A Century Since the Massacres of the First World Imperialist War

The following document is translated from Battaglia Comunista the paper of our Italian comrades. The European Union has allocated funds to all member countries to “celebrate” the centenary of the First World War. The political outcome of this is mixed. In the UK outright chauvinism has dominated the commemoration of this supposed “war to end all wars”. We are told that the real culprit was the German desire to dominate Europe (an odd argument from an Empire that dominated a quarter of the planet) and that in standing up to this aggressive nation we had ensured “the freedoms we hold so dear”. This nationalist rubbish plays into the current increase in global tensions that can be increasingly seen all over the globe from Ukraine to the Pacific. The CWO and the ICT will be fighting (hopefully alongside others) against these obscene celebrations everywhere in meetings and articles. The first article on the situation in Britain is already on the site [leftcom.org What follows is the first response of our Italian comrades. CWO

The "centenary of the Great War" is about to be celebrated yet few people realise that the outgoing Letta Government had already earmarked a good €8 million for this year and then €5 million for subsequent years until 2018 for "infrastructure" projects. In addition: €1.5 million for 2014, '15, '16 is set aside for commemorative events.

Outbreak of the First Great Imperialist War. In 1914, the bourgeoisie was the only national class in Europe: the era of wars of independence was over; the First World War only concerned the dominance of the bourgeoisie of the various states: bourgeoisies were unified as a class, divided against each other as nations

We had fully entered the imperialist period. Lenin wrote (against Kautsky, cited in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism): "Imperialism is that stage of capitalist development where monopolies and finance capital dominate, where the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; where the world has begun to be divided among the international trusts, and where the division of the entire Earth's surface between the major capitalist countries has already been completed." (Pag. 100-101, Ediz. Rinascita 1956)

The World War of 1914-1918 was a colossal massacre, a tragic butchery of human flesh: a total of more than 26 million deaths (half of them civilians) and 20 million people maimed, disabled and traumatised in an irreversible way. World War II would extend the number of military casualties to 22.5 million, and would at a truly epochal extermination of the civilian population: 48,525,000 dead. In total the victims of the Second World War reached the appalling figure of 71,100,000. These are the glories of "bourgeois civilisation", a chapter from the terrifying Black Book of Capitalism!

Italy justified its intervention in the war that bloodied Europe by passing it off as the final war for national independence; 5,200,000 men were called to arms and eventually 750,000 deaths were counted: 600,000 killed in combat and 150,000 in the wider population due to the war. Over 1 million casualties (500,000 were maimed or permanently disabled) and approximately 2 million people suffered illness and disease due to the armed conflict.

Even the majority of bourgeois commentators could not help but subsequently report the military unpreparedness of Italy, the scarcity of supplies and logistics errors, resulting in huge losses of men and equipment. Some have even spoken of a true "military stupidity", as amply demonstrated by Cadorna with his disastrous frontal assaults made ​​with ill-equipped troops, lack of artillery and machine guns. A Cadorna who commented thus, amongst piles of dead: "The only ammunition that I do not lack are the men”...

The stalemate of the exhausting war of attrition brought almost daily signs of surrender amongst the troops. The disconnect between divisions increased while the "offensive" ended with appalling loss of life. The number of prisoners captured by the Austrians kept on growing; increased cases of refusal to carry out orders, as well as desertion, failure to return to the unit after rare permission for leave of absence, acts of self-harm. The military apparatus of control and repression thus increased its efforts to maintain order and discipline. At almost the same time there were signals from within the country in the wake of various protests and manifestations of discontent, which in Turin in particular were turned into a real insurrection in August 1917.

Turin was the first industrial city in Italy with hundreds of thousands of workers (in the metallurgical industry and vehicle production). As the living conditions of the proletariat worsened after 1915 there were strikes and demonstrations which in August 1917 — provoked by the lack of bread — resulted in a general strike. Certainly the echo of what was happening in Russia contributed to the situation turning into real street battles, with barricades, tram rails torn up and gunfights. Soon the so-called "red belt" (the suburbs) was under the control of the "insurgents". An attempt was made, in particular by groups of women who heroically took to the streets alongside their men, at fraternisation with soldiers controlling the centre of the city with machine guns and tanks against which unarmed women and young people threw themselves. The uprising was soon quelled, given the almost total lack of weapons in the hands of the proletariat. At the end of the days of struggle more than 50 deaths were counted amongst the demonstrators, 200 officially wounded and a thousand arrested. Hundreds were then sentenced to several years in prison.

The bare and crude official figures from the war front give us an incomplete, but nevertheless terrifying, picture of the repressive behaviour which distinguished (perhaps even a step further than other states) Italian military leaders, engaged in tightening the links of a chain of drastic interventions against their own soldiers branded as undisciplined, cowards and deserters. A series of tragic episodes involved nothing short of real murder. In some cases on the Italian front there were not only isolated episodes involving individual soldiers, but also examples of collective mutiny — particularly in the summer of 1917 — by groups of soldiers or entire units, men who could no longer bear trench warfare (where, amongst everything else, hygiene conditions were bestial) and the absurd and useless accumulation of dead on the battlefields led to rebellions against the high command of the military apparatus.

