countryside and work the land, but also filled the ranks of the urban working class for long stretches of time. Nonetheless, these people continued to define themselves as peasants, though in reality they were actually a "hybrid" category of peasant-workers. Even taking into account the census data on war orphans, it can be observed by comparing the percentages with the active population that peasant losses were not proportionally higher than those reported for workers.

If the rural population provided the troops, the middle classes formed the class of reserve officers, which was the skeleton of the army, serving as the link between career officers and the mass of combatants. The hundreds of memoirs, letters, diaries, and literary works left to us by the body of reserve officers document in detail their different positions on the war - ranging from exaggerated nationalism to democratic patriotism - and the lively, dramatic, and at times hellish description of the front , without, however, the tragic impact of trench warfare and modern conflict ever calling into question acceptance of the reasons for the war and the capacity for sacrifice.

For many of them contact with the peasant soldiers was a discovery, which they described with astonishment and admiration. Nevertheless, the many lines written by the intellectual-officers about the physical endurance, the moral simplicity, and the ability to bear hardship of the peasants, did not create a breach in the wall of culture and mentality that separated the officers from the lower classes.

In fact, the clear class distinction between officers and soldiers must be accounted for. Access to the higher ranks was voluntary and permitted only to those who had attended secondary schools. After the gaps in the ranks formed in 1917 and the sharp drop in the number of volunteers (the number of casualties among the roughly 200,000 reserve officers was very high), all soldiers possessing the requisite credentials were obliged to take officer candidate training courses. At the same time, the educational achievement level required for enrolment was lowered to matriculation into the penultimate year of secondary school.

Thus the gap between commanders and subordinates was quite large. Notwithstanding this, the bourgeois small-middle class extraction of the officers led many of them to feel a strong affection and sense of responsibility for their soldiers, engendering a sort of "masterly paternalism" among those who were prone to or forced to decide for all subordinates without asking who they were or what they thought. As Isnenghi observes in I vinti di Caporetto, the image of officers looking on with dismay at the masses of soldiers being routed defying their command contrasts with the subsequent sense of relief of a return to normal with the First Battle of the Piave, attributing the crisis of their leadership to a "collective drunkenness" without going further in the analysis of the behaviour of their men. Among the few examples of officers outside the mainstream was Curzio Malaparte, first an infantryman and later a second lieutenant who, in his provocative book Viva Caporetto or La rivolta dei santi maledetti, spoke of the debacle of 1917 as a "military strike" against the leadership of career officers such as Cadorna and against all political pedagogy and “post-Risorgimento” liberal patriotism in general.

On the relationship between commanders and subordinates, the comments of the officers themselves are interesting. The reserve lieutenant Silvio d'Amico commented: "No one in the midst of all these stiff northerners is as welcome as Sorrentino [...] a Neapolitan [...] who knows how to do everything, he is a tailor and carpenter, knows how to shave his comrades and light the stoves of the officers, he is able to raise walls for the dugouts and fix anything that breaks [...] there are two things he does not know; how to read and write; and now that an officer is teaching him, I'm afraid he'll be ruined." In another passage he notes: "The driver was telling me all about the animal I was riding [...] and then on other related topics: 'Lieutenant, sir, is it true that peace is near? In my town they found an egg that had a message written inside the shell that said: 26 May 1917. Is that not a miracle? Doesn't that mean that that will be the date of peace?'  "I gave him my sermon about how we would need to bring about peace with a good victorious offensive. He went back to talking about his animals."

Even given the re-composition of the social classes brought on by the war and despite the awareness of having to lead their men to death - for this purpose Emilio Lussu in his Un anno sull'altopiano (en. ed. A Year on the High Plateau) offers an interesting description of an officer crazed or desperate, consumed by alcohol, and committed to using any means to get his men to attack - there was no questioning among the officers of the social hierarchies in peace time, which had to be reproduced even in war time. In fact, in it they found increased appreciation for their role and satisfaction of the need to emerge.

