Military justice in the Royal Italian Army

The image of the firing squad and severe arbitrary military justice administered by officers driven insane by the war is now deeply rooted in the collective memory of the First World War, along with the trenches, frontal attacks and bombings. Though magnified through soldiers’ memoirs and films, this image is to a certain extent true. In Italy, military justice was applied on the basis of the Military Penal Code regulations, which came into force in 1870. Its structure was identical to the 1859 military penal code, which was based on the Sardinian military penal code of 1840, which preceded the Albertine Statute of 1848. These factors rendered the legislative instruments inadequate in the face of the magnitude of the war being waged. 4,028 death sentences were passed in the Italian Royal Army, 2,967 in absentia, 750 of which were carried out and 311 not. In addition to these there were 300 summary executions, which brings the total to over a thousand executions carried out. The exacerbation of military relations through tough repressive discipline, which exerted leverage primarily on the young officers, was a consequence of the concept of war and army of Generalissimo Cadorna, who envisioned troops subject to absolute obedience. It was based on a clear-cut, class-conscious, authoritarian distinction between soldiers and officers and the total severance of the bonds between the civil and military worlds. A circular of the High Command of 28 September 1915 reads as follows:

Every soldier must be sure of finding, if necessary, in his superior a brother or father, but he must also be convinced that his superior has the sacred power to immediately execute the reluctant and cowards (…) Everyone must know that whoever attempts disgracefully to surrender or retreat, shall be subject, before he disgraces himself, to the summary justice of bullets from the rear lines and the justice of the Carabinieri sent in after the troops to oversee them from behind, unless he has been shot first by the officer.

Thirteen months later– on 1st November 1916 - another circular provided clarifications with regard to summary executions and decimations.

(…) I remember that there was no other means by which to combat collective criminal offences than by immediately shooting the ones most guilty, and where it is not possible to ascertain the personal identity of those responsible, the commanders maintain the right and the duty to randomly select a number of soldiers from the suspects and punish them with the death penalty. No one who is aware of the need for strict discipline in war can escape this duty and I make it an absolute and non-negotiable obligation for every commander.

The severity of Italian military justice becomes even more apparent if compared with data on other armies. In the French army, which had double the number of regular soldiers and suffered the trauma of mutinies in 1917, there were around 600 executions, in the British army 300, while the German army had a few dozen. Though the numbers are uncertain, there were instead many executions in the Austro-Hungarian army, with figures similar to the Italian numbers.

Execution on the eastern front: «Hey, they’re killing Chizzali»

The following first-hand account describes the execution of the Trentino soldier Domenico Chizzali, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to Galizia, on the eastern front. Chizzali was executed despite presenting clear signs of mental illness. The episode was reconstructed by another soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, Giovanni Bresciani from Riva del Garda:

“One evening we organised a competition to see who could tell the funniest joke– I won because I had even managed to make Chizzali laugh. The war had made such an impression on Chizzali Dom[enico] a 7th year Gymnasium student that he had gone insane. He never spoke - at Innsbruck he fled a couple of times from the barracks he wasn’t punished because he was in fact considered insane – but he was sent to the front anyway”. On 28 November Chizzali abandoned his post, fled into the back lanes but was immediately captured, however the Lieutenant was understanding, he “explained to him that because of his studies he had the right to be a volunteer – and urged him to have his certificates sent – and ensured him that he would no longer have worked with a hack and pickaxe”. The day after Chizzali, who was suffering from dysentery, went to the village of Rarancze for a medical check-up, but was sent back to the trenches. During the return journey “when he got to the crossroads, overcome by a fit of madness, he broke his rifle against a cross and absconded”. He was arrested at the station in Czernovitz while trying to get a railway ticket to Trento. As Bresciani states, Chizzali did not seem to understand the seriousness of what he had done, “he was taciturn but peaceful”. On 5 December he underwent a medical examination and was declared “irresponsible”. Initially it looked as though he would escape the firing squad but on the morning of the 12th news arrived of his imminent execution. This is how Bresciani described the scene: “It took place 200 m away from us near 2 houses, the grave had already been prepared. The Italians were lined up in front of it surrounded in turn by 3 platoons of Croats. A patrol of 24 men with their bayonets at the ready came to fetch poor Chizzali who was certainly not expecting such a compliment - when 1 hour earlier they had paid him his 10th advance. The surprise must definitely have been overwhelming, he passed in front of our door (I withdrew so as not to meet his eye) he looked around lost, as if in a dream – as soon as he reached the platform he was surrounded I gazed after him, he continued to turn his head from one side to the other until he saw what had been prepared, then he looked straight ahead all the time. When they arrived, the patrol withdrew – he glanced at the grave – then turned his eyes and looked at his comrades. Then the officers, the Dr and the army chaplain approached him. Having read the sentence she was shown the body…».