Particularly serious (including the ferocity by which it was stopped) was the disobedience of units of the Catanzaro Brigade in July 1917 in Santa Maria la Longa (Palmanova). It was a real mass mutiny, with shooting against the military police and the command of the brigade. A dozen deaths; followed by arrests and decimation with immediate executions followed by other summary executions (of thirty or more soldiers). The entire unit was immediately transferred to the frontline. Dozens of soldiers were reported to the war tribunal which sentenced four more soldiers to death and others to prison terms. An exemplary sentence, especially since some of the "accused" had expressed "revolutionary intent" ...

It should be noted that mass insubordination also occurred amongst the French and the Russians. In Russia, many units splintered and abandoned their battle lines; in France episodes of mutiny and desertion occurred; and the same thing happened in the army of the Habsburg Empire, where the protests grew with the passage of time, as they also did among German and British units.

Italian military justice enjoyed great freedom of actionn; 100,000 cases of absence without leave were brought before military tribunals; 370,000 others charged as "emigrants". 60,000 cases were against civilians; 340,000 against armed soldiers (desertions and refusals to obey orders). The end result was that at least one soldier in twelve was tried; between 1,000 and 1,500 were shot after a regular trial (it is not possible to obtain precise data). More numerous were those shot directly in the field for disobeying orders from “superiors” or soldiers killed in battle by "friendly fire" at the slightest hint of escape. Frequent (but difficult to check) were also the decimations, executions performed to "set an example" to strike terror and to encourage the troops into futile and bloody assaults. Again, the death sentences handed down in absentia were 4,028. Then there were 40,000 condemned to serve longer than 7 years; 15,345 life imprisonment.

Throughout the entire war 262,500 soldiers were tried; 170,000 being condemned, a rate of 62.2%.

2,658 of the officers on trial were convicted, a percentage of 35.4%, which is below the percentage of convicted soldiers. In terms of percentage, 6% of the total number of officers mobilised during the war were indicted and 4% of these were convicted.

To find out more is impossible without risking a ... posthumous trial.

The initial “open war” changed from month to month into a long and exhausting war of stalemate, with hundreds of thousands of men huddled together in the muddy trenches, subject to outbreaks of deadly epidemics. Then there were the murderous assaults to conquer a few hundred metres of ground at the cost of thousands of deaths resulting from the use of new types of weapons: machine guns, planes and poison gas. The soldiers were nothing but meat for slaughter, forced into bloody and unnecessary defensive or offensive operations, subject to a rigid discipline where non-compliance led not only to Military Tribunals but also to summary execution being carried out according to the free and arbitrary will of the "superiors", often concluding with being put to death on the battlefield. Real murder was used to obstruct the so-called "episodes of confusion, cowardice, riot, mutiny, etcetera". So, while the Italian "liberal" bourgeoisie (shortly to turn to fascism ... ) spread rivers of patriotic rhetoric, those who dared to raise a minimum of protest risked being shot.

There was a range of announcements and circulars issued by the Supreme Command of the Army confirming orders for soldiers to be shot in the back while the Military Tribunals handed out "exemplary" sentences of "punitive justice" from forced labour for life imprisonment, military dishonour and destitution. Punishments regarded as not dishonourable were shooting in the chest (instead of the back), military confinement, removal and suspension from service.

A circular (28 September 1915) signed by General Cadorna, Generalissimo of Italy, urged soldiers to "convince themselves" that "your superiors have a sacred duty to immediately deploy weapons against recalcitrants and cowards (...) Everyone should know that whoever ignominiously attempts to surrender or retreat will be met, before the shameful deed, by the rough justice of the lead coming from behind or from that of the police officers responsible for watching over the shoulders of the troops, whenever they have not been gunned down first by their officers."

The police, were allocated to each division with military police powers, but the officers and non-commissioned officers, were also allowed to shoot any rebels on sight, including those who refused to move towards death or who retreated in disorder because they had been strafed by the enemy guns. So the police were lined up behind the soldiers, ready to fire on those who did not join the assault or who retreated. To help the "work" of the police, the officers would join in with gunshots ...

We return to the most "energetic measures of repression" that were justified by the need to suppress signs of indiscipline and desertion, outside the normal judicial procedures .