Yet, it is once again Curzio Malaparte who provides us with the most vivid picture of peasant soldiers as a herd ready to follow the tide owing to their inclination to passivity and obedience: "When the officers explained to us the ideal reasons for our war ... the soldiers listened in rapt attention, admiring their superiors' culture and intelligence: but they did not understand anything [...] what did soldiers care about why the war was being fought? The essential thing was this: we had to do it. Once, the Commander of the 9th Army asked a soldier in my squad: «Who are the Austrians?» «Yes, your Excellency,» replied the soldier. This response defines the state of mind."

Malaparte's words seem to confirm what Gemelli said: in the war of the masses the best "quality" of the soldier was the "lack of quality", or that of being crude, ignorant and passive.


Between the end of May and the beginning of June 1917, a wave of rebellion swept through the French Army on the Western Front. The men, exhausted by almost three long years of fighting, refused to go on. However, faced with many repressive measures, the movement is quickly subdued, though it shows how difficult it is to maintain authority over citizen-soldiers in war.

The 1917 French Army mutinies

By Helena Trnkova

"The gendarmes are as bad as the Krauts, and should be hung", "Comrades, the Republic is making fools of us", "Our leaders, we will get them!", such messages were written on the trains of French soldiers on furlough in the Spring of  1917. Such graffiti was a sign of the demoralization or even the desperation that had taken hold of the French troops shortly after the failure of the great offensive by General Nivelle on 16 April 1917. The soldiers sang The Internationale, shouting "down with the war" as they went to the trenches and, even worse, they drew up petitions and leaflets and organized general assemblies. The wave of unrest spread to two-thirds of the infantry units. In the rear, soldiers refused to return to the front line, while those who were already there no longer wanted to leave the trenches. Though it lasted only a short time, the mutiny stood out as an unusual event that drew attention both from contemporaries as well as from historians, who are still investigating its causes.  

Beginning with the fundamental work of Guy Pedroncini, published in 1967, the mutinies have been systematically linked to the failure of the great Nivelle Offensive of April 1917 and the enormous human losses that it produced. Yet this is a mechanistic view of the army and of society, based on a somewhat simplistic model: despair, reaction - venting, calm. The correlation in space and time, commonly emphasized as the main reason, is imperfect. The time lag between the April 16th offensive and the most widespread wave of rebellion, reported from 15 May onwards - the date of Nivelle being replaced by Pétain as commander of the French Army - excludes the possibility of establishing a direct causality. Furthermore, the mutinying regiments were not necessarily those that took part in the offensive. It was not, therefore, the increased difficulty of the fighting and conditions that had now made the war unbearable, but rather the change in individual expectations. The main hope, widely shared and internalized by the fighters, was that the war would soon come to an end. It was not that the situation after the defeat increased the hardships but, in relation to the overwhelming nature of the disappointed expectations, this return to the "ordinary rhythm of the war" became more difficult to endure.

Further factors emerge from the larger picture of the events. Spring 1917 was actually characterized by a series of events that increased the uncertainty and the unpredictability of the future. As evidenced by the sources, the echo of the Russian Revolution in February had reached the French lines: "Long live the revolution!" was the second-most-frequent message written during the mutinies. Certain units, such as the 41st Infantry Division fought on 16 April alongside Russian soldiers who agreed to attack only after a turbulent vote had been taken. This example of free soldiers making their own decisions was not without effect on the citizens in arms of the French Army. In this situation, replacing Nivelle with Pétain, rather than curbing the unrest, encouraged the soldiers to take action. It was an admission of failure, revealing the deep discomfiture of the authorities and the institution's vulnerability.

In more general terms, a large wave of strikes broke out exactly at this moment, rupturing the truce of the Union sacrée. The intensity of the strikes and mutinies coincided as if perfectly orchestrated, attesting to the permeability of the army with respect to information coming from behind the lines. This instability created a breach in the general system of strength and power relations, which increased the manoeuvring margins of the soldiers in the manifestation of their refusal to fight.

The power relations between the combatants and their immediate superiors were complex. The means at the officers disposal to keep men in place were, in fact, limited: "If they want to leave, how can we stop them? Shoot, kill one, kill ten of them, and then?" a lieutenant colonel of the 97th Infantry Regiment, stationed near Braine, wrote of his own impotence in his diary on 4 June. He even contemplated the possibility of suicide, to get his men to think...

