September 1918

Spanish flu

By Anna Grillini

While the echo of cannons and screams were still resounding in European trenches, an equally deadly catastrophe was striking every corner of the globe. Famous as the first truly global disease in history, "Spanish fever" infected around a billion people, causing more deaths than the Great War. 

While the echo of cannons and screams were still resounding in European trenches, an equally deadly catastrophe was striking every corner of the globe. Famous as the first truly global disease in history, "Spanish fever" infected around a billion people, causing more deaths than the Great War.

We know that prior to this, only the Black Death in the 14th century had been more lethal. We do not have any precise figures on the number of mortalities in 1918-1919; the numbers available differ substantially and range between 20 and 200 million. The absence of an international health monitoring body made it impossible to determine the number of deaths and undoubtedly the conflict raging in Europe did not help with collecting precise data.

The epidemic started to develop as a benign form in the spring of 1918 but by the autumn of that same year and then throughout the winter of 1919, it spread far and wide, claiming ever-greater numbers of victims. After reaching its peak, the number of deaths gradually started to diminish. In Italy, for example 3,184 influenza deaths were recorded in 1917, 274,041 in 1918 and 31,781 in 1919. A study of the data concerning the spread and mortality rate due to the outbreak raises at least two questions: what were the symptoms of the disease and what instruments were put in place to contain the spread?

Today we know that the Spanish flu virus originated from an avian virus that had developed in Central Asia and mutated to become deadly for humans: “It could take hours or days but nothing could stop the fatal course of the disease. Doctors and nurses had learned to recognise the clinical symptoms: the face turned purple or blue, sputum streaked with blood, feet looking almost black. Then, when the end was near, the patient whose lungs by now were full of a reddish exudate, gasped for breath in a desperate attempt to take in air and died of suffocation, dribbling blood-tinged saliva.” Since it was an airborne disease, contagion was extremely easy and was further increased by the mobilisation of enormous masses of people as a result of the war. In the trenches even the most minor contagious illnesses spread rapidly and soldiers on leave or returning home carried the virus with them, which helped to spread it to areas that would otherwise have been safe. 

Faced with the pandemic, the population did not react as in previous centuries by interpreting the events as divine punishment or as a metaphor of death (ascribed mainly to the conflict being waged), rather they turned to the medical community which had by now reached the height of popularity and gained the trust of the people. The establishment of microbiology and the scientific discoveries of pathogenic microorganisms and preventive measures enabled them to address the pandemic as an "earthly" phenomenon, which was dangerous but scientifically definable, rather than as a manifestation of divine power. Nevertheless, the medical community soon found itself floundering due to the aggressiveness of Spanish influenza. The advances made in medicine in the previous century were insufficient to provide a solution within a short timespan and while the doctors were comparing notes, the virus continued to spread. Since there was still no established protocol for dealing with pandemics, doctors soon started to rely on personal research and endeavours, often resorting solely their own personal experience, which was rarely based on tangible expertise of infectious diseases. Disorientation led to ancient remedies such bloodletting, cupping and fumigation coming back into vogue; these methods were ineffective when not harmful

While the pages of medical journals were recording the increasingly desperate attempts to contain the influenza virus, the daily press was filled with accounts of people being admitted to hospital and deaths, reports from hospital wards and criticism of medical incompetence. The newspapers however were also the means chosen by the public authorities to issue advice and information to the population. From these pages transpires the obsessive promotion of hygiene in the streets and people’s homes, then advertisements and articles appeared about masks and instruments to protect the respiratory tract. These became veritable fetishes to combat the virus, though in practice they did not have any genuine efficacy.

The story of the Spanish flu came to an end relatively quickly, leaving however in its wake millions of victims in addition to those lying on the battlefields. Faced with the overwhelming power of technology, which was by now playing a leading role not only in the development of the war but also in people’s everyday lives, science discovered to be surprisingly vulnerable to natural phenomena about which it was not yet sufficiently knowledgeable and over which, perhaps, it may never have complete control.

 

Gli “Arditi”, le truppe d’assalto italiane nella Grande Guerra.

di Jacopo Calussi
 

“Il nostro organismo militare (…) tendeva soprattutto a separare nettamente la massa combattente in due categorie: (…) Da una parte i più giovani, gli spensierati, gli scapigliati, gli spregiudicati, gli irrequieti, i violenti (…) Dall’altra gli anziani, i padri di famiglia, i lenti, i pesanti, i passivi, (…) magari in gran parte buoni soldati, ma più adatti all’obbedienza (…).

C’è proprio una graduatoria del coraggio. (…) Gli arditi sono sullo scalino più alto di questa graduatoria. Il coraggio degli arditi non è quello di tutti gli altri. (…) È un fenomeno di selezione, un fenomeno essenzialmente aristocratico”.

M. Carli, Arditismo, Augustea, Roma-Milano, 1929, pp. 19, 33.

“Nella guerra di trincea i reparti d’assalto oziavano troppo: per mesi e mesi non si videro mai sulle prime linee, e ciò al punto da indurre molti elementi a presentare domanda di passaggio nei battaglioni d’assalto al solo scopo di sottrarsi al servizio di trincea. Per queste ragioni i battaglioni d’assalto durante la ritirata furono più causa di disordine e di debolezza bellica (…) Insomma l’esperienza fatta con gli arditi (…della 2. Armata) specialmente con i metodi di reclutamento e disciplinari che vi venivano attuati, costituì un vero disastro”.

Dalla relazione della Regia Commissione d'inchiesta sul ripiegamento dall'Isonzo al Piave, volume II: Le cause e le responsabilità degli avvenimenti, Ministero della Guerra, Roma, 1919, pp. 186, 187.

“Nell’attesa (dell’assalto) scherzavano tra loro come ragazzi che preparavano qualche grossa monelleria. Il caporale Verdirose dava fondo a un fiasco di vino e ripeteva nel suo schietto romanesco: Ragazzi oggi me ne voio  lavorà armeno cinque (sic). È la “sagoma” più famosa tra tutte le “fiamme nere” del battaglione (…) Ha 45 anni ed è ammogliato e padre. Prima della guerra era portiere al ministero dell’Interno. Partì volontario”.

Articolo di G. Civinini, Nervosismi, del 23 aprile 1918, apparso sul ‹‹Corriere della sera›› a cinque mesi dalla rotta di Caporetto, in una fase propagandistica decisamente diversa.

 

In questa puntata del calendario verranno descritte la formazione, le caratteristiche e le principali azioni degli arditi italiani, specialità del Regio esercito, la cui creazione deve essere contestualizzata nei tentativi dei belligeranti di modificare la generale strategia della guerra di posizione. Tenteremo di evitare quelle che posso a ben diritto esser viste come costruzioni narrative particolari sul corpo degli arditi, e delle quali abbiamo sinteticamente dato prova nelle citazioni riportate.

I reparti d’assalto italiani vennero creati nell’estate del 1917 sul modello delle Sturmtruppen austro-ungariche e tedesche, dalle quali ereditarono armamento e tattica di impiego. Gli arditi ebbero un particolare percorso di formazione, il cui merito spetta in buona parte ai comandi della 2. Armata. In seno ad essa, grazie alla proposta del tenente colonnello Giuseppe Bassi, venne avviata la creazione un reparto di tipo nuovo. Il suo compito sarebbe stato quello di assaltare con rapidità e risolutezza le trincee nemiche; il corpo sarebbe stato addestrato in modo peculiare e, possiamo anticipare, avrebbe fatto di questa unicità la fonte del proprio alto morale e della sua indiscussa combattività.

Insieme ai generali Capello e Grazioli, Bassi ebbe il merito e la responsabilità di creare la primissima formazione della nuova arma: la “I compagnia d’assalto” fu costituita a Russiz, nelle vicinanze di Gorizia, il 12 giugno 1917.