"It is, therefore necessary to resort to immediate, large-scale executions and discard forms of criminal proceedings, it is necessary to cut off the evil at its roots as long as you can hope to get there in time". So Cadorna wrote in a letter to the Chairman of the Council, Boselli, in June 1917; a Cadorna who continued to threaten the reintroduction of decimation, "a supreme act of repression, which we unwisely wanted to remove from the military penal code, but which weapon is required, today more than ever, in the hands of the Command, given the large scale ‘improvisation’ of the troops and the poison which flows from the contacts with the country." This was one of the themes dominating the content of the correspondence of the hierarchy. This is besides the fact that the shooting of soldiers chosen by lot ("decimation") had already been introduced by the same Cadorna as chief of staff, with a circular in November 1916. The telegram of the 1st November 1916 thus ordered: " ... I am reminded that there is no other means to repress collective crime than that of immediate shooting of the main [people] responsible and when the assessment of personal responsibility is not possible it is the right and the duty of commanders to draw lots among the suspects and military personnel to punish them by death ... ". There had to be "a healthy example"!

Still using the "official account" more than 300 summary executions were recorded and a few dozen of decimation. It was a "sacred duty" to suppress any charge of "cowardice or refusal to carry out the assaults from the trenches”. When the death penalty was not used sometimes systems of barbaric punishment were applied; for example the "grid", where a soldier guilty of misconduct, however slight, was tied to a pole for several hours in the vicinity of the trench. Finally, if the sentence of those condemned by the Tribunals were brief, they would be immediately returned to fight, leaving the sentence to be served in jail, at the end of the war!

Both the government and the military command were also disturbed by the "unpatriotic pacifism" (with a hint of anti-militarism) of the Socialist Party. They lashed out against it, exaggerating the "poison" spread in the healthy body of the army, attacking the defeatist attitude of "internal enemies", which existed in some national political groups and within civil society. This, while the numerous desertions and acts of indiscipline continued such as: insubordination, refusal to obey orders, mutiny and rebellion. Severe penalties, including being shot, even for self-harming and even including amputated limbs or procured blindness to prevent the bayonet attacks on the front line. Other data: for desertion there were 162,563 trials of which 101,000 were condemned; indiscipline (24,600 condemned); theft (16,522 condemned), self-mutilation (10,000 condemned) running away or surrendering (5,325 condemned); violence or an assault (3,510 condemned); sexual crimes (532 condemned). Many officers were tried for having written disparaging letters or for defeatism.

In 1917 came the disastrous defeat of Caporetto which was condemned as "strike at the front" by Italian soldiers. In the face of the chaotic flight of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, without orders from the military commanders, Cadorna railed against the soldiers themselves accusing them of cowardice.

The "prophet " D'Annunzio (symbol of ‘Decadentismo’ and "war heroes") wrote in "Corriere della Sera", "Whoever becomes a prisoner, you can truly say sins against the country, against the Soul and against Heaven". The three hundred thousand Italian soldiers taken prisoner by the Austrians would be covered with insults and slander. Even the food parcels sent by their families to the Italian prisoners were prevented from delivery (many interned in camps which reopened in World War II, such as those of Mauthausen and Theresienstadt) because they were considered "responsible for the collapse of the Italian defence." And they were more than 100,000 Italian soldiers who were killed in concentration camps in Austria, abandoned first by their commanding officers, dishonoured, then left to die of hunger and starvation in a country that in times of peace or in times of war feeds off the blood of the proletarian masses.

We conclude with some passages of the Song of Craonne (France, 1917), composed by an ordinary French soldier, among the mud and blood of the trenches, mounds of dead and wounded men with terrible amputations, pain and brutal suffering.

"... It is worth seeing on the big boulevards

all those bourgeois celebrating;

if their life is rosy

it is not the same thing for us.

Instead of hiding, all those slackers

would do better to go down into the trenches,

to defend their possessions; we, though, have nothing,

(and) the rest of us poor sods have died of starvation.

All comrades are buried there

to protect the property of those gentlemen.

Those with the money are going back home

yet it is for them that we are pegging out.

But now that's enough, because the simple soldiers

are now out on strike.

It will be your turn, fat, bourgeois,

to go up over the hill,

because if you want war

you can pay for it with your own skin ... »

In Italy, the song Gorizia*[1]* was considered scandalous and defeatist at the Spoleto Festival in 1964; accused of "insulting the armed forces" because one of the verses reads: "treacherous officer gentlemen/this war which you wanted/ butchers meat/and ruins youth "...

DC

[1] The capture of the town of Gorizia (1916) was one of the few successes of Cadorna and the Italian Army so an anti-war song about it enraged the Italian military. Cadorna covered his own incompetence by blaming the soldiers for his blunders (he did not even precede his “over the top” attacks with an artillery bombardment though this was standard everywhere else). His re-introduction of the arbitrary Roman punishment of “decimation” (i.e. killing one in ten of every unit which retreated) was unequalled elsewhere in the war. He was eventually blamed for the defeat at Caporetto (1917) and relieved of the High Command. He was honoured by Mussolini and a central Milan railway station and square still bear his name.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

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