The measures to restore order were anything but uniform, oscillating between firmness and negotiation, severity and clemency. The first reaction, in fact, demonstrated firmness. On 1 June, Pétain established a special court. When, however, it became evident that the movement was losing strength, on 18 June, he changed course. Due to intervention by civil authorities, many death sentences - over five hundred in that period - were commuted. The final tally reveals a somewhat lenient course of action: 26 men were executed to make an example in relation to "collective acts," one committed suicide and another escaped on the eve of his execution, while 31 soldiers were shot for "individual acts". These exemplary punishments were accompanied by a great host of complementary strategies aimed at regaining the respect and trust of the men.

Despite their limited duration and the relatively lenient repression, the 1917 mutinies left a lasting mark in the chronicles of the Great War in France. The controversies aroused by a speech paying homage to those who were shot to make an example, given by Lionel Jospin in Craonne on 5 November 1998, show that the place for recognition of the mutineers remains even today the subject of historiographic debates as well as a political issue.


"At 24 o'clock [on October 30] the defenders of Col Caprile, Asolone, Pertica and Spinoncia took away those bloody quotas. To them there is only the glory of having fought until the last moment without receiving reinforcements from the back and have reported the last victory of a defensive army now in agony, while behind them was sweeping the most complete anarchy "

(The official report of the Austro-Hungarian Army on the last days of war)

Cecco Beppe’s Army

By Gustavo Corni

The Austro-Hungarian Army, in compliance with the dualist structure of the Empire sanctioned by the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (Ausgleich in German) of 1866, was a highly complex structure. There was a Common Army, under the command of the War Ministry in Vienna, which functioned alongside the two smaller Austrian and Hungarian armies, called Landwehr and Honved respectively. At the onset of the war, army personnel totalled around 450,000. The cohesion of the system was primarily maintained by the elderly Emperor Franz Joseph, in whom the officers and soldiers placed their loyalty and trust. When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, Archduke Friedrich assumed the command of the entire Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army (the position should have gone to the heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand, assassinated in Sarajevo). However, the real brains behind the wartime Army was Commander-in-Chief General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff who, apart from a brief parenthesis, had occupied this crucial role since 1906. This ambitious, strong-willed man had a great deal of enemies both at court and amongst the leaders of the armed forces. The Imperial Army was obviously a multinational structure. The great majority of the officers (over two thirds) were Germans and Magyars while soldiers of different ethnicities served side by side in almost all of the units, which were held together by hierarchy, comradeship and the language of command, either German or Magyar.

Following the An meine Völker proclamation [issued by Emperor Franz Joseph] of 28 July 1914, there was a general mobilisation of those fit for military service, which by December led to another 2,750,000 military personnel, officers and soldiers being recruited. Of these, around two million were deployed on the fronts: the northern front (which we call the eastern front) against Russia and the Balkan front against Serbia.

The first five months of war caused huge losses, especially on the Russian front. Here they amounted to around 731,000 combatants, most of whom were taken prisoner (or had surrendered) during the repeated advances and counter-advances. If we add to these the almost 300,000 men lost in the futile campaign against Serbia, we can say that in the first few months of the war, the army deployed on the front had halved in number.  Particularly serious was the loss of most of the professional officers, replaced by civilians with improvised training as supplementary officers.

1915 was also a terrible year for Cecco Beppe’s armies [Cecco Beppe was the Italian nickname for the Austrian Emperor Franz Ferdinand], which lost in total another 1,250,000 men on the eastern front. The terrible losses were not followed by the same plentiful supply of new recruits as the age groups available for call-up had became increasingly scarce. However, over the course of the entire war, the Austro-Hungarian Army enlisted in total around nine million men, with a drastic fall in recruitments from 1916 to 1918. In this last year, just 181,000 new conscripts were recruited. It could be said that after the first two years of war, the Imperial Army barely managed to keep going.