The recollections of Bresciani end here, with no description of the reading of his sentence, his last wishes or the execution.

The firing squad

First-hand account of the Canadian soldier, Deward Barnes, member of a firing squad. In the eyes of the soldiers, being called up to take part in a firing squad was a thankless job and considered dishonourable. Some armies therefore used methods to make the task less traumatic and shocking for those who were forced to perform it.

We took our positions, five kneeling and five standing behind, the sergeant on one side and the officer on the other to give the orders. If we hadn’t killed him, then the officer would. As soon as the curtain was lowered (the prisoner was tied onto a chair five steps from us, a black hood over his head and a large round disc above his heart) they gave the order to shoot. Nine normal shots and one blank. Which exploded like the others. I didn’t have the blank. (…). When we fired, his body moved, then they lifted the curtain. I had heard it said that it was the simplest way to carry out an execution. The firing squad only saw him for a few minutes. We returned to the Battalion Orderly Room and we all had a large glass of rum, then we went to our accommodation, ate our meal and went to bed. We had the rest of the day off. It was a job I would never have wanted to do.

Execution for refusing to obey: «We can’t! We can’t! We can’t advance!»

Protests and collective refusal to attack became more and more frequent during the Great War though these rarely resulted in open revolt. In most cases, these ended in soldiers firing a few shots in the air. Only in rare cases did they give rise to armed revolt with deaths and wounded, like the mutiny of the Catanzaro Brigade (15-16 July 1917). The following deeds from the trial of two soldiers sentenced to death demonstrate the severity of military justice during the First World War and the constant fear – on the part of the officers – of the spreading of defeatist and anti-patriotic sentiments.

B.C., Calabrese, age 25, no criminal record; A.A., Sicilian, age 25, no criminal record; both soldiers in the 144th infantry; sentenced to execution by firing squad to be shot in the back for refusal to obey in the face of the enemy. Sentence carried out on 14 April 1916. 7th Army Corps military war tribunal. War zone, 13 April 1916. On 5 March 1916, the company to which B.C. belonged was in the front line trenches facing the enemy when the aforesaid received the order from Sergeant D.M.F. to go and work on reinforcing the most forward trenches (…), which he stubbornly refused to do. Being informed of the matter, the company commander, Captain D.R., in turn ordered B. to go and do his work, (…) to which the soldier replied verbatim “I don’t want to work”. When the battalion commander, Major R, arrived, B. when asked by the latter confirmed that he had refused to work and that he had done so because he had been punished with 15 days of rigorous imprisonment because he had returned from leave 6 days late, and did not intend to work for the same period of time. For these reasons B. was referred to this Tribunal; but just a few days later he was held guilty of a much more serious infringement. In truth, on the afternoon of 12 March the soldiers had been informed that a military operation was to take place a few hours later. It then immediately became apparent that in the company there was a group of soldiers who showed themselves to be contrary to that action in particular, and to the war in general, also instigating their comrades through demoralising propaganda (…) including putting up posters with seditious messages. For such action deleterious to and deadly for the patriotic spirit and discipline of the soldiers in the company, B. had been reported to his superiors as one of those most responsible for such (…). The following incidents proved that their apprehension was correct. Lieutenant V., returning to his company on the 12th of the said month (…), after the soldiers had been informed of the action planned for the following day, found that the soldiers, having gathered of their own accord and disarmed, were clamouring and shouting, and B. who was one of the rowdiest shouted to his comrades: «We want to speak to the Colonel››. The Lieutenant seized B. by the arm and forced him to follow him, tried to separate him from his comrades; but at that moment the commander of the regiment, Colonel P., appeared and after managing to quieten the troops down, addressed them encouraging them to do their full duty in the operation they were about to be engaged in, attempting to raise their spirits and morale in the most appropriate language for such circumstances. But a group of 7 or 8 soldiers including B. C. and A. A., maintained a hostile attitude; and when the Colonel, (…), asked if anyone had anything to say, B. was the first to come forward and tell the Colonel that he could not march due to an old wound he suffered to his left leg during the Libyan campaign. The Colonel, knowing full well that being unable to march was an excuse, because B. (…) had been declared fully fit for the hardships of war, reproached him for his conduct as a riotous soldier to do his duty and for his malign attempt at demoralising propaganda that he made in his company. At that moment confused cries of: “We can’t! We can’t!›” rose from the group. The Colonel having identified, A. as one of the rowdiest in the group took him out of the ranks and asked him what couldn’t be done. A. replied: «We can’t advance», and when the Colonel asked why they couldn’t advance, he replied without adding anything else «Because we can’t››. After that the Colonel had no other choice but to order the two riotous soldiers to follow him (…). These were the facts that led to the charge being made against the two accused (…). In vain B., who confessed in full to committing the first crime of refusing to obey, attempted to clear himself (…) by denying that he had instigated his comrades and that he had rioted and shouted with the same as a means of forcing the commander to desist from the forthcoming operation. As for A. A., he denies taking part in the clamour and rioting and states that he pronounced the words “We can’t advance” only when he was singled out and interrogated by the Colonel. But his assertions were firmly denied by the concordant declaration made by the latter and lieutenants P. and V. who stated on the contrary that the aforesaid Colonel singled out A., only because he had identified him as one of the rowdiest in the group shouting “We can’t!” And the most elementary logic supports the claim of the latter, it being obvious that the colonel would not have called out A and separated him from the group to ask him what couldn’t be done if A. had remained silent (…). The Tribunal does not consider the accused deserving of generic extenuating circumstances (…) both because of the inherently serious nature of the circumstances and because of the malign instigation carried out amongst the soldiers (…), nor does it consider it appropriate to grant such, because the interests of military discipline require a salutary example to be given to defuse the aforesaid demoralising propaganda, since as a result of the aforementioned incidents, during the aforesaid operation and over the following days there were several cases of refusals to march to the enemy and desertions with soldiers passing over to the enemy.