Ottenuto il benestare dei due generali, Bassi poté usufruire di accresciute risorse ed armamenti, nonché di un campo creato ad hoc per i nuovi reparti nella località friulana di Sdricca. Qui il 29 luglio, il “I reparto d’assalto” venne passato in rassegna da Vittorio Emanuele III. Dopo due settimane il reparto venne avviato verso il fronte del Carso, raccogliendo il primo successo nella battaglia del Monte Piana. Il 4 settembre, il re insieme ad alcuni osservatori militari dell’Intesa poté ammirare personalmente la conquista del San Gabriele, operata da meno di 500 arditi con la collaborazione dei rincalzi di fanteria “ordinaria”.

Quando parliamo di “unicità” degli arditi facciamo riferimento sia alle differenza di equipaggiamento e impiego, sia ad un’autonomia che rimase completa rispetto alla struttura divisionale fino al 1918: una differenza sostanziale rispetto agli omologhi austro-ungarici.

I primi otto reparti, con numerazione romana, venivano in tal modo aggregati alle armate e non ai livelli inferiori del Regio esercito.

La divisa dell’ardito, per iniziare, mostrava un’evidente differenza con quelle dei fanti: la giacca grigio-verde, con le famigerate “fiamme nere” sul bavero, copriva un maglione a collo alto, scelto per evitare la scomodità della chiusura sul collo delle divise di fanteria. L’armamento si differenziava fortemente dagli altri reparti e subì, al pari del corpo, un evidente processo di “mitizzazione”: l’arma-simbolo degli arditi divenne infatti il pugnale, usato durante gli assalti alle trincee nemiche. Insieme ad esso, venivano adoperati petardi e granate, come la “Thèvenot”, per stordire e ferire i difensori, armi automatiche come la mitragliatrice Fiat “Villar Perosa mod. 1915”, un moschetto a canna corta e i lanciafiamme. Tuttavia, la vera forza degli arditi risiedette nell’innovazione del loro impiego, il successo del quale era dovuto ad addestramenti durissimi sul piano fisico e tattico. Durante le esercitazioni, Bassi e gli altri ufficiali predisposero operazioni finalizzate alla conquista della cosiddetta “collina-tipo”: uno scenario realistico che doveva rispecchiare le condizioni di un vero assalto alle trincee nemiche; era questa un’altra distinzione radicale rispetto al brevissimo addestramento a cui erano sottoposti milioni di fanti italiani.

Le motivazioni delle critiche, spesso indirizzate agli arditi da parte di ufficiali e soldati di fanteria, erano invece legate ad un regime disciplinare particolare: esso comprendeva un soprassoldo rispetto alla paga normale e l’erogazione di premi personali, punizioni generalmente più lievi, periodi di riposo e licenza più lunghi e l’esenzione dal servizio di corvèe e di trincea. Questo trattamento fu probabilmente tra le motivazioni che portarono ad alcune durissime critiche, indirizzate ai reparti d’assalto da parte del Comando Supremo nell’ottobre del’17. Nel periodo successivo alla rotta di Caporetto, alle forti perdite dei reparti d’assalto si aggiunsero accuse e notizie, in realtà decisamente gonfiate, su atti di codardia, saccheggi e violenze ai danni di militari di altri corpi e civili. Fu in questa fase che prese piede la descrizione degli arditi come una “masnada” di avanzi di galera e accoltellatori professionisti, tesi che non trova però alcuna conferma documentaria. Più in generale si può affermare che le critiche agli arditi debbano essere interpretate come prova di un certo “conservatorismo” proprio degli Alti Comandi italiani, rispetto ad un’innovazione tattica radicale.

Successivamente alla rotta, la specialità venne riformata parzialmente con la creazione dei cosiddetti “arditi divisionali”, legati in maniera non autonoma alla grande unità di appartenenza. A questi si affiancavano i reparti autonomi superstiti alla rotta, opportunamente rimpinguati.

I venti reparti (circa 5000 arditi) che erano stati schierati nell’ottobre del’17 vennero riordinati e riaccorpati nel gennaio successivo, quando venne standardizzata la loro struttura (da 600 a 700 uomini per reparto), ed una seconda volta nella tarda primavera, quando venne predisposta la creazione del “Corpo d’Armata d’Assalto”. La grande unità non ebbe modo di agire al completo, a causa dell’offensiva austriaca iniziata il 15 giugno. La Divisione d’Assalto “A”, una delle due divisioni che formavano il Corpo d’Armata, non ebbe un impatto brillante durante l’offensiva, sia per la scarsa compattezza maturata tra reparti, sia per alcune scelte strategiche dipendenti dai comandi, che relegarono la divisione su posizioni esclusivamente difensive.

Eppure, in questa fase, gli arditi beneficiarono della accresciuta attenzione da parte dei comandi e del governo per la tenuta morale dell’esercito e del paese. È in questo periodo che devono essere collocate le narrazioni eroicizzanti dei reparti d’assalto: sorta di modello ideale del soldato “nazionale”, basato su di uno slancio vitalistico che verrà poi sfruttato, a livello estetico e politico, nel dopoguerra (la canzone fascista “Giovinezza” fu inventata proprio a Sdricca). Come abbiamo visto nell’ultima citazione del “CorSera”, la guasconeria e l’audacia degli arditi furono mitizzate, esagerate e illuminate di una luce più che positiva, in pieno contrasto con la descrizione negativa dell’ardito-accoltellatore, riportata in precedenza.

Nella stessa offensiva di giugno, gli arditi raggiunsero anche incredibili successi, come quello del IX reparto, autonomo e comandato dal futuro generale Messe, che riuscì a conquistare in dieci minuti il Col Moschin sul massiccio del Grappa, il 16 giugno.

Durante gli ultimi scontri dell’estate e dell’autunno, erano inquadrati come arditi circa 30.000 uomini che parteciparono ai combattimenti precedenti all’armistizio di Villa Giusti. Ad essi viene generalmente ascritta una condotta positiva nelle pur limitate offensive sul fronte del Piave e durante l’ultimo attacco di fine ottobre, quello che precedette la rotta Imperial-regia di Vittorio Veneto.

Il mito degli arditi, per motivazioni che qui non abbiamo il tempo di riportare completamente, superò in buona parte la relativa “resa” sul campo di battaglia. La propaganda di guerra successiva a Caporetto e, soprattutto, la condotta adottata di alcuni reduci nei primi mesi del 1919 ebbero un ruolo fondamentale nella creazione del “mito” dell’ardito; questo sarà poi “saccheggiato” nei simboli e nella condotta dal movimento dei Fasci di Combattimento, a cui alcuni reduci aderirono convinti.

Bibliografia:

Sull’attività degli arditi durante l‘ultimo anno e mezzo di guerra l’unico studio propriamente storico risulta essere G. Rochat, Gli arditi della Grande Guerra, origini, battaglie e miti, LEG, Gorizia, 2017. Sull’arditismo e sullo suo sviluppo nel dopoguerra si rinvia a due studi molto differenti per esiti: quello di F. Cordova, Arditi e legionari dannunziani, Manifestolibri, Roma, 2007, e E. Francescangeli, Arditi del popolo: Argo Secondari e la prima organizzazione antifascista (1917-1922), Odradek, Roma, 2000.

The "Arditi": Italian Assault Troops in the Great War

by Jacopo Calussi

 

"Our military system (...) was especially disposed to separate the combat troops into two distinct categories: (...) On the one hand were the younger, brash, dishevelled, reckless, rowdy, and violent (...) On the other hand were the older ones, fathers, slower, more plodding, and passive, (...) perhaps good soldiers for the most part, yet more inclined to obedience (...).

There are actually different levels of courage. (...) The Arditi are the highest level of this ranking. The courage of the Arditi is unlike that of all the others. (...) It is a characteristic of selection, an essentially aristocratic characteristic".

Carli, Arditismo, Augustea, Rome-Milan, 1929, pp. 19, 33.

"In the trench warfare the assault units were loathing too much: for months and months they never saw each other on the front lines, to the point of inducing many elements to apply for passage in the assault battalions for the sole purpose of avoiding the trench service. For these reasons the assault battalions during the retreat were more cause of disorder and war weakness (...) In short, the experience made with the Arditi (... of the 2nd Army) especially with the methods of recruitment and disciplinary that were implemented there , constituted a real disaster ".
From the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the withdrawal from the Isonzo to the Piave, volume II: The causes and responsibilities of the events, Ministry of War, Rome, 1919, pp. 186, 187.

"While waiting (on the assault) they joked with each other like guys who were preparing some big mischief. Corporal Verdirose drank a whole flask of wine and repeated in his frank Roman: Guys, today I want to kill at least five. It is the most famous "character" among all the "black flames" battalion (...) He is 45 years old and is married and father. Before the war he was a porter at the Ministry of the Interior. He joined the Army voluntary".
Article of G. Civinini, Nervosismi, dated 23 April 1918, appeared on the Corriere della Sera five months after the route of Caporetto, in a decidedly different propaganda phase.
 

The discussion in this installment will focus on the training, characteristics and main actions of the Italian Assault Troops (Arditi), a special force created within the Royal Army as part of the attempts of the warring powers to change the general strategy of trench warfare. We will attempt to avoid making digressions into what may properly be viewed as narrative constructions relating to the Arditi as a force, the summary evidence already having been provided in the quotations cited.

The Italian Assault Troops were created in the summer of 1917 on the model of Austro-Hungarian and German Sturmtruppen, whose armament and tactics of engagement they inherited. The Arditi underwent special training, whose merit was due in large part to the officers of the 2nd Army. It was in fact the proposal of Lieutenant Colonel Giuseppe Bassi that led to the creation of a new type of unit within the larger force. The new fighting force would be tasked with assaulting enemy trenches swiftly and decisively; the unit would receive special training and, we can already relate, would make this uniqueness the source of its strong morale and its undisputed combativeness.

Along with generals Capello and Grazioli, Bassi had the distinction and the responsibility of creating the very first troops of the new force: the "1st Assault Company" was formed at Russiz, near Gorizia, on 12 June 1917.

Having obtained the approval of the two generals, Bassi was able to take advantage of increased resources and armaments, as well as an ad hoc training camp for the new units in the Friulian town of Sdricca. It was here on 29 July, that the "1st Assault Unit" marched in review by Vittorio Emanuele III. After two weeks the unit was sent off to the front of the Karst, achieving its first success in the Battle of Monte Piana. On 4 September, the king, along with some military observers of the Entente powers, was able to personally witness the conquest of San Gabriele by fewer than 500 Arditi troops assisted by some "regular" infantry reinforcements.

The "uniqueness" of the Arditi related both to the difference in equipment and use, and to an autonomy that remained intact with respect to the divisional structure until 1918: a substantial difference compared to their Austro-Hungarian counterparts.

The first eight units, designated using Roman numerals, were assigned at the Army Group level and not to the lower levels of the Royal Army.

The Arditi uniform, to begin with, showed a clear difference to that of other infantry troops: the grey-green jacket, with the infamous "black flames" on the lapel, covered a high-necked sweater, which had been chosen to avoid the uncomfortable closing of the infantry uniform collar. The armament differed greatly from other units and, like the force itself, experienced an obvious "myth-making" process: the weapon-symbol of the Arditi in fact was the dagger, used during assaults on the enemy trenches. Alongside this, petards and grenades, such as the "Thèvenot", were used to stun and injure defensive forces, and automatic weapons like the Fiat "1915 Villar Perosa " machine gun, a short-barrelled musket, and flamethrowers. Yet, the true strength of the Arditi lay in the innovation of their use, the success of which was due to very harsh physical and tactical training. During training exercises, Bassi and the other officers designed operations aimed at conquering a so-called "typical hill": a realistic scenario was intended to reflect the conditions of a real assault on enemy trenches; this was another radical distinction from the very short training to which millions of Italian infantrymen were subjected.

Criticisms frequently made against the Arditi by infantry officers and soldiers, were instead linked to a special disciplinary regime, which included surplus pay and the awarding of individual bonuses, generally lighter punishments, longer rest periods and leaves, and exemption from corvée and trench duty. This treatment was probably among the reasons that engendered some harsh criticism of the Assault Units by the Supreme Command in October 1917. In the period following the rout of Caporetto, the heavy losses of the Assault Units were further burdened by accusations and reports that were decidedly exaggerated, of acts of cowardice, looting and violence against soldiers of other units and civilians. It was at this time that the Arditi began to be viewed as a "gang" of ex-convicts and professional knife-fighters, a theory which is, however, lacking any documentary support. Generally speaking, it may be said that the criticism of the Arditi should be interpreted as evidence of a certain "conservatism" within the Italian High Command towards a radical tactical innovation.

Following the rout, the special nature of the units was partially reformed with the creation of the so-called "Divisional Arditi", which were attached to divisions and did not act independently. These were then joined by the independent units that had survived the rout, having been suitably replenished.

The twenty units (about 5,000 Arditi) that had been deployed in October 1917 were reorganized and re-attached the following January, when their strength (between 600 to 700 men per unit) was standardized, and then again in the late spring, with the creation of the "Army Assault Corps". The large formation had no opportunity to engage as a whole, due to the Austrian offensive that began on 15 June. Assault Division "A", one of the two divisions that made up the Army Corps, did not perform up to expectations during the offensive, due both to the lack of familiarity between units, and to some strategic choices made by the officers, which relegated the division exclusively to defensive positions.

Yet, at this stage, the Arditi benefited from the increased attention from the commanders and government to the morale of the army and the country. It was during this period that the heroic narratives of the Assault Units took shape: a sort of ideal model of the "national" soldier, based on an impulsive exuberance that would then be exploited, at an aesthetic and political level, in the post-war period (the Fascist song "Giovinezza" was actually invented in Sdricca). As attested to in the last quote by "CorSera", the swagger and brazenness of the Arditi was mythologized, exaggerated and depicted in a more than positive light, in full contrast with the negative description of the knife-fighting Arditi, reported earlier.

In the June offensive, the Arditi also achieved incredible successes, such as that of the IX unit, acting independently under the command of the future General Messe, which managed to take Col Moschin on the Grappa massif in ten minutes on 16 June.

During the final battles of the summer and autumn, about 30,000 Arditi took part in the fighting that led up to armistice at Villa Giusti. The reports are generally favourable of their conduct in the limited offensive on the front of the Piave and during the last attack at the end of October, the one that preceded the rout of the Imperial forces at Vittorio Veneto.

The myth of the Arditi, for reasons that we do not have the time to recount in its entirety, greatly surpassed the relative "performance" on the battlefield. The war propaganda following Caporetto and, especially, the conduct of some veterans in the early months of 1919 played a fundamental role in the creation of the "myth" of the Arditi; this would then be "plundered" for use in the symbols and the conduct of the Fasci of Combat, which some veterans eagerly joined.

Bibliography:

On the activity of the Arditi during the last year and a half of war the only proper historical study is by G. Rochat,  Gli arditi della Grande Guerra, origini, battaglie e miti, LEG, Gorizia, 2017. On the Arditi tradition and its development in the post-war period, we refer the reader to two very different studies: that of F. Cordova, Arditi e legionari dannunziani, Manifestolibri, Rome, 2007, and E. Francescangeli, Arditi del popolo: Argo Secondari e la prima organizzazione antifascista (1917-1922), Odradek, Rome, 2000.

 

Testimony

The 100 days that ended the war

The agony of the German army Gen. Ludendorff My War Memories 8 August was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war. Early on 8 August, in a dense fog, rendered still thicker by artificial mean, the English mainly with... Read all