The result of this was an ever-increasing dependence on military assistance from their German ally. For the spring offensive or Strafexpedition as it was known, in 1916 on the Asiago Plateau, Conrad based his plans on Germany being able to provide aid, which failed to arrive. A year and a half later, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo at Caporetto was won thanks to the decisive intervention of seven experienced German divisions, with massive deployment of cannons and grenade launchers under the command of General von Below

The military situation was complicated by the increasing difficulty in producing the goods required for the war despite widespread militarisation of the economy. The food situation was even more difficult, especially in the Viennese metropolis, causing hundreds of thousands of people to fall ill and die of starvation. The food shortages came to a head in the winter of 1917/18 and were brought about by the increasing selfishness of the Hungarian government, which used all means available to defend its food stocks (the Hungarian part of the Empire produced agricultural surpluses, while the Austrian part had a food-production deficit). We only need to consider that the total harvest of wheat and barley, which in 1913 had been 8.5 million tons, in the last year of the war fell to 4.8 million tons. However, despite these structural problems, the Imperial Army did not fall. Victorious on the Balkan front (albeit with decisive help from the Germans), and at the end of the day victorious also on the eastern front, after Bolshevik Russia quit the scene, the Army in Feldgrau (field grey) also resisted a whole year on the River Piave.

Strikes in the factories and protests amongst consumers (especially women) in Vienna and other cities added to the first creaks and groans in an army that had until then remained on the whole solid. Mutiny amongst marines at the base in Cattaro in February 1918 opened the way up to an increasingly widespread number of protests by soldiers, the majority of whom were former prisoners arriving from Russia. Often converted to revolutionary ideals by their first-hand experience of events in Russia, officers and soldiers from the East, instead of reinforcing the exhausted army on the River Piave, paved the way for the revolutionary insurrections that were to break out in Vienna and Budapest after the war. However, it cannot be said that nationalism was a decisive factor in weakening the Austro-Hungarian war effort, if not in the very last stage of the war. Apart from a number of striking cases in which units comprising a majority of Czechs passed en masse to the Russian side, the hierarchical structure and loyalty towards the Emperor remained sufficient to hold the Army together. It’s true, the collapse of a number of regiments comprising mainly Czechs on the eastern front in the spring of 1915 was attributed by the military authorities to betrayal; it is however more likely that this event was caused by the introduction (as we have seen) of untrained recruits onto that terrible front. When compared with the 80,000 Czechs fighting in the Legion on the side of the Entente, we cannot forget the loyalty of a million Czech soldiers in the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army.

In the autumn of 1918, politics suddenly stirred within the rear lines of the Army deployed on the River Piave: nationalism gained the upper hand in Prague, Zagreb and Krakow, with a series of proclamations of independence between the end of October and early November 1918. And the rest of the Imperial Army, faithful until the end to the orders given, had no choice but to retreat hurriedly to their new homelands, with the Italians hot on their heels, in the final battle of Vittorio Veneto.


There is still a lot of anarchy and deterioration. There are however various ways to improve discipline amongst the soldiers and their fighting spirit.

(Dr Yuri Zhivago wrote to his wife while on military service)

The Russian Imperial Army

By Wojciech Łysek

In October 1914 the Russian armed forces comprised 5 million people, 460,000 of them officers, representing 50% of the Allied forces. Between 1915 and 1916, the Russian army found itself in a difficult situation after being expelled from the territories of the former Polish state. By the end of 1915 it was estimated that 66,000 Russian officers and 754,000 soldiers had been lost. It was the cream of the Russian people who supported the Tsarist system. From January to September 1916 indeed 1,740,000 reservists and recruits were drafted as soldiers. The new conscripts however had shorter training and more importantly, a very strong desire to return to their families, even by practising self-mutilation. In the years between 1914 and 1917, somewhere between fourteen and fifteen and a half million people passed through the ranks of the Russian army.

The Russian army’s weaknesses soon became apparent. Some of the reasons for this state of affairs were: indifference towards studying the modern battle field and its variables in its entirety, absence of a secret service, poor training of the soldiers, which led to them being unable to move skilfully on the battle field, and inability to make use of technical innovations. Moreover, there was a rift with the command and control apparatus. The generals were considered incompetent in terms of leadership and were accused of sending soldiers to the slaughter. After the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), the main selection criterion within the army was not competence but rather loyalty. Lastly, professional officers did not enjoy a good reputation due to the poor salaries and low level of prestige. 

During World War I there was a chronic shortage of officers, who fell in large numbers on the front lines. They headed their subordinates during combat thereby becoming an easy target. In turn, the High Command did not have the trust of the soldiers. Senior military leaders often refused to co-operate with each other. And even though the albeit renowned Mikołajewska Academy in Saint Petersburg turned out highly trained personnel, this was not sufficient to make up for the deficits suffered generally. The main weaknesses became apparent in particular against the German war machine.

Initially the Russian Army – comprised entirely of peasants – was characterised by a high level of discipline. Until mid 1915 commanders practised corporal punishment. The bravery of the soldiers, just like withstanding hunger and fear, aroused admiration and respect. According to Stanislaw, the soldiers’ strength was based on deep religious faith. After clashes they often gathered in prayer and even during assaults just a few hundred metres from the enemy positions, they would stop to pray together. 

It is however commonly believed that the shortage of materiel contributed significantly to Russia’s defeat in the Great War. From the very beginning, the Russian economy was unable to manufacture a sufficient number of rifles to cover losses. Every month 200,000 rifles had to be replaced, when in 1915 alone Russia managed barely to produce 100,000. In December of the same year there was a shortfall of 160,000 rifles. The Allies were forced to help Russia out in 1916 by sending them over one million rifles.

Not only was there a shortage of rifles, ammunition was also in short supply. This situation was aggravated by the decision of the commanders to introduce cash prizes for soldiers who managed to recover bullets. This sparked collective robberies from the depots and the tendency for soldiers to deliberately leave ammunition in the trenches, which often went missing in the event of retreat. This led to commanders planning the size of operations according to the amount of ammunition in their possession although they were unable to quantify the number of bullets they were actually supplied. Moreover, the artillery ammunition requirements were for a long time underestimated at 500 shells a month when actual requirements turned out to be double these amounts. Only in 1916 did production increase significantly.

At social, political and economic level, the enlisting of millions of Russian citizens into the army led to a serious shortage in labour in rural areas and growing discontent. When the war broke out, the populace expected a rapid end to the conflict but as the war dragged on and with no prospects of victory in sight, the Bolsheviks gained increasing consensus. By the end of 1916, 1.5 million soldiers had deserted. This practice intensified after the February Revolution: refusal to obey orders and fraternising with the enemy. Desertion and mutinies occurred on a vast scale during the Easter 1917 ceasefire. However, this phenomenon, defined by Allan Wildman as Trench Bolshevism was due not so much to the activities of the Bolsheviks but rather to the desperation of the soldiers. The Bolshevik slogan of peace “without annexations or the payment of indemnities” was too abstract and difficult for most of the soldiers to understand. The chaos that reigned in the Russian Imperial Army in mid 1917 was not simply a consequence of the revolution. In March the soldiers had not completely lost hope of victory. However, the failure of the July Offensive (Kerensky Offensive) in the final analysis robbed them of this illusion.

Out of fear that the monarchy would be restored, the Provisional Government on 14 March 1917 introduced political commissars, designated to control the soldiers. In addition to these changes, the “Declaration of the Rights of Workers and Soldiers”, which was announced in March 1917, abolished the entire traditional military framework. Consequently discipline degenerated and there were numerous incidents of officers being insulted, beaten and killed. In the year 1917 over 900,000 soldiers deserted.

According to the calculations reported by Czerep in his monograph The Battle of Lutsk, of the soldiers that fought in World War I, up to July 1917 the Russian army suffered the greatest losses. It is estimated that 900,000 perished and 400,000 died subsequently as a result of their wounds. 3.9 million soldiers were interned in prison camps. The above-given data clearly demonstrate the serious situation the Russian Army was in when it withdrew from the battlefield in 1917. Anarchy amongst the ranks was one of the factors that destabilised Tsarist Russia, contributing significantly to the disintegration of the State and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November 1917.



The 1917 Mutinies in France

Between the end of May and the beginning of June 1917, the French Army on the Western Front was rocked by a wave of rebellion and unprecedented acts of disobedience. A spirit of protest inflamed numerous units, fuelled by the general circumstances... Read all