A case of summary justice.

Besides the executions after regular courts-martial, in all the armies there were widespread cases of summary justice perpetrated by officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers), such as this apparently trivial episode of insubordination whose outcome was however fatal. The following passage is taken from a report by the military lawyer sent to the Minister of War on the subject of summary executions:

The officer candidate Russo Domenico reported the facts as follows (…): this evening (13-14 June 1917) the undersigned assigned with the company to the transportation of barbed wire barriers (cheval de frise), was the officer at the unit’s rear. Once the material to be transported had been loaded, the company had set out under the command of Lieutenant Giulio Crespi, who had given orders for all the chevaux de frise to reach the line. Our 3rd line of resistance was reached without losing contact; but after that point I found contact had been lost. The men in front where contact had been lost had stopped and had passed on the message between the soldiers to be quiet and place wire netting on the ground, because we were near the enemy line and because the company commander had ordered them to do so. When I heard the message I rushed to the front to verify it. Amongst the soldiers in front I found Greco Gregorio. The information given above was completely false. So, having found the road leading to the destination ordered, I encouraged the men in whatever way I could to make an effort to carry on marching: despite the fact that I put all my authority and energy into this, the soldier Greco Gregorio refused to proceed saying “I’m not moving on, frigging officer candidate”. I ordered him several times to proceed, but he continued to insist that he did not want to carry on. I was therefore forced to threaten him with a pistol. He did not carry out my orders despite the fact that I continued to shout and threaten him. But since soldier Greco still did not budge, I fired two pistol shots at him. He fell back to the ground. I immediately ordered two stretcher-bearers to pick him up. This was enough for the remaining soldiers to haul the wire netting onto their shoulders and carry on marching.

Three executions: “they could at least have made themselves seen in a busier place”

Here below is the sentence of three soldiers who took refuge in a cellar whilst marching towards enemy lines. They were accused of desertion and executed:

S.U., from the province of Ferrara, age 25, unmarried, illiterate, no criminal record, peasant; Z.E., from the province of Rovigo, age 25, unmarried, illiterate, no criminal record, carpenter; B.G., from the province of Ferrara, age 24, married, illiterate, no criminal record, peasant; all soldiers in the 27th infantry; sentenced to execution by firing squad to be shot in the back for desertion in the presence of the enemy. Court-martial of 6th Army Corps. (Corno di Rosazzo, 28 November 1915). On 13 November 1915, the soldiers S.U., Z.E., B.G. (…) whilst marching during a military operation in the Oslavia area took refuge in a cellar of premises occupied by the command of the Lombardy brigade where they were discovered around 5 pm of the same 13th day during an inspection of the said areas carried out by the Carabiniere Marshal B.G. The accused jointly admitted such circumstances though B. claimed to have sought shelter in the building in Pri-Fabrisu and taken refuge there together with soldiers S. and Z. on authorisation received from Lieutenant T. when the 8th company had lost contact with the rest of the regiment and in order to shelter from the rain; the other two instead claimed they had lost contact with their company and as a result and without authorisation had sought shelter (…). Such presumed circumstances besides finding no truthfulness in their striking contradictions (…), are also contradicted by the fact that the colonel in command of the regiment (…) denied that the company commander had given the order (…) to take shelter and states that Lieutenant T. gave no authorisation to the three soldiers to shelter in the building (…). Besides it is absurd to suppose that contact could have been lost at 8 in the morning, the time at which the judicable declared to the Carabinieri that their unit had passed by the place in which they were accused of sheltering, even more so when it is considered that they were marching in a known direction and the distance to be covered was no more than a kilometre from the trenches they were to reach. And even if it were true that the company to which the judicable belonged had lost contact with the rest of the units, it has nevertheless been ascertained that they took absence from the company without authorisation and without a justifiable motive. The circumstances which preceded and accompanied the offences most certainly prove that the accused in the act they committed of taking absence from the ranks were indeed aware that the unit was heading towards Oslavia i.e. the place where the most recent episodes of fighting called their brothers in arms (…). It is also worth noting that the same accused confessed that the enemy trenches were a short distance from them, that they could be seen by the naked eye, a circumstance which leaves no doubt as to the implication of the aforesaid judicial details. It must also be stated that if they had not been guided in their act by the criminal intention to evade their duties and the perils inherent in marching and in the objective to be achieved and in which they had to perform their duty as soldiers facing the enemy, they could have made their presence in Pri-Fabrisu known to the military authorities or at least make themselves seen in a busier place, rather than hiding in a cellar (…) which offered them the best conditions of immunity.

The danger of Socialism

During Cadorna’s long period of office as commander, there was a strong fear of the dissemination of Socialist publications and pamphlets, which became the symbol of anti-patriotic, seditious propaganda. In the sentences given below, possessing a copy of the Zimmerwald Manifesto, and mentioning it in public, was sufficient to be sentenced to a long prison term.

D.L., from the province of Milan, age 32, hat maker, soldier in the 1st Corps of Engineers; sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for betrayal. Court-martial of the 9th Army Corps IX. Agordo, 5 May 1917. On 17 April the Carabinieri of the 17th Section reported to this Court-martial the soldier D. L., belonging to the 17th Telephone Operating Section of the 78th Company of the 1st Corps of Engineers. It came to the knowledge of the Carabinieri that the said soldier had read to a group of soldiers and made comments about a printed sheet entitled “The Second International Socialist Conference at Zimmerwald: To the peoples that the war kills”. The reading and commenting took place for the first time on 10 March in a kitchen in Falcade, present a sergeant and a corporal of the same unit, and a second time on 9 April in an inn in Falcade with another soldier from the corps of engineers, in the presence of some soldiers, a number of drunken youths and a worker to whom D. L. had handed over the accused sheet, which was confiscated. There results from the preliminary investigation that the accused, belonging to the Socialist party, on return from his winter leave, brought with him four copies of the said sheet, two of which were found amongst his papers, the third was confiscated from the worker mentioned and the fourth could not be traced because as the accused ensured, he had destroyed it himself. In the search carried out on the belongings of D. L. several pamphlets of a subversive nature were found. It is sufficient to reproduce a number of sentences taken from the accused manifesto to prove just how much anti-patriotism, how much deleterious influence was rife in the manifesto. Amongst other things it says: “Go out and fight to impose immediate peace with no annexations!”; “With all means in your power bring a quick end to the worldwide butchery”; “Let the governments in all countries know that you are continuously developing a hate for the war and determination for social revenge, in this way peacetime shall be nigh”, etc. If the said evil advice was to insinuate itself into the souls of the fighters it would be the ruin, the breakdown of all our power, certain defeat; therefore there could be no worse betrayal than this. Undoubtedly in the case in hand the criteria set forth in Art. 72 no. 7 of the Military Penal Code apply, which states that a subject is guilty of betrayal if he in any way whatsoever removes or attempts to remove from the army or from a part of it any means of acting against the enemy, or facilitates the latter’s ability to defend itself or to cause greater harm. The Court-martial however deems it necessary in the case in hand to apply the extenuating circumstances laid down by Art. 74 C.P.E. In the present case we find before ourselves an individual who rather than intending to damage our army, acted because, as a member of the Socialist Party, and as such a slave of his ringleaders, who unfortunately remain in the shadows and therefore go unpunished, he did not have the strength to carry out the immoral instructions given to him; on the other hand, his excellent precedents as a citizen and especially as a soldier, as results from the reports of his superiors, reinforce in the judicial bodies the conviction that D. was not fully aware of the damage he could have caused